Saucy salsa

"They come because of the girls, but they stay because of the salsa."

The colored lighting and slowly spinning disco ball at the Mirage Club kick up an already heightened atmosphere that pulses with Latin music. These couples don't just move as they dance salsa, they flow with a grace and speed that has come from regular practice. Mirage is one of two clubs in Jerusalem that offer salsa dance lessons and parties. "I started dancing and kept coming back," says Ortal Attias as she takes a break from dancing at the Mirage. Salsa came to Israel about 10 years ago, but really took off with the "Latin Fever" craze in 1999, when the music artist Ricky Martin blew away the audience at the Grammy Awards, Jennifer Lopez released her first album and other Latin music gained prominence on US radio. Salsa is a Latin dance popular in different locations, each with its own unique style. There are different accounts of its origins: Some say it began in Cuba as Latin and Afro-Caribbean dances and music were combined. Others believe salsa evolved separately in many Hispanic countries, with each country leaving its mark. Several popular Latin dances, such as mambo, cha cha, tango, and salsa, are the product of mixing different music styles from the Caribbean, Spain and Africa. The mambo, cha cha and tango center on a certain number of steps, which grew out of the different blends of music, much in the same way salsa did. Hillel Alprovic started dancing a decade ago when his sister introduced him to the style. "It's a dance everybody wants to learn," quips the Candela Club owner. "It changes your life. Everyone is smiling and you don't have to drink to talk to people. Salsa makes people talk." Alprovic opened the Candela Club three years ago to provide a home for aspiring salsa dancers. The club plays host to many dance styles, but three nights a week are salsa-only affairs, with five levels of classes, from the beginners' level to the advanced. Alprovic took lessons, taught himself how to dance with videos and then traveled to Cuba, Los Angeles and New York to see the different styles. Then he came back to teach in Jerusalem, where he has seen the locals step up the salsa craze. "Since I started, it's gone crazy and it has because we've worked," he says from behind the bar at Candela. He and some friends started throwing parties and giving lessons to give people a taste of salsa. "It's grown step by step," he says as he finishes his drink. "A lot of things help us; when the Latin fever hit, telenovellas. We just work hard to get everybody to try." One of the people who learned at Candela Club is Ofir Levi, who started dancing at 22 after he finished his mandatory army service and now owns the Mirage Club at the ripe old age of 26. "I always wanted to dance," he says. "It was my dream to be like a dancer on TV. I saw the magic of salsa and started to dance and meet people." Soon, he says, he had a group of friends who were also salsa fans and they went out almost every day to various clubs that held occasional salsa nights. After a year of dancing, he started teaching lessons himself at the Yellow Submarine club, which used to host salsa regularly. While he taught, Levi collected salsa songs and became the DJ when someone left the position. He spent the next three years spinning records and teaching at other clubs until a year ago when he opened the Mirage. His club has salsa on Thursday nights so as not to interfere with Candela Club's salsa nights, which are Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday. Interest in salsa grew quickly in Jerusalem, and so did the crowds at the clubs. At the Mirage on an average Thursday around 150 people dance the night away and as many at the Candela Club on Saturdays. Perhaps, explains one instructor, one of salsa's draws for men is that the man must be completely in charge as he leads the dance. "Usually, the guys come to dance salsa because of the girls," reveals Nir Ovadya, one of the instructors at Mirage. "They think it is easier to flirt when they dance. They come because of the girls, but stay because of the salsa. They don't care so much about the girls later." The growing salsa community has fostered deep friendships and strong emotional ties. For many the club, where they either work or come to dance, has become a second home. "[Salsa] gave me balance and self-confidence to talk to people and be myself," says David Nahari, an instructor at the Candela Club. "Today I'm a crazy person, but the salsa gave me the confidence to be myself." Nahari also says salsa allows people to connect with those they may not otherwise have met. Before he started salsa, he says, he could count his good friends on one hand."Now, I don't have enough hands," he says happily, raising his hands.