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The dance floor is packed with steamy, whirling bodies. Hips sway to an exotic, high-energy Cuban beat while dancers carry off a seemingly endless variety of impressive dips, turns and passes. The scene wouldn't be out of place in Miami or Barbados, but this is Tallinn, where, as unlikely as it sounds, salsa dancing has taken root and gained a regular following.
"It's like you're flying!" explained dancers Sveta and Katlin almost in unison. They're part of a core of about 30 or 40 die-hard salsa fanatics who, together with dozens of more casual supporters and curious beginners, make up Tallinn's small but steadily growing salsa dance crowd.
Already popular in much of Europe by the mid-90's, the up-tempo Latin music and dance style with Afro-Cuban roots first gained a foothold in Tallinn in 1997 when Cuban-born professional dance instructor Miguel Verdecia started making regular training trips from Helsinki. After nearly three years of Verdecia's lessons, organized on an ad-hoc basis in various cafes and studios, salsa had a number of followers but was still relegated to underground status.
Everything changed in the summer of 2000 when Club Havana, a popular downtown nightclub dedicated to Latin music and dancing, opened its doors. Not only did the salsa dancers suddenly have a regular place to congregate, they could show off their moves to curious onlookers, many of whom would eventually join their ranks. Nowadays some of Verdecia's former students have themselves become trainers and give regular lessons on Havana's dance floor.
One of these trainers is Pirje Laagus. She explained what it is about salsa dancing that attracts a few new students to the beginners' class each week.
"It's the music and the festivities. They can express themselves through cool music. It's not like ballroom dancing. It's the kind of dancing they can dance in a club, a kind of social dancing where people train to dance with anybody," she said.
It's this social aspect, as much as the music and rhythm, that seems to pull Tallinners into the salsa life. In addition to congregating at their weekday lessons, the salseros, as they refer to themselves, will often turn up en masse when there's a Latin dance event in one of Tallinn's bars or clubs - something that seems to be happening more often these days.
Recently Daniel Twerenbold, general manager of the Grand Hotel Tallinn, was looking for a way to draw people into his hotel's relatively new and unvisited Eiffel Club when one of the salseros suggested he host a salsa evening.
The party officially started at 9 p.m. By 9:30 the coat-racks were overloaded and tipping, and there was so little space left in the designated dance area that guests were practicing their moves in spaces between tables. The tropical-sounding music of the Cuban group Los Van Van and Puerto Rico's Eddie Santiago kept the room pulsing, while every few minutes the elevator would slide open, revealing the surprised faces of unsuspecting hotel guests, many of whom stayed to watch the action. The light from the city's most famous Russian Orthodox cathedral looming through the window was the only clue that this was still Tallinn.
Twerenbold was clearly impressed when he showed up. Sipping a drink at the bar, he was already talking about making salsa parties a regular event.
"I hope that the salsa movement is big. Maybe we can establish the Eiffel Club as a (salsa venue)," he said later. "There were quite a lot of people … it looked like people were happy. It's nice to see the club alive," he added.
Even with salsa's growing popularity however, the relative smallness and obscurity of the scene, and of Tallinn itself, causes problems for the salseros.
For one, unlike Latin pop made famous by the likes of Ricky Martin and Shakira, real salsa music is still almost impossible to find in Tallinn's record shops. Most DJs and dancers have to follow the music trends via bootleg CDs brought in by friends from other countries.
Also, as Laagus points out, the lack of fresh teaching talent is a big concern. Once dancers reach a certain level, they can only learn new moves by visiting clubs in Helsinki, where salsa is far more developed, or by relying on teachers from abroad who occasionally come to Tallinn.
"I think it would be much better if we had more native Cubans, Latin Americans and so on. They come and teach from their perspective. They give a different style, a different way of teaching and I think this is very important," Laagus said.
One such person who keeps the local talent from getting stale is Xavier Villegas, a telecommunications engineer from California. A frequent visitor to Tallinn, Villegas always makes it a point to help out Tallinn's salseros with technique tips and new patterns when he's in town. He doesn't see the small size of the circle as a disadvantage. "Sometimes the smallness of the group makes it better. Here you're able to meet almost everybody," he said.
But he pointed out an even bigger problem: "We need more guys."
The severity of the "no guys" issue becomes painfully clear at the beginners' lessons where a dozen women have to wait in turn to dance with the only four or five men on hand. Shyness, the women point out, is an unfortunate characteristic of the Estonian male.
Hopefully, once Tallinn's circle of salseros gets a bit wider, this bashfulness will give way to a realization that too much is being passed up - addictive music, good company and plenty of exercise.
If this isn't enough, Villegas suggests another possible attraction for the normally standoffish Estonian men.
"Where else can a guy go and hold a woman in his arms without an introduction?"
Salsa lessons at Club Havana,
11 Pikk Street, Tallinn,
Wed. and Thur.
7 p.m. - Beginners,
8 p.m. - Intermediate.