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October 18, 2011

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Dancing the night away

Salsa is joyous and passionate, tango is elegant and seductive and both are catching on among young Chinese. Good Latin dancers find it easier to meet pretty women and handsome men, reports Alexander Gladstone.

Shanghai is a dancing city. In the morning, elderly Shanghainese women perform organized dance routines in the street, and on the weekends, the parks of Shanghai are full of couples happily dancing away.

In the clubs, young people gyrate to the groove of hip-hop and Lady Gaga. In addition, there are two major forms of dance that are rapidly gaining popularity in Shanghai: salsa and tango.

Salsa emerged in Cuba in the 1930s, being influenced from both Spanish and African cultures. It is a fast-tempo dance form, in which men and women partner up, blissfully spinning each other around to the catchy Latin beat.

Tango originated in Argentina during the early 20th century. The pace of tango is slower than that of salsa, and the dance is typically much less casual and laid-back. It is a dance for gentlemen and ladies, with a strong aura of romance.

At SalsaShanghai dance studio in People's Square, bouncy Cuban music fills the air as students happily twirl each other around the room. Even after the class, people just can't seem to stop dancing, as Bob, the well-loved instructor, looks on approvingly.

Bob, from Shanghai, first came across the dance in 1998 when a business partner asked him to meet her at a salsa event in a local bar. He was blown away not just by the fun, festive spirit there, but also by the many sophisticated, intelligent and attractive women present.

He knew that he had to get involved with salsa, but back then, there were no classes available, just a small community of expats and local Chinese who already knew how to do it, and would meet in the evenings to dance the night away.

Since there was no chance for him to receive formal instruction, he had to pick up the dance on the fly, asking friends to teach him moves whenever they weren't too busy having fun.

"A first, no girl would ever dance with me twice. Then my friends taught me, I learned, and then everything changed for me," Bob recalls.

He loves salsa because of the lifestyle it provides: constantly going to parties, meeting new people and helping himself let loose after a long day of work.

"Salsa brings me close to the passionate life. It is salsa that makes me drunk, not the alcohol," Bob says.

On Mondays, Mural Bar on Yongjia Road hosts a salsa night, complete with a live band from South America. The place fills up with high-spirited people of all ages, joyously spinning and shimmying across the floor.

Ivan, a salsa enthusiast from Sardinia, Italy, says "its' all about the confidence. You learn the foundation, become confident with your moves, and then you have the chance to dance with the beautiful partners."

Linda, from Xi'an, capital city of west China's Shaanxi Province, loves how salsa reinforces her sense of balance and positioning. It is only a matter of seconds before she is invited by a handsome young Chinese gentleman to join him for a dance.

Not far from the Mural bar, Sergey Podbolotnyy, from Ukraine, and Yu Ping, from Anhui Province, are gracefully dancing the tango, as their students look upon them with admiration for their smooth, effortless style.

The two first met at a tango festival in Istanbul, and now run Tango Go, a school on Xinhua Road, which they opened in March last year.

Podbolotnyy and Yu describe the deep meaning that tango has in their lives: It's magical.

Podbolotnyy explains that in tango, the man is the leader and the woman is the follower. However, "it is not dictatorship, it is dialogue."

Tango is a sophisticated art, with many subtleties.

First the man must attract the woman through eye contact. Only when the woman returns his gaze may the man approach her to ask for a dance, which, of course, she has every right to refuse. Then the dialogue begins, in which the two communicate with each other through dance.

Podbolotnyy says that the "man must try to create things, to make decisions." The woman must trust him, and "listen to what he wants to say to you," according to Yu.

When the man has succeeded in making the woman feel completely comfortable, then she is free to show "her elegance, her maturity and to express herself through dance."

Graceful nature

Tango Go student John Xu was first inspired by the famous Al Pacino movie, "Scent of a Woman" (1992). His partner finds it hard to explain exactly why she loves tango so much, but she keeps coming back again and again.

It must be the refined, graceful nature of the dance form. As Podbolotnyy says, in tango "the man must really be a gentleman. And the woman must really be a lady."

Brett Lill, a young professional from Chicago, has tried both dance forms. He appreciates tango's elegance, yet feels more drawn to salsa, for its ebullient, carefree style.

He says that aside from the dance itself, the salsa network has put him touch with countless cool, interesting people, both Chinese and foreign.

Bob, from SalsaShanghai, also enjoys tango, which he says gives him "a very deep feeling." He claims that tango is "more complicated, more emotional. But with salsa, it is very easy to find the happy feeling."

Podbolotnyy and Yu agree that tango is a deeper, more emotional dance form. They find that salsa is a bit less civilized and "lacking the subtleties of our beloved tango."

They claim that many of the students who come to their school have previously done salsa, and switch to tango because they are looking for something more romantic and refined. "Many people will switch from salsa to tango. But almost nobody ever does tango first and then switches to salsa," Yu says.

That might be true, but given the unrestrained passion of the salsa crowd at Mural Bar, it looks like both dance forms are alive and well in Shanghai, and are going to be for quite some time.

For more about tango class, check

(Alexander Gladstone is a Shanghai-based freelancer.)


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