Some like it hot

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 February, 2003, 12:00am

'SALSA IS A SICKNESS. It's spicy and sexy,' warns dance instructor Franky Wong Ka-keung with a slight shudder. 'Once you try it, you'll fall in love. Then you'll be hooked.'

The tall, elegant dance instructor has been under salsa's spell since his student days in Canada. He was the first to promote the dance in Hong Kong, with workshops at the Fringe Club in 1997. Since then the dance has spread like a virus. Last year it was popular enough to warrant the city's first salsa congress. Fifty overseas enthusiasts flew in to join a crowd of 1,000 at Kowloon Bay's Hitec nightclub.

Next week the congress returns to inject some red-hot energy into our post-Lunar New Year chills. The 2nd Annual Hong Kong Salsa Congress kicks off on Wednesday with workshops, performances and dance parties aplenty. With locations scattered around Wan Chai, it threatens to send the district salsa-mad.

Co-organising the event for the second consecutive year, and luring dancing tourists from overseas, is a legendary name in the salsa world: Albert Torres. The New York-born Puerto Rican has become salsa's biggest promoter. For him, organising congresses around the globe is a calling. Like Wong, Torres says salsa is more than just a dance. Salsa, he says, saved his life.

Torres tells his story from his Los Angeles home where he's resting after having successfully organised Hawaii's first salsa congress - culminating in a 5,000-strong beach party on Waikiki. 'People want to call me the 'king of salsa',' says the 46-year- old. 'I prefer 'ambassador of salsa'. A goodwill ambassador who can see that this music is 100 per cent colour blind.'

Torres began his life as a disco and hustle dancer in New York, but reached a pinnacle as a salsa dancer in movies in the early 1990s. He was spotted by actor Antonio Banderas, Michael Peters (choreographer of Michael Jackson's Thriller video) and a gang of Hollywood directors one night in a small Latino club in Los Angeles.

'They walked in and said: 'We'd like you to work on a movie with us.' I said: 'Yeah? I've heard that these kinds of things happen in Hollywood. Here's my card.''

He was hand-picked to be a dancer in cult-flick The Mambo Kings. At the time, Torres was working as a drug counsellor. He had endured a rocky time between New York and LA, as an alcoholic and drug addict, only to ease off the substances and adopt an addiction for gambling. Salsa offered him a new addiction. 'The dance had a lot to do with it. It's a way of becoming addicted to something that's not harmful to you,' he says. 'Salsa is good for the soul. Not only has it changed my life, but ask people from all over the world how it's helped them escape from abusive parents to relationships, to opening doors and fulfilling their dreams.'

He has since pioneered LA Salsa Kids, which pulls youths off the streets, away from drugs and gangs, and he has be-come a successful salsa promoter around the world.

The event in Hong Kong, he argues, is a perfect place for beginners to be introduced to the healing powers of the spicy dance. 'For those who don't dance, it's a fear they need to walk through. Dance is just walking to the rhythm of the music. Everyone can dance in their own way and here you're going to be taking classes with some of the best dancers in the world,' says Torres.

Duplessey-Monic Walker, Torres' niece, will make an appearance. She has danced with Latin music king Tito Puente and salsa star Marc Anthony - and for the congress she brings her partner, the frizzy-haired, New York dance whiz Jose Antonio Medrano. Rudy Zalez (director of Royalty Dance Academy) dances with the stunning Jen Silvas - a recognisable face who has performed with pop stars Pink and Cher and in a host of US advertisements. The pair will tease the crowds with their famed Viagra routine. New York mambo stars Juan Pachanga Matos and Nancy La Chacon Ortiz are also among the long list of international names.

The congress opens at Club Ing on Wednesday, followed by another party at Viceroy in Wan Chai's Sun Hung Kai Centre on Thursday. A formal welcoming party for overseas instructors, performers and local enthusiasts will be held at the Regal Hong Kong Hotel next Friday. All parties are open to the public and cost $150 on the door.

Congress day is February 15 from 9am-5pm in three rooms of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. Hour-long workshops for beginners, intermediate and advanced dancers, are held throughout the day. It only takes three hours for complete beginners to hit intermediate stage, encourages Wong.

A break at 5pm gives participants time to rush home and change into their glittering costumes ('Women should wear the most beautiful dress they can find,' recommends Wong. 'Believe me, it'll be impossible to be overdressed.') At 7.30pm, a show by local and international dancers is staged at the centre, followed by a dance session for the audience. Then comes the steamy after-party at Club Ing and a farewell party the following night at the Viceroy.