Latin America comes to Abu Dhabi this week as hundreds of beginner and professional dancers descend on the capital for a four-day celebration of salsa dancing.
Beginning tomorrow for four days at Yas Island Rotana Hotel and the Etoiles nightclub at Emirates Palace, the Abu Dhabi International Salsa Festival welcomes award-winning dancers from around the world for more than 30 workshops, performances and dance parties.
Jihad Shaban, the founder of the event, is expecting at least 1,000 participants to show up, based on the ticket sales.
The festival is open to those with a passion for exploring a variety of Latin dance styles, including samba, bachata, Cuban salsa, flamenco and reggae dance hall.
"This year, we added more workshops and international artists that are world champions, due to the great relationships we have with global dance schools, and increased the variety of salsa styles," says Shaban. "Last year we had more than 700 people attend and the next one is set to attract many more."
Shaban, a choreographer and dance instructor, will perform along with his wife Leena. He is also the founder and lead instructor of Latin Dance Abu Dhabi, which he describes as the largest dance community in the capital, and is a co-founder of Zouk Dance Abu Dhabi.
"I fell in love with salsa in 2004 and the following year, I knew I wanted to learn it professionally," says Shaban. "I have a passion for dance, the social life that comes with it, meeting different people and on top of that, it's a great physical activity that keeps you in shape."
There will be something for everyone, he said, even those who have never tried any of the dances before.
"We get great support from the public and it's one of the few events where you start to recognise people and that's what motivates us," he says.
The ESPN World Salsa Champion, Michelle Castro, is the founder of the annual San Francisco Bay Area International Salsa Congress, an event now in its 11th year that draws an 8,000-plus crowd. Castro, who will be teaching ladies styling in salsa during the festival, specialises in foot placement, spinning and breaking down body movements.
"Latin dance has such an amazing subculture and I love the Abu Dhabi event," she says. "I was shocked at the thriving salsa scene in the UAE. The success of the festival is also largely due to the beginners, who end up getting hooked."
Castro grew up in San Francisco but is now based in Dubai, where she holds weekly salsa classes at the James and Alex Dance Studio in Dubai Media City. "I feel so euphoric when I'm dancing and feed off of the energy," she says. "I see the progress of these styles through the festival and it allows me to relive my passion."
Orlando Felix, also known as DJ BoriQua, grew up in Puerto Rico but has been in Dubai since 2009 and will serve as the official MC and DJ for the Abu Dhabi International Salsa Festival. As a dancer himself, Felix has also taken part in various competitions around the US.
"The salsa scene in the UAE has grown and I was extremely pleased there was a festival - it's amazing the music that is a major part of my roots has made it all the way to the Middle East," says Felix. "What gets people about this dance is that it is so inspiring and I try to inspire as a DJ and by dancing, when I play music I always tell the crowd about the bands."
Just after teaching a class at their newly opened dance studio in Dubai Media City, James Castro, from the UK and his partner, Alex de Smet, from Belgium, began talking about their love of salsa and their involvement in the festival. In addition to three planned performances, the pair, who have been together since 2005, are giving a workshop on the cha cha.
"The event is not a competition, it is about putting on a great show and the performers are of the highest calibre," says Castro. "We teach and perform mainly salsa and it is lots of fun. I fell in love with salsa and the dynamics when the music was introduced to me better."
For de Smet, the festival will be one big reunion.
"It's such a great environment and there is a good balance between the parties and workshops. And we are a very close community," she says.
Festival ticket information: Thursday night shows and party Dh175; Friday workshops Dh200, for shows and party Dh175. Saturday shows, party and workshops Dh200. Discounted full weekend pass, Dh450. For more information on tickets and a full list of performers go to abudhabi-salsafestival.com