At first glance, Koji Kanazawa looks like any other desk-beagle: neatly pressed gray pants, white shirt and bland tie topped off with a bashful, almost apologetic bow.
But as the 24-year-old advertising salesman steps off the streets of Roppongi thronged with pamphlet touts and red-faced bar-hoppers, and into boisterous Salsa Sudada, his mood — in fact, almost his entire persona — changes.
After ordering a drink, he approaches one of the young women perched at the bar. Tucking his tie into his shirt, he politely takes her hand and leads her through a mass of hip-shaking, twirling bodies before launching into a flurry of spins, steps and flirtatious looks with this complete stranger.
After one dance, he dips his head in polite gratitude and moves on to find another partner.
It all seems rather risque — after all, aren’t Japanese men supposed to be reserved, shy, culturally correct?
“With salsa, you can forget the rigid formalities of society,” says Kanazawa, loosening his tie and brushing away trickles of sweat running down his face. “It’s easy — all you have to do is empty your mind and relax.”
Salsa is a change of pace. First, there’s the infectious, complex rhythms — music that alone would activate the weariest of limbs. Then there’s the sheer energy of the dance — and couples’ uninhibited smiles that invariably go with it.
“It is,” says salsa freak Hiromi Seto, 34, “intoxicating.”
“It’s the same as a running high — a dancing high, you could call it. It’s like you’re drunk. You lose all inhibitions and do things you normally wouldn’t dream of.”
As a dance-music term, “salsa” — whose roots lie in traditional Cuban son-style dances — was popularized in New York in the 1960s as a catchier alternative to Afro-Caribbean forms such as mambo and cha-cha. However, after making brief inroads into Japan in the ’70s, it was soon rolled over by the rock revolution. But then, in the early ’90s, it was back — thanks largely to the success of Japanese salsa outfit Orquesta de La Luz in Japan and, before that, in New York and Puerto Rico.
By the late ’90s, salsa clubs — many offering dance lessons with Latino instructors — had opened all over Japan. Today, salsa is widely recognized as the hottest couple-dance in town.
George Watabe, a respected salsero and salsa-event promoter, says he first encountered the dance here in 1996 at Salsa Sudada, which he says was then Tokyo’s only salsa club. Come the weekend, he reminisces, around 30 Japanese salseros would gather there, many of whom had studied the dance in New York, which most people credit as the birthplace of the salsa style now being danced in countries as diverse as Turkey, Australia and Jordan.
While those clubs quickly became popular hangouts for Japan’s Latin American residents, they also attracted more and more Japanese. Today, Watabe estimates there are around 30 salsa clubs in the Tokyo area alone, and hardcore salseros number up to 3,000 — with another 10,000 who are salsa enthusiasts in one way or another.
“I think one of the appeals for Japanese is that salsa is so far removed from the digital world,” Watabe comments. “It’s all about human touch, human contact.”
Although Japanese are rarely noted for having a tactile, huggy side to their character — and traditional dance here involves no physical contact — it’s an integral part of salsa that most Japanese salseros embrace with little ado, albeit with varying degrees of zest.
“I’ve found that some dances, like hip-hop, are really dull because they are so individualistic,” said one 33-year-old Japanese salsero at a recent salsa event in Tokyo’s Ebisu district. “With salsa, there’s a real connection between two people. That’s what makes it fun.”
Kanazawa takes this a daring step further: “Salsa is a very sexy, sensual dance. I like dancing close to women who are not afraid of flaunting their sexuality on the dance floor.”
Salsa is certainly saucy — you’ll likely see as much pelvic motion in an evening at Salsa Sudada as you would in a lifetime of watching Michael Jackson videos. When it’s hot, it’s close to boiling point, and stories of dance-floor orgasms are not unknown.
“I’ve had a few near-misses,” confessed one Hong Kong-based Briton during a recent visit to Tokyo for a weekend of salsa. “Some dancers like to try and move just that little bit closer,” she adds. “I won’t bore you with the details.”
For many women, that close proximity can be a tad overbearing. Midori Washio, 29, says that although most men with whom she dances prefer their salsa mild, others like it a little more piquant. “Most salsa dances are close, even erotic sometimes. But there have been times when I’ve thought, ‘Hang on a second, this is a bit too hot!’ It’s not that I don’t like that — but not every dance.”
According to some Tokyo salseros, those who do like it hot could do worse than visit salsa clubs on weekends, when the city’s Latin American residents — well known for providing a more authentic salsa concoction — come out in force.
Weekday dancing, meanwhile, ensures the mix is a little less risque, according to 34-year-old Toshiyuki Yoshida, who says it often attracts people who’ve just had a lesson or two before putting the steps into practice. He says that many of these new dancers also go to clubs on weekends — “but they usually leave before midnight to get the last train home. After that, things start to heat up a little.”
Eiko Shioya, 28, explains that there are other clubs as well that cater to less serious salseros by changing the mood of the Latino music played, usually after midnight, when those left on the dance floor are out for the duration.
“The music changes from salsa to the more simple steps of merengue or Latin pops — stuff that even a beginner would have no trouble dancing to. And from then on it’s chat-up time and, I’ve been told, on to somewhere a little more cozy for those who get lucky.”
For the majority, however, the sensuality of salsa remains nothing more than symbolic; a throwback to times when male and female roles were simpler.
“For me the attraction lies in the clarity of the roles played,” says 27-year-old Koji Komatsu. “The man leads, the woman follows. The trick is to be able to show [other female dancers] that you are an able and reliable lead. That’s guaranteed to keep you busy for the night.”
Adds a 24-year-old salsero from India, who has spent most of his life in Japan: “It doesn’t matter what you look like, what you wear, what you do. If you can dance mean salsa, you’re good to go.”
Seto is a little more philosophical: “Dance has been bringing together couples since time immemorial. I don’t think it’s strange that such feelings can arise from dancing with someone.”
But she insists that for many salseros, a much simpler form of communication is the goal: “Salsa is global, so you can take it anywhere and feel confident you have a tool for communication. You don’t need words — just rhythm and an open mind.”