Treadmills boring? A salsa beat wins hands down

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Treadmills boring? A salsa beat wins hands down


The cherry blossoms are blooming and the weather is heating up, but in Seoul’s Latin dance bars, people are used to mixing romance with sweat. That’s the recipe for Saturday nights at Bahia, a salsa club in the Hongdae area. The hundred-plus clubbers have little room to walk around, let alone dance, but couples manage to twirl around on the dance floor as the DJ pumps up the volume.
Kim Yang-jae, a student and regular at the club, glanced at the two men playing maracas next to the DJ and shouted, “Feeling the music and working up a sweat beats everything.”
Lots of Koreans are inclined to agree. Salsa music may have started out here as a fad, but it looks less like one every day. Boosted by concurrent trends, such as the sudden interest in “well-being,” salsa appears to be on the road to total cultural adoption.
Ms. Kim is among the 6,700 members of Salsa One, one of the several online Latin dance communities in Korea. Some of the bigger communities, including Salsa One and Latin Paradise, boast more than 6,000 members, but most operate in the same way regardless of size. Members are recruited through a Web site and grouped according to skill. Online gawkers are then encouraged to come out to weekly dance sessions, usually held at a salsa bar.
“We have at least 40 people who regularly show up on Saturdays week after week,” said Cho Yeong-jin, the instructor at Salsa One, another dance club. “We normally rent a salsa bar for lessons, but the bar remains open to everyone for the night, so anyone can join us.”
This salsa boom hit in full force in the early 2000s. By most accounts, the dance was first introduced in Korea in 1992 by students returning home from living in North or South America, but the style was thrust into the spotlight after it was taken up by popular musicians and actors.
“In the 1990s, students who learned salsa in other countries formed online communities to teach it to the Korean public, and that got things going,” said Lee Eun-gyeong, who runs a salsa bar called Gachi in Apgujeong. “And then salsa became a huge hit in 2002.”
Jeon Ye-won, a graduate student and member of Latin Paradise, said, “I think it was around the time jazz dance was dying that Latin dance became popular. Salsa looks difficult and flashy to the newcomer, but it’s also very addictive. Once people learn the basics, they realize they can actually dance the salsa, so they get drawn into it.”
Ms. Cho, who teaches salsa at a dance institute she manages in Mapo district, northwest of Seoul, thinks the music plays a big role in drawing people. “The rhythm of the music is just so passionate and catchy. It keeps your feet off the floor. And you can forget about everything else for those four minutes while you’re dancing and focus on yourself,” she said.
First-timer Chae Ju-won, who works at an investment bank, agreed. “It’s very lively, loud and fun. The most appealing thing about salsa is the rhythm of the music. Dancing to it relieves your stress.”
Salsa also offers beginners a chance to stay fit, piggybacking on the “well-being” trend, which has pushed Koreans to get more exercise and eat healthier food. “I picked up salsa to work out. I wanted a hobby that would get me in shape, and I was attracted the most to salsa,” said Ms. Kim, who began learning salsa 10 months ago. In addition to the weekly dance sessions on Saturdays, she practices with fellow online clubbers on weekdays.
Salsa is one of the most well-known dances to have originated in Latin America, a list that includes the cha cha, rumba, samba and merengue. Many Koreans, however, associate it with the Mexican sauce. Literally translated, salsa does refer to the famous sauce that floods Mexican restaurants, but when used to describe the dance, it also means “style.” The dance was created by slaves in Cuba who, while working, would move rhythmically to the beat of crude tools. Salsa rapidly spread across the world after it was adapted to jazz music in the 1950s.
Currently, there are more than 20 Latin dance clubs in Seoul alone, most of which are concentrated in the three areas of Hongdae, Apgujeong and Gangnam. There is a catch: Although clubs are open all week long, currently each club has its busy “big” night once a week. On the non-big nights, bars hold lessons or meetings for online communities and close early ― on those days there are usually fewer than 10 people.
The clubs in Hongdae, such as Macondo and Bahia, are usually smaller and older, with a cozier atmosphere. Macondo, for instance, is the oldest Latin-dance bar in Seoul and is known for its popular late hours on Fridays and Saturdays. Bahia is roomier and has a South Pacific decor; its busiest nights are Tuesdays and Saturdays. Over in Apgujeong are the bigger clubs, such as Gachi and La Salsa, which boast chic, spacious layouts. Their busiest nights are Wednesdays and weekends. More recently, salsa bars have opened near Gangnam station, and the two big ones ― Son and Turn ― bustle with people on Fridays and Saturdays (Son is also more likely than not packed on Sundays as well).
