Salsa in the Circle City 


Dancing with a world view

Salsa dancing is Indy’s hottest social activity. Singles and couples of all ethnicities are frequenting clubs around the city weekly, Wednesday through Saturday, starting with lessons, becoming a party and ending with “a show” by the more advanced and less shy. For Indy’s Latino population, salsa dancing is a family/at-home-party/community center way of life, along with adults making a night of it at a club and bringing it to Indy’s streets during the annual Fiesta Indianapolis. Raising the level of salsa dancing in Indianapolis was the goal of IntoSalsa Latin Dance Studio’s first salsa dance competition last July at the Red Room in Broad Ripple.

Yang Xiao, IntoSalsa president and CEO, and IntoSalsa co-owner Erin Lamb designed this competition to coordinate with rules and judges’ qualifications for major national salsa dance competitions.

Couples would first dance for two to two and a half minutes to a salsa song chosen by Red Room DJ Shawn Juan, then to a salsa song of their own choice. Dancers would be judged in six categories: timing, partnering, creativity, presentation, style and audience reaction.

To ensure salsa dancers a quality event worthy of entering, IntoSalsa announced their roster of top-flight, Indiana-based judges.

• Joseph Galvin, a professional percussionist who plays in the Latin and Afro-Cuban bands Ori and Sancocho, judged the finalists’ ability to stay on beat while performing all their moves. “He knows the music inside and out,” Xiao states.

• Jamie Calderon judged the dancers’ style, the sharpness of their moves, facial expressions and dress, and how much they excited the audience. “During the height of its era, Jamie was dancing Latin hustle professionally in New York. He still dances and has aspirations to instruct in Indianapolis,” Xiao adds.

• Angelica Vergara, a classically trained dancer and artist from Chile, judged the dancers’ creativity and originality of their choreography, along with stage presence and overall presentation.

Much to Xiao and Lamb’s relief, competitors signed up, worked hard on their routines and gave the spectators who filled the Red Room “salsa dancing as an enjoyable social event” Xiao summarizes.

First place went to Chad A. Wright and Karina Marcelo.

Shayne Carter and Barbara Whiteside, Marques Gunter and Chimere Cross, and Cynthia and Lucio Limon were named first, second and third runners-up.

When many of the spectators subsequently enrolled in lessons and began attending multiple dance parties Wednesday through Sunday, Xiao and Lamb felt they had accomplished both of their goals — more dancers were striving for a quality experience. Little did Xiao and Lamb anticipate their competition would propel Indianapolis-based salsa dancers onto the stage of world salsa dance competitions.

Trust and courage

“Winning first place in the IntoSalsa Latin Dance Studio salsa competition changed our lives,” Wright declares.

Four months after competing in Indianapolis, Wright and Marcelo were dancing at the Fifth Annual San Francisco Bay Area International Salsa Congress Competition.
Wright posted a story of their experiences on the Nov. 25 IntoSalsa Web site (

“The preliminary round included a freestyle dance for one and a half minutes alongside the other couples. Then we individually performed our routines. As nerve-wracking as the first round was, to our relief, we were chosen to compete in the final round.

“However, after seeing our competition in the preliminary round, we knew that two of the couples were [beyond] our league. We were trying to find our motivation to dance in the final round. Finally, I hit it. ‘We are here to represent our homes — where we come from … and all the people who love and support us.’

“With those words said, something shifted in both of us. When we performed in the final round we mostly had fun. The crowd really felt us, and we felt them, and we could feel our home there with us.

“Even though we didn’t qualify in San Francisco, we carried away a truck load of wisdom.”

This week (Dec. 13-16), Wright and Marcelo are in Las Vegas to qualify for the World Salsa Championships (watch the finals live on ESPN). They will be at the Salt Lake City competition Jan. 12-14.

The couple talked with NUVO in mid-November, just prior to their trip to California.

“I used to dream of being a world champion boxer,” Wright confesses, “but I didn’t want to have brain damage before I was even at middle age so I gave up boxing and the dream, and became a physical therapist. And four years ago I started dancing.”

