Eight years ago, John “Choco” Knight was a clubgoer in love with house music. When some DJs started mixing in salsa with their house and reggae, he took notice. And when couples started dancing to that salsa, he really took notice. It was so romantic, so sensual. Then he saw a not especially attractive guy dancing salsa with three women at once. This was a dance Knight had to learn.
At first, he picked up his moves on the dance floor, but soon he sought out formal instruction with Eddie Torres, the dean of New York salsa teachers. Twenty years ago, before Torres codified salsa technique, taking classes wouldn’t have been much of an option. Now it’s the norm. So is attending salsa “congresses,” dance and music festivals that pack in a high concentration of workshops, performances, and concerts. Knight went from selling T-shirts at the annual New York Salsa Congress to taking over the directorship this year, following the death of the founder, David Melendez. His first turn at the helm begins August 30 and runs through September 2 at the New York Hilton.
Knight’s ambition is to raise the New York congress—less popular than the original congress, which started in Puerto Rico in 1997, or offshoots in Los Angeles and Chicago—closer to a position befitting the city’s history as the birthplace of salsa. So he’s waged a major publicity campaign, brought on sponsors, and hired a popular Latin radio jock, J.I. Starr, as host.
Otherwise, the changes he’s planned are relatively modest. Though some congresses are cutting back on live bands, he won’t. For him, the function of the congress is not just to keep the dance alive but the music, too—to keep the musicians playing. This is especially important as the clubs that offer live music keep shrinking; the biggest holdout, the famous Copacabana, closed last month.
Knight does intend, however, to curb the number of dance groups performing each night. These are semi-professional ensembles that put together routines, acquire flashy costumes, and practice hard to strut their stuff during exhibitions at clubs, “socials,” and congresses. At some congresses, as many as 36 groups dance each night. For the people-watching, Knight says he’s capping the
number at 15 a session. He’s also introducing a competition with a cash prize: “New Yorkers say, ‘We don’t like to compete; that’s not us,'” he says. “I believe they just don’t want to practice as hard.”
Modest as they are, Knight’s alterations lie close to a fault line in salsa today— the line between performing or competing and just having a good time. A recent article in
The New York Times suggested that the high level of technique promoted in dance classes might be partly responsible for the decline in salsa clubs, all of that skill scaring off potential patrons. An old clubgoer himself, Knight acknowledges two problems. First, some of the school-trained dancers don’t understand the economics: You have to buy drinks if you want to dance. (He’s making a T-shirt that says “Support the Music, Support the Bar.”) Second, there’s been a loss of etiquette, as some dancers bring space-devouring performance moves onto a crowded club floor. His solution is the competition. You want to show off? Do it for the judges. (Actually, there will be one judge, Lori Brizzi, who runs the concurrent New York Hustle Congress. One wristband gets you into both events.)
Still, most of the club closings have much more to due with real estate than with fancy moves. (The Copa, for example, was in the path of the extending Number 7 subway line.) And much of the finger-pointing shows a subtext of unease with salsa’s transition from a local tradition of New York Latinos to a globalized form, a transition the congresses both reflect and accelerate. To an outside observer, the most remarkable feature of a salsa gathering today is less likely to be the intimidating technique than the range of types on display: dancers of every shape, size, and color, attractive and unattractive, intertwined. In that mix is an implicit invitation for all to join.
As a Haitian gentlemen said at the Club Cache salsa night on a recent Thursday, the best thing about salsa today is that you can go just about anywhere in the world and find people to dance with. During the New York Salsa Congress, you don’t have to go around the world. The salsa world is coming here, coming home.