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Salsa Articles

About Salsa & Money.. SalsaUtopia

This article is a bit long, so I will write up front what it's about and you can make up your mind whether you want to read it in full or not.

I am trying to imagine a salsa community in which someone who so wishes, can both 1) learn to dance up to an intermediate level and 2) dance socially, without spending a cent. Tuition, DJing and event organisation are provided free of charge from accomplished and established dancers who do this voluntarily, simply because they themselves have benefited from this idea in the past and want to return the favour.  Let’s call this SalsaUtopia.

In SalsaUtopia paid instructors and DJs do not necessarily become extinct. Formal paid instruction is available and welcome by the dancers who may want to either perfect their technique or go past beginner/intermediate level. Similarly, paid DJs provide for special parties. However, to survive as paid instructors they need to offer better than average teaching, which is already provided by SalsaUtopia, and paid DJs have to dig out that special music from a much larger collection to which an amateur may not have access. What would become extinct are the teachers and DJs who simply expect to be paid to provide an average service.

Below I explain how SalsaUtopia might work and give some motivation of why it should even exist. Before that there is an important notice. If these people are right [1, 2], whether you like or despise this idea may have very little to do with your attitude to salsa, and much more with your overall attitude to life and people. As a result, some people will love and others will hate this idea independent of its own value. This article is mostly for the remaining readers, those whose attitude towards these sorts of ideas is not too entrenched and who may give a thought to how this could work for their own local community.
Why SalsaUtopia

Here is a true story. When I moved to Australia to study I met a fellow student from Zambia. The guy was homesick, lonely and, like most students, penniless. In fact, he was more penniless than other students, since part of his meagre scholarship was going back to Zambia to help the family. In a particularly lonely day, he told me that part of his loneliness was due to the habits of western society. “In Zambia” he said, “if I feel lonely, I just go out in the street, meet someone and start to talk. Here, if you want to socialise, you need to spend money: you go to a cafe and pay for a coffee, go to a pub and pay for a drink, go clubbing and pay the entrance fee, go to a movie, etc…” you get the picture. For this guy, no money = no social time. It left a mark on me.

We can easily see how this also applies to dancing. In several salsa songs, you can hear the words “ formo la rumba..”. This refers to the custom, in old Cuba, of some percussionists getting together at a street corner, calling for other musicians, attracting the occasional passerby; the voice would then spread in the neighbourhood resulting in an impromptu dance party in which, importantly, no one pays anyone. And surely none of the dancers at this old style rumba party would have paid for tuition to learn to dance: they would have learnt from relatives or friends. This is far cry from the salsa communities as we know them today. How much does it cost to learn salsa? A few thousand $ at least. My Zambian friend would have been able to attend the Cuban rumba, surely not to join my local salsa community. Does it have to be this way? Can anything in salsa be organised without money passing hands?

How would it work

Here is the idea. We take a dozen expert, advanced, passionate and knowledgeable salsa dancers. This team needs to include dancers who not only love dancing but also love salsa as a music form. Some may be the type who continuously want to improve their dancing, they have taken classes, practiced together in groups, they watch YouTube clips, learn from DVDs and occasionally travel to congresses. Others may be the type who love salsa music, have a good understanding of it, collect music and know all salsa genres and the main artists. There are many such people in any salsa city around the world.

Once or twice a week they organise a social event in which free tuition is provided for both beginners and intermediate dancers. The team members roster in the teaching role, so that the effort is shared and variety is provided to the students. After the informal classes, the social dancing begins. There is no need for formal DJing since the music lovers have prepared a playlist of favourites. By attending for free this regular event, someone could go from ‘total beginner’ to ‘intermediate ’ level, as well as making friends and social dancing, without spending a cent.

Why would this dozen people bother? Because they themselves have learned salsa the same way, a few years earlier, thus perpetuating the process; just like parents teach the kids in societies in which dancing is an integral part of the local culture. Just like kids teach each other hip-hop moves in the street.

People enter and leave salsa communities; they may stop dancing, they may move town. Similarly, SalsaUtopia will be a flexible team, changing members and thus providing constant variety, without changing its attitude.

Of course there is a minor cost associated with this: a venue needs to be rented, music and sound equipment need to be bought. This needs little money, which could be covered by donations; better still, the team could seek a sponsorship as a non profit organisation from initiatives like HealthWay, Quit Smoking or similar (since dancing in SalsaUtopia is strictly alcohol and smoke free and obviously healthy). 
Formal (paid) instruction and DJing

Let’s get this straight: there is nothing wrong in being paid to teach and DJ salsa. It is only because it is possible to live from salsa that we have Eddie Torres, Frankie Martinez, SuperMario and the like. The same goes for salsa organisers like Albert Torres. We are all indebted to them.

Less clear is the role of average teachers. Some are crucial to kick start local salsa communities, so they can have a positive role. But the presence of a SalsaUtopia would make them unnecessary. In other cases, competition and rivalry can spoil a salsa community. This happens when a limited pool of salsa students is fought for in an unethical manner under the ‘business is business’ credo. SalsaUtopia removes the word business and thus the justification for accepting any unethical behaviour.

Bad/average DJing is more clear cut: it is never needed and represents one of the most unjustifiable salsa expenses. An average salsa lover can choose better music than a bad DJ and thus SalsaUtopia solves this problem.

Said differently, the presence of SalsaUtopia should help filter out the good from the average instructors and DJs in a clear manner. Whoever does not provide something that is considerably better than what SalsaUtopia provides for free will simply be put out of business by the very same business rules which are often abused. For once market pressure would work for the dancers' advantage.

What is important to understand is that neither Frankie Martinez, Eddie Torres nor Albert Torres would go out of business, rather they would nicely work alongside SalsaUtopia. If an outstanding instructor exists in your city, the same students who benefit from SalsaUtopia will be willing to pay for additional tuition, if they can afford it. The good instructors and DJS would still be able to make a living out of salsa and continue to inspire the community.

Who contributes to a salsa community

At the risk of overdoing it, I want to hammer this point over again. The crucial point is the one of contributing to a salsa community. And it is important to understand what contributing means. It may mean two things. Let’s say I organise a salsa party on Saturday. I could say that I am contributing to the salsa community. However, let’s suppose that a salsa party has already been planned for Saturday. Am I still contributing?  If the people who would potentially attend my party are the same who would go to the previously organised one, then no, I am not contributing. At best I am not providing anything above what is already there; at worst I disrupt it.

If you like this definition of ‘contribution’ then it is very easy to use it. Simply ask “does this initiative provide anything which would not happen otherwise?”. If the answer is yes, you have a contribution. If the answer is no, you have no contribution. If the answer is no and you still go ahead, then you should be aware you are purposely going against the interests of the community.

So we can use the same definition to work out the impact of SalsaUtopia on a salsa community, instructors and DJs: the ones who are still able to contribute, that is the ones who provide what SalsaUtopia is not able to provide in terms of quality will not be affected and will survive. The ones who do not contribute will suffer.

Relation between SalsaUtopia and local instructors and DJs

Ideally this relationship is one of collaboration. SalsaUtopia will make information about local instructors and local events available to all salsa dancers. It has no reason not to.  Local instructors will acknowledge this and as a result will all be interested in linking to SalsaUtopia. SalsaUtopia instructors may very well one day decide to move on and become paid instructors. They may want to do so because they may decide to try to live from salsa income. There is nothing wrong with this. SalsaUtopia will have provided the opportunity for them to learn how to teach and they will carry this experience with them.

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