The 14th Annual Chicago International Salsa Congress (CISC) by SalsaChicago correspondent Shirley Fastner.
February 12-15, 2015
Hard to believe this was already year 14 for the Chicago International Salsa Congress and we were back at the Westin O’Hare after a brief hiatus due to renovations. All of the headlining salsa bands had performed at our Congress previously and we were happy to see them return! Grupo Galé was here in 2008, Larry Harlow in 2006 and Ray de La Paz in 2004. De La Paz was also scheduled in 2014, but never made it due to the snowstorm and subsequent flight cancellations, so here he was scheduled again in 2015.
Usually a little slower, opening night Thursday began at 9:45p.m. with dance performances along with Edwin Sanchez and company continuing on until the usual Congress close around 3 a.m. The CISC is truly a triathlon with all day workshops, followed by afternoon and then evening dance exhibitions and finally social dancing with the headlining bands to complete the full day. You then get up and do it all over again until the Congress ends Sunday night/Monday morning when you don’t want it to end!
The Friday evening dance showcase started off literally with a bang with a full out Carnival procession through the audience with very authentic looking Brazilian style dancers who continued performing onto the stage. This was the actual Carnivale weekend after all and the crowd loved it! Great way to start the show!
Diego Galé, who is also a well-known producer, received a life time achievement award and then Grupo Galé kicked things off Friday night. The band IS Diego Galé! He came from Grupo Niche and has been musical directing the band from the congas for 25 years, periodically coming up to the mike to comment or accompany on vocals. El Grupo Galé did not come on until about midnight, but with 4 singers, great choreography and the entire band in bright red shirts they played for two hours straight. Diego grabbed a Colombian flag from a fan and then went to town with it proud of their Colombian roots and reminding us all to “remember where you come from” good advice. El Grupo Galé’s hits are endless with the crowd eating it up as they worked their way through “Medellin” (their home base), “El Amor De Mi Vida,” “Mi Vecina,” “Regressa Pronto,” Volver, Volver,” and “Perdoname” to name just a few of their greatest hits. Everyone seemed to be performing “Rebelion” (by fellow Colombian, Joe Arroyo) this weekend – understandably as it is one of the salsa classics of all time. It is quite unusual to feature the lovely six-stringed “tres” up front and center with the vocalists as Galé did (you may have thought this was a guitar).
Saturday I dragged myself to my first class of the day with veteran Elaine Marrero from Troy Dance Studio in Detroit teaching in the “Michigan” room of all places. Born in New York, but raised in Puerto Rico, Marrero received a lifetime achievement award Saturday night at this Congress for her 35 years of being a dance instructor and it shows. When asked how this made her feel, she stated that “the Chicago Salsa Congress is so special to me and means more to me as I have been here all 14 years – since the Congress began.” Marrero puts on the Detroit Salsa Congress which actually began one year before ours 15 years ago. Per usual she provided useful pointers in her workshops such as: “the head is the heaviest part of body – weighs too much…drags you down if you put it forward…shoulders back.” I danced with Jonathan from Rochester, MN attending his first Congress ever and he was great. There were quite a few more men than women which attests to the level of Elaine’s instruction for leaders. Word must get around.
Then it was on to popular Juan Calderon from NJ and his partner, Christina Piedra. Calderon is always full of good pointers to improve social dancing and he breaks all his moves down on 1, on 2 and PR 2 so anyone can take his classes. This time he stressed the two equally most important factors to note when dancing. One was safety first because if the woman does not feel safe, she won’t really feel free in her dancing fearing she may be thrown into the wall or another dancer. Also, equally important was reading her signals as in giving you a “red light, yellow light, or green light” regarding how much contact the woman wants in her dancing. Calderon stated that her hand on your chest pushing away while you are dancing is definitely a “red light.” Also, he taught that “music rules over every lead” meaning that if the music calls for a “break,” that precludes the lead. Piedra is always great with the ladies styling to complement the partner moves. Juan has been teaching for 20 years and claims he loves Chicago where he is often found doing workshops.
