Hot Nights in the Old Town
Salsa Dancing in Prague

While searching for places to dance salsa, or salsotecas, in Prague, I was amazed by the complexity of this dance form, which even extends to the name. For example, who used the word salsa for the first time? Was it the Cuban singer Ignacio Pińeiro in 1933, the Puerto Rican Lebrón brothers in 1962 or the Dominican flautist Johny Pacheco in 1971? And what dance tradition does it come from? What we know today about salsa is deeply rooted in Latin American countries such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Venezuela, which all claim to be its birthplace. If Celia Cruz-the authentic queen of salsa-had had her way, she would have put an end to this discussion, saying that "salsa is Cuban music by another name. It is mambo, chachachá, rumba … all of these rhythms rolled into one.

Although the origins of salsa might be a point of debate, finding a place in Prague to dance or learn salsa isn't! It seems that everyone here, Czechs, ex-pats, tourists, seems to want to let their bodies move to the sound of Latin American rhythms.

Salsa in Prague
Czechs were first exposed to salsa in 1986, during the "cultural" meetings of nostalgic students and workers from Latin America, as the Nicaraguan Ramón Altamirano (one of the managers of Mánes) points out. Salsa immediately attracted the attention of the locals, who were fascinated by the sensuality and intimacy that emanate from the salseros couples. Some people needed a little time to understand that salsa wasn't just a new fitness trend but rather an opportunity to discover a new form of communication.

The first Prague salsoteca was born in 1992 at Hvezda, a university dorm bar, thanks to the Colombian Javier Benavides (the first salsa DJ in the city). Later, the now defunct Corona and La Cubana, appeared. These are now two of the most sorely missed of Prague's salsotecas. Releve, Pygmalion, Caliente, Tenders and Carioca were other popular places among salseros during the nineties, but none of them (except the previously-mentioned Mánes) have survived to this day. There may be several reasons for the short life span of the salsotecas: The salseros don't drink that much, which means that the salsotecas have a smaller turnover; the salsa community is small and the non-salseros get tired of hearing the same music all night, so eventually they end up moving on to another club.

Where to Salsa
Mánes (Masarykovo nábrezí 250), opened in 1992 by Altamirano and Marcos Alemán, also Nicaraguan, is the veteran salsa institution in Prague. The historical building that houses this salsoteca actually started out as an art gallery in the thirties and the venue deserves a visit for its architecture alone. During weekdays, Mánes is a point of reference for contemporary art in Prague and on Friday nights it transforms itself into a lively club. It is generally packed with dancers vying for a place on the dance floor or enjoying the splendid view of the Vltava river. One of the main reasons Mánes is still going strong is its low prices: the cover charge is only 40 CZK and the drinks are cheap. Many of its regulars would be happy to see the place undergo a few repairs, but that doesn't prevent them from having a good time: the music is great, it's happening, and the clientele is faithful (maybe too much so for some newcomers, who find it difficult to meet people).

If you're still on your feet at four o'clock (closing time) and you aren't ready to call it quits, you can go to Tropison, on the top floor of the Kotva shopping center at Namestí Republiky 8 (walk to the main entrance and look for the escalator). If you're fortunate enough to go during the summer you can enjoy one of the best open-air spaces in the whole city. You won't have to worry about the heat, because this salsoteca, which celebrated its first birthday with a big bash held on September 4th , is huge. For some clients, however, this is a downside, making the space less cozy. Moreover, the purists "accuse" their owners of having betrayed the salsa spirit by playing, along with salsa music, not only bachata, merengue, bugalu or bolero-still acceptable-but also latin pop, hip-hop, reggae or Spanish pop. Tropison is open daily, "until the last client leaves" says Paulo Cabinda, one of the managers, but visiting this stellar location will set you back 100 CZK.

Twice a month there is live music with groups like La Fiesta Latina, Tropicalísimo, Pragasón or Caribe (check out their program at www.tropison.com). Regular DJs include Showman Micky (nickname of Ambrosio Maculuso, another of the managers) and Gary and Daladier (two of the most popular DJs in Prague).

