Shake it up

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/4/25 18:43:39

Latin dancing has taken over Shanghai’s local nightlife

Throughout the past decade, Latin American and Caribbean culture has become notably popular in China. Similar to ladies' nights, more and more venues in urban metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing are offering Latin nights to attract customers. Famous DJs and professional Latin music bands are often invited to China to play salsa, reggaeton, bachata, meringue and other Latin-themed performances at bars, clubs and entertainment events. A growing number of Chinese locals of all ages are also attending Latin dancing classes to learn more about the music and its culture.

Latin parties in Shanghai can compete with any party being thrown in, say, Colombia or Puerto Rico. They have it all: native performers, a real fiesta atmosphere and droves of energetic fans. Among these fans, Chinese and foreigners comprise an equal number of aficionados seeking an exotic alternative to the usual China-pop and American Top 40 played at most Shanghai clubs.

To find out more about what has been driving China's growing taste for salsa (both the music and the food), the Global Times Metro Shanghai recently spent some time in the city's Latin dance community to get to know these local Latin lovers.

Back in 2001, Beijing-based bar Salsa Cabana was the first place in China that opened its doors for local salsa lovers. Less than four years later, Beijing was officially put on the map among the world's salsa community after throwing China's first Salsa Festival in 2005.

The New York Times was, in 2008, among the first international media to report China's rising salsa fever. Due to middle-aged Chinese women's long love affair with ballroom dancing and outdoor square dancing, Latin music suited their tastes.

Photo: CFP

A Latin explosion

Following the first annual China Salsa Congress held at the Great Wall in 2007, Beijing and Shanghai saw an explosion of Latin dance studios and theme nights at local clubs.

Manuel Tapia, a saxophone player for Shanghai-based Latin-American band K-Libre 5, recalls seeing China take its first salsa steps.

"From the beginning, the acceptance of Latin music in China was not 100 percent, but still the concept was very interesting for many Chinese people, especially the middle ages. Day by day Latin music was getting stronger," Tapia told the Global Times.

In 2009, the Global Time also reported that Latin rhythms were seducing Chinese dancers: "You would think you were in Cuba or Puerto Rico, Calí or Miami, but you are in Beijing or Shanghai, Hangzhou or Nanjing. Salsa has invaded China and is here to stay."

The article mentioned that, in addition to waltzing grannies at public parks, elementary schools were also teaching students salsa as a form of physical fitness.

Maintaining this development, today many of Shanghai's downtown venues host at least one weekly Latin music night.

For instance, Zapata's runs a Latin night on Mondays, Unico does Thursdays, while Wednesdays see Latin parties at The Apartment, Bar Rouge and El Barrio.

"I can go party every night. It is like an amusing map," said Thomas Shipley, a German national and self-described amateur of Latin-style dancing.

"In Shanghai, Latin parties are very popular because dancing is something that everybody likes to do," said Ricardo Sierra from Venezuela, who admits to practicing his moves nightly at some of the city's popular salsa dance spots.

Ricardo Sierra teaches Latin-style dancing in his studio.

Latin lovers pose at Ricardo Sierra's studio.


Dance, practice, repeat

Apart from parties where one can simply enjoy the music and get some practice, teaching Latin-style dancing has become a lucrative business for Latino expats living in Shanghai.

As of last count there are several Latin dance schools in Shanghai, each with their own unique flavor, style and character.

Soul Dancing, for example, is focused on professional performances and dance-off contests, while Shanghai Latin Dance is more of a casual community for amateur dancers to get together.

Sierra, who started Shanghai Latin Dance in 2014, said his motives for starting the community were simply to provide local residents with a venue and a relaxed, non-competitive atmosphere.

"I realized all that people want is to have fun. They are not professional dancers, but they can learn from somebody who can make them feel better."

Sierra has spent the last five years in China, with most of this time devoted to sharing his knowledge of Latin culture and dance with others.

"Many people were telling me that they wanted to dance like me. So I was able to obtain a free classroom at a university after a lot of effort," he said.

Sierra was offering free classes for the past six months until he had to start rejecting people due to insufficient space at his university studio. However, due to positive word of mouth, a growing number of interested amateurs compelled Sierra to rent another studio and provide more dance classes for different styles every day.

