Salsa: A spicy Israeli community straps on its dancing shoes

Tens of thousands in Israel dance at the many Latin dance clubs each week.

FALLING IN love with the dance: Learning the Latin dance Bachata. (photo credit: ASSAF BELLILI)
FALLING IN love with the dance: Learning the Latin dance Bachata.
(photo credit: ASSAF BELLILI)
Latin dance, as a trend, has come over the world like a tidal wave. In Israel, salsa has turned into a tsunami.
Salsa dance originated in Cuba as a partner dance with African roots and quickly spread and developed in Los Angeles and New York. From there, dance schools popped up on all sides of the world. For the past 20 years, the salsa craze in Israel is one of the strongest in the world.
The format for salsa in Israel is simple: At the beginning of a salsa evening, the party-goers are split up into levels, usually on a scale of one to five. After a one-hour lesson with a trained instructor, a salsa party begins in which each person can ask the other to dance. These parties continue deep into the night and sometimes into the early hours of the morning.
Salsa has created a tightly knit group of people, each dance group interwoven with another, who spend most of their nights together on different dance floors throughout the country. Tal Luria, a salsa student for eight months in Tel Aviv, said that “surprisingly, dancing fades into the background because you make so many friends when you dance that you end up going out outside of the dance world, thanks to dance as a platform.
“I expected to see a closed group of people, but everyone here is so open,” Luria said. “Everyone wants to help one another and make them feel good about themselves, and they receive that same treatment right back.”
“The social aspect in salsa is magical and pulling,” said Hagai Goren, a salsa instructor for 12 years and the manager of Capital Latina, a salsa school in Jerusalem.
“There is touch, a certain level of intimacy between two people who may or may not know anything about one another. That creates a very special atmosphere that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
Sivan Gets, a salsa dancer for almost a year, said that she dived headfirst into the salsa community. “I became addicted first and foremost to the community. There’s a feeling of love all around. I came and began to learn. Then I became addicted to the dance.”
Or Felus, a dancer for 16 years and an internationally renowned Israeli salsa teacher, told the story of meeting his best friend to this day on the dance floor 15 years ago.
“We both fell in love with the dance,” he said. “Now, so many years later, we are still so close. Other than him, I met many friends and romantic partners through salsa.”
“People come to dance and make some kind of connection before even starting to converse,” Felus explained.
“The second you come to salsa, you have something in common, you have a topic of conversation.”
“One day I came to a salsa party and the teacher told me, ‘Anyone here will dance with you, all you have to do is ask,’” Goren said. “I invited the best dancer on the floor to dance with me and she accepted. Since then, I stopped going anywhere else.”
Many aspects of the dance, apart from the social connection, initially pull people in. “In regular dance clubs, it’s all about competition,” Luria said. “In salsa, everyone is helping one another. My teacher in Studio Be You, Liron, would stay with me after the lesson for hours to give me everything I need to feel confident in my dancing. I developed that connection to her and the place, and then this became my ‘home club.’” Amir Raver, the manager of Studio Be You in Tel Aviv and dancer for more than 20 years, explained that “Israelis love to succeed.”
“Every time something is easy for Israelis, they love it. That’s why they love Latin dance so much. I stayed because I was good at it, and I love what I’m good at and I hate what I’m bad at. It gave me self-respect,” he said.
Gets confirmed Raver’s theory – she stayed when she realized that she “is succeeding.” “I see [Studio Be You] as my family and I come because it is therapeutic for me. I see myself succeeding and it makes me want to come back,” she said.
“Israelis, for all their lives, have to deal with a mess all around them. They are always in survival mode, which means they must succeed. In Latin countries, the people live in that same survival mode with that same need to succeed, and so we are attracted to the same dance that they created,” Raver said.
Felus’s point of view was quite the opposite, having fallen in love with how different salsa was.
“I fell in love with the entire new feeling of partner dancing, which was completely foreign to me,” he said.
“I just wanted to dance,” Goren explained about his beginnings in salsa. “I came to clubs and tried to dance with girls, but they thought I was flirting with them. I tried to dance with boys, but they thought I was gay. Salsa is addictive in the self-expression of the act. Something you can’t find at any regular club.”
“There aren’t many normal people in salsa,” Goren continued. “We’re mostly a bunch of weirdos who, in a way, exposed the lie in the mainstream party scene. There isn’t much of a false façade anywhere in salsa. We’re all special people who aren’t led by social norms.”
Felus explained that the people in salsa “are nicer than in other places.”
“People who are violent look for clubs to get drunk and start a fight,” he said. “People come to salsa from the very beginning to learn to dance. Many groups in Israel give salsa to the public for free. This allows anyone to come, see the people, hear the music, and fall in love.”
Felus was talking about Media Noche, a group with representation in most higher education facilities in Israel that meet once a week for a free evening of salsa.
Mai Ganon, an instructor in Media Noche Tel Aviv (“Menta” for short), stated that the principles of Menta, which are “those who know teach those who don’t,” and “if you don’t do, it won’t happen” are building blocks for a safe space for new and old dancers wishing to form a comfortable social contract.
Ganon, who has been dancing for six years, also organizes Cuban salsa festivals in Israel. “Right now, in Israel, if you want to grow and develop [as a dancer], you must travel abroad. Working on a festival in Israel allowed me to bring everything I saw in my dance lessons abroad to Israel.”
Ganon explained that although festivals are a place for growth, “the fact that [Menta] doesn’t revolve around money creates an atmosphere of fun and simplicity.”
Israelis, despite many struggles, have managed to rise to the top of the Latin dance world and lead in the dance’s social atmosphere and technique, and are taking over the international salsa community by storm with some of the best dancers in the world.