Salsa sizzles; Studios and clubs respond to Latin dance fever

The recent San Diego Salsa Festival, founded by dancers Angel and Tulane Rivera of La Jolla’s A Time to Dance studio, underscores the red-hot passion driving the popularity behind this rhythmic, fast-paced Latin dance.

This was the third year for the Sept. 17-20 event. It featured workshops, seminars and performances by dancers, disc jockeys, instructors, promoters and entertainers from around the world.

Although salsa established itself as a dance trend several years ago, unlike swing, it has remained one of the most popular dance genres. Instructors agree that is due in part to glamorous TV shows such as “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“Swing was a fad that came and went,” said “Salsa Susie” Nguyen, a professional dancer, instructor and organizer of Salsa Tuesdays at the La Jolla Firehouse YMCA. “Salsa dancing is not a fad. It’s definitely here to stay, and it’s growing in leaps and bounds.”

The salsa spice

Ask fans what they like about salsa, and the range of responses reflect the dance style’s broad appeal. Some of the more surprising reasons salsa draws people out onto the dance floor include its health and fitness benefits and the challenge of tackling a new skill.

San Diegan Denise Arruda, 25, took up salsa about 10 months ago after a friend recommended that she try it.

“I’ve seen some really inspiring performances; performances that turned my eyes brighter and made me think: ‘I wanna do that! I wanna be like that! I wanna push myself to become a better dancer,’ ” Arruda said. “Dancing is a great way of staying in shape, too. I was never a gym person, always lost interest in it, but dancing is always exciting and never gets boring.”

Nguyen’s La Jolla-based Ooh La La Dance Company offers beginners like Arruda a chance to expand their talent by participating on amateur and semi-pro dance teams.

For some, the allure is simple: music and movement.

“It’s absolutely the music that moves you,” Nguyen said. “You hear the music, and you feel like you’re … somewhere tropical. It’s upbeat and it gets you rocking and everyone has a good time.”

For move-and-groove neophytes, salsa offers a structured format less complicated than most. A couple of lessons - group or private, free or paid – and the dancer knows enough to at least keep up and not embarrass him- or herself.

“Compared to other dances, salsa dancing is pretty easy to learn,” said Dave Tomko, director of Dance North County in Encinitas. “The basic pattern is fairly simple because it’s such a fast dance.”

Mary Pinizzott, an instructor with Dance Lessons San Diego, agreed, adding: “It’s one of the dances you can learn and use almost anywhere. In San Diego, almost any night of the week there’s somewhere to go salsa dancing.”

Salso goes social

To check the pulse of the San Diego salsa scene, visit, a Web site loaded with news, announcements and information on events, clubs and classes. From South Bay to North County, a variety of venues cater to the Latin dance crowd.

Salsa Tuesdays at the La Jolla Firehouse YMCA is unique in that it is open to all ages.

A free lesson is offered from 8:30 to 9:30 p.m. Admission for those arriving after 8:30 p.m. is $7. Nguyen hosts a performance at 11 p.m., sometimes showcasing dancers from Ooh La La Dance Company and other times featuring world champion salsa dancers or entertainers from nearby Tijuana. The rest of the evening, the dance floor is wide open.

The salsa subculture spans age groups, ethnicities and skill levels, making for an eclectic mix of people.

“I have recently taken up salsa dancing as a new hobby, and I must say that I love it,” said Marissa Ochoa, 34, of San Diego. “I have been checking out different venues for salsa dancing throughout the week, and Salsa Tuesdays is one of my favorites. What I love about it is that it is not intimidating. There is a good mix of beginners, intermediates and advanced dancers, and everyone dances with everyone. It is open to all levels, all ages, and the crowd and the music are great.”

Nguyen said the Tuesday night event is attended by UCSD students, engaged couples practicing for their weddings, singles looking to meet new friends, married couples looking for a new way to spend time together and those who simply enjoy the salsa ambience.

“The economy is so bad right now, this is a very affordable way to lose weight, meet friends, and go out and have fun,” Nguyen said.

Salsa simply stated

There is contradiction regarding the history of salsa dance, even though most agree these spicy movements and music mostly originate from Cuba. Salsa steps were influenced by such Cuban dances as the mambo, rumba, Palo Monte and Comparsa. (Mambo moves generally forward and backward, whereas salsa has more of a side-to-side feel.)

All styles of salsa dancing involve three steps in every four-beat measure. Body movements, turns, foot patterns and attitude identify the various styles.

  • Source: Salsa dancing by Lady Wilson,

La Jolla Firehouse YMCA

8355 Cliffridge Ave.

(858) 453-3483

A Time to Dance Studio

565 Pearl St., La Jolla

(858) 729-0910

Ooh La La Dance Company

7877 Herschel Ave.,

La Jolla

(805) 252-6900