Not too far away is Bonanza (Dlouhá 35), one of the latest places to include salsa on their menu. On the first floor you'll find a remarkable Latin American restaurant, and downstairs is a charming bar that resembles a wine cellar. On Tuesdays and Thursdays you can dance salsa, but if you are looking for atmosphere Thursdays are a better bet. The place is very small, so it can get quite steamy. The varied clientele includes both tourists and local salsa scenesters. Admission is free and cocktails start at 85 CZK.

Students of Michal & Daniela Sejkora, founders of S.E.C.S. Salsa Team, are the main salseros to go to Eurocenter (Narodní 10). Their Friday salsa nights started last March, and since then have become very popular. The place could use some advice on its interior design, but the prices are good (50 CZK cover), and the dancers are devoted to improving their dance skills.

All the clubs mentioned above have a weekly (or daily) program dedicated to salsa, but there are others that offer sporadic venues for salsa dancers. For example, Mecca (U pruhonu 3) just recently started having a "Noche Cubana" one night a month (on Wednesdays). The groups Pragasón-led by Cuban Jorge Concepción-and Fiesta Latina alternate, each play every other month. Also, Face to Face, on Štvanice Island, has been hosting a monthly salsa party every Thursday, under the direction of the Sejkoras. "We danced there at the Dirty Dancing 2 launch party and the owner liked it so much that he decided to organize more salsa parties," explains Daniel Sejkora. There were contests, classes, and performances at the first one, which was celebrated last September 2nd.

Although the famous restaurant La Bodeguita del Medio (Kaprova 5) doesn't have a dance floor properly speaking, some nights the place gets transformed into a very attractive and compact salsoteca. "It all depends of the mood of the clients", explains Concepción, who sings there every Saturday. "I miss Corona: there's no place like that where you can dance salsa any more in Prague. In my opinion, the best and most authentic Latin atmosphere can be found here, in La Bodeguita". There isn't much room for dancing, but some nights if the audience is inspired, "they dance, dance, dance," continues Concepción. Some people may say that the selection of salsotecas is not as good as a few years ago, and is a far cry from what's to be found in other European cities like Berlin or Madrid. But at any rate, you'll certainly be able to warm up from the chilly Czech winter with a bit of thanks to the rhythms of salsa music: quite a few clubs are starting to include salsa in their programs, there are concerts almost every week, and you can find a salsa school in almost every neighborhood. So there's no excuse for not delving deeper into the secrets of this exciting dance.

On the Net:

Where to learn:

Mecca U pruhonu 3, Prague 6 Tel. 602 255 961 (Jana Tomášková) Teachers: Mandy Valdés and Jorge Concepción Sat. 17:00- 18:30 Price: 1 lesson, 150 CZK / 14 lessons, 1,600 CZK

S.E.C.S Salsa Team Ondrickova 40, Prague 3 Tel. 605 174 947 Teachers : Daniel & Daniela Sejkora Mon-Fri 18:00-22:00 Price: 10 lessons/1,000 CZK.

Dlouhá 35, Prague 1 Tel. 608 74 08 33 (Vlasta) Teacher: Mandy Valdés Mon-Fri 18:00-21:30 Price. 10 lessons/1,500 CZK.

Namestí Republiky 8 Tel. 224 801 475 Teachers: Juan Carlos and Andrea Price: 12 lessons /1,500 CZK. Tue&Thurs 20:00-22:00

Masarykovo nábrezí 250, Prague 1 Teachers: Rubén and Martina Peguero Fri 19:00-21:00 Price: 10 lessons/ 1,500 CZK Lingua Viva Kremencova 10, Prague 1 Teachers: Rubén and Martina Peguero Wed&Thurs 19:00-21:15 Price: 10 lessons/ 1,500 CZK.

Taiji Akademia
Sokol 3. Riegrovy Sady, Prague 2 Teacher: Ivan Balogh Tel. 724 617 811 Sun 18:00-21:00 Price: 150 CZK per lesson