As I entered Browning's Mexican Grill on a Friday night I was so enveloped by the conga-drum driven music that my entire rib cage seemed to be vibrating.
On the floor, 50 or 60 people were dancing to the six-beat rhythms of salsa, spinning and smiling, continually bathed in the ever-changing hues of red, green, yellow and blue twirling lights and bright, blinking strobes.
It was the twice-weekly Little Rock Salsa Team event that had me mesmerized.
For the life of me I couldn't seem to comprehend how these couples held hands while spinning in myriad ways: facing each other, with their backs to each other, sideways, over the shoulder, etc., etc.
Salsa is the kind of rhythm that, as soon as you hear the music, you almost automatically feel like dancing. This pulsating music and its rapid, syncopated, ever-driving beat, coupled with the sound of horns, drums, flutes and congas, just makes you want to move. Indeed, most of the other people standing along the railing and watching the dancers were moving their feet to the beat of the music.
The couples on the dance floor encompassed a wide range of ages: from couples in their 60s all the way down to teen-agers. As soon as every song ended, people began shouting and whooping it up.
The warmth, the feeling of instant friendship, good times and inclusiveness of salsa is undeniable. It's the type of music that makes you feel like you're part of something wonderful, upbeat and fraternal. The pulsing, blinking multicolored lights somehow add to this festive, bubbly mood. And although the atmosphere was civilized and courteous, it was also quite loose and free-form.
While at Browning's, I heard songs from Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico and practically every other country in Latin America. With every song, I began to notice new, different instruments.
I began experiencing a variety of emotions, from effervescent joy to romantic contentment, depending on how fast or slow each song was. Then I suddenly realized that I wasn't even paying attention to the lyrics. And even though I'm fluent in Spanish, the truth is that much of the time I couldn't even understand the words being sung, because they used different Caribbean and/or South American accents, depending on where the singer was from. That was when it dawned on me: All the emotions that were coming up and flowing out of me were completely in response to the music alone, not the lyrics. That's probably one the greatest things about salsa music: that even if you can't understand what the singer is saying, you can feel it.
And it is exactly the same when you're dancing salsa: What counts most is the explosive joy, the contented happiness or the love you feel. The steps or moves themselves come in a very distant second. The flexibility for improvisation and the transcendental nature of salsa for all those who dance it is impressive. Salsa is an energetic, free-flowing dance. Watching it can almost lull you into a trance as the dancers and colors and music blend into a unique piece of art. For many people, watching salsa can almost feel like dancing it.
Little Rock native Sarah Catherine Gutierrez, along with a tight-knit circle of friends, started LRST five years ago.
Gutierrez serves as both salsa instructor and DJ, as does her husband Jorge, a native of Bogota, Colombia. She first got involved with the music in January 2001, while studying abroad in London. "I stumbled upon, quite unexpectedly, a salsa nightclub in downtown London. I had never seen salsa dancing before and had never been exposed to Latin music," she said. "As I was passing this nightclub while walking, I was first attracted by the music, and then, once inside, I was fascinated by the dancing. I sat down at a table and literally watched people dancing salsa the entire night until closing time. As I was walking out, I thought: 'This is really cool.'"
Since that moment, salsa has been magical for her.
Little Rock Salsa Team (LRST) gathers every Tuesday at Revolution and every Friday at Browning's. The team has grown substantially: LRST went from five to 10 people per session in 2007, to around 80 people on Tuesdays and 150-200 on Fridays today, Gutierrez said.
Allison Pierce has danced with LRST for a year and a half. "For me, Little Rock Salsa Team is like a family," Pierce said. "It's a very welcoming group. Salsa is very special to me. The Latin rhythms, in general, are my favorites. And salsa is, in my opinion, the best one. I like the soul of it. Dancing salsa is a blast. It's so much fun. It's freedom, in the sense that for those three minutes that you're dancing a particular song, you don't have to think about work, or school, or the things in life that are stressful. You just feel the music, and you are transported."
Craig Kulesa, a Connecticut native who's lived in Hot Springs for the past 15 years, has been participating in LRST for two years, commuting from Hot Springs every Tuesday and Friday to attend the salsa lessons and dance. "For me, when I'm out there on the dance floor, I just forget about everything else," Kulesa said. "It's like an art form, in the sense that when you're creating something, you forget about time. It's like time stops. Afterwards, I always feel very energetic, invigorated, energized."
Gutierrez said that one of the great things about salsa is that there is no one "right" way to dance it; everyone creates his or her own style. "You can build upon the basic moves to make them more complex, or more unique, or more stylized, whatever you prefer. Salsa is continually evolving, and that is just one more of the many aspects of its greatness. It all depends on just how far you want to take it," she said.
"We have some participants who want to learn just enough to have a little bit of fun and dance a while, and then we have some participants who want to learn as much as possible and get as good at salsa-dancing as they possibly can," Gutierrez said. "And we encourage both groups equally, by teaching the basics to the first group and pointing out to the second group the salsa events and resources they can go to in order to further their knowledge of salsa dancing."