Sessions of Congress Too Hot to Miss 

Boise welcomes showcase of world-class music and dance

A "salsa congress" is not an event in which politicos from Southwestern states debate legislation over red sauce and chips. Instead, it refers to an annual festival of salsa music, dance and fashion. And Boise is one of numerous cities across the globe where people will be celebrating salsa.

Or to characterize it in the words of local salsa promoter Laura (aka "Lolita") Johnston, "Think of a giant house party, one where all ages can feel comfortable socializing, dancing or just enjoying the music."

In spite of its political-sounding name, the Salsa Congress, which began as an international event in Puerto Rico 13 years ago, returns the word "congress" to its original Latin meaning: "a large gathering linked by a common cause." The cause catalyzing Boise's Salsa Congress is threefold, according to Johnston.

"First of all, to simply have a good time experiencing the music and dance in a friendly atmosphere. Second, to take advantage of the opportunity to experience some of the best salsa musicians and dancers from beyond Idaho. And [third], to learn the dances--even if you think of yourself as someone who could never look good on a dance floor. The dance lessons are really easy and feel easy in a space where everyone feels warmly welcome."

Because of Johnston's tireless efforts on behalf of salsa music and dance, coupled with the Knitting Factory's willingness to host a Latin music night, salsa music and dance is catching on big-time. Cafe Bellisima has also been an integral part of bringing salsa to the forefront by hosting salsa and other Latin dance styles--including bachata, meringue and reggaeton--on a weekly basis. Though Boise is not the first city that comes to mind when salsa is mentioned, the dance is definitely on the move here. All of which has paved the way for the upcoming Salsa Congress.

Salsa has deep roots in Puerto Rican and Cuban music and began flourishing in the United States in the '50s as a musical and dance style in cities like New York and Miami. Carlos Santana contributed greatly to the popularization of salsa by melding it with rock in the 1970s, and again in the 21st century during his second wave of popularity as the best-selling Latin rocker. Meanwhile, Latin jazz has maintained a relatively small but devout following, again largely in East Coast cities, with some stellar Latin jazz acts such as percussionists and band leaders Poncho Sanchez and Pete Escovedo performing at the Gene Harris Jazz Festival in recent years.

The increase in the size and cultural star power of the growing Latino population in the United States has resulted in salsa's growing commercial appeal. Television shows like Dancing with the Stars have contributed to the concept of salsa dancing as an integral part of mainstream American culture, not to mention Hollywood's often sensationalistic portrayals of Latin dancing on the big screen.

Although salsa music and dance have only recently become a larger part of the Treasure Valley music and dance scene, the danceable varieties of Puerto Rican and Cuban rhythms have been a vital part of the mainstream of jazz since its inception a century ago in Chicago and New Orleans. Jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton talked about "the Latin tinge" coloring the first jazz recordings ever issued. Like the famous food sharing its name, salsa music is flavorful, direct, edgy, yet irresistibly inviting and happily addictive, a joyously balanced panorama of flavors and colors. It can be casually or aerobically paced, romantic or neighborly, funny or pensive.

The headliners for this year's Idaho Salsa Congress are Orquesta BaKan, a major Bay Area big salsa band with an irresistible dance groove, in the midst of completing their first CD and with whom, it was just announced, Nampa mayor Tom Dale will be playing. Also headlining are internationally honored salsa dancers Liz Lira and Cristian Oviedo from Los Angeles. For a taste of their high-velocity mastery of Latin dances, look for their performances on YouTube. But don't be so overwhelmed that you think you can't learn some great steps from them. The duo loves to teach beginners and during the Boise Congress, they will be offering classes for men, women, couples and all ages on Saturday, June 13. That evening, be prepared to move to the live sounds of the brassy and rhythmically rambunctious Orquesta BaKan, plus enjoy the best salsa sounds for dancing and socializing spun by Boise's own DJ Giovanni. Boise Salsa Congress offers the space to explore all those feelings and much more, as Idaho takes a big leap forward in enjoying its new-found Latin tinge.

Saturday, June 13. Workshops taught by Liz Lira and Cristian Oviedo are for teens/adults. Cost is $10 per person: 1 p.m., women's styling; 2 p.m., men's styling; 3 p.m., couples. The family workshop is 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and is for all ages. Cost is $2 per person.

Evening events are for 18 and older only. Cost is $20 per person. Doors open at 8 p.m.; beginner salsa lessons at 9 p.m.; music and performances from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.

In Boise, for more information (English only), call Laura Johnston at 208-343-1978; in Meridian and Kuna (in English and Spanish), call Giovanni at 208-794-8753; in Nampa and Caldwell (in English and Spanish), call Alberto Torres at 208-454-2782; or visit myspace.com/idahosalsacongress.

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