Critical Review of Salsa Dance Scene Music In Cleveland

07Jul10

Recently I am noticing that many good things are happening in Cleveland Salsa dancing. More and more people are getting involved in salsa scene. A few new salsa venues have opened up. I get to be invited to nice salsa venues and parties and get to meet many other dancers, enjoy dancing, and make new friends. I have been involved in Cleveland salsa dance scene for at least a year and half very actively. This may not be a long time. But I have been exposed to salsa dancing for the last 10 years and at the same time have been taking lessons and dancing in Ballroom and Latin dancing. Lately I am getting more involved with Salsa Dance scene in Cleveland, and I feel that I should speak my mind about Salsa Dance music in Cleveland.

I think we may be still lacking the best of Salsa dance music at the salsa venues in Cleveland area. I believe that the reason is that we, salsa dancers as a group in Cleveland area, are not too demanding, or at least we have been too easy on many DJs and organizers in Cleveland area. So I mean to present a constructive criticism of salsa dance music here in Cleveland area.

Importance of Salsa Dance Music

First of all, the most important part of the dance venue is the right kind of salsa music (given that enough number of salsa dancers are present at the venue) along with a nice dance floor. I want to make this very clear to many night club owners, dance studio owners, salsa music DJs, and salsa event promoters. They may think “their marketing”, “the crowd following”, or “the show” that they are putting together brings in salsa dancers. But that is a very wrong assumption.  Salsa dancers go to those venues or events mostly to dance salsa. Not to just enjoy listening to the music, or just to watch other people perform, or just to mix with other crowd —– those are just bells and whistles. So even if a venue has everything else, but if it lacks good salsa dance music throughout the whole evening, how could salsa dancers have fun?

Salsa dance, in its full extent of dancing, is actually a very complicated dance that has evolved through many decades and incorporates many elements of other previously popular dances — among them Lindy, Mambo, Hustle, Shag, and West Coast Swing not to mention many other dances of Latin American origin.  Many elements of these styles have been incorporated into two major style of salsa now popular in U.S. and the world (except South America). These two are New York Style salsa, and LA style salsa. Eddie Torres has developed a sophisticated style (New York Style) of “slot dancing” that fits night club (small dance floor) environment. In LA style, they adopted most of New York style moves, and added dips and tricks that are borrowed from other partner dances, but dance with a break on 1. These two popular styles are danced on 1-2-3 and 5-6-7 timing, and therefore is different from other (Particularly Caribbean style) salsas where it can be danced on 2-3-4  and 6-7-8 timing. Mambo dance which was popular in the 60’s was adopted into American style ballroom dancing, and is danced in 2-3-4 and 5-6-7 with a more staccato action. Therefore if a band plays mambo music (with staccato on 2-3-4 and 5-6-7), one can’t be moving their feet on 1-2-3 as in New York or LA style salsa.  A Latin band or Latin music DJ that plays for listeners need not distinguish these different rhythms. But this becomes extremely important matter to salsa dancers. Music becomes a matter of “to dance, —– or not to dance”. No salsa dancer wants to sit out most of the dance evening. Therefore, if the music is not right, the venue becomes a bore.

What One Should Learn from A Hugely Successful “Salsa Social”

A few years ago a group of salsa dancers in Cleveland started a monthly salsa social event called “Baila Duro“. I have been going to this event for the last year and half, and I am very grateful to this group for promoting pure salsa social. So what was the background for the start of this salsa social? I believe it was the music.

At most of the salsa night clubs, I have seen DJs mixing in a lot of Merengue, Bachata, Reggaeton, and even so called top 40s (mostly hip hop these days) to my horror. How does top 40 belong to salsa night? When night club owners advertise as “salsa night”, and if the DJs do not play enough good salsa music, and focus on playing the other kind of music – which I have seen many times in the past, the DJ is insulting Salsa dancers’ intelligence. The club owner or the promoter of the venue may have no idea of what constitutes good salsa dance music, and may leave it to the DJ. But the DJ may have no knowledge of  Salsa Dancer’s preference of music. Salsa dancers want to go to salsa dance venues where, most of the time, they can dance salsa. Period. I know Merengue and Bachata are frequently played in many venues along with salsa. But those are not the main reason why salsa dancers go out to salsa clubs or venues.

