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World Latin Dance Cup shimmies into South Florida with the world's top tropical dancers

Salsa’s roots may be in Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York. But as the strutting, flipping salsa dancers at the World Latin Dance Cup at the Deauville Beach Resort in Miami Beach this week demonstrate, it has spread around the world.

Waiting for the contest to start on Monday in the hotel’s lobby were a weary-looking Japanese couple surrounded by a mountain of luggage, a Uruguayan contingent in neon orange jackets and an Australian teacher giving a pep talk to his countrymen. A pair of giggling, irrepressible 8-year-old twins from Turkey practiced their dance in one ballroom, while in another young men from Colombia practiced hurling each other into the air and a handsome couple from Nigeria and India (by way of Canada) snaked through their routine.

Salsa has all but disappeared from Latin popular music, supplanted by reggaeton and bachata. But it is alive and kicking in the sixth edition of this weeklong dance competition, running through Sunday, with 1,200 competitors from across the Americas, Europe, Japan, Australia, Sri Lanka and even the Middle East — there are dancers from Lebanon, Israel and the United Arab Emirates. 

“It’s a beautiful dance, and it’s never gonna die,” says contest creator and producer Albert Torres. Gravel-voiced and heavy-eyed, he’s operating on two hours’ sleep after a 37-hour trip from Argentina to oversee one of the 42 Latin Dance Cup franchise events. These international contests keep Torres, who ostensibly lives in Los Angeles, traveling 48 weeks a year — he has racked up 3.6 million frequent flyer miles — as the allure of competitive salsa dance spreads. Next summer he expects a contest at a resort in Turkey to draw 1,200 people, up from 500 last year.

Torres, 59, was bred on classic salsa: He was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents (his mother was a regular at the Palladium, the legendary 1950s mambo dance palace), and fell in love with salsa in 1971, as the music hit its Fania All-Stars-powered heyday. He danced for love and fun until 1991, when the stars and choreographer of The Mambo Kings, Antonio Banderas, Armand Assante and Michael Peters, spotted him in an L.A. club and picked him to dance in the film. That led to choreographing parts of the1998 film Dance With Me (when Chayanne spins Vanessa Williams off into a salsa maelstrom in a club scene, Torres is the first to catch her.)

Torres, who produced his first contest in L.A. in 1999, acknowledges that salsa is no longer a force in commercial pop music. But the competitive dance scene is extending its lifespan. Artists like Oscar D’Leon, a star of the genre in the ’80s and ’90s, and old-school bands such as Gran Combo and Spanish Harlem Orchestra play Torres’ events; routines are set to salsa and mambo from as far back as the fifties.

Torres remains a devout believer in the dance’s vitality and appeal.

“Till my last breath I will be dancing to salsa,” he says. “If the dead could move they would dance to our music.” 

By way of proof he presents Wayne Melton, 69, limping through the lobby with a left knee swollen with cancer, which he’ll get treated with chemotherapy at home in San Jose once he finishes competing this week.

“As a dancer you learn to work through the pain,” Melton says proudly. “It’s a burning desire to get up and dance every day.”

The dance on show at the Deauville has branched far beyond its traditional nightclub origins, with divisions for children as young as 3, mens and women’s teams, same sex couples and for versions of bachata, samba, tango and kizomba (a style from Angola). There are contests for casino rueda, an elaborate group circle dance, and for cabaret, with lifts and stunts.

There is even a “Limitless” division for handicapped dancers, which Torres started last year after seeing a group of wheelchair-bound salsa dancers, created by occupational therapist Debbie Wang for her patients at an L.A. hospital. Wang’s team of six men with spinal chord or other injuries, partnered with therapists and professional dancers, will compete in Miami. Wang says they hope to send the message that salsa dancing is truly for everyone.

“Nobody expects my guys to be able to dance,” she says. “So we thought we should turn our focus from dancing for fun to make it more visible, to show that these people can do what everybody else can do.”

While competitive salsa shares some of the same glittery, flamboyant aesthetic as ballroom dance, it is not as strictly codified. Dancers can pick their own music and have more freedom in their steps and style.

“I get to groove more,” says 12-year-old Schaeffer Murphy of Winnipeg, Canada, who switched from ballet and jazz to salsa a year ago.

For some, the contest is an opportunity to prove themselves. In one ballroom, young men on the 30-member Ritmo Extremo team from Medellin, Colombia (the country is a salsa dancing powerhouse with 300 dancers at the contest) take turns stepping up onto each other’s cupped hands to fling themselves into an aerial back flip.

“I like the competitions,” says Santiago Salazar, 21. “It’s where you reach an artistic level, where the way you dance counts, where you conquer everything with your heart and soul.”

Laura Rivas, 17, and Mateo Zapata, 18, also from Medellin, rehearse nearby, feet flashing at blistering speed in a style they call repicar (which means to chop or mince), moving with such intensity that they break the seams and buckles on their shoes. They’ve been practicing six hours a day and spent approximately $2,000 to come compete in a professional cabaret division. Success here could lead to careers performing and teaching in Colombia. 

“You have to learn what you’re missing,” says Rivas, smiling broadly. 

Others are here to enrich themselves in other ways. Amateur couple BKay Amah, 28, of Nigeria, and Nerissa Dmello, 29, of India, came here from Edmonton, Canada, to where they immigrated half a dozen years ago and where Latino immigrants have created a small, lively salsa scene. They fell in love with the dance despite their disparate backgrounds.

“Salsa is close to Africa culturally — Cuban salsa is very African,” Amah points out. “I relate to the rhythm and the movement; it’s like dances I used to do in Nigeria.”

Dmello’s experience with Bollywood and Indian classical dance shows in her fluid movements and beautifully shaped hands. That salsa was utterly foreign to her didn’t matter.

“The music is fun and energetic,” she says. “It makes you want to move.”