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Mambo Dancers' Rift Leaves Stepped-On Toes
-by Mireya Navarro
ate Shanley and Humberto Lopez met in a nightclub with starfish on the walls and a pulsing Latin beat in the air. They caught each other's eye immediately -- she of the long blond hair, white pants and rabbit fur top; he of the orange shirt and handsome dark looks.
A song was starting and he asked her to dance. She said yes and they locked bodies in the semidarkness.
Then they bumped knees. Then they pulled in different directions. Then the song became interminable. When it was over, they hung out together but did not dance again.
"It was a total mess," said Mr. Lopez, 23, a waiter from Queens.
"It was kind of a disaster," agreed Ms. Shanley, 44, an advertising sales representative who is also from Queens.
Ms. Shanley was dancing "on 2," known as New York-style mambo, in which the first long step, known as the break step, comes on the second beat and there are no pauses.
Mr. Lopez was dancing "on 1," the style favored by many mambo dancers in which the first long step comes on the first beat, and the dancers pause on the fourth and the eighth beats.
The encounter occurred two months ago in Miami, but it could have taken place on any dance floor in any Latin club these days. Call it the mambo wars.
Dancers on the 1 beat say they follow the melody, dancers on the 2, the percussion.
"When you are that one beat off, you're not in sync," said Ms. Shanley, who has since taught Mr. Lopez "on 2." "I try to just follow, but when that happens, you try to get the guy to come to your timing. But if he can't, you have to stay wherever he is."
Going out dancing did not used to be such a struggle.
But salsa dancing, as mambo is often known today, is hotter than ever, surpassing even the craze of the 1950's. Cultural historians attribute the resurgent popularity in part to globalization and the Internet. With the wider appeal has come a new zeal to dance well.
In New York, dance studios report record enrollment in salsa classes, higher than that for tango or swing in major studios like DanceSport in Manhattan. And many more instructors than before are teaching the "on 2," the style that old-timers recall as a favorite during the heyday of the Palladium in the 1950's and of the Mambo King himself, Tito Puente, who died on May 31.
With the advent of salsa Web sites, international dance performance tours and even an annual world salsa congress in Puerto Rico, the style has been spreading to cities like Los Angeles and Chicago and abroad, to countries like Italy and Japan.
But as the 2's run into the 1's, a night out can turn into a pressure cooker. In many Latin clubs in New York, the dancers -- white, black, Asian, Hispanic -- come from many different cultures, but they are grouped not by ethnicity, but by beat.
"People go to clubs to get rid of stress, but now there's more stress on the dance floor than at work," said Eddie Torres, a longtime New York mambo instructor who is widely recognized as a master of "on 2." "You go to clubs and it's like the Olympics of salsa. It's not a healthy competition. There are girls who tell me that a partner would try to give them a class in the middle of the dance floor."
Pedro Reyes, 26, an electronics technician, was clinging to his fellow 1's on a recent Wednesday night on the first floor of Nell's, on West 14th Street near Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, which has Cuban Soul nights once a week. The "on 2" aficionados were in the basement.
Once, Mr. Reyes said, he ventured into "on 2" territory only to be told by a woman that he did not know how to dance. "It's just the opposite," he said. "I can't dance like that. They're from the dance studios. It's more cabaret, more show."
The upside is that there is a good deal of great dancing going on in many places. At clubs like the Latin Quarter on the Upper West Side and the Copacabana in Midtown, "on 2" dancers are easy to spot: their style is skillful and flashy, with men spinning women like tops and partners separating every now and then to show off fancy footwork known as "shines."
But some couples look like clones of one another. And many "on 2" dancers will not dance with just anyone. In this subculture, dancers often take classes every week. They hold socials where no alcohol is served. They even have their own Web site, SalsaNewYork.com, which lists dance events and includes "on 2" dancers in an e-mail list "as long as this is their preferred and dominant way of dancing to salsa."
Ben Rapoport, 34, Web master of Salsaweb.com, a popular salsa site, knows and appreciates both styles, but he said he understood why the "on 2" dancers wanted to stick together. "As soon as you start learning moves, dancing becomes another world," he explained. "It becomes much more athletic, more exciting, and you want to do that with people who dance at your level." Good looks are no longer enough to entice a man across the dance floor.
At a club once, Mr. Rapoport said, he had to vouch for a girlfriend's competence as an "on 2" before one of his friends would dance with her, "and she was very attractive!"
Despite the competition, there are mambo conciliators who say "on 1" and "on 2" are like vanilla and chocolate ice cream, both delicious.
And, of course, dancers, can dance both styles. But "on 1" dancers who learn to dance "on 2" usually become converts. Many say they find "on 2" more engaging, more challenging. Some call it more authentic.
"To dance on 2 is really going back to Africa because it's dancing to the drums," said Neyda Martinez, 36, a publicist and arts consultant. "To me, on the 1 is for only listening to the top layer of the music. It's more melodic. But the dancing on the 2 is really on the African beat."
But "on 1" dancers say they are just as hooked.
"The music on the 1 is very strong for me. You feel it more," said Luis Vazquez, 28, a dance instructor in Los Angeles, who travels internationally with his five-year-old performing group, Salsa Brava.
It is also less contrived, he contended. "Nobody can really hear the 2; somebody has to teach you to listen to the percussion. On 1 you just hear the music, like when you clap, you start clapping on the 1."
Mr. Torres, having lived through the 1970's, when dancers abandoned salsa for the hustle in droves, finds the new interest in salsa gratifying. Mr. Torres and his wife and dance partner, Maria, now teach about 600 students each week at their studios in Midtown and the Bronx, six times as many as a decade ago.
Mr. Torres said that the main difference between the two styles is that "on 1" dancing has a pause in the 4/4 time structure of the basic salsa step that is absent when dancing on the 2. "Tito Puente didn't recognize 'on 1' for the mambo," Mr. Torres, 50, said. "He used to say, 'Who has seen music pause? The body shouldn't stop.' "
Mr. Torres, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, said he "naturally fell on the 2" when he started dancing as a young boy, and for years he danced without paying attention to breaking down the steps, just as many Latinos do.
"I'd be asked, do you dance on 2?" he recalled. "And I'd say, 'On two feet?' "
Then, in 1977, a friend who taught ballroom dancing asked him to put a count to the "street" version of the 2 that he grew up with, the New York-style mambo, which is different from another "on 2" style that had been taught in ballroom classes.
But Mr. Torres regrets that that technique has come at the expense of some spontaneity. "The more technique, the more you leave the jungle," he said. "I used to do crazy things while dancing, and I'd ask myself, 'What got into me?' "
But for the salsa dancers who are trying to cope with the different styles, it is a jungle out there.
At Nell's last week, Arthur Rutledge, who prefers the 2, was left to do some steps on his own from the sidelines downstairs after being turned down by a woman.
"I asked a lady to dance and she said no, and I don't know if it's because she doesn't know how to dance or because she has a different style," said Mr. Rutledge, 25, a model.
Leonardo Wignall, 60, a regular at Nell's and a Cuban who immigrated in 1980, said the Afro-Cuban rhythms from which salsa derives have too many elements to dance them any one way.
"If you listen to the orchestra, it tells you what to dance," he said.
But most dancers do not listen, he said. "The rhythm changes and they keep dancing the same way."
Yet others say that many of today's dancers are missing the point. Whatever happened to trying to adjust to each other's rhythm, to men who strove to make the women feel good? asked Paul Pellicoro, owner of DanceSport, near Lincoln Center.
"The object is to make your partner feel in heaven," he said. "Ask the old-timers."