The 5th annual Abu Dhabi Salsa Festival begins Wednesday, where more than 1,000 participants are expected to dance, dip and sway to Latin beats.
The UAE's Latin flavour
When it comes to Latin music and dance, nowhere else in the region does it better than the UAE, says Jihad Shaban, the director of the Abu Dhabi Salsa Festival (ADSF) and founder of Latin Dance Abu Dhabi.
Interest within the community has increased "tremendously" over the past few years, with much of that growth due to his introduction of free weekly salsa dance classes in 2009.
Each class, from beginner to advanced, now attracts between 100 and 150 students, compared to an average of 25 would-be dancers in the earlier years.
The free classes and salsa social dance nights that follow are held three times a week: every Saturday and Monday at Cinnabar Hilton Abu Dhabi, and every Wednesday at N'Dulge in Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai.
To meet the demand of this growing community of Latin music aficionados, Shaban is returning this year with the three-day ADSF 2013, which will boast a lot more bite in terms of the quality of international performers and artists who will take part and host workshops, as well as the new dance styles that will be introduced at the festival. Held at Yas Island Rotana Hotel and Étoiles club at Emirates Palace, the event is basically three days of dancing, with each day culminating in one big party where participants can showcase everything they've learnt that day.
One of the main highlights of ADSF this year is Stargate, a new, annual competition launched with the prestigious Berlin Salsa Congress - known as the "most international" of its kind because it often attracts participants from more than 60 countries.
"We introduced Stargate as a way to help regional talent show their skills. The chosen winners will receive a trip to the Berlin Salsa Congress [in October], where they will perform as an opening act," says Shaban. "Thousands of people will be watching, and they will be invited to other international festivals. This will promote the ADSF internationally and increase tourism potential to Abu Dhabi."
The five teams already chosen to compete this year will perform in front of a panel of judges from the Berlin Salsa Congress and are from Qatar, Kuwait, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and India.
An impressive list of performers, including Jhon and Milady from Colombia, who just won the World Salsa Championship in February in Hong Kong, will attend this year's ADSF.
Roberta Piccolo from Italy, one of the dancers and choreographers in the movie StreetDance 3D (2010), will perform, as will Terry Tauliaut and Cecile Ovide from France, described as one of the most in-demand LA- and New York-style salsa dancers.
"They are the most wanted couple in the world and this is their first time to visit the Middle East. I had to book them one year in advance," says Shaban.
Representing the UAE are BNF Dance Company, The Moe Brothers - known for their popular salsa, hip-hop and bachata workshops and performances - and the mambo/salsa dance company Mambo Classico, founded by the Dubai-based salsa dancers James Castro and Alex De Smet (both of whom will also perform), among others.
More than 1,000 people attended ADSF last year, and if the often packed social nights with monthly international performers are anything to go by, this year's organisers are bracing themselves for a much larger crowd.
The Abu Dhabi resident Isabelle Adoue, 31, says she can't wait for the festival to get started. During the day, she works in human resources at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi. At night, however, she can be found dancing LA-style salsa, which she likes because it incorporates big, elaborate moves.
"I first attended one of the social nights alone but immediately met lots of people and found there was this whole community of dancers," says Adoue, who began attending the classes a year and a half ago. She now helps teach with Latin Dance Abu Dhabi and will perform during the festival.
"Latin music is completely different: it's very warm, exotic and friendly," says Adoue, who is competing in the Stargate competition alongside two other dance couples in her team. She will mix her modern jazz dance background with a pure salsa routine, to add a few "surprise" movements.
After travelling the world since 2010 attending salsa classes and congresses, the now Abu Dhabi-based 25-year-old dancer Rayan Zahr will also be competing in Stargate as Adoue's dance partner.
"[Salsa] is a sport where you are always a student: there are always styles to learn and ways to improve skill. You also meet people from around the world," says Zahr. His favourite dance style, like Adoue, is LA-style salsa, "because of its combination of freestyle and solo - and it's visually appealing".
Regional dancers such as himself will now have an opportunity to "shine" in competitions like Stargate.
"You do not find a festival like this anywhere else in the Middle East," he says.
The Abu Dhabi Salsa Festival will be held Wednesday until Saturday at the Yas Island Rotana Hotel and the Étoiles club at Emirates Palace. For a full schedule and ticket options, visit www.abudhabi-salsafestival.com
The Afro-Cuban rumba will be a new addition to the dance classes and workshops that are part of ADSF this year, together with the Kizumba, a romantic and sensual dance that originated in Angola in the 1980s. Kizumba is similar to the bachata in that it is characterised by a slower and usually very romantic rhythm and is ideally danced accompanied by a partner.
The usual workshop options, which have proved to be popular among participants over the years, are the different varieties of salsa - Columbian and Cuban - as well as hip-hop dancing, aqua bachata and samba.
According to Shaban, the most popular Latin dance in the UAE is the LA-style salsa.
"It's a very creative dance style with a linear motion," he says. The dancing style that accompanies reggaeton music, which takes its influence from both hip-hop and Jamaican music and has roots in Latin and Caribbean beats, is also popular during the festival, says Shaban.
As for salsa, despite its popularity in the Emirates, it is also the most challenging to learn, says Adoue.
"It is very technical, which is why I recommend classes - they are fun and we always see new people every week."
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