There's a Disney World for salseros, and it doesn't take four hours to get there.
The Miami Salsa Congress, now in its 18th year, is back with a salsa extravaganza July 20 through 28. The event, which is expected to draw 5,000 attendees, will offer classes, parties, workshops, and live bands. Offsite activations will lead into the weekend conference at the Eden Roc Miami Beach.
Rene Gueits, the founder of Salsa Lovers, the studio that produces the Miami Salsa Congress, had the idea to start the event in 2001. In 2002, he launched the first Salsa Congress at the Miami Marriott Dadeland. The following year, he moved it to Miami Beach, its home ever since.
Gueits, born and raised in Miami, credits his passion for the genre to his Puerto Rican grandparents and Cuban mother and father. He says salsa runs through his blood. He began his career as an instructor in Argentine tango and ballroom dancing. He eventually became certified in ballroom in 1992 at the now-defunct Dance City.
"As a kid, I heard El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and Celia Cruz, and it just hit me. Salsa just touched me; I just loved it. I got into it more in my early 20s, and I started teaching while in school to make extra money," Gueits says. "I was always teaching people how to dance salsa, in their house or wherever. The dancing of salsa was natural to me. I started learning to dance rueda casino back in the '90s at Club Mystique, and I bridged everything together. Now I own Salsa Lovers, and we've been doing it since '94."
The Miami Salsa Congress is expecting thousands of participants from around the world. People are traveling from as far as Asia and Europe to attend the weekend of salsa music and dance. He says the congress is keeping salsa alive in Miami and creating more salseros in South Florida. The gathering will also nurture a love for other music genres and dance, such as bachata, mambo, kizomba, and Afro-Cuban salsa, through special events.
The crowd at the conference will vary from beginners to experienced dancers. The Salsa Lovers team says the demographic ranges in age from 12 to 60, and people can expect clean, healthy fun. The goal, they add, is to create a welcoming and judgment-free environment. They also wish more South Floridians would support local studios and events to help the salsa scene thrive.
"I've seen people come from South Africa and Russia. I'm not surprised at the nationalities; I'm surprised at how passionate they are about dance. I've seen people come as far as Asia, and I think, Coño, they flew over 18 hours to get here to join a weekend of salsa. Son gente que quiere la salsa y la estudia," Gueits says. "I see thousands of people in a room and I think, Wow, look at this person who came from Norway for our culture. Then there are people like my cousin who sit at home watching TV and don't celebrate their culture. It's incredible how other people adopt our music and culture and go crazy for it. I think a lot of Latinos in Miami take our Salsa Congresses for granted. They take seeing Oscar D'León in concert for granted. They don't support. When you take these international artists overseas, they sell out, and in Miami, you have to promote like crazy. I'd like to see more support of the culture. This is our music."
For locals who want to extend the salsa vibes after the conference, Salsa Lovers offers classes at its South Miami studio and will soon open a location in Hialeah. Private lessons, weeknight group sessions that often draw about 200 participants a night, and kids' classes are also available.
Gueits says one of his favorite things about salsa is seeing the way it transforms people. It creates confidence and provides a different form of expression. He's seen people come to the studio after the loss of a partner to grieve through dance and to meet others. Some people form relationships and get married. And even heart transplant patients attend dance classes for exercise.
"[When] people go to clubs or parties, they feel secure to take someone out to dance or to accept an invitation to dance. It's something to have in your back pocket, and it's important. In 18 years of doing this, I've never had anyone tell me they had a bad time. People love the conference — it's their Salsa Disneyland. I encourage anyone to come regardless if they can dance or not. People aren't there to judge; they're there to have fun and connect."
Miami Salsa Congress. Wednesday, July 24, through Sunday, July 28, at Eden Roc Miami Beach, 525 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; edenrochotelmiami.com. Tickets start at $10 via miamisalsacongress.com. Offsite activations at various venues begin Saturday, July 20.