When most people think of salsa, they associate it with Puerto Rico or Cuba. So why would a city in Colombia call itself the World’s Salsa Capital?
Cali, in southwestern Colombia, adopted salsa music as its own in the 1970s, and today this urban center of over two million people claims to be the epicenter of the genre. While many see Cali as one of Latin America’s biggest consumers of salsa music, many do not know that the city has its own salsa dance style, distinct from the more widespread styles originated in Cuba or New York. (In fact, Cali salsa dancers were featured in the Colombia program at the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.)
As a Colombian from Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, my own experience with salsa dancing comes with a sense of belonging. My mother is from Cali, and most of her family love to dance salsa. Dancing salsa connects me to her side of the family, especially with the older generation. When I was eighteen, I took a salsa class in New York City and realized right away that people from different parts of the world danced differently than Colombians. I was surprised to learn that they had names for the different steps—and that no one seemed to know about the special place salsa holds in the hearts of Colombians.
Since then, I have been very curious why salsa is so beloved in Cali, why we Colombians dance the way we do, how the dance developed as it did in our country, and how being from Cali—for Colombians, at least—immediately suggests that you must be a very fine salsa dancer. These were the personal concerns that would guide a research project for my master’s degree in folklore and lead me back to the city of my mother’s family.
Fieldwork Challenges: Narrowing the Scope of “Salsa Dance”
In 2012, I arrived in Cali with a clear notion of how my research should unfold, but I grew nervous when things did not go immediately as planned. My contacts set me up with scholars, dance studio owners, and professional dancers and musicians. The people, perhaps less visible, but who I considered could also have experiences and important knowledge to tell about this local tradition, were almost completely left out, like empirical dancers and veterans of the city. I realized then that I had not stated my research interests as clearly as I had hoped.
No matter if I was talking to a scholar or a dancer, they asked me the same pointed question: “What specifically about salsa dancing do you want to know?” I would glance down at the papers in my lap and see that, in fact, I wanted to know too much. In a city that recognizes salsa dance as a major part of their cultural heritage, my thinking was too broad. Salsa was just too full of life. There were too many modes of expression within the music and the steps and within the dance communities themselves, too many sociocultural implications to consider. To tackle all these themes would take far longer than the couple of months I had.
The initial reservations I felt dissipated completely when an interviewee introduced me to the concept of La Vieja Guardia (“The Old Guard”). I set off on a trail to find the related people and places. To my surprise, the members of my own family, the very people from whom I had learned to dance, were part of it.
When I first asked caleños (the people of Cali) about salsa, most wanted to tell me about the younger, professional dancers, often school-trained, who compete in local, national, or international venues. It is these dancers who have become the main promoters of Cali’s claim to the title of World’s Salsa Capital. I felt that focusing my research on these young performers would ignore the importance of community members who had kept the city’s salsa culture alive for decades. It was these “culture bearers” who became the focus of my research. These were the men and women who locals referred to as “La Vieja Guardia,” mostly self-taught dancers, who claimed to represent the origins of salsa dancing in Cali, but who were so rarely recognized for their pivotal and still vital role in the scene.
I interviewed, collected oral histories, spent hours and hours video recording dance movements at salsa venues, and even danced a bit myself. It soon became apparent that for members of La Vieja Guardia, salsa is far more than a dance. It’s a way of building and cementing community and collective memory. My short documentary La Vieja Guardia: Salsa Dancing in Cali, Colombia reveals only part of the story, as each dancer’s experience with the Cali scene was different.
The Vieja Guardia
“Thanks to the Vieja Guardia, we are who we are today.”
—Deivy Zúñiga Jiménez, professional salsa dancer
Through my research, I began to understand the cultural complexities of the Vieja Guardia movement. Vieja Guardia defines a group of people in relation to their age, the learning process, the particular way they dance, the specific music to which they dance, the particular venues where they go dancing, and, most of the time, their social class and race. Vieja Guardia dancers—born generally before 1980—dance in public places known as viejotecas (discotheques for older people, open only on weekends), which play mostly música antillana and some salsa from the 1970s.
Música antillana (“rhythms of the Spanish Antilles”) dominated a part of the city from the 1930s through the 1970s. Some of these rhythms are said to be the predecessors of salsa. They were and are the underlying creative source for the steps and movements that brought about the characteristic Cali dance style.