“I am a professional pianist,” Marcelo says. “I haven’t given it up. I’m exploring other avenues. I feel as passionate about being a dancer as I feel about being a pianist.”

Four years ago, Marcelo moved to Indianapolis, around the time when the short-lived Red Brick Dance Studio started operation and the Red Room began to feature salsa on Wednesday.

“I’m from Buenos Aires, Argentina. Salsa is part of my culture. Now it’s big all over the world,” Marcelo says, adding, “My cousin showed me the [salsa] steps when I was really little and I liked to perform for visitors to our home. It was the beginning of the journey.”

Wright says, “I wanted to use the athletic part of me and do something more socially. I realized a part of my culture was missing.

“There’s this message in our culture that dancing is not right. But with Karina I see its warmth and culture and family [connections].”

Wright and Marcelo agree that learning about each other’s abilities for acrobatics shaped the way they dance. Their choreography now consists of equal parts salsa and acrobatics.

“It takes a larger degree of trust and courage,” Wright says. “And that has changed our relationship.”

“Yang and Erin are very good teachers,” Marcelo adds. “They are compassionate, supportive.”

Marcelo and Wright have also worked with Salomon Rivera and Liz Lira and the Vasquez Brothers, particularly Luis Vasquez. For acrobatics they studied with Dave Paris, Chi Lee and Alex Lee.

“Salsa is body language. It exaggerates masculinity and femininity,” Marcelo says.

“You lead with your heart,” Wright says. “You are communicating confidence when the man offers an invitation and the woman chooses to accept, and then there might be a problem in the relationship. People who watch perceive the difficulty the characters are having.”

Marcelo sums it up: “Performing salsa is showmanship, a refined theatrical style of a social dance. Clothing is now a costume. Makeup and hairdo are important. Dancing is like talking, but you show tone of voice through movement. You show your interior feelings.”

A wild dream

“Of course we’re delighted and excited about Chad and Karina,” Erin Lamb says. “It’s just that Yang and I are not into world competition ourselves.”

They are motivated to teach and facilitate and intend to make their regional, national and international mark with their now 2-year-old IntoSalsa Dance Company.
Receiving a coveted invitation to perform at the 2007 Chicago International Salsa Congress, Feb. 15-18, is the start of fulfilling that goal. (,

The IntoSalsa Dance Studio Company was formed October 2004 when Yang Xiao and Lamb wanted to train other dancers to perform with them on stage, but not necessarily to compete.

“The company has performed in front of thousands of people at festivals, clubs, corporate functions, schools, concerts, etc.,” Lamb says. “It’s rewarding to see our current company of 14 grow from social dancers to performers, and shine on the stage.”

Lamb and Xiao began dancing together in 2002. Lamb, who grew up on a farm north of Kokomo, began dancing around age 12 and was trained in classical dance but had “no plans of making it my major” in college. “One day I found my way to a Latin dance club and never looked back. I have been dancing salsa since 1999.”

Xiao was born in China, and came to the U.S. in 1993 with a background in Web design. “I fell in love with salsa at the Jazz Kitchen. For almost three years [after] I could count on one hand how many weeks I missed dancing. In 2001, I started teaching and performing at various local events.”

After dancing together for a year, Xiao and Lamb decided to teach together and their loyal students followed them from one rented space to another. Their Web site, began as a way for students to stay connected, has grown into the top destination for people in greater Indianapolis to get information about salsa lessons, events and clubs.

Lamb explains, “Our classes draw a wide range of students. Most of them are young professionals from 20s to 40s [but] we also have many students in their 50s and 60s, so age is not a factor. The ethnicity is also diverse. That’s the beauty of salsa — it’s a big salad bowl.”

In April 2005 Xiao and Lamb leased space above Acapulco Joe’s restaurant at 363 N. Illinois. Following extensive renovation, including the removal of five layers of carpeting and linoleum, the former Chrysler car showroom became the IntoSalsa Latin Dance Studio. The grand opening in June showcased 1,500 square feet of beautifully restored hardwood floor.

“The décor is like New York meets Miami,” Xiao says.

Within six months Xiao and Lamb repaid their debt.

