Why is Salsa So Popular in London?

Salsa is a form of dance music that is currently experiencing an unprecedented growth in popularity in Europe. It is largely due to the fact that it offers a different experience from other world music fads. This is primarily because its relation to dance and community grounds it much more deeply into society than other exotic, captivating but decontextualized musical fads do.

The growing interest in salsa is reflected by the opening of numerous Latin night clubs and bars throughout London and other cities. In addition, a number of local salsa groups have emerged to provide dancing opportunities for those interested in learning this new style. However, despite the apparent popularity of this phenomenon it is hard to understand why it has become so successful. This article attempts to explore the reasons for this by studying some of the social practices that take place within these Latin night clubs and how they help shape the meaning of salsa dancing in the context of a multicultural city.

To do this I conducted a series of interviews in March 1996 with members of two leading London salsa bands: La Clave and Salsa Y Ache. Both salsa bands are comprised of a relatively stable core group of leaders and arrangers/singers who also play some of the instrumentation. The remaining members of the band vary with each performance and most London salsa groups have a mixed line-up including British and Latin musicians.

Both the musicians and dancers interviewed described salsa as a highly complex form of music that requires a great deal of skill and practice to master. They explained that the musical framework of salsa encourages a certain level of virtuosism and even exhibitionism on the part of dancers. In addition to this there is a strong competitive dimension to the practice of salsa. This is a function of the fact that most people who first discover salsa are encouraged to take dance classes in order to achieve a high degree of competence.

In addition to these social and musical dimensions of the dance, it is a cultural activity that serves as an important way for Hispanics in London to assert their identity as a community in Europe. It is also a means of developing creative strategies to integrate into a European society. The mixture of the members of most London salsa bands reflects this integration process: they start out playing other people’s music, particularly 1970’s New York-Puerto Rican style salsa but eventually develop their own repertoire of merengue and cumbia songs as well.

Whether as an alternative to more traditional forms of dance or as a means of establishing a sense of identity in a new environment, the appeal of London salsa appears to be universal. As such it is an interesting and worthwhile endeavor to study this popular phenomenon in depth and to try to assess the reasons for its success. It is suggested that in analyzing the nature of salsa as a cultural phenomenon, we need to look beyond its aesthetics and take into account the sociological concepts of Bourdieu’s theory of social fields and cultural capital.