The Salsa Wars

Casino style has become wildly popular, but the real action is taking place off the dance floor

Just before midnight on Saturday, July 21, Jacira Castro sat down at her computer to check her e-mail one last time before going to bed. Up came the homepage of the Internet site she publishes. But it wasn't her homepage. In huge type here's what she saw: "THIS IS A COMMUNIST WEBSITE." Everything normally on the screen had been obliterated.

"These big red letters are staring me in the face," recalls Castro, a Web designer and dance teacher who lives in Davie (and is not related to the Cuban dictator). "I froze. I panicked. I couldn't believe I was on my site. Right away I called my partner in Atlanta [graphic designer Julian Mejia]. He jumped on his computer and deleted the homepage. Then we realized we should have saved it to document the damage."

Castro says she puts in at least 60 hours per week on her Latin dance and music Website, called salsapower.com. With more than five years of involvement in the South Florida salsa scene, she has weathered her share of controversy and conflict, brought on partly by her contravention of local exile politics (by publicizing Cuban music and musicians living in Cuba), and partly because vicious and nasty power plays come with the competitive South Florida salsa territory. Nevertheless, until the hacking incident the pervasive sniping and backstabbing among local salseros had not escalated to the realm of federal felonies.

More than just the SalsaPower homepage was vandalized; Castro found vitriol elsewhere on the site. "I am a true communist, pro-[Fidel] Castro, unethical narrow-minded individual," read the altered text under her own photograph. "I have burned bridges with most of South Florida's dance school directors and leading politicians because of my political views and actions within the Cuban community. I am a declared communist activist and proud of it!"

Castro had no idea who invaded her cyberspace, but she was convinced the red-baiting was really a red herring. She knew most of SalsaPower's readers, who are spread among scores of cities in more than 30 nations, didn't care about her personal views on the Cuban revolution. Jacira Castro isn't even Cuban; she's Chilean American. "SalsaPower is a global Website, and we will not be bogged down by petty Miami politics," she declares.

Maybe not, but petty infighting continues to wreak havoc with Castro's site and her relations with other Miami salseros. Within Miami-Dade and Broward counties, about 25 salsa dance schools currently are in operation. No one seems to have a comprehensive list, because salsa students are constantly becoming teachers, splitting with their mentors, starting up their own studios (and often their own Internet sites), and feuding with one another.

No doubt that is because salsa has been a hot dance craze for the past several years, and the Miami area has been one of its epicenters. There's a lot of money to be made teaching casino-style salsa, the intricate system of steps that originated in Cuba and is performed by dancers in a circle, or rueda. The form has been developed into a profitable enterprise by several dancers, most notably in Miami by René Gueits, founder of Salsa Lovers Dance Studios, Inc. From small classes two nights a week in a Southwest Miami-Dade banquet hall, Salsa Lovers, according to Gueits, has grown over the past five years to "the largest casino rueda school in the world," attracting 350 new students each week to its three Miami locations -- and copious coverage by print and broadcast media. Many of the competing dance studios now operating in Miami and Broward were started by former Salsa Lovers pupils or teachers, frequently prompted by personal or professional disputes with Gueits. A few years ago Castro herself had a cyberfight with Gueits over some information published on her Website, and now there's no mention of Salsa Lovers on salsapower.com. But compared to Castro's latest battle, that was a waltz.

Salsapower.com is now back to normal, though a "hacker notice and apology to our readers" remains on the restored site. "We have no political affiliation at all," the apology states in English and Spanish. "We have traced the [Internet provider] address of the hacker through our server logs to an AOL address.... We are working together with AOL and the Internet Fraud Complaint Center, as well as the local office of the FBI, to rectify this problem. This [perpetrator] will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

Mejia, in Atlanta, relates his finding: The hacker with the AOL address visited salsapower.com three times on the Saturday the site was attacked. "Each visit was for around one hour," he reports.

Neither Castro nor Mejia will publicly name the individual they believe to be the guilty party, owing to libel concerns. Indeed the hard evidence left behind by the hacker tends to point less to a specific person and more to a Website: salsaunited.com. Salsa United is a loose association of about a dozen dance schools in Miami and Broward, formed ironically as an effort to cut down on infighting among the smaller schools. Just recently the group started its own Website. Jolexy Hurtado, a talented dancer who left Salsa Lovers almost three years ago, is the official spokesman for Salsa United and oversees the content of salsaunited.com, which has been under construction for the past few months; it went online July 19 with a series of interviews with local salsa masters.

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