2019 Chicago Salsa Congress

18th Annual Chicago International Salsa Congress February 7 – 10, 2019

By SalsaChicago correspondent Shirley Fastner


Hard to believe that we were back for our 18th Chicago International Salsa Congress already! So by now you know the drill – no time for sleeping with round-the-clock activities from Thursday night until actually Monday morning!

Mark Scollar’s Rueda Summit kicked things off Thursday evening, which also included dance performances followed by bachata star, Esme, along with the DJs. This year there was a separate kizomba boot camp Friday night, and in addition to the main salsa ballroom, per usual, there was a bachata room and a kizomba room. They even had “taxi dancers” I was told in the kizomba room. That is the old term for dancers who stand by available to dance with you if you don’t have a partner – a practice from years ago! The schedule, as always, was workshops all day, then an early performance showcase, a second one later in the evening, and then the main live act and DJs for dancing in the grand ballroom.

The showcases were wonderful with fantastic choreography and costumes! Dennis Lopez and George Alvarez were once again doing tech for the early shows and Maricza Valentin same for the evening shows. Our very own Miguel Mendez hosted the afternoon performances and Nadia Cortez and Mateo Mulcahy hosted the Friday night 8 PM show, with Mulcahy hosting Saturday night as well. Friday evening started off with a bang, literally, with a huge Latin Rhythms dance studio ensemble dancing in the aisles to get things rolling. A big crowd pleaser always seems to be the boogaloo performance with David & Renee – maybe also because no one else is really performing boogaloo. In addition, everyone goes crazy for any variation of Cali’s Sondeluz and it is well deserved – lots of screaming! Speaking of screaming, I spoke with Mrs. Sortos of Mr. Sorto’s Las Estrellitas from D.C. during the Sunday show. These children have chosen to spend their school recess practicing dance with Mr. Sortos, according to Mrs. Sortos, for 2 years! These tiny tots (and I mean tiny) are incredible and adults commented that they were jealous watching how quickly these little kids picked up the moves in a workshop I attended where they were in the front row.

The inimitable Zeke Ruvalcaba hosted the evening performance showcase Sunday night and his Bachata All Stars shone in their tribute to Selena, so beautifully done. Sondeluz, who is coming every year now from Cali, are the show stoppers with their extreme professionalism, fabulous costumes, acrobatics, and above all, their flying feet of Cali-style salsa that everyone loves so much. I was told that the sparkly shoes that accent their exciting footwork are made especially for them. A member or members of the troupe performed in EACH of the 6 performance showcases! I spoke with Luz Ayde Moncayo, who leads this ensemble, after one of the performance showcases, and though she said yes, she does most of the show stopping choreography when I asked about that, but that “it is their passion” that makes them so outstanding. She was accompanied by Detroit instructor, Elaine Marrero, who is now helping to promote them in the US and they were going on to Detroit from Chicago to perform there next. I have watched so many of these performers grow up such as Joseph Gallegos, who was maybe 11 years old when he first arrived with Sondeluz and our initial exposure to the amazing Cali style of salsa.  After continuing to come with Sondeluz for so many years, he is now on his own in New York, although he did still perform some with Sondeluz at the CISC.

Regarding the live bands, Friday night Colombian Grupo Galé started off around 11:15 PM…getting better-not midnight! They played their hits nonstop for about 2 hours. The CISC is well-acquainted with them as they were here in 2008 and 2015 as well, so this was their third appearance at this congress with percussionist Diego Gale leading the band.  Years ago he played with Grupo Niche, but rumor has it that most fellow Colombian musicians eventually play together at some point in their career. Saturday night local Enrique Calderon opened for headliner Don Perignon (Pedro Morales) y La Puertorriquena who of course, hail from Puerto Rico. The New Swing Sextet (which was really a septet- 7 musicians) closed out the 2019 CISC Sunday night with their unusual lineup of vibraphone and NO HORNS which amazingly works along with the keyboards to fill in beautifully. They have been performing together for about 54 years with George Rodriguez, vibraphonist, and Angel Justiniano on vocals and congas at the helm! One doesn’t even miss the horns even though I have always felt that they were crucial to salsa and that it was fantastic horn charts that made the most incredible songs. They came on about 11:15 PM as well and played for about 2 hours with a break.

All of the Keeper of the Flame awards were well deserved!  Louis Lopez received an award for all he has done for the Latin music community, and he is also the benefactor of the Peruvian fest (peruvianfest.com). Tito & Tamara continue to come year after year from Puerto Rico to the CISC even after having a child (who is now already 10!), and exhibit such class in their dancing. They are ambassadors of salsa! Linda Siete, of Reflejos, a long-time supporter of the CISC received an award the same evening after years of being involved with the Congress. Angelo Prieto also received a well-deserved Keeper of the Flame award Sunday night as he has kept Latin dancing in the clubs alive and well for years as a promoter.

I had a great conversation with Rosita Ragin-Alamin, the executive producer of the CISC, regarding the theme of elegance and class and keeping salsa out of the gutter. It even states in the performers’ contract that they must be covered – wardrobe snafus notwithstanding. She also talked about the mission of the Congress of connecting back to the music via social dancing and live music, and that performers should be able to social dance! It is one thing to know a routine but to improvise on the dance floor is a whole other skill set. It has been said that sometimes performers cannot social dance which you would never expect! Some instructor/performers even had “elegant salsa” right in the workshop description and exhibited it in their teaching as well as performing such as Gustavo Krystal of Milwaukee. I took their class and it truly was elegant – no misnomer there!

It is difficult to say anything negative about the CISC when Rosita and Saladeen and everyone else work so hard to accomplish such a great labor of love. I did overhear some commentary regarding some timeslots containing only kizomba or salsa classes on 2. Also, particularly on Sunday there were some unexpected “switch-ups” such as a bachata class instructor announcing it would just be shines and a mini-exit ensuing and then a class listed as bachata wherein the instructor announced that it was going to be salsa instead of bachata creating another mini-exit. On a positive note, Juan Calderon always has some new insight into dancing to share in his workshops. This year he talked about being a “mindful” dancer. He emphasized getting away from choreography and learned patterns and really being present to your partner.

It is all of the many volunteers that are working day and night that make this Congress happen. I enjoyed one Team Chicago’s comments by Sunday night, after all of the round-the-clock stimulation, regarding wanting to go lock herself in a closet for a few days (not mentioning any names). After so much stimulation, one could use some sensory deprivation to regroup – a closet sounds about right!

I have written about this successful Congress since the first year in 2002, so I have seen the evolution, and also have seen dances come and go. The Chicago International Salsa Congress is already in motion for February 2020! Date coming soon! And remember to get your early bird passes! In the meantime, there are always the Colombian Fest (Colombianfestchicago.com) and the Peruvian Fest (Peruvianfest.com) for your dancing pleasure.