Juhu So and his “turn patterns” class also had some great and amusing instructions such as certain moves being sometimes somewhere in between the count depending on the music, the partner and type of dance. He also broke down the dance mathematics for engineers, LAS majors and finally computer science people to our great amusement. I danced with Tchaas from Chicago who was also at his first Congress and really enjoying it.
Sonia and Morris of Montreal worked on body isolation with Guaguanco – so important, they said, “that in Cuba they spend the whole day working on this before you learn to dance.” Privates (the bread and butter of instructors) are always available at the Congress with most instructors should you be so inclined. The Congress is also always like a family reunion seeing everyone at least annually. I always run into Jim and his lovely wife Lupe from Orland Park, IL who have been to the Congress every year since it started except for one year and treat it like a vacation.
Saturday we were treated to two hours of 20 groups performing in the evening showcase including regulars Brandon Segovia and Serena Pav who have now been dancing together for 15 years! There was even a great impromptu performance billed as “Zafire,” but which was actually a conglomeration of top-notch instructors in action together.
For social dancing on Saturday evening, Raulin Rosendo also did not come on until almost midnight and Ra de La Paz not until after 1 a.m. Both were backed by local Edwin Sanchez and his proficient band. Ray de La Paz did some of the usual favorites such as “Rebellion” by Joe Arroyo (the weekend favorite) and had the sea of red (Valentine’s day) dancing non-stop though Saturday night does typically draw the biggest crowd. Mark Scollar, who has previously led Rueda evenings at this Congress, declared “We had so much fun dancing rueda to Grupo Galé on Friday and to Raulin Rosendo and Ray de la Paz on Saturday that we decided to resurrect the Rueda Summit for the 2016 CISC. The rueda summit was a program feature at the CISC in 2005 and 2006 and then again in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Rueda summits at past congresses featured rueda dance teams from Minneapolis, Detroit, St. Louis and Milwaukee and Chicago. The next rueda summit in 2016 will feature teams from Minneapolis, Eau Claire, Des Moines, Cincinnati, Louisville, Milwaukee, St. Louis and Chicago.”
On Sunday Miguel Mendez and Danny Balderas hosted the afternoon Emerging Artists Performances as well as the intertwined Midwest Salsa Open, all of which went for about two and a half hours. The Midwest Salsa Open was judged by Elaine Marrero, Sekou McMiller and Tito Ortos. One of the couples did some “Cali style” foot work and that is always a crowd pleaser, especially as there were no Colombian dance troupes represented this year. Alas, they did not win. Winners progressed to the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress which holds the distinction of being the original first Salsa Congress ever when it began there 1997. Jorge Alvarez and Dennis Lopez jointly produced the afternoon performance showcases and once again Maricza Valentin so marvelously carried out Co-Artistic Director/Show Director duties.
I spoke with Larry Harlow (whom I ran into more than a few times hanging out at the Congress) on the closing day of the Congress. He was born Lawrence Kahn in Brooklyn in 1939, the son of a bass-player father and opera singing mother. He told me that he was the first act Johnny Pacheco ever signed to the Fania Label in 1964 (after Pacheco himself, of course) and he is celebrating 50 years of performing. His band was delayed due to the weather (but made it in on time – although he had Edwin Sanchez standing by just in case). It really makes a difference when you play with your own band. Affectionately known as “El Judio,” Harlow received a lifetime achievement award on Sunday night, the night he headlined. We also had the pleasure of Luisito Rosario returning to the Congress on vocals for Harlow along with Emo Luciano. Rosario headlined here at the Congress three years ago to a great reception so it was great to have him return.
People remarked that attendance was up from last year…last year’s snow storm did not help! Saladeen Alamin, Co-Producer/Artistic Director, estimated there to be about 2500 people a day enjoying the Congress this year.
Make sure you mark your calendars for February 11-14, 2016 and plan on getting an early bird ticket for the best deals on passes and hotel rates. We look forward to seeing all of you again for year 15! For more info visit chicagosalsacongress.com. Click here for the Chicago Salsa Congress facebook page. Until then, keep dancing.