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Prologue
Part One:
One Man's Word
Part Two:
Turning Westward
Part Three:
An African Movement
Part Four:
Cuba
Part Five:
Revolution
Part Six:
Puerto Rico
Part Seven:
Borinquen NYC
Part Eight:
Who Owns Salsa?
Part Nine:
Salsa in the UK
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A History of Salsa
Part 9: Salsa in the U.K.

The Brits are no strangers to Latin dance; an entire teaching industry developed out of the mambo and chachacha eras, to feed their hunger for negotiating the ballroom floors. But salsa as we know it landed on these shores in the form of the Fania All Stars in 1976, with a variety of Cuban bands, including Irakere, playing in Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in their wake in the early 80s.

The Latin Americans
Chileans arrived seeking refuge from Augusto Pinochet, bringing their preference for the Colombian cumbia. Cubans on their way to the U.S.S.R. hopped of the plane during a stopover in Ireland, seeking political asylum. They settled, at least initially, in the west England, in cities like Manchester. Colombians came mainly to London as economic migrants during the early 80s, when immigration rules were relaxed to fill labour shortages in the service industry.

By the time the general public became conscious of the salsa phenomenon, two separate dance communities, Colombian and Cuban, had already been firmly entrenched. As salsa increased in profile, so did a corresponding demand for lessons; causing both groups to vie for dominance in the market.

Enter: the UKA.

The United Kingdom Alliance (UKA) of Professional Teachers of Dancing and Kindred Arts
The social practice of “International” Ballroom and Latin Dance, as codified by the British, was in deep decline. Like salsa in the lean years, it began with a displacement of partner dances by individual ones, starting with the “twist”.

The north of England was encountering economic hardship; and the Working Men's Clubs, once the bedrock of ballroom dance, saw fewer and fewer people. Its capital, Blackpool, where the UKA is still based, developed a reputation as being “chintzy”; a perception that became associated with the activity.

Though the competitive arm of ballroom dance continued to do well, the high profile it maintained (through programmes like “Come Dancing”), in combination with a traditionalist approach to presentation made it more difficult for the public to relate to it. Ultimately, the intractability of the Ballroom dance fraternity to modernise left them increasingly marginalised.

In an attempt to buck the trend, the UKA started a club dance division and commissioned two of its members, Paul Bottomer and Paul Harris, to develop instructional material for tango argentino and salsa respectively. The syllabi they produced were tuned to conform to the teaching culture of the UKA, giving all affiliated dance studios instant access to both markets. The salsa syllabus endorsed the Cuban style and was in turn endorsed by established Cuban instructors.

The UKA's public justification for involvement were: to recognise the existence of a significant dance form and the individuals who helped develop the scene here; to provide a standard in teaching quality; to improve safety; and to introduce personal injury insurance. So far it has had limited success: a number of instructors remain indifferent to UKA recognition; the system of education is archaic compared with sports sciences; emphasis on safety is poor; and awareness of the necessity for insurance cover remains low.

Benefits for teachers
A newly affiliated instructor benefits from a credential that is recognised throughout the British Commonwealth, established during the colonial era. It is an argument that can secure the endorsement of instructors who hope to operate beyond the national boundary. For those already affiliated, it provides the ballroom dance studios with an opportunity to tap into mainstream dance culture after so long in the cold.

In both cases, there is the economic incentive of offering medals examinations - tests to mark levels of proficiency. Revenues are split between the dance studio for providing the venue and student, and the issuing body for providing the examiner.

General impact
The nationwide network of UKA dance studios means that salsa is now available in areas without Latin communities, increasing awareness and access to salsa. There is a fly in the ointment; salsa taught routinely in the ballroom dance studio may not be the same salsa prevalent on the club floors today. A creolisation occurred during the formation of the salsa syllabus when data was adapted to the UKA teaching culture. Claims of authenticity aside, variations in teaching standards and interpretation of the syllabus exist, ranging from the entirely practical to the inapplicable.

One thing the UKA has managed to do is to stimulate the holding of dance competitions, an area that has been its forte, in salsa. Competitions are developing into a useful conduit for introducing new instructors to the salsa scene, based on a commonly held belief that the best dancers are also those most able to teach.

Perspective: State of the Art
Salsa in the U.K. tends to be performed as a social display, as much for the benefit of the onlooker as the partner. A greater stress is therefore placed on turn combinations and shines; rendering the average dancer unadventurous in the use of rhythm, and so involved in the mechanics of a combination as to be fairly inexpressive to music.

Unlike the main salsa centres, the Latin communities are not large enough to provide a critical mass of music makers that could define a salsa sound indigenous to the U.K. Live music is comparatively uncommon, contributing to a situation where dancing is strangely decoupled from the music. This is evidenced by a lack of emphasis in timing by instructors, and the limited interaction between dancers and musicians at live performances. Little preference is expressed for live music over that which comes straight out of a can.

Salsa teaching is vocabulary-based, with very little being offered by way of partnership skills, music, or 'marcas' (lead and follow information). The UKA syllabus is ideally suited to this environment, as it deals mostly with basic dance figures. However, it has hardly a reference on physical education, reflecting little the tremendous advances in the area. More curiously, it sets great stall on the “Cuban” style, but deftly avoids substantial definition or comparison with any other.

The long-term effect of codifying salsa in the hard text of a syllabus could be to accelerate transnationalisation in countries with a UKA presence, and increase longevity as it did with the chachacha. It could turn out to be the U.K.'s greatest contribution to salsa. But if history were to repeat itself, salsa as practiced by the UKA would remain locked in time to 1998 - the year of inscription, while salsa in the mainstream moved on other things. That also happened to the chachacha.

History tells us that changes in social dance tend to follow changes in music, not vice versa. The United Kingdom rests in a colonial state with respect to salsa, culturally dependent upon the major centres of Cuba, New York, Colombia, even Los Angeles. A creolisation is occurring with respect to salsa the dance, but the lack of a specific music identity is preventing it from playing a greater role on the world stage.

 

 
1999 Salsa & Merengue Society
Email: enquiries@salsa-merengue.co.uk