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Review of the 2002 World Salsa Congress in Puerto Rico


8-15-2002 - By Stephanie Palmieri!


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For a true salsera or salsero, going to the World Salsa Congress in Puerto Rico is comparable to a Muslim making a pilgrimage to Mecca.  So when I found out that my dance company, Son Bravismo of Salsa Brava Productions, would be performing at the Congress, I was ecstatic.  Even though there were things about the event and the vacation that could have been better, after spending a full week at the Congress, I was not disappointed.

The Congress ran from July 26th through August 2nd and featured social dancing, performances, workshops, and contests at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan Puerto Rico.  The cost of the event was $350 for a full pass, $200 for a 5-night pass, $50 for a full pass for performers and all events were free for children. The hotel lodging was not included in the price.  All events were open to all ages.  The event started with the first annual “Salsa Open” competition for partners with categories for children, youths and adults.  We planned on arriving on the fourth night of the Congress, which would be the first night of performances (the Salsa Open was held on the previous nights) and staying for the remainder of the event.

We left for Puerto Rico from LAX after spending the weekend in LA where our troupe debuted our new routine at Salsa Brava’s 6th annual Puerto Rico Take-Off Party.  We didn’t leave the party until 3am and our flight was scheduled to leave at 6:45am, so we didn’t get much rest.  When we awoke my 10-year-old daughter, Angélica, after only an hour of sleep (please don’t turn me in to the authorities, she made up for it later), she groggily asked, “Did we already sleep?” 

We arrived in San Juan that evening, and quickly learned that everything is slower in Puerto Rico, which we later dubbed “being on Puerto Rico time.”  The Congress was nice enough to offer a free shuttle from the airport to the Caribe Hilton, where the event was being held, but we had to wait over an hour for the shuttle to leave once we boarded.  Then, it took us over an hour to register at the hotel.  Even though our flight arrived at 7pm and the hotel was only 15 minutes from the airport, we didn’t get into our room until after 11pm.  The next day, when I told some friends from Salsa Brava how long everything had taken, they responded, “That’s all?  It took us over five hours!” 

We also quickly learned how expensive vacationing in Puerto Rico can be.  The first night we ate an expensive meal at the Tapas Bar in the hotel.  Given that the Caribe Hilton is probably the most luxurious hotel in all of the island, it was to be expected.  All of the hotel fare was expensive.  The cost for the Sunday brunch at the main hotel restaurant, for example,  was $35 per person.   We did find more affordable food within walking distance of the hotel, but at a price:  very slow service.  While the hotel food was overpriced, the service was good.  Everywhere else we ate, we always waited an unreasonable amount of time to order and then get our food.  We talked about this with others who had vacationed before in Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean, and they told us that it was part of the “laid-back” attitude that people in the area have.  It’s just hard to adjust to when you’re used to the fast pace of Bay Area life.

This “laid-back” attitude carried over into aspects of the Congress.  The registration process was slow and disorganized and none of the evening shows ever started even close to the set start time.  We always rushed to be on time to every event, fearing that the one time we would be late would be the time that the show started on time, but it never happened.  We rushed through lunch one day to get back to the hotel to take my daughter to the Congress-sponsored horse show that demonstrated the “paso fino,” an inherited equestrian technique unique to Puerto Rico.  Even this event began 45 minutes late.  “Why would we think that anything would start at the announced time?” asked my boyfriend.  The benefit of arriving on time to an event was to secure a good seat.  I have to say that the seating for the shows was well-arranged.  We always had a good view.

Other than the late start times, the shows were great.  It was amazing to see all the fabulous performances from around the world.  I saw almost all of the evening performances and one of the day shows.  Puerto Rico was well represented, of coarse, but there were also groups from Japan, Sweden, Italy, Spain, France, Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and many places in the U.S. like LA, SF, Miami, Chicago, Detroit, Texas, New Jersey and New York.  Some of my favorite performances were given by Salsa Brava  from LA, Tropical Gem from Italy,  Descarga Latina and Abacua, both from New York and the many amazing children and youth performance groups from Puerto Rico.

