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Rueda rule!

Newhall group teaches salsa, Cuban-style

Posted: June 17, 2008 6:53 p.m.
Updated: August 16, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
Four couples dance to the lively beats of timba, or Cuban salsa music, under the shade of a tree at Newhall Park on a Sunday afternoon.

They dance in a circle, executing the steps of casino rueda, a form of Cuban-style salsa. The name describes the dance well since its Spanish translation means "salsa wheel" in Cuba. Each dancer keeps his or her eyes on the group caller, who shouts out each move.

"P'al medio!" the caller yells to the group.

Each couple responds by rocking forward and backward, forward and backward toward the center of the circle, tapping their feet to the beat. The next step quickly follows.

"Dile que no!" the caller shouts next, saying in Spanish, "Tell her no!" The leaders pull their partners from their right sides to their left.

"Guapea" tells the dancers to do the basic step, and "Dame," or "Give me," tells them to pass their partners to the next person. With its calls and partner swaps, rueda works much like a salsa-style square dance.

"You're really dancing with everybody," said Jonathan Kraut, organizer of the dance group Rueda in the Park, which provides the classes every second and fourth Sunday of the month. "We rotate constantly, so you have to develop a sense of trust and a high sense of communication to make this work, and that itself is very fun to be able to pull this off."

The group has been offering free casino rueda classes at Newhall Park for the past year-and-a-half, according to Kraut. He said the classes usually receive an attendance of 8 to 20 people. While the group has more members, he explained that not everyone comes on a regular basis.

While some of the members have former experience with Latin dancing, most of them never did casino rueda until they joined Rueda in the Park.

Valencia resident Delio Jaramillo, who has been attending the group for about nine months, said he used to dance L.A.-style salsa, the flashier type of salsa that is most commonly danced in the L.A. area.

It was the unique style of rueda and the community-based nature of the dance that drew him in.

"One thing about salsa, L.A.-style salsa, is if you don't know how to dance, they shun you at the clubs.

Here, they try to bring you up - very friendly, very family (oriented) atmosphere," Jaramillo said.

Last Sunday marked Heidi and Yefry Cali's first time visiting Rueda in the Park and their first time learning rueda. They recently saw the group perform a dance demonstration at the Santa Clarita Community Center and decided to give it a try.

"I loved it," Heidi Cali said. "It's fantastic, the interaction with all the people in the group - everybody has a different style, different rhythm."

The Newhall group started in January 2007 as an offshoot of the original Rueda in the Park, which meets at Griffith Park on the first and third Sundays of the month. The Los Angeles group sometimes draws crowds of up to 60 people, according to its founder Tania De La Peña.

Peña, who learned casino rueda in San Francisco while she was there for law school, started Rueda in the Park in June 2004 after moving back to Los Angeles, where she said there were few venues for rueda dancers. Peña modeled her dance group after others she had seen in San Francisco.

"I would go every once in awhile to this group at Golden Gate Park where they would have Lindy in the Park and Tango in the Park," she said. "So, I would go to some of these, and I would be like, 'Wouldn't it be cool if they had a rueda casino class in the park?'"

Rueda in the Park now has three locations in Los Angeles, Newhall and Bellflower. Its Yahoo Group has more than 350 online-registered members.

The spread of Rueda in the Park to the Santa Clarita Valley can be heavily credited to Kraut, a Canyon Country resident and dancer who became hooked on casino rueda after trying it for the first time in October 2006.

Kraut, who had been dancing L.A.-style salsa for about five years, invited a friend, Patricia Foy, of Burbank, to teach rueda at his Halloween party. Kraut said he had never seen the dance before, but that he immediately fell in love with it, and so did his friends.

"None of us knew a step," Kraut said. "A lot of the club dancers like myself did not like the whole concept of salsa where it's about you and your partner and how great you are. I like Latin music and Latin dancing, but I wanted to do something that was more community-based and neighborhood-based."

Kraut also said he preferred the movement in Cuban-style, or casino-style, salsa, in which the dancers took smaller, simpler steps, danced closer together and used lower movements that he described as "earthy."

