Via – Eddie and Maria Torres
Last weekend was the New York International Salsa Congress, where, as the name suggests, individuals from all over the world congregated to share in a weekend of workshops, performances, and parties that went on until 3am.
I learned some new cha-cha from Nieves, bachata moves from Alex and Desiree, spin technique from Shani Talmor, and for the first time, was introduced to Bugaloo with the King of Salsa himself – Eddie Torres.
The best part is that I was able to share the experience with a lot of my fellow New Yorkers who I see “in the scene” throughout the year, as well as with my friend Lisa, who was here all the way from Holland — and whom I met about a year ago exactly at a social at Gonzalez y Gonzalez.
Over the years, this art form has become so much more than a bodily expression. It is a method by which my body frees my mind — one of those rare moments throughout the week where I put my phone down, and connect to humanity by the way of music and dance. It is one of the few things in life that I never wish to measure or rate myself on, that cannot be quantified. Physical touch, musical vibrations that consume your existence, friendships that sometimes do not go beyond the dance floor but that are never superficial – that is what salsa is to me.
One of the most beautiful moments from the Congress was a 2 hour story session, where Eddie Toress, the coined “King of Salsa” sat us all like grandchildren in a liitngroom, to hear his stories of how this art has become an international phenomenon.
Photo Credit: The New York International Salsa Congress
While he was growing up, for five dollars, he could dance all night, listening to five different bands at various clubs throughout the city: it was called the Golden era of Salsa. In 1962, the Palladium closed. Eddie Torres was only 12 years old. At the time, however, people started dancing the age of 13, by way of house parties. Friends would alternate houses, and the mothers, often teenage mothers at the time would allow the parties, but not any drugs or drinking, at least not inside the house.
By the age of of 16 or 17, they were allowed to go to nightclubs, which let them stay until midnight, when they started serving alcohol.
In 1966, he started dancing at Hunts Point Plaza, which was one of the major clubs at the time, along with Corso. While these were the most famous, at the time, there were over 10 Latin Clubs where people could party hop in NYC, and the sheer diversity of opportunities is something that Eddie is nostalgic about and laments about the current salsa scene. In the clubs, they would play boleros after 4/5 boogaloo/pachanga songs, which is also something he says is distinguishing about the time.
“Italian, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, or Jew — your color didn’t matter — that is, of course, unless you didn’t know how to dance…”
He never went to the Palladium, but he grew up dancing with all of the dancers that went there. They learned from each other! At that time, there were no instructors — the dance schools — “the Arthur Murrays and the Fred Austeres, would only let you watch for about 5 minutes, and I didn’t see what I wanted there— at the time, you had to look inside yourself to find your dance.”
The Palladium was magic. If you told people that you danced at the Palladium, then others knew you could dance.
At the Corso, he met an Italian lady, June Laberta, who soon became one of his most avid dance partners. She was a ballroom dance teacher, who has charismatic and charming, but simultaneous demanding and encouraging of Eddie’s trade — she motivated him to start learning music theory and to standardize Latin dance. Laberta was adamant that if he were to pursue his dream of working alongside musician Tito Puente, who had graduated from Julliard, he had to learn music theory. and was a profound musical theorist. Reluctant at first, Laberta further encouraged him by having strangers ask him questions related to music theory. Frustrated by not knowing the answer enough times, he finally decided to learn from her.
His parents and family members, all electricians/plumbers, urged him to follow trades along these lines, but instead, he dreamed of creating a market for this dance, which he did.
June would record his dances at the time with a Super 8 camera, the first which had no sound! When she died, a friend called to let him know of the news and to tell him that she had left him a package — with over 300 recorded videos, which have now helped teach instructors all over the world hinting at the importance of the usage of technology, even in theoretical ways!
Before the videos, it took 2-3 months for his students to learn the shines!
He eventually met Tito at some point after one of his shows, and asked him if he could audition quickly with Maria, whom he had met at one of his classes in the Bronx. He did not have the time, at that point, as he was traveling, but invited them to perform at his next show. ‘Without seeing it,” Eddie wondered? Tito was tired of seeing him dancing at Corso! “Eddie, I know you can dance!”
At first, afraid of his initial performance did not want to ask Tito his thoughts on it — Tito’s smile deceivingly never wavered, which made it hard to read . After following him his next concert, Tito was surprised that Eddie did not tell him about his arrival: “If I would’ve known, I would’ve asked you to perform your number!” — Eddie and Maria surprised them with the costumes in the trunk of their car! And boom, the revolution was started — from local shows to Madison Square Garden to the shows for the president President — they started touring the country and the world, complementing Tito’s music with their dances.
Does he believe that he created “on 2” dancing? No, but he did standardize and create the infrastructure/education necessary for its rapid expansion. He created the methodology necessary to have this dance viewed as an art form.
How did Eddie standardize/name the shines? Well, randomly: “If I cross my feet twice and do a Susy Cue (his first coined shine) — Ok! I’ll call it a double cross, Susy Cue… I learned this one from the Cubans, so it’s going to be called the Cuban!”
Eddie urges dancers to stop thinking in “levels” and to make the connection on the dance floor — to never just give “pity” dances to others, as he used to receive from girls. Instead, he urges them to find a way to connect. Those “pitied” can someday become great teachers and dancing professionals. In fact, he often encouraged ladies to allow him just “one” dance — and that if he embarrassed them (as he was seen as a profession at the time), that they had the right to be slapped in in the face by them and that they were entitled to walk away from him.
“A final encouragement — you are forever a student! Learn so that you can be an individual and have your own style. Dances change every 10-15 years! At some point, my friends were off learning the Hustle and we saw a drop in interest in Mambo, but I told those friends that they would be back at some point, learning from me, and they did! A few years later, they were back in my class. We see the same things going on now with Bachata and Kizomba — learn it all; be creative! But I know that Salsa will never die.”
Someone told him that he’s created more jobs than Donald Trump… I cannot confirm nor deny, but I won’t argue the contrary.
Happy that the Congress has a new home in its home of New York City, he stood up and posed for our group picture.