The Rhythm of Colombia’s Salsa Capital

Two kinds of dancers pack the salsa clubs of Cali, Colombia. There are the purists, who like to keep their footwork on the ground, the way salsa was first danced in the 1970s. Then there are the more daring — typically younger — provocateurs, who incorporate demanding tricks and lifts frowned upon by traditionalists. If you’re keen on finding a partner, you may want to stick to the original formula.

El Museo de Salsa, in the Obrero neighborhood of Cali.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Though it can be found in clubs all over the world now, salsa is still a relatively new dance form. Born in New York City from a mix of music and steps from Cuba, Puerto Rico and Harlem, it came of age in the early 1970s. Alfredo Caicedo Viveros, a salsa historian in Cali, said it wasn’t long before Colombian sailors brought the new trend back with them. “People would say, ‘Do you want to listen to some music from New York?’” he recalled. “It was so rhythmic! It made you move!”

Not long after, dance clubs called salsatecas sprang up in Cali, especially in the working-class neighborhood of the Barrio Obrero. Colombian musicians began forming salsa bands to make their own contributions to the growing scene. Mr. Caicedo cited Grupo Niche, Orquesta Guayacán, Orquesta La Identidad and La Gran Banda Caleña as some of the most popular bands in the early days of Colombian salsa.

A wallflower at the salsateca Santo.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times
A youth dance team performs for the crowd at Santo.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times
Outside the salsateca La Poncena.CreditRose Marie Cromwell for The New York Times

Taking its name from the city that developed it, the Cali style developed from a mix of pachanga (a dance best recognized for its shuffled side-to-side steps), charanga (a riff on a traditional Cuban dance) and boogaloo (another form born in New York City, which mixes several styles) dances.

Over time, the Cali style continued to evolve. “We have here a well-known school by Luis Eduardo Hernández (also known as El Mulato), who founded the Swing Latino school,” Mr. Caicedo said. Mr. Eduardo introduced a new element to salsa, Mr. Caicedo said, “which was acrobatics. You know, what they do in the circus — the somersaults.”

The photographer Rose Marie Cromwell came across Cali’s vibrant salsa scene almost by accident. “I heard people tell me that Cali was the capital of the salsa,” she said. It was…

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