To let more people know about Shanghai's Latin dance community, Sierra developed a Web resource ( with detailed schedules and locations of dance classes in the city.

So far, the most number of students he personally has had at any one time was 95. "But my expectation is to have 200 students by August," he declared.

A Latin band performs in Shanghai. Photos: Global Times

Music knows no borders

The sheer geographical distance between China and Latin American countries, along with their many cultural differences, indeed makes any kind of cultural exchange look rather surprising.

Yavus Selim Okatan from Turkey finds this kind of multicultural soft power remarkable. "When I started Latin dancing here I thought I would meet only foreigners. But when I go to the clubs now, what I see is a lot of good Chinese dancers. And they are really into it. I did not expect it at all," he said.

Ariel, a Shanghainese woman, told the Global Times that she often attends local Latin-themed parties where she has seen all cultural differences and biases forgotten once the music turns on.

"I'm quite surprised that a lot of Chinese people are very good in Latin dances in Shanghai. But I do not think it is about whether you are Chinese or whether you are Latin. It is about your passion and if you have a good teacher and if you practice a lot."

Throughout the history of the world, many have said that there are no cultural borders when it comes to music and dancing, and in China this holds particularly true for Latin-style entertainment.

"Nationalities do not matter. It is just like saying, 'because I am Chinese I should play ping pong.' That is not true. It is just a stereotype. Learning how to dance is what any nationality can do. This is what's important," said Sierra.

While agreeing with the fact that anyone who tries can dance Latin, when it comes to nationality identification of Latin nights' target Shanghai audience, the interviewees hold diverse views.

Statistically speaking, there are still more foreigners attending Latin-themed bar and clubs than Chinese, though this may have more to do with the disinclination among Chinese to party at night compared with Latin-American and European nationals.

"I have met some Chinese at the (local Latin-themed) clubs, but not so many. The majority of people who dance Latin in China are foreigners," Darko Smilevski from the Republic of Macedonia told the Global Times.

Nevertheless, it would be logical to assume that Chinese representation is more balanced and durable. Sierra, who had a chance to observe Latin parties during the past five years, noted: "I would say that there are more Chinese people dancing. They stay in the country, while foreigners tend to come and go. This way, when you go out to a Latin party, you see Chinese year by year and they keep growing by number."

Dare to dance

The same statistical imbalance holds true for local dance studios. "Nationality-wise, Chinese do dance, but mostly I teach foreigners. Before I would not say that any nationalities are better that other ones. But I would say, surprisingly, that Russians and Ukrainians make up the most students in my classes," Sierra said.

But he went on to explain that, despite the fact that he teaches mostly foreigners, it also depends on the school and city. "Some of them are intended for Chinese since the market originally is Chinese itself."

Historically, dancing has been a socially accepted way for Latin people to express themselves both physically and mentally. In salsa, the female moves her hips sensually while a boy responds by leading her.

"Salsa is like another language," Sierra said. "And if you want to meet someone (romantically), dancing is definitely the best way to do it."

Apart from the ability to dance, salsa also requires both passion and courage. "I have been to the clubs here a few times, but I need a few more months of practice, then I'll have the courage to dance with everyone," said Okatan.

Passion is considered the soul of Latin-style dancing. While sensuality is intrinsic in the female nature, many non-Latino males tend to find such revealing openness off-putting at first.

"Many Chinese girls are open-minded, but I think Chinese boys are quite shy," Pan Zhijun, a salsa dancer from China, told the Global Times.

"Not everybody has the courage to express oneself easily. But still I know a lot of Chinese guys who can dance Latin, and they do it well."

Many non-Latinos have taken up salsa particularly to learn how to express their sensuality. "I chose Cuban-style salsa because it is more passionate," admitted Okatan. "Since I am Turkish, I find it similar to my culture. It teaches men to lead, which is actually difficult."

Most of the dancers interviewed said that, despite their initial insecurities or physical ineptness, once they got into the literal swing of things, they found salsa a highly addictive pastime. "Once they try it, no one wants to stop it," Sierra said.

This article was written by Catherine Valley


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