BUSAN, South Korea — These days in Busan, kimchi isn’t the only thing bringing the spice to life. Starting Thursday, August 5th, listen for the hot Latin sounds and follow them to Haeundae Beach for the 6th annual Salsa Festival.
Five years ago, the unfamiliar sounds of salsa music were blasting out of the stereos of a few cars, owned by a few devoted salsa dancers. Promoted as an official tourist event, thanks to salsa enthusiast and party organizer, Michael Noh Jingy, the even will have a DJ spinning all night, as well as five varied Latin performances starting around 9 p.m.
For many Koreans, the exposure to a dance so culturally different is one of the reasons they take are drawn to this distinctive dance as a hobby. There are new languages you hear and learn – that of dance and that of the music itself. Everywhere you look, partners are holding sweaty hands, and twisting sweaty hips.
“It’s escapism, it’s another world,” said Salsa Sam, a salsa instructor based in Seoul.
Koreans liked the dance so much that in the early 2000s, they started holding salsa congresses, big, weekend-long events that involve social dancing, performances and dance workshops. The event also involved flying in big names in the salsa world to Korea including Eddie Torres (“The Mambo King”) and Frankie Martinez (world famous on 2 dancer and choreographer). By 2008, salsa was so popular in Korea that multiple congresses would be held around the same time. This was a big change from the almost non-existent salsa scene in the whole of Asia just ten years prior.
For one night of the year, the sand becomes a dance floor. (Photo by Sonja Jean)
“It’s a mix of logistics and affordability,” said Salsa Sam about why once salsa arrived in Korea, it became a popular activity that is still growing across the country. Although he is a foreigner who originally came to Korea to teach English, the salsa scene was big enough for him to start holding classes for Koreans and foreigners alike. Comparing his salsa experience to other big cities like Tokyo, Sam says that in Korea it’s a lot cheaper to rent a club space. For a 10,000won ticket, a person usually gets entry + a free beverage and access to free water all night in an air-conditioned club. The spacious environment provides an atmosphere where beginners can feel comfortable to either join in or simply watch the action. Moreover, although many salsa clubs might exist in the same district, they tend to respect each other and won’t hold events on the same weekend.
Another key element to the spread of salsa? Dedication. Since the early 2000s, those interested in learning salsa began to form online communities, sometimes before salsa clubs even existed in cities.
“I wanted to learn a new dance and looked online, “said Jessica Cheon, a Busan salsera who’s been dancing for four years. She found salsa and ever since her first visit to the Latin Fever club, she’s been more than satisfied with a hobby that has let her make new friends, workout at least three times a week, and even lead to her teaching her own classes in Haeundae.
Using online nicknames, people would ask each other where they could learn. According to an article posted on salsastories.com, many Koreans in Seoul originally learned from a foreigner, Eliot Minor, who had recently learned salsa before moving to Korea in 1993. Fast forward to 1997, and famous Korean salsera, Sonnari, was travelling around the world to learn from greats such as the Mambo King himself in New York. Today, you’ll find yourself dancing with a Sting, Moja (means hat), or a Bambi, the nicknames that originated online and that Korean salseros prefer to use on the dance floor.
Salsa in Seoul is no longer a surprise to foreign dancers. Rather, many foreign salseros expect to find a great time dancing any night of the week in the capital. Slowly but surely, the amount of talented dancers is expanding to other provinces such as Daegu and Busan, where clubs started to sprout in 2006. With events such as the free salsa party at Haeundae, salsa promoter Michael hopes to expose the lively dance to tourists and natives alike.
While information about how to join classes a few years ago may have only been offered in Korean, now, salsa enthusiasts are trying to have access readily available for English speakers. Along with Michael’s Facebook page, and Busan Salsa’s Facebook page, English Salsa offers classes in Kyungsung, and the site Busan Salsafied lists information on all the clubs and class times in the Busan area. While most classes offer a new cycle of classes at the beginning of every month, many places will welcome one-day try outs. But, if you are saving up your money for some summer travelling, the best place to check out the salsa scene will be this free salsa event. Just be sure to bring a towel to wipe off the sweat from a night of hot, kimchi-spicy salsa.
Lead photo by Derek Winchester