Saving Salsa 

Words and photographs by Andrew J. Wight

How those over 50 are preserving dance traditions in Cali, Colombia

As thunder claps and rain pours outside in a working class neighborhood of Cali, Colombia, a pair of dancers goes through new salsa moves. These dance legends are teaching youngsters the flourishes and frenetic footwork that make up the city’s unique salsa dancing style. Aceneth Ortiz, 53, and her husband Douglas Guerrero, 55, known as the “King and Queen of the Smooth Step” have nearly a century of experience between them. But they are “the babies” of a group of veteran dancers over age 50 who promote — and still dance — the world-renowned Salsa Caleña. This dance collective, known as la vieja guardia, which literally translates as “the Old Guard,” is now working with Cali’s government to preserve Salsa Caleña for future generations and pass on their skills and passion through workshops, classes, and outreach around the city.

Salsa Caleña, known for the liveliness of its music and the fast, fancy footwork of its moves is now danced and taught around the globe, but changing musical tastes, the economic impact of the pandemic, and the aging population of its most ardent adherents have put Salsa Caleña at risk of extinction in its world capital. “Salsa Caleña is the best pandemic to ever sweep the world,” said Ortiz, with a cheeky smile and a flourish, showing off her perfectly coiffed hair, immaculate makeup, and purple dance shoes.

Aceneth Ortiz, 53, and her husband Douglas Guerrero, 55

Aceneth Ortiz, 53, and her husband Douglas Guerrero, 55, are known as the "King and Queen of the Smooth Step."

Teaching a salsa class in the Nueva Base neighborhood of Cali, Colombia

The pair teach a salsa class in the Nueva Base neighborhood of Cali, Colombia.

Members of the

Members of the "vieja guardia", which literally translates as “the Old Guard,” practice salsa dance moves at a community center in Cali, Colombia.

How Cali Became a World Capital of Salsa

At Cali’s annual book fair, Colombian journalist Merdado Arias, author of La verdadera historia de la Salsa (The True History of Salsa), sat down to explain that while salsa has Cuban and Puerto Rican roots, “without a doubt, New York was where it was truly born.” He said salsa arrived in Cali with sailors working a route that ran down the east coast, across the Caribbean and then to Colombia’s main Pacific port of Buenaventura in the 1960s and 70s. “In New York, the big salsa hotspots were The Palladium Ballroom, The Bronx Casino and La Campana,” he said, “The sailors visited these places, bought the records and brought them to the bars and cantinas of the port of Buenaventura, a three-hour drive from Cali.”

But when salsa arrived in Cali, it was far from the cultural icon that it is today. “When I started to write about salsa in 1981, it still wasn’t very accepted in Colombian society,” he said. “It was the music of sailors, vagabonds, and prostitutes — the down-and-outs.” It was in this era when many of Cali’s Old Guard learned their moves — in the family rooms and bars of the city’s working-class neighborhoods — not in the profusion of dance schools now found in the city’s tourist zones.

“Salsa Caleña was not only part of the cultural fabric of the city, but that it had societal and health benefits as well.”

“I grew up in a family that danced well... as a kid we would move the family dining table aside and dance there,” Ortiz said.

Salsa Caleña would slowly but surely become not just an immensely popular pastime but also an artform and iconic dance style. By December 2019, over 25,00 tourists of all stripes were visiting Cali during the Feria de Cali, the year’s biggest event for Salsa Caleña.

Meeting The Old Guard

In July of 2020, Cali’s city government approved what it called a "Special Safeguard” plan to save its salsa, which it aimed to get recognized as part of Colombia’s national cultural heritage. This would help guarantee resources from the central government and to create cooperation agreements to help build on the existing “salsa economy.” In October 2021, a series of brainstorming sessions and dance classes began, where members of the Old Guard joined with the city’s culture office, local academics, parents, and children to ask what it was about Salsa Caleña that they wanted to save.

The consensus in one of the sessions (where the discussion was written out on cards to create a collage of ideas) was that Salsa Caleña was not only part of the cultural fabric of the city, but that it had societal and health benefits as well. The hope expressed in the session was that increased awareness of these additional benefits would strengthen the impetus to preserve this cultural icon.

