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New York Times / Life - Entertain

The Rhythm of Colombia’s Salsa Capital

In Cali, dancing can start as early as the afternoon, and the energy never lets up.

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A couple salsa dancing at Viejoteca Pardo Llada.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Two kinds of dancers pack the salsa clubs of Cali, Colombia. There are the purists, who like to keep their footwork on the ground, the way salsa was first danced in the 1970s. Then there are the more daring — typically younger — provocateurs, who incorporate demanding tricks and lifts frowned upon by traditionalists. If you’re keen on finding a partner, you may want to stick to the original formula.

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El Museo de Salsa, in the Obrero neighborhood of Cali.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Though it can be found in clubs all over the world now, salsa is still a relatively new dance form. Born in New York City from a mix of music and steps from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Harlem, it came of age in the early 1970s. Alfredo Caicedo Viveros, a salsa historian in Cali, said it wasn’t long before Colombian sailors brought the new trend back with them. “People would say, ‘Do you want to listen to some music from New York?’” he recalled. “It was so rhythmic! It made you move!”

Not long after, dance clubs called salsatecas sprang up in Cali, especially in the working-class neighborhood of the Barrio Obrero. Colombian musicians began forming salsa bands to make their own contributions to the growing scene. Mr. Caicedo cited Grupo Niche, Orquesta Guayacán, Orquesta La Identidad and La Gran Banda Caleña as some of the most popular bands in the early days of Colombian salsa.

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A wallflower at the salsateca Santo.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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A youth dance team performs for the crowd at Santo.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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Outside the salsateca La Poncena.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Taking its name from the city that developed it, the Cali style developed from a mix of pachanga (a dance best recognized for its shuffled side-to-side steps), charanga (a riff on a traditional Cuban dance) and boogaloo (another form born in New York City, which mixes several styles) dances.

Over time, the Cali style continued to evolve. “We have here a well-known school by Luis Eduardo Hernández (also known as El Mulato), who founded the Swing Latino school,” Mr. Caicedo said. Mr. Eduardo introduced a new element to salsa, Mr. Caicedo said, “which was acrobatics. You know, what they do in the circus — the somersaults.”

The photographer Rose Marie Cromwell came across Cali’s vibrant salsa scene almost by accident. “I heard people tell me that Cali was the capital of the salsa,” she said. It was enough to pique her interest.

“I first went to NellyTeca, brought there by a friend in her late 20s,” Ms. Cromwell said. “Even though the salsa scene mostly consists of older people, she knew about this salsateca so she brought us there. It was packed with people and loud with salsa music. Lots of characters, lots of interesting people.”

That first salsateca also gave Ms. Cromwell some of her favorite memories of the assignment. “NellyTeca was so friendly, so close,” she said. “It kind of got rowdy, and I like that energy. I liked the small ones, that was an experience. It’s where two older ladies were having a beer in the corner, and older couples were dancing together on a small floor. It was bittersweet and romantic. It felt like I traveled back in time.”

Mr. Caicedo’s generation was the first to dance in salsatecas. He met his wife at a dance more than four decades ago. As one of the elder statesmen of the form, Mr. Caicedo still prefers the old-fashioned style, free of showmanship. “We dance on the floor — that’s the Cali style, which is the nice one,” he said. “We show our respect to the ladies. She doesn’t have to be dropped on the floor, and you don’t have to take her by her foot to put her in the air.”

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A couple at the salsateca Caderona.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

You’ll have an easier time finding the traditional Cali style in a viejoteca, a salsateca that specializes in playing salsa music for a typically older group of dancers. “There’s a loyalty in Cali to the way it was danced, the way people dressed,” Ms. Cromwell said. “Maybe because Colombia was isolated for so long, it stayed the same.”

Once an exercise class for the elderly in the early 1990s, the viejoteca became a refuge for Cali-style purists, according to Mr. Caicedo. Now, viejotecas are weekend parties that start in the afternoon and wind down around 10 p.m. It’s a very different scene from New York, where salsa dancing normally begins in the late evening. Cali’s earlier start time also cuts down the drinking hours. “Not everyone’s drinking. It’s more of a social event, not a drinking event,” Ms. Cromwell said.

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Jorge Martinez playing records in his bar, La Poncena.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

There are other differences separating Cali styles and stateside styles. Most of the salsa dancing in the United States requires couples to move back and forth on the dance floor. In Cali, couples move from side to side like a mirror image. Their upper body and arms are supposed to remain still while their feet quickly work through steps that look like a Latin-tinged jive.

Depending on the style you’re dancing in the United States, the motion can vary from big showy gestures and spins to tightly controlled movements confined to the couple’s personal space.

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CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Yet other characteristics remain the same between salseros. The steps are always fast, and the hips are meant to move. The couple should hold onto each other, with the follower reading every change in the leader’s position as a signal for the next move.

“Now, rich people, poor people, everybody dances it. No matter your creed, ideology, gender or partisanship,” Mr. Caicedo said. “You can choose how you want to dress. If you want to dress to honor the old times, you can dress like a dancer. Otherwise, you can enjoy it, but you use your regular clothes.”

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Cooling off at the salsateca Santo.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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Youth dancers at Santo.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

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Outside the salsateca Caderona.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Throughout salsatecas large and small, there’s an unmistakable look of focus and energy on the faces of professional and recreational dancers. Some are smiling while holding onto their partners. Others are concentrating on remembering their rehearsed choreography. The dancers on the sidelines watch on or catch their breath. Women wave fans for a cool breeze, and men dry themselves off with handkerchiefs.

Ms. Cromwell said the experience was entertaining to watch and to document. “It was a really fun scene, the dancers were so animated,” she said. “Colombians are an open culture. Everyone wanted to share about Cali, it’s not a touristy scene there.”

No matter the style, that thrill of dancing is always the same. “Salsa evokes human feelings,” Mr. Caicedo said. “It makes me feel ecstatic when I dance. It makes me express that feeling with my limbs, because I feel joy.”

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Teresa Montoya and Hernando Muñoz at NellyTeca.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Roman Yavich contributed reporting.

Continue following our fashion and lifestyle coverage on Facebook (Styles and Modern Love), Twitter (Styles, Fashion and Weddings) and Instagram.

Monica Castillo is the film writer for Watching, where she covers movies available to stream online. Since joining The Times in 2016, she has also covered the New York Film Festival, Cuban cinema and issues of representation in film.

  @mcastimovies

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page ST4 of the New York edition. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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