Peter Cornish delves into one of hot new trends in Ho Chi Minh City’s nightlife, the Latin dance scene.

Mention salsa and a lot of people will ask you to pass the chips. Others with less food-focused minds might conjure up thoughts of hot, steamy Latin passion from films such as Dirty Dancing, Havana Nights or Love, Sex and Salsa.

Yet while salsa along with the many other Latin dancing styles can transform lives and spark relationships, things aren’t quite as hot and steamy as the many films might lead us to believe. At least that’s the way the city’s dance community is trying to keep it.

While still in its infancy, the Latin dance scene in Vietnam has boomed in recent years, from the strict, technical styling of Hanoi to the community-based social events of Ho Chi Minh City. And, like many other developing scenes here, it’s starting to attract international attention.

Long History

The origins of Latin dance are deeply rooted in the rich traditions of South and Central America, and the Caribbean Islands’ indigenous peoples, yet over time they have been heavily influenced by European colonials and African slaves.

As in many countries around the world, dancing was an integral part of community life for the native people of these regions, performed during festivals and rituals and often representing their cultural and religious beliefs. Dances were often highly structured, involving large numbers of people performing intricate, carefully choreographed moves.

With the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese colonists, many of the indigenous rituals and traditions were incorporated into their Catholic beliefs and become part of their own religious festivals. Later, European immigrants bought their dancing styles to these regions and over time they were adapted and adopted by the local populations.

The different styles spread quickly across South and Central America and African slaves added their own rhythmic movements to the mix, contributing polycentric movements, whole-foot steps and all-important improvisation. Over time, different regions, cities and countries developed their own distinct dances, giving rise to the modern Latin dances we know today.

Salsa, Rumba and Mambo are deeply rooted in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Merengue traces its origins to the Hispanic islands such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic where the roots of Bachata can also be found. Brazil claims the Samba while the Bolero started in Spain before making its way to the new continent.

Passionate dancer and a familiar face on the city’s dance circuit, Gabriel Meranze Levitt has spent time dancing in both Hanoi and HCMC. Schooled initially in Merengue, he spent years in countries such as El Salvador, Mexico and Argentina developing his techniques and honing his moves before relocating to Vietnam at a time when the dance scene was in its early days.

Hanoi Scene

Initially based in Hanoi, Gabriel found an active dance scene steeped in the formality of technique and precision, and an infrastructure of huge venues and grand ballrooms that supported large gatherings of dancers.

The two went hand-in-hand, with venues designed for dancing encouraging precise movement and attention to detail.

With many of Hanoi’s dancers taking their dancing seriously, working day jobs then taking time to study in the evenings, Gabriel became part of a group hooked on studying movement and technique. “Dancing is a great form of self-expression through movement, connecting to the rhythm and music drives intensity. Introverted people have an opportunity to express themselves non-verbally through movement,” he explained.

It is perhaps this intimate self-expression often taking place between two complete strangers, joining momentarily for a dance, that has led to perceptions that Latin dance is highly sexualised, but this is not the case Gabriel pointed out. “Something happens on the dancefloor that doesn’t happen elsewhere. When it clicks it’s like nirvana, two people one unit but non-sexual.”

This is a belief shared by Will Knight and his partner Marta Bartosz, founders of Salsateka Dance Studio in District 3. Marta has been dancing since she was eight years old and taught for several years in the UK before coming to Vietnam.

Like her partner Will, she comes from a background where dance is a social activity and together they quickly threw themselves into the vibrant local dance community, organising themed parties and regular events at multiple venues around town.

Mind Your Manners

Will explained that a strict etiquette exists on the dance circuit encouraging and promoting gentlemanly and ladylike behaviour, often policed by the community to ensure people behave themselves.

If unwanted attention is shown to a dancer, others will step in and politely ask people to conduct themselves courteously and maintain the spirit of the community.

To encourage respectful behaviour on the dancefloor, Marta offers a popular ladies-only dance class named Dance for Self Defence. Free for those who would like to join, the class is designed to develop confidence on the dancefloor, and to learn protection techniques in a dancing context. These instances are rare but there is a need to ensure the community feels safe.

“At times partners can be a little rough, or maybe a lady doesn’t want to dance, or perhaps a partner is a sweaty and smells,” she said. The class helps ladies realise it’s OK to say no thanks, not this time, and to dance with people they want to dance with on their terms,” Marta said.

Working with the other dance studios around the city, Will and Marta are actively encouraging people to come and join the nightly events around the city. “We want to let people know it’s open to all. If you want to learn but don’t have the confidence, understand the community is welcoming and non-judgemental. New people join all the time, and everyone was a beginner at on point,” Will said.

Why not put on your dancing shoes and check out the Salsa Saigon Facebook page for a calendar of nightly events?

List of dance studios

1. La Salsa 

212 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 3
Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba
fb.com/lasalsa.club

2. X Salsa 

28 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, District 3
Salsa N.Y On 2, Cuban Salsa, Bachata, Street Cha Cha
fb.com/xsalsa

3. La Danza – fb.com/Ladanzavn

169/2A Vo Thi Sau st., District 3
Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, Cha Cha, Jazz Funk

4. M.A.N Dance Studio

71/17 Co Bac, Co Giang, District 1
Salsa, Bachata, fitness
fb.com/MANdancestudio

5. Salsatecha Dance Studio 

B’s Mart 63 Tran Quang Dieu, District 3
Bachata, Salsa, Kizomba, Samba, Zumba
fb.com/SalsatekaUKinVietnam