The road unfolds, punctuated by UK's traditional traffic jams and haphazard roadworks. A phone call from my friend Nick makes the London bypass slowdown easier: we're on for another "Salsa Caliente" on the 30th of August, this time with a professional trumpet player as a guest musician, and we discuss a few details. Good travel companions are also Pupy's latest album, and that fantastic track from Grupo Danson that Dr.Jim dug out from God knows where. With every mile and every note, the petty worries of everyday life fade out, like scales brushed away by the wind of adventure: tonight I will be reborn to the sound of Cuban music. Jack Kerouac's line from "On the Road" comes to mind:

"We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move.”

The hotel's receptionist asks my name without a greeting, hands me my key and noses at me: "across the bar, first floor, to the left". Small room, big bed, smelly cupboard, carpet patterns copied from the Queen's most psychedelic dresses. That will do. I didn't come here to sleep anyway. As I stand in front of the mirror, I've got a flash from John Travolta's "Saturday night fever" preparatory sequence, and the whole wonder of anticipating a great night of dancing rushes through my veins. It's gonna be good, really.

And good it is. As I cross the park to reach the Pavilion Ballroom, my steps accelerate. I am nearly running when I enter the building, ignoring the marble deco, zooming through the red-carpeted corridor until the most iconic Timba party tune hits my eardrums: "Esto Esta", from Maikel Blanco, was meant to be the very first thing I heard.

BOOM

The Pavilion Ballroom is huge. It's like, take the Romsey Labour Club or Tito's, and multiply it by at least 20. 1053m2 of pure maple wood bliss, polished by 80 years of crazy holiday parties. Angela was playing when I arrived, if I remember well, soon followed by Javier La Rosa. The music is absolute bliss: full-speed tunes, up-to-date Tumbao by the kilowatt, no compromise whatsoever. When the music is that good and when the dancefloor is that full, no matter what your dancing level is: you will quit asking yourself a zillion questions and you will just get carried away; dancing will become instinctive and you will move like you never thought you could.

LEARNING

One of the good things about that kind of congress, apart from the larger than life parties, is the rare classes you can find there and hardly anywhere else. Selected pieces:

Richard Fallon - Rueda de Casino a Contratiempo
This class well deserved its "advanced" label: working some elaborate partner wrapping routines on steps "a contratiempo" (on the counter-time, like the son step). I really like Richard's style: innovative and flowing, with lots of creativity, expressed for example in the arm combinations. It was one of these classes which opens a completely new dimension, a new perspective to explore and enrich your salsa Cubana. If you thought you had done it all, think again.

Ariel Rios - Orishas / Son Montuno
I took two classes with Ary "The Professor". Again two of these perspective opening ones. Ariel builds everything by starting from the internal body movements. For the Orisha Eleggua, he started by combining the shoulder movements with some isolation of the upper spine. For the Son Montuno, he started with the kind of spring-back motion of the lower body. Nothing pedantic, just a precise demonstration, a few cheeky good jokes and some gentle readjustment to each one's posture. One might think "Orishas or son, why should I care, this is just traditional dances". But that would be totally missing the point: the basic internal movements which are embedded in these dances are going to prove extremely useful in unlocking and freeing your body, and making your regular Casino salsa so much nicer to watch and so much more enjoyable to dance.

Kerry Ribchester - Fusing salsa with Rumba, Son and Reggaeton / Refining body movement and posture
In the same line of idea as Ariel's classes, albeit with a different teaching style, Kerry promotes internal body movement. When she mentions being a "body movement analyst", I have a flash of her wearing a white coat and strict glasses in a lab full of crazy dancing Cubans, poking them with a pencil and taking notes about the results. And these results, boy she's good at teaching them: clear examples, exercises which build the idea step by step, pedagogical tricks to help students remember what she demonstrated. This time, it was about Rumba and Son, and how the related internal movement can give way more flavour to your dancing. The "refining body movement" masterclass was equally stunning: calling couples one by one to dance in front of the class, and advising about the few precise points which would give more style to the whole thing. The before/after effect was amazing.

These are just a few excerpts, and many more of the ones I've witnessed would deserve a mention: Janet Fuentes's Despelote and body isolation (THE absolute woman, "If you clap your hands once more Baby, I kill you."); Frank Santos's Bachata ("Now hug your partner and say I'm sorry"); Susan and Jim's gentle and elegant Son classes; Miguel Monteiro's Kizomba (odd beat counts on hypnotic beats, a world apart from salsa); Moe Flex's funky-cheeky-upbeat Rueda de Casino. Plus, there were all the ones I missed amongst the 8 daily slots multiplied by 5 rooms over two days: literally 72 topics to choose from. With the diversity that such congress offers, everyone will find what they need, from basic steps and fast-track Cuban initiation to elaborate Yambu-style rumba classes; not to mention that doing rumba classes with Lazaro Lopez is a bit like learning basketball from Michael Jordan. Even if it seems impossible to remember everything, each person will bring something back home. Last year's edition had given me some kind of a revelation about the son step a contratiempo. This year's edition will have been the one where I grasped more precisely the importance and significance of internal body movements in Cuban salsa.

SHOW TIME

On the Saturday night party, Ariel opens the shows with a dance of Eleggua, the Orisha who opens and closes the way, open and closes life. He's followed by a diversity of atmospheres, colors and moods: modern choreography from the Res Negros (Leandro, Idalberto and Miguel), precise moves from U-tribe, crazy costumed cabaret skits from Rayda and Dawes, Osbanis and Aneta's most up-to-date act, and here again I can't mention everything from that hour and a half of pure salsa showtime magic. One of the highlights was a visit from young rumba prodigy Davide Buffon, formed by Maykel Fonts himself. The frail youngster flows through the elaborate rumba moves in a hypnotic mix of mastery and innocence: he is only 14.

After the shows, the dance party resumes. Moves on moves, advanced with beginners, old friends and new acquaintances, all dancing together as one big Cuban salsa loving community.

And later that night, much much much later, when the reggaeton pops up and the line-ups are led by the crazy teachers, Ariel, having exchanged his red and black costume for classic shirt and slacks, leads the crowd to the Eleggua movement... The opening and the closing, the beginning and the end, the circle closes for one of the three unforgettable nights of Salsa Explosion's Cuban Salsa Congress 2009.

TRIBUTE

That kind of congress happens because people like Enrique Perez, Rob Carroll and all the volunteers who helped with the organization wake up in the morning and do it. It also happens because there are artists and teachers out there who are the stars of an immense Cuban salsa galaxy, and who sometimes get down amongst us with the will to transmit and share that magic. And finally, it happens because people like you and me like it, go there, support them and have maximum fun in return. Tribute to everyone, that was a great time.

-*- DJ Sacha, Cambridge -*-

I hope that after reading this post, you will have been convinced that it is absolutely worth attending such congresses, and that you will be willing to join the Cambridge Cuban Salsa community for the next coming ones: the AfroCuban Fiesta in Mundesley, the Havana Nights Castle congress in Bodelwyddan, and Salsa Explosion's December congress in Bournemouth.

Ahi na'ma!