In Cali, members of the Vieja Guardia see today’s salsa as a hybrid of música antillana rhythms. Especially in the first half of the twentieth century, an intense cultural exchange took place between the West Indies and the Colombian coast, originating rhythms in Cuba (guaracha, rumba and son montuno), Puerto Rico (bomba and plena), and the Dominican Republic (merengue). Yet, the Vieja Guardia also recognize additional influences: the Spanish paso doble, North American foxtrot and Charleston, the music from tropical regions of Colombia and Venezuela, as well as New York pachanga and bugalú. You will hear all these rhythms if you enter a viejoteca today.
In calling Cali the “world’s salsa capital,” younger dancers are forgetting the vast influence of música antillana, the great mixing of rhythms that occurred well before the 1970s when the sound of salsa was developed. They also forget música antillana as the fundamental inspiration behind the development of Cali’s characteristic dancing style.
The Cali Dancing Style
In Cali, salsa is not only a form of recreation but also an expression that acquires symbolic value. Vieja Guardia salsa dancing conveys cultural knowledge that makes its presence felt in different ways, as in the status and prestige gained through learned experience and dancing well. Through the Vieja Guardia’s dancing style, one can learn the story of a place, a community, and its people.
The development of Cali’s style is a story of influences. In the 1940s, Colombian cumbia and porro dance styles became popular. Musical films from Mexico and Hollywood provided visual models for dancing the Cuban son, mambo, guaracha, foxtrot, and other genres. In the 1960s, another wave of inspiration flowed from New York City in the sounds of pachanga and the bugalú.
Luz Aydé Moncayo, a professional dancer and director of Cali salsa studio Son de Luz, describes a particular relationship between rhythm, speed, and jumps. In her mind, this comprises the most recognizable, singular feature of Cali’s salsa style:
The speed of today’s footwork is not new. When the American bugalú arrived in Cali in the slow 33 rpm format, a crazy DJ in Cali increased its speed to 45 rpm. Then, people in the rumba—the party scene—began to sense the speed and they started jumping and began to generate a series of innate steps.
By the 1960s, caleño dancers were dancing to the faster tempos of Cuban guarachas and rumbas combined with elements of jitterbug. As Aydé notes, fast, intricate footwork and high jumpy kicks are a distinctive mark of the Cali’s style.
Viejotecas: Discotheques for the Older People
Initially, the target audience of the viejotecas was older people, especially those over fifty. That age barrier was lifted in the late 1990s, allowing younger people to learn the style. Now, most viejotecas in Cali are open one day on the weekend, in the afternoon.
A highlight of my research was learning from dancers how the viejotecas revived not just the older music but also the informal feel of the earlier dance scene. As Vieja Guardia dancer Ricardo Nieto expressed, “Viejotecas preserve the harmony and camaraderie of the working-class dance venues I experienced in the 1970s.”
Some of the viejoteca dancers adhere to a specific dress code. As Nieto explained,the traditional caleño dancer is identified, in the case of men, by his shiny all-white or two-tone shoes, single-color pants, and a colorful shirt.
Perhaps the popularity of places like the viejotecas has faded with the years, but their function as spaces for symbolic performance has kept alive the culture and history of música antillana, laying the groundwork for salsa becoming Cali’s identifying emblem and heritage.
Creative Expression of Memory
The Vieja Guardia represents a shared past based as much on experience as on footwork. Its practice in places such as the viejotecas forms a vital part of the community’s identity and collective memory. Some of the dancers reference the act of remembering. Fernando Gaviria, in his fifties, explained how dancing in the viejotecas reminds him of his elders.
“Es como tener a los viejos al lado,” he said. “It’s like having your parents next to you.”
Viejotecas provide us the opportunity to see how the origins of Cali’s characteristic salsa style both lives on and is constantly recreated. For the Vieja Guardia, dancing has no fixed choreography, so at any moment, a piano or trumpet player may inspire a change in rhythm and an opportunity for the creation of a new movement, a new step, though it may not necessarily receive a name.
My research journey in 2012 brought me into the world of the Vieja Guardia and the viejotecas. The wonderful people I met there generously shared their insiders’ view of the early party years when música antillana was the reigning rhythms for Cali’s working class—and for my own family, too.
From the Cali dancers, I saw firsthand that salsa did not arrive overnight. It was the result of a long, very human creative process and shared way of life. Through my family connections to salsa dancing and from what I learned in Cali, I now understand the dance as the most precious way I have of communicating myself. For this, I will be forever grateful.
María Angélica Rodríguez Ibáñez is an anthropologist and folklorist based in Bogotá, Colombia.