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Spicing it Up

The students attend class Mondays and Wednesdays, and they are willing to stay as long as they can. But time permits them only one hour to learn. These classes teach skills that are useful not only in Florida but across the world. Students, along with the rest of the nation, are becoming familiar with the skills of a dance style that is also part of a culture. The popularity has grown for a style of dance called salsa which originated in Cuba.One dance studio in Tampa, Salsa Caliente, has seen an increase in popularity through the past few years for students who want to learn salsa.

Erika Occhipinti, owner of Salsa Caliente, said the amount of people who are interested in salsa has multiplied within the past two years. The dance studio, which opened in July 2000, offered only one class at the time and had about nine students. Now, Occhipinti said, the studio offers three classes and has about 80 – 90 students attending each week.

“It’s definitely grown in popularity since I’ve taught,” Occhipinti said. “The students love it – they would dance for hours here if time allowed them to.”

Occhipinti said she believes the interest in salsa has risen because more Latin Americans are being introduced into the United States and are becoming famous for their talents.

“Ever since the Latin explosion with Ricky Martin … there has been more interest in the Latin community,” Occhipinti said. “And with salsa, it’s a very social activity.”

A particular type of salsa dance, Casino Rueda, is what makes it social and different from dances such as ballroom dancing.

Casino Rueda is usually referred to as “rueda,” which means “wheel” in Spanish. The rueda is a style of salsa performed in all 22 Spanish speaking countries, especially Cuba, where it originated in the 1950s.

The casino-style salsa began at a social club in Cuba called El Casino Deportivo. Cubans would go to the social club to dance salsa, and they started dancing in a circle formation, which they referred to as the rueda. Then, names were assigned to the steps and turns, and a leader would call out the names while the dancers were in the rueda. Now there are more than 100 names for the steps, and more names are constantly being added to the list.

“Each school makes up their own turns also,” Occhipinti said. Dancing in the circle formation allows everyone to be acquainted with another person’s dance style because the couples are continuously switching dance partners. Occhipinti said the rueda, which is taught at Salsa Caliente, is considered useful because it can be danced in the local Latin clubs and other countries.Occhipinti said the number of Latin dance clubs in Tampa has been increasing, and this gives students the opportunity to practice their dance skills.

“There are two or three clubs you can go to every night,” Occhhipinti said. “And it’s (salsa) more classy than most clubs in Ybor, because the guy asks you to dance first.”

Salsa Caliente is the only dance studio in Tampa that teaches the rueda style, Occhipinti said, while there are 20 schools in Miami.

However, that doesn’t prevent students from traveling to Miami to participate in the largest salsa rueda in the world. About 150 couples, from Tampa, Miami and other countries, participated in the rueda in June.

“We formed a large circle in Bayfront, Miami around a water fountain,” Occhipinti said. “It was a great experience.”

Salsa has become popular at USF, as well. Debra Loran, dance instructor for USF, said more students are registering for the two levels of salsa classes offered at the Tampa campus. USF student Leomar Moss said the moves he has learned in the rueda from Salsa I and II at USF can be used in the Latin dance clubs.

“Some moves here are universal, but you don’t have to be in the circle to dance,” Moss said. “The moves learned here can easily be applied at the clubs as well as other countries. I wonder who would turn down an opportunity like that.”

Loran said teaching the rueda allows everyone to learn at the same pace, keeping everyone at the same level.

“Everyone has to work as a team,” Loran said. “There is no weakest link.”

Loran said salsa has been such an attraction for students during the past two years that USF had to add a second-level salsa class last semester.

In 2000, USF only offered Salsa I, but last year Salsa II became available for students, giving Loran 90 students in her salsa classes, aside from the swing classes she teaches at USF.

Loran, also an instructor at the University of Tampa, said she will showcase a rueda between dance competitions at the Florida State Fair on Feb. 16, featuring students from her salsa classes at USF and University of Tampa.

“The rueda will provide the audience with entertainment,” Loran said.

When dancing, Loran said, music is the key inspiration to get people to move, which is why salsa has grown in popularity, especially with a younger crowd.

“The music is very exciting, it’s Latin, everyone has heard it and has their opinions about it,” Loran said. “The music is intoxicating – it makes you want to move and want to dance.”

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