That night, Kraut formed a dance team, and with the help of Foy and other instructors, the team performed at a Santa Clarita-sponsored culture night five weeks later. By January 2007, they had an official Newhall chapter, with Kraut serving as the organizer and Foy as the instructor and group caller.
Peña said the expansion came just in time.

"Around that time, people had started saying, 'Hey, you should do it more often,' or, 'Is there any place else that does it?'" said Peña, who added that it would have been too difficult for her to drive to various locations, especially since she was volunteering her time as an instructor.

Since the Newhall group started, its members, mostly from the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys, have worked to raise awareness of rueda in the community. Their dance team, called "Rueda in the House," performed locally at Santa Clarita's Street Art Festival, the Santa Clarita Community Center and the 2007 Special Olympics Spirit Games in Newhall.

Nhur Klasky, a parent of a child at Bridgeport Elementary School in Valencia, said she remembers their performance at a school diversity event.

"I had never seen it. It was something new for me," Klasky said. "They were lively, and it was really good."

"Rueda in the House" members have also joined dancers from the Los Angeles and Bellflower chapters to perform at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Los Angeles and at a convalescent home in Modesto.

According to Kraut, the combined group of 19 performers creates an "all-star" team that is now practicing for major upcoming casino rueda events.

The leaders plan to choose the group's best dancers to perform and compete at two rueda conventions, Palm Springs' West Coast Casino Rueda Congress in July and Miami's Salsa Rueda Congress of the Americas in November, where rueda dancers from all over the world participate.

The dance team, which calls itself "Casineros con Aché," or "Casino Dancers with Luck," meet once a week in Kraut's Burbank office building to learn new moves such as "Jackie Chan," which includes a series of twists and turns, or "el túnel," which requires the couples to form tunnels that other dancers pass through.

Ingrid Torres, who lives in Woodland Hills and attends both the Newhall and Los Angeles chapters, says the members not only attend the events to perform, but also to meet other rueda dancers.

"(Last year) we were exchanging a lot of ideas, a lot of different moves," she said. "So, everybody got to take something that they (could) teach the people that were back home."

According to professional salsa instructors, casino rueda and casino-style salsa are not as popular in the L.A. area as the more commonly seen L.A. and New York styles. But they do say rueda, which is believed to have started Cuba in the 1950s and 1960s, is much more popular than it was a couple of years ago.

"It's been growing uncontrollably - especially for the last one-and-a-half years," said Zeanie Yoon, a dance instructor and manager of the West Coast Casino Rueda Congress in Palm Springs.

Yoon said a rise in the dance's popularity led her to create a venue solely for rueda dancers.

"We (originally) only had about four or five people registering only for the casino rueda group," Yoon said, explaining that the original one or two rueda classes started out of another Palm Springs salsa event that focused more on other styles.

She explained that by 2005, she had so many people interested in the dance, she had to add more classes, and in 2006, she formed the classes into a separate convention, the West Coast Casino Rueda Congress. "Now we have people registering for the event just for the casino rueda, and that is well over 200 people just locally," Yoon said.

Los Angeles casino rueda instructor Joseph "Yossi" Conde says rueda started showing up in the L.A. area in the mid-1990s but did not start becoming more popular until the early 2000s. While the rueda community is still small, more groups are forming in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego, according to Conde.

"Rueda in the Park is a good group for branching out," he said. "It's a good social network, (and) they do attract all kinds of dancers.

They're somewhere between beginner and intermediate level. They're number one at having fun, though. They get to the park and dance like crazy."

While professionals say the Santa Clarita Valley is not known for having much salsa activity besides its Newhall Rueda in the Park, Kraut and the other local dancers are trying to change that.

The Newhall group is planning to hold free salsa and rueda classes and social dancing at Santa Clarita restaurant Una Más Mexican Grill starting June 28. The classes will be on the fourth Saturdays of the month for three months, starting at 9 p.m.

And as always, the group will continue to conduct Sunday workshops in the park twice a month, where they get people from various ethnic and dance backgrounds. "You have fun and there aren't any stereotypes,"

Torres, of Woodland Hills, said. "Just about anybody that's willing to come and try to learn can come and do it."

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