After that session, as people began to dance in the light of the setting sun, at the back of the crowd sat Miguel Santiago García, 78, known to everyone there as Guaracho, after Gauracha, the frenetic dance and lyrical genre that defines his personal dance style. Dressed in a green polo and white flat cap, one might think he was ready to golf, but when the music starts, his face lights up and his sharp dance moves come out. Afterwards, parents line their children up to get their photo taken with this living legend. “We’re a tropical city... Cali is where every rhythm that arrives here seems to stick,” García said excitedly. “It’s where passion builds.”

But when COVID-19 struck, the city’s dance economy — all the bars, schools, and hostels — ground to a halt. “We couldn’t go out to dance, we were isolated,” Garcia recalled, referring to the strict lockdowns and stay-at-home orders that spanned most of 2020 and some of 2021 in Colombia. “But salsa is always in my heart and I kept practicing in front of the mirror when I couldn’t go out.”

"When the music comes starts, his face lights up annd his sharp dance moves come out."

Aceneth Ortiz, Garcia’s fellow Old Guard dancer, explained that about half of the group, including her own husband, had caught COVID-19 at some point, often because they had to leave the house to work, even as infections raged. “My husband and I had a business making salsa costumes. But when the pandemic came, we had to let all of our 10 staff go and reinvent ourselves,” Ortiz said. She began to sew face masks using the same bright colors and patterns of her costumes. “All through all the pandemic, my husband and I would go on to our patio and dance,” Ortiz said with a tight, sad smile.

The Next Generation

Despite the challenges, Ortiz is optimistic, saying the government support for Salsa Caleña is encouraging. “With these workshops, we are finding the next generation where they live, in working-class neighborhoods all across the city,” Ortiz said. One of those next-generation dancers is Michel Ramos Casa, 14, who lives in Nueva Base, a working-class neighborhood in northwest Cali. Already sweating from the class and dressed in black sneakers, black leggings, and a simple blue t-shirt, she explained she was very happy spending time with the Old Guard. “In them you can see the true flavor of Cali... when I see them, I am very proud,” she said, shouting over the strains of the music in the practice room.

She explained that although Korean pop music (K-pop) and dancehall/hip-hop inspired music (like Reggaeton) are popular among kids her age, salsa was still important to her. “If we lost salsa, maybe we would find a different dance, but salsa represents Cali, it is our dance,” Ramos Casa said. “I like that salsa is passed down, generation to generation, from adult to child, and I want salsa to continue forever.”

Both El Guaracho and Ortiz explained that although it is hard to transmit a lifetime of salsa learned in the street, not in the classroom, the Old Guard can still pass on the passion, music, and specific techniques to new generations.

13-year-old Daniela applies the lessons she's learned during a dance session.The Future of Salsa

One place this passing of the torch can be seen is the Chorrito Antillano, one of the city’s iconic viejotecas (a mashup combining the Spanish words for “old” and “discoteque”) in the Obrero neighborhood of Cali. Even at 7:30 p.m. on a Monday night, classic songs by Willie Colon and Celia Cruz echo off the walls covered in posters and memorabilia, as the young and the young-at-heart alternate between sipping on beer or rum and showing off their moves on the dance floor.

Merdado Arias, the author and journalist, explained the significance of the viejotecas in keeping the Salsa Caleña tradition alive. “The viejoteca movement started in Cali in the 1990s,” Arias explained, adding that this happened because the Old Guard could see that newer rhythms like salsa romantica were starting to become popular and they didn’t want to lose what they had grown up with. “The people who were in their 60s and 70s started to open the viejotecas to listen to those original rhythms,” he said. Although some of these bars shut down for good during the pandemic, many are still going strong, with a different hotspot to be found every night of the week.

Although teenager Ramos Casas and her friends are still too young to go to a viejoteca or any club just yet, that didn’t stop them from showing off their moves back at the practice session. At the end of the session, half a dozen of the kids divided into pairs, and as the Old Guard looked on, started to smoothly replicate the moves they had just learned. Aceneth Ortiz’s eyes glisten a little under the studio lights as she watches them dance. “This is the next Old Guard,” she says with satisfaction. ●

El Viejotecas

Even on a Monday night, Chorrito Antillano is filled with dancers of all ages. The iconic Cali viejoteca attracts those looking to show off their moves to the classic songs of their youth.