As founder of one of Miami's most popular Latin dance studios, Rene Gueits just might be the Magic City's number-one salsa lover. But in 2001, Gueits took his pasión del ritmo and his dance company Salsa Lovers to another level by kicking off the Miami Salsa Congress.
"I attended the first congress in Puerto Rico in 1997," Gueits recalls. "I was invited to teach Miami-style casino/Miami-style rueda around the world. I was in Holland with Albert Torres [coproducer of the global salsa congresses]. I told him I wanted to do the first Miami congress, and I asked him to help me out."
One year into the new millennium, Gueits, Torres, and like-minded dancers from el mundo entero congaed their way to the 305 for the inaugural Miami Salsa Congress. Fourteen years later, MSC is still rumbiando its way through the city.
And for 2015, the five-day pachanga will take over the Deauville Beach Resort from July 29 to August 2 with 120 hours of nonstop rueda y son action, including dance workshops, tribute concerts to Cheo Feliciano and other salsa giants, a Club Mystique reunion, and a performance by legendary salsero Willie Rosario y Su Orquesta.
Salsa may be one of the first things that come to mind when people think of Miami, but as Gueits points out, with the number of salsa congresses that go down around the world, it's obvious that el baile is a global phenomenon.
"There are [salsa congresses] in Bulgaria, South Africa, Sweden, Rome, Norway, Japan — it's huge in India, Dubai, and Turkey," he explains. "It has grown. After the salsa congress in Puerto Rico [in 1997], they started moving them around. Let's say someone from Israel came to the conference; they would bring it to their city."
Gueits credits the globalization of salsa (aside from its catchy beats and mesmerizing hip action) to Cuba's Communist regime and the thousands of citizens who fled the island in search of political asylum: "There are a lot of Cubans who live in Europe. Since then, salsa started growing. It's an explosion."
The aforementioned Willie Rosario, who turned a sprightly 85 years old last month and will celebrate a half-century of música at this year's MSC, has a different take on salsa's expansion.
"The word 'salsa' is like an umbrella," the timbales maestro explains. "It carries many rhythms. For instance, I used to play [different variations of salsa like] guaguancó, guaracha — those were classified individually, but they all originated in Cuba and fall under salsa. It's one of those rhythms that are known all over the world.
"The question of change," he continues, "there hasn't been much. In [the mid- to late-'80s], there was romantic salsa — those, like Gilberto Santa Rosa and Rey Ruiz, who emerged from an orchestra as a soloist — but there isn't much of a difference because the rhythm and percussion is the same."
While Rosario believes salsa's permanence has a lot to do with its commitment to el ritmo, he looks at the past to really understand its international reach.
"The Fania All-Stars helped a lot," he says, "but in the era of mambo — which falls under that umbrella of salsa — Americans knew a lot about it. There was a famous club in New York, the Palladium. A lot of movie stars, like Marlon Brando, would all go there to see mambo," thus turning it into a global trend, one that has never gone out of style.
But Gueits' mission isn't to find a textbook explanation for salsa's global influence. Instead, his purpose is to keep salsa alive in the Magic City para la gente.
"People like ourselves who live in Miami, we take being Latin for granted," he admits. "In Europe, they all wanna be Latino. At the congress, you'll see a lot of Europeans wearing their guayaberas. We take salsa for granted. But salsa is very big. It's a multibillion-dollar business."
More than about el dinero, though, the MSC "is so much about keeping a culture alive," Gueits says.
"Salsa is still kicking butt," he laughs. "When I was a little kid, I used to dance at my family's parties. They would put on Celia Cruz, El Gran Combo [de Puerto Rico], Willy Chirino — that's always stayed in my blood. I have a passion for it. I'm keeping it alive."
The 14th-Annual Miami Salsa Congress. Produced by Salsa Lovers. Wednesday through Sunday, July 29 through August 2, at the Deauville Beach Resort, 6701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-865-8511; deauvillebeachresortmiami.com. Weekend party, workshop, and full-day passes cost $85 to $320 plus fees. Visit miamisalsacongress.com.