“Like any other business, the first year was a learning experience. We managed to stay profitable, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Xiao says, adding, “I’m happy because I get to do what I love for a living. My goal is to develop a vibrant salsa scene in Indy and grow IntoSalsa into a top salsa dance company in the Midwest. I hope soon Indy will make a footprint on the salsa map, and that one day people will compare us to Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto and Miami. It could be just a wild dream, but I want to make it come true.”

Salsa dance

New York created the term “salsa,” but it did not create the dance. (See “The History of Salsa” at

“Salsa” sometimes is used as a blanket term for the wide variety of music from different countries of Hispanic influence. Salsa music can be based on any one of several rhythms, including son, cumbia, guaracha, and merengue, a group of Latin rhythmic styles that contains the clave beat, which is a five-note rhythmic pattern of African origin.

It’s generally accepted that salsa dancing evolved sometime around the 1950s as a fusion of many Latin and Afro-Caribbean dances with special credit to Cuba as the primary place of origin.

1. Contra-danze (country dance) of England/France, later called danzon, came with the French, who fled from Haiti.

2. Rhumbas of African origin were mixed in and

3. Son of the Cuban people. Son is itself a mixture of Spanish and African influences. (Log on to

Mambo dancers generally move forward and backward, salsa dancers have a side-to-side pattern, with turns and expressive hand movements as important features. While there’s always passion associated with Latin dancing, “Salsa is not combative in the way tango is,” explains Erin Lamb, IntoSalsa co-owner. “Salsa is flirtatious, it’s fun, sexual in that it allows men to be masculine and women to be feminine. Born out of the club scene, it’s attractive people letting their hair down. It’s fire and energy coming out. The music is different from any other, and with different combinations of instruments.”

Salsa dancers are light on their feet so as to respond to fast turns and the improvisations of the male, who leads the couple away from collisions on a crowded dance floor.

Post WWI visitors to Cuba discovered the rumba, which “confines itself to a relatively small, boxy area within which the couple moves with suggestive undulations.”

By the 1940s and 1950s, the tango and rumba were joined by the Latin-inspired mambo, cha-cha, samba, merengue, salsa and bossa nova. They have the excitement of rapid rhythm dancing yet are less demanding than the concurrent jitterbug.

At the close of the 1960s, salsa dancing regained popularity in New York, Miami and Los Angeles with Latino and Caribbean immigration. Only within the last three to four years has salsa become a phenomenon in Indianapolis.


Salsa dancing all year long

Every Wednesday


• Pure Salsa! at the Red Room, 9 p.m-1 a.m., 6335 Guilford Ave. in Broad Ripple. Hosted by IntoSalsa, with lessons from 6-9 p.m. DJ Shawn Juan also includes music for merengue, bachata and cha-cha. $5 cover.

Every Thursday

• Salsa at Six at the Jazz Kitchen, 6-8 p.m., 5377 N. College Ave. “Indy’s newest after-work salsa dancing environment” with Latin menu including tappas and drinks. Free dance lesson 7-7:30 p.m.

• Latin Dance Party at the Jazz Kitchen, 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Indy’s longest-running Latin dance night (started in 1994) features DJs Marco Dominguez and Fernando Ramirez playing a mix of salsa, merengue, bachata, reggaeton, Latin hip-hop (and more). $5 cover; ladies free until 10 p.m.

• Latin Night at The Cozy, 9 p.m.-3 a.m., 20 N. Pennsylvania St. Free dance lesson by Lady Cynthia. Hosted by DJ TaZ and guest DJ Charlye spinning salsa, merengue, bachata and reggeaton with Gerardo and Roberto on live percussion. $7 cover; ladies free before 11 p.m.

Every Friday

• Fiesta Fridays at Adobo Grill, 10 p.m.-3 a.m., 4939 E. 82nd St. Free dance lesson at 10 p.m. by SalsaIndy. Salsa, bachata, merengue and old school salsa (no reggeaton). Over 21 and non-smoking. $5 cover. Check out free admission on"

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Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn

Rita Kohn has been covering craft beer and the arts for NUVO for two decades. She’s the author of True Brew: A Guide to Craft Beer in Indiana.

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