This Baila Duro event draws typically 150 – 250 or more – the largest crowd in the area. This is not a result of huge promotion, or greatest dance floor. So what does this mean?

  • Salsa dancers want to hear salsa music played 90% of the time so that they can dance salsa. Baila Duro offered a venue that was totally dancer-friendly. No bar crowd. No socializers. No junk party music. No drinks spilt on the dance floor. At Baila Duro monthly social, they do not play Merengue or Bachata let alone other junk stuff. They play mostly Salsa (95% of the time), with just a few Cha Chas throughout the whole event. Clearly salsa dancers can do Merengue and Bachata, but these two dances are rather simple and not as much fun as Salsa.  Although I do not mind dancing Merengue or Bachata, often I find that at salsa clubs, they play too many other dances. So I do fully support Baila Duro for the fact that they want to play mostly Salsa music.
  • Salsa dancers prefer salsa music with a controlled volume. The clubs usually have loud music blasting to ear. Therefore one cannot have normal conversations at the night club. I was at a salsa club in Cleveland area, and the music was obviously too loud at a small space. I told the DJ that the music is too loud. He brushed me off and actually he made the music even louder. I could not bear the loudness of the music, and I left soon. I never went back to that club again. Later I heard that that DJ lost his job. Also I heard that this particular salsa venue no longer exists anymore. I also know of a salsa night club that has salsa music with not-so-loud volume.  I have no problem having conversations, and people actually love it, and this night club is doing very well.

The Essence of Good Salsa Dance Music

Good salsa music has classical salsa characteristics. — Classical does not mean old, but means that it follows the tradition of the Clave based salsa rhythm, and fluid progression of music with abundance of percussion, horn section, piano, and vocal. To be a great salsa dance music, the music has to have a correct tempo (not too slow or not too fast for dancing), proper beat (so that dancers know where they are in the music), and good melody (so that dancers enjoy the melody), and correct length. These four elements are not an option. Each salsa song must meet this requirement to please salsa dancers.

In my opinion most of Latin jazz, Latin pop, or Latin hip hop does not fit this requirement.  Please read the following link if the reader wants to learn more about the good salsa music (in this website the author says mambo — but what he means is New York Style salsa)

www.salsanewyork.com/guide/song_list.htm Particularly read subsection under “Give Us Classic Salsa Sound, Strong Dancer’s Rhythm, And A Nice Melody Line“.

Also DJ or band need to know the difference between mambo and salsa. One cannot in general dance both salsa and mambo to a song. Mambo is rather staccato, and salsa in more fluid. Salsa and Mambo are two different dances, and it feels just not right to try to dance Salsa to a Mambo song, and vice versa.  Here is a great article that explains the difference.

The Problem with Many Latin Music DJs

Many Latin music DJs think they know salsa music because they have knowledge of Latin music. However, as was pointed out clearly in the above link, salsa dance music has different requirements than just “Latin” or “Salsa” as a music class. So I have a huge problem with DJs who play Latin music that is not a good fit for salsa dancers. Under scrutiny, many salsa-like Latin songs fail to provide a correct medium for salsa dancers if they lack four of the elements that I mentioned earlier. Therefore I believe that a good salsa DJ is someone who truly loves salsa dancing on top of love of salsa music. Another important qualification of a good salsa DJ is that DJ is willing to play what the salsa dancers like, and not be pre-occupied with the fact he or she knows what the best salsa music is, and is willing to play requests. There is an excellent article in this matter. So if you are a salsa dance music DJ, please read here (Guidelines for DJs).