After the night performances, all of the dancers would head to the dance floor to show off their social dancing skills.  Often, the performances on the dance floor were almost as good as the shows.  You could watch, and even dance with, salsa greats like Seaon Stylist, Nelson Flores, Addie Diaz, just to mention a few.  The dance floor was a little too crowded and sticky, but many of the dancers would move out into the lobby area where there was more room and a smoother dance surface.  The dancing would go on until 3 or 4am, and then many people would head over to the local Club Habana just a few minutes away in taxi and dance until 6am.  

I never attended any of the workshops, because they started too early in the morning (9:30am) and I preferred to spend the daytime enjoying the pool and beach and exploring Puerto Rico, but I was told that most of them were good.  There were workshops offered by outstanding dancers and instructors from around the world covering “On1” and “On2” dancing at all levels, as well as Afro-Cuban dance and other styles.

One of the nicest things about the trip was the opportunity to relax. The hotel was very luxurious and had excellent swimming facilities and beach access.  There were four pools on different levels connected by waterfalls.  In the top pool you could sit at the bar in the water and sip the best Pina Coladas I have ever tasted.  Just a few feet away was a beach with hardly any waves and floating platforms where you could relax and sunbathe.  My daughter could’ve spent 10 hours a day at the pools and beaches without getting bored.  The weather was hot and humid (San Juan has never registered a temperature below 68 degrees Fahrenheit), but there was usually a breeze and the water was refreshing if not cool. 

Even if you are in Puerto Rico for the Congress, I would recommend that you do some sight-seeing and get out and see the country.  We were able to visit Old San Juan and tour the Castillo El Morro, one of the famous forts built when the Spaniards controlled Puerto Rico.  We also took a day trip to the other side of the island, which is not really that far away given that Puerto Rico is about the same size as Connecticut.  We rented a car (which took an hour to get) and drove to Guánica, on the Southwest coast and then took a boat to an island called “Gilligan’s Island” (I’m serious).  There is nothing on the island except two dressing rooms, some barbeque pits, tables and trash cans, but the water is calm, clear and warm.  It was perfect for snorkeling.  We saw tropical fish, huge crabs, sea anemones and even sea cucumbers.

My main reason for going to Puerto Rico, however, was to perform, and our performance was really the highlight of my trip.  It was a stressful and busy day leading up to the performance, but well worth it.  The morning of the performance started with the news that one of our members would not be making the trip.  We met for rehearsal in one of the hotel lobbies and had to adjust our formations and timing on roll-offs to account for the missing dancer.  Then we went directly to the stage for an official run-through.  From there we had a few hours to relax before getting ready for the show.  Our call time was 8pm so the women in our troupe met in our director’s room at 5pm  to begin the tedious process of applying all of our stage make-up, fixing our hair and getting into our costumes.  Our Cabaret-themed, Moulin Rouge-inspired routine has quite a costume.  Then we headed backstage to wait with all of the other dancers performing that night.  We found out that we were last in the line-up for the evening, and were excited and nervous to be closing the show.  We were in the same set as the L.A. Salsa Kids, Tropical Gem from Italy, Victor and Gaby from Mexico, and other performers from Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela.  Everyone was friendly and supportive.  When we finally went on it was an incredible experience to be performing for some of the best dancers in the world.  It was great to feel good about our performance and hear the applause and later compliments from the audience.  My only disappointment is that we could not videotape even our own performance and will not be able to view it until the Congress releases the official videos to be sold.  

Dancing and performing experiences abound for the serious dancer.  There are Salsa Congresses popping up everywhere, even here in the Bay Area.  But the Puerto Rico World Salsa Congress is special because of where it takes place. Puerto Rican music and culture have played an important role in the development of salsa, and that is why so many great salsa dancers, musicians and enthusiasts make the trip every year.   Even if you aren’t able to attend the World Salsa Congress in Puerto Rico as a performer, the shows, dancing, music and vacationing opportunities make the pilgrimage a fulfilling experience for any true salsera or salsero.

About the author:  Stephanie Palmeri is the co-assistant director of Son Bravisimo of Salsa Brava Productions.  She and her dance partner, Danny Zepeda, have been performing, competing and choreographing together for almost three years.  They currently teach all levels of salsa dancing at the Mexican Heritage Plaza and Club Miami, both in San Jose.  Stephanie is a regular feature contributor for the Salsacrazy website.  You can contact her at (408) 806-0787 or salsa_queen_25@yahoo.com.

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