DBAYEH, Lebanon: A room full of beginning dancers wobbled awkwardly as their instructor demonstrated the defining double-knee bends of Pechanga dance. “Back and forth and change to the front and back and forth and back and forth,” Natalia Lopez Toledano sang in staccato downbeat. “Try it out, don’t be silly.”
Toledano, a dancer from Mexico, was in Lebanon alongside 14 other professionals to teach and perform as part of the weekend International Salsa Mafia Festival at Le Royal Hotel in Dbayeh. The three-day conference drew around 400 dancers, from 16-year-old beginners to world champions, who took part in daytime workshops and big salsa fiestas at night.
The festival is part of a growing interest in the country to learn Latin dance, organizers and participants said.
The weekend’s festival was in its third year, said Sahar Abu Khalil, conference organizer and dance teacher.
The intensive workshops have each year attracted greater numbers of amateur dancers. The first year, in 2011, Salsa Mafia had around 60 participants in the classes, and last year’s workshop drew in around 90. This year’s workshops exploded to bring in around 270, she said.
A mixture of students and instructors came in from out of town. This year, despite the precarious security situation that has chased off many of Lebanon’s tourists, dancers arrived from the Gulf, Turkey, Peru, Cyprus, Brazil, Italy, the United Kingdom and a number of Arab countries, including war-torn Syria.
“That’s it – más o menos,” Toledano shouted out over a group of young women sprinkled with the occasional male. “I know it’s going to feel a little weird in the beginning.”
The number of students spilling over the dance floor in Toledano’s class and onto the ballroom’s carpet was a testament to just how popular Latin dance has gotten.
Tracey Kesrouany, a fitness instructor sponsoring Salsa Mafia, moved to Lebanon from the U.K. with her Lebanese husband around eight years ago. It was around that time that she started salsa.
Back then the scene was smaller and she ran into the same people at every salsa gathering and event. Now, on any given weekend, several dance schools are sponsoring events, and bars and clubs are regularly holding their own Latin dance nights around Beirut and Kaslik.
“It’s the music,” Kesrouany said. “Salsa music is so nice and people enjoy listening to it.”
The success and popularity of the Lebanese version of “Dancing with the Stars” on MTV also played an important role in piquing the country’s interest in Latin and ballroom dance, several amateur Lebanese dancers said.
The series finale aired at the end of February after several months of live episodes that followed the growth and competition among a dozen Lebanese singers and TV personalities on the dance floor.
Indeed, Abdo Dalloul, the professional dance partner who led Arabic pop singer Naya to her televised victory, was one of the participants at Salsa Mafia.
Layla, one of the students at Salsa Mafia, said she has been active in the salsa scene for around two years. Before that, she said, she would go to salsa gatherings and was in and out of dance classes.
Now seven months pregnant, Layla said she’s still dancing, something that has kept her baby weight down tremendously. The payoff of regular dance was clear in her petite frame and tiny baby bump.
Two years ago, there was an enormous female to male ratio at the country’s salsa events, she said.
“But lots of guys started doing salsa after ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” she said. Though she can’t persuade her husband to take up dancing, “my son’s going to start lessons,” she said with a sly smile.
Jack was one of the amateur men at the weekend’s festival. He said he started while in university, and has recently returned to the dance floor.
For him dancing offers a great cardio workout. “I quit for a while, and then I started again,” he said. “I do it for fun but also for sport.”