Live Band Events

I have expressed in the past in my blog about how I feel about live bands. I have been disappointed with live bands so many times, for the reasons that may not be clear to non-salsa dancers. Basically many Latin bands do not make living by playing at dances, but rather by performing in front of audiences [listeners]. Therefore their songs are geared for Latin music listeners, and not for salsa dancers. Naturally their repertoire consists of many mambo and even samba. It does not feel right to do salsa to a mambo song. (Read this f or the difference between salsa and mambo.) But that is not the main problem. The real problem is that their repertoire is limited severely —- one band cannot master many great salsa songs. They have their own style, and they have their repertoire, and they stick to it whether they are good for salsa dancers or not. Another reason is that many salsa bands have tremendously long rhythm only sections – with no melody. This truly bothers me as a salsa dancer. Dancing salsa to rhythm only or Latin jazz (which means in general they lack salsa rhythm, so dancers get lost during the dance and wonder where the dancers are in terms of the beats) is a painstakingly boring task. Good salsa music requires proper beats.

My experience in Cleveland has been that I have been very much disappointed with live bands for the kind of salsa they play. Often they sound like mambo or samba. This is not my unique experience. This is a consensus of a lot of hard core salsa dancers. In the future, live bands can change their repertoire so that the songs they play are more salsa dancer-friendly, of course. But I will have to wait and see if there will be such a band emerging from Cleveland area.

Suggestions for Salsa Venue Organizers

No one invites people to provide them bad food. Likewise, I believe all the salsa venue organizers wish to have great salsa parties and make the dancers happy, so the dancers keep coming back. Basically this is a sound business model. Happy customers bring in more business. I understand many operators of Salsa dance venues are business owners. Many salsa night clubs have come and gone, and many more will be here. For dance studio owners, having great salsa parties mean more people will find out about the dance studio and hopefully more dance students will take classes at the studio.

I have been to many salsa clubs, salsa events, and salsa parties in Cleveland area. Typically salsa music at the night clubs is usually mixed with a lot of non-salsa music. I do understand why night clubs mix in the other kind of music. They need to cater to the other crowd — bar crowd. But what the club owners do not realize is that the bar crowd comes into the club because of salsa dancers. If the club owner or venue operator fails to make salsa dancers happy, salsa dancers will stop going to that club or venue, and there will be no more businesses for the club owner or the venue organizers.

So here are my suggestions for Salsa Dance Venue Organizers.

  • Give Us High Quality Salsa Music: Many salsa dancers want to dance salsa rather than either Merengue or Bachata. I am not suggesting that night clubs should be playing salsa 90% of the time. Personally I prefer a mix of about 80% Salsa and 10% Bachata ad 10% Merengue. This means DJ can play 4 -5 salsas, then play one Bachata, then play another 4-5 Salsas and play a Merengue. Depending on the crowd, a little more Bachata or Merengue is OK, but anything less than 60% of Salsa is an insult to salsa dancers. This is my opinion as a hard core salsa dancer, but I heard from a rather new salsa dancer a comment that Merengue is just too boring. So why give the salsa dancers “fast food” if one can provide high quality menu?  Please kill those Reggaeton, and Top-40 if you want to make salsa dancers happy.
  • Use Qualified DJs Who have a Good Understanding of Salsa Music Requirements:  My contention is that the most important ingredient of a successful Salsa venue is salsa dance music, and therefore letting someone who is ignorant of these facts and plays wrong kind of salsa music will eventually cost the venue provider some money — as there will be many more venues competing for the attention of salsa dancers.  Please strive to provide the best kind of salsa music for your events. So please make sure you hire a good salsa DJ for your venue. In choosing a good salsa DJ, please do not ask people who do not dance salsa. Ask salsa dancers. They will gladly give you names of DJs they are happy with
  • Maintain the Volume of the Music to An Acceptable Level: So we can have conversations. This may be against the ongoing night club practice. But again, I have seen a salsa night club where music is not overwhelming, and people love it.
  • Give Us Plenty of Hardwood Dance Floor: I have seen upscale hardwood dance floor where it was crowded with Salsa Dancers all night long. But regrettably this was in another city. I have not seen spacious hardwood floor for a salsa night club in Cleveland. I am happy with many area dance studios providing spacious hardwood dance floors. But people do like to go out to night clubs. So if you can provide beautiful hardwood floor for dancers, they will find you.

Although Cleveland is a pretty large city, I have seen that word of mouth travels real fast among salsa dancers. The word will be out. And if you play good salsa music, and make sure the venue is dancer friendly atmosphere, I will be the first one spreading the good words about the particular venue.

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