Livin' La Vida Loca

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Livin' La Vida Loca

It's time to lace up shoes that have the smoothest leather soles and to practice the sexiest hip movements. The Latin American association, Club Iberoamericano, is hosting its annual ball next week. This year, a band is flying in from Mexico to set the tempo for the black-tie event. Once the eight-count conga starts booming, the dance floor fills with smoldering or exuberant movements, but most of all, fun.

The first time I saw Latin dancing up close was in Cologne, Germany, not Latin America. A guitarist/singer and drummer filled a basement dive with a beat that had couples pushing back their chairs to stand up and dance.

It was the late 1990s and Latin music and dancing was reaching across the world, including Korea. Ricky Martin had just exploded onto the music scene. Korea was, and still is, far from the center of Latin music, but we had our own Paik Ji-young and Hong Kyung-min.

And like most trends in Korea, Latin dancing burned brightly through the summer nights, then faded from prominence, at least for the mainstream world.

But the music and dancing, especially salsa, is not dead. I heard from salsa addicts that, after smoldering for a few years, the scene has split into two camps: Those who want to keep salsa real and those who want to create a Korean flavor.

Curious about the differences, I dug up a pair of shoes with the slickest soles I could find and checked with the addicts for club suggestions. Narrowing the list to two of the most popular places, I set out to experience Latin American dancing in yet another non-Latin American country.

Friday night. A club called Macondo in a neighborhood by Hongik University. I've come here because Macondo is reputed to be true to the Latin American spirit.

The owner Raul Arrua is from Argentina. He watches over a jean-clad crowd in a dark room with poetry scrawled on the grey walls. The crowd is about as diverse as you will find here in a club - Korean, Mexican, Argentinian and American, most ranging in age from 20s to 40s.

Mr. Arrua walks from behind the bar, past a man beating bongos, to a woman with cornrows pulled back in a pile. He offers his hand and asks, "Do you want to dance?"

The two move to the music of Hectore Lavoe. The couple take up very little space, with hands deliberately placed to lead and follow. After 10 minutes, Mr. Arrua says, "Thank you," and returns to tending the bar.

Mr. Arrua, an actor in his native country, moved to Korea six years ago to be with his wife, an Argentinian diplomat. Hard-pressed to find a place here with Latin music, his lifelong pursuit of dancing came to a halt.

Then he met several fellow Latin-music lovers - expatriates and Koreans - who convinced a club called Golden Helmet to let them play Latin music once a month. The first Saturday was so popular that Golden Helmet's owner gave them every Saturday. Soon enough, the group found a place of their own down the street and opened up Macondo. That was five years ago.

Mr. Arrua says, "People say, 'Put up some mirrors,' but that is not the Latin way. People say, 'Why don't you move to a bigger place?' but I like that the bar is so small. I'm going to keep it this way. It's like a big family.

"It's bohemian."

My dictionary describes bohemian as "vagabond, wanderer, a person living an unconventional life usually in a colony with others." The modern-day salsa gypsies that night include a reporter from Mexico, an Air France stewardess and a diplomat from the Dominican Republic.

But it's not only these Macondo regulars who make the place Latin American. It is the music and dancing. Mr. Arrua emphasizes the "real" salsa over pop fads.

"We don't have this fancy dance," he says, demonstrating showy turns and dips so common at dance studios and other clubs in Korea. Because his school of dancing is not flamboyant, some Koreans do not like it.

When I ask how he began dancing, he stops all his hand gestures and looks at me incredulously. "Because my family is normal," he says. "I grew up watching my father. We eat, drink and dance."

"Latin music is like a drug," says Daniel Lee from behind the bar of Bahia.

Two dozen Koreans are moving wildly on the dance floor. One has a bandanna wrapped around his forehead to keep the sweat off his face.

"You fall into it," Mr. Lee says. "The more you fall into it, you cannot dance other dances."

For 15 years he lived and worked in Colombia, where he fell into Latin music. When his widowed father became ill five years ago, Mr. Lee, the eldest son, returned to Korea.

Back home he saw rampant alcoholism. He saw professionals working late hours. He saw students buckling under pressure. So he became a Latin-dance pusher to his fellow Korean compatriots.

In December 1999, he opened Bahia. The club was the perfect high. "In one song, in four minutes, you release sadness, confusion and happiness," he says.

But it was a difficult sell. "The word 'dance' conjures up images of a cabaret," he says. "It's too sexual for most Koreans."

Ever since the club opened, he has been working within the Korean community to change that image and to create a Korean style of salsa. What is this Korean style? "I'm still looking myself," Mr. Lee replies. "But it's not the American salsa."

Salsa was popularized in Korea by ballroom and sports dance groups, both of whom emphasize showmanship and formality - a far cry from its origins in South America.

He puts in a popular CD, Sonby Four. Several couples strut their stuff. When the song ends, he puts in Ricky Martin, and the dance floor erupts with rows of people, line dancing to flashing lights.

Mr. Lee wipes his brow and says, "The dance is the same for Latin Americans and Koreans, but what we experience is different. It's like two people looking at a painting and coming back with different views."

For all the talk about differences in salsa, I found the dance the same the world over. Whether in Germany, the United States or Korea, once the music starts, you can't stop.

Party Information

Club Iberoamericano's annual charity gala will be Saturday, Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. The theme for this 16th event is Tropical Fantasy. About 400 guests from the Latin American diplomatic circle - Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Brazil and Chile will definitely be in attendance - and other foreigners and Korean nationals are expected at the Hilton Convention Center. Tickets cost 155,000 won ($118) and donations will be made to Consolata's Missionaries and the Seoul Catholic Congregation Projects.

For more information, call Auri Stela at 011-9637-9127, or Adriana Wettstein 011-9681-2716, or e-mail

Latin Clubs in Seoul

Bahia, 02-335-1512

The most popular drink is the soda "2 Percent." According to the owner, "The people are here to dance, not drink." Lessons are Tuesdays 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Saturdays 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Macondo, 019-9733-4742

Ricky Martin might be played here, but only in Spanish. The owner can be talked into giving the occasional private lesson. Group lessons take place daily at 7 p.m.

Malman, 02-517-4203

Opened two years ago in the Apgujeong-dong area. The clientele is mostly Korean. The two most popular CDs are Santo Santo and Mama Mia.

Moon Night, 02-793-0443

This Itaewon club plays salsa and merengue from Friday to Sunday. Soldiers make up the bulk of the clientele, creating a diverse and vibrant scene. The recent terrorist attacks in the United States, however, have kept many customers away.

Sabor Latino, 02-338-9221

The owner, James, used to be a dance teacher at Macondo. He split off to create his own studio and club near Hongik University.

by Joe Yong-hee

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