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Salsa in Samba-land

Uffe Hellsten and Peter Rabanus report that Rio’s salsa scene is alive - and sizzling!

See Pictures of this amazing trip!

“Você quer dançar comigo? “

Knowing  how to ask a native to dance in her own language –or understand when you’re being asked- comes in handy for a travelling salsero or salsera.  Dancers of both sexes have a unique opportunity of meeting local people who share the passion for this latin dance, even when visiting such distinctly non-latin countries as Denmark (my native country)  or Japan.

At Thanksgiving 2001, our destination was Brazil. My good friend Peter and I had rented an apartment smack in the middle of the world famous Copacabana district.   Our agenda, in addition to the usual sightseeing and beach life, was to check out the salsa scene in Rio de Janeiro. Would there be real salsa clubs, or would all the dance activity be related to the samba schools, where the Cariocas (natives of Rio) spend a few months every year preparing for the carnival? If there were salsa clubs, would they mainly be frequented by people from Spanish-speaking immigrants from countries such as Columbia or Venezuela , or would it be native Brazilians who just happened to love salsa? How would the ‘look and feel’ of these salsa places be?!

Would two blonde guys from Northern Europe, who live in California, know some salsa, and speak enough Portuguese to get along, be welcomed into the salsa circles of Rio de Janeiro… ?

Research, research….

With some 11 million people living in the Rio area and little more than a handful of salsa places, there is almost no chance of  ‘accidentally’ stumbling upon salsa in Rio.  Realizing that we needed to do a bit of homework, we had already printed out lists of salsa places in Rio de Janeiro from and . Once in Rio, Peter talked to Ara, an Armenian DJ who worked in salsa clubs in London before marrying a garota carioca. Ara now plans to establish a club just for Salsa this year. We quickly discovered that most of the info from the web was outdated, but Ara confirmed that there was Thursday night salsa (DJ) at the Mariuzinn discotheque. It was actually rather a Friday morning salsa, since nothing is really starts to happen in Rio until the AM hours anyway! This place, opened in 1962, claims to be Rio’s oldest still existing nightclub. Ara and his wife would meet us at the club at midnight. Great!

The first salsa experience

Mariuzinn didn’t have a cover charge, but guests were required to pay a 10 reais (US$ 4) consumption fee  at the door, which would be used towards buying drinks at the bar. The consumption fee would buy you 2 sophisticated drinks or 4 beers….. what an excellent value for a Bay Area salsero!

The dance floor was quite small, and the club was almost empty! Ara told us not to worry, it was only midnight! Surely enough, as we approached 1 AM, the club -and the dance floor- was filling up.  Everybody on the floor seemed to know how to dance, although the styles varied considerably. Some used the mambo step as there basic step (like we do) while others were squeezing their hips together and moving side to side in something that can best be described as ‘lambada-style salsa’. I asked a flashy looking salsera with nice shoes to dance, and she seamlessly followed my lead. My next partner, Leslie, was originally from Manaus in the middle of the Amazon jungle. Her following was wonderful, and as we melted together on the dance floor in our fifth dance I once again got confirmed that truly good followers, no matter where in the world they’re from and which style they are used to dance,  can always follow any different style, even if led by a leader with rather moderate skills. .. just amazing!

In Bay Area salsa clubs there is usually a rather big surplus of guys, many of whom just seem to have come to look at the ladies, lurking from the edge of the dance floor, but not taking part of the action. This wasn’t the case in Rio: the gender distribution was about 50-50 and  all the people in the clubs seemed to be dancing – and enjoying it! Life here is something to be consumed, not observed from the sidelines, and hey, if guys here want to peek at beautiful women they won’t have to resort to salsa clubs… any chair alongside the Copacabana and Ipanema beach promenade will offer terrific viewing opportunities without a fee!

People of both genders were treating us well, and we had rich opportunity to practice our Portuguese. Almost all of the dancers were from Brazil, but I did have a dance with a visiting single salsera from Australia who was also checking out the local salsa scene! We saw her at all the three places we went to, and she appeared to be having a blast – like the rest of us.  Peter and I left the Mariuzinn at 5 AM, with the party still going on.

Live band – from Cuba

Once you have managed to locate one good salsa place, finding the next gets easy: just ask the locals where the hot salsa spot is tomorrow! The following day there happened to be a live Cuban salsa band playing at Mutante, close to the old Copacabana Palace hotel. The band was right on the clave, and the place was bigger than Mariuzinn. When we arrived there we were immediately greeted by 5-7 people whom we’d met the night before…. Like in the Bay Area, the same hard core dancers go to all the clubs!

One mistake we made when going there was bringing non-salsera dates! We had double-dated with two nice Brazilian ladies for dinner, and now we generously invited them for Friday night live salsa, which we didn’t want to miss. Since the ladies didn’t really dance much salsa we were torn between wanting to dance with all the good dancers and entertaining our guests like gentlemen. A delicate balance that I’d say we managed to keep – but I’d really have liked to dance much more!!

Allegro Ballroom a la Rio

The last Saturday we spent in Rio happened to be the first Saturday of the month, which is the day of the monthly salsa y merengue fiesta at the Centro de Dança Jaime Aroxa, a dance school in a part of Rio called Botafogo. When we arrived we were greeted by a smiling salsera in a glittery outfit. Her name was Briane, and she was the salsa instructor at the place.  She recognized us from Thursday evening at Mariuzinn and was delighted to see us at ‘her’ place.

This place featured the largest number of good salsa dancers I had seen in Rio, and I don’t remember getting turned down by a single follower the entire evening! A sweet, sweet memory for a fragile male ego who isn’t normally used to being treated quite as nicely! The place had an Allegro Ballroom like atmosphere to it, except there was a bar selling ice cold beer for about 60 cents a can!

The next day we had to leave. Back to the U.S., to tell you all about how great Rio is. Rio has many beautiful qualities as a vacation destination, and if you’re into salsa dancing, you just have one more reason to visit!

Até logo!

Uffe Hellsten

Uffe Hellsten and Peter Rabanus report that Rio’s salsa scene is alive - and sizzling!

Addendum and last-minute  update from Peter

I don’t really have to add too much to Uffe’s report, which really hits the spot. I guess I just got a little bit more carried away by the beauty, the warmth, and the gentle and sincere attention of the garotas cariocas (girls from Rio). The whole dancing experience was not just limited to the 5 minutes of a dance. A dance just seemed to be another color spot in an atmosphere of continuous sensuality. Dance and music is really everywhere in Rio, even in the way she walks. And the gentle embrace is given everywhere. Brazilians are very personal and affectionate – and lovable.

Uffe is right - life here is something to be consumed, not to be observed from the sidelines. No one tries to show off, everyone just enjoys the interaction with each other. And the attention is sincere. I went back 3 weeks later, just to be even more sad when I had to leave.

Mariuzinn is now permanently closed after its many years of existence. But new places will be opened continuously in an environment of such a strong desire for life.

Estou com muitas saudades!!!

Peter Rabanus

Mutante, Rua Rodolfo Dantas, 26, Copacabana, Tel: 295-0605.

Centro de Dança Jaime Aroxa, Rua Sao Clemente 155, 2th floor, Tel: 539-8779 or 539-4924.

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