Ms. Lee, the owner of Gachi, says there aren’t many bars in other countries that operate all week long, as the ones in Korea do. “This is something you only see in Korea. We’re open every single day as a salsa bar. In any other country, a club would host salsa nights once or twice a week, and then on other days during the week, it’d play hip-hop or another type of music.”
Over in Itaewon, Club Caliente caters to a smaller but more loyal crowd of foreign salsa-lovers every Friday and Saturday. This club is a favorite among Spanish-speaking expats in Seoul, and is perhaps most similar to foreign salsa bars.
The formation and success of online communities is another trait that sets the Korean bars apart. The atmosphere is more familial ― a majority of the crowd belongs to one online community. Ms. Kim, a regular at the Bahia club, said the community was one of the big draws. “There’s a sense of camaraderie and I feel comfortable,” she said.
However, others say the online emphasis might make the bars too unwelcoming.
“The clubbers aren’t too receptive. They sort of like to keep it exclusive and keep to the members of the same community. There’s not whole lot of mingling among complete strangers,” said Ms. Jeon, a member of Latin Paradise.
Ms. Lee believes there are pros and cons to the current scene. “You have the same people seeing each other every week, and they become as close as family. It’s great to have other people sharing your hobby, you know. I met my husband this way, and you see many couples hooking up. But again, it makes it difficult for non-members to chill at bars,” she said. She suggested that newcomers join one of the online communities and take lessons once a week, and also visit bars once or twice a week. “Later, if you become an advanced dancer, you might feel less pressure to just hang out at clubs,” she said.
The online community-oriented bar scene, however, can be a tough nut for foreigners to crack; most Korean Web sites require visitors to register with their citizen number, something a non-Korean cannot do. One off-line group is called “Vibe Dance Club,” in a rented studio located in Beotigogae in Han,am-dong. Joseph Bzdel and Helen Kim started the club in November 2005 because they wanted to learn more about salsa themselves.
“It kind of got started because we wanted to take dance lessons, but all were offered only in Korean,” Mr. Bzdel said. They approached different clubs to find instructors who would teach them in English. The club now has 50 members, most of whom are expatriates who meet every Saturday to take 90-minute salsa and tango lessons at the studio before heading out to a salsa bar in a group.
The Koreans are leaving their own mark on the dance. Most dancers here perform with a flair and a precision that reflects a general Korean attitude. Ms. Cho, the salsa instructor, called Korean salsa dancers highly skilled and technically proficient. “Koreans have qualms about physical contact, and as a result, the emphasis tended to be on dance skills. It’s different from the salsa dancing you see abroad, where people prefer to feel the music and focus on the rhythm,” she said.
Richard Brazenor, an Australian who had danced in Melbourne for six months, said, “The Koreans I’ve seen are really skilled dancers. The guys, especially, are so good, I’m jealous.”
However, after visiting both Club Caliente and Bahia, he said there appeared to be more similarities than differences in salsa bars here and in Australia. “The crowd is passionate about dancing and is friendly. [The scene] is basically the same ― just a difference in skin colors,” he emphasized.

Tel: (02) 335-1512
Cover charge: 5,000 won
Crowd/Language: Mostly Korean
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m.; Friday-Saturday from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Lessons: Every Monday from 8:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Subway: Hongik University station, line No. 2, exit 6

Tel: 010-8355-5698
Cover charge: 5,000 won
Crowd/Language: Mix of Koreans and English-speaking expatriates
Hours: Monday-Thursday from 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday from 7:30 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Lessons: Monday-Thursday from 7:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Subway: Hongik University station, line No. 2, exit 5

Tel: (02) 540-7087
Cover charge: 7,000 won
Crowd/Language: Mostly Korean
Hours: Monday-Saturday from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Lessons: Every Tuesday from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Subway: Apgujeong station, line No. 3, exit 5

Club Caliente
Tel: 011-9094-8484
Cover charge: 5,000 won
Crowd/Language: Mostly Spanish- and English-speaking foreigners
Hours: Monday-Saturday from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Subway: Itaewon station, line No. 6, exit 4

Tel: (02) 557-2228
Cover charge: 5,000 won
Crowd/Language: Mostly Korean
Hours: Monday-Saturday from 7 p.m. to 12 a.m.
Subway: Gangnam station, line No. 2, exit 2

by Lee Soo-jin, Ines Cho
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