Istanbul International Dance Festival

For the very first time ever, I went to a salsa congress on a party pass. I might be a convert. Normally, I am the sort of mad thing who buys a full pass and attends every class, watches every show, and dances as close to every song as she can from the start of the party to the time she physically collapses. But after a trip to Milan wherein I saw no more of Milan than a hotel and an airport, I decided to try a new strategy on my trip to Istanbul.

A friend, who I met in 2012 at the Puerto Rico Congress has been bugging me about coming to the Istanbul Festival for as long as he’s known me, and every year I’ve missed whether because exams, or money, or simply being on the wrong side of the world, but this year, I decided it was time.

So I bought the expensive plane ticket and I bought the congress pass and I decided that since I’d never been to Turkey before, it only made sense to spend the days sightseeing and the nights dancing. I have no doubt that the classes were wonderful, but I have absolutely no regrets. I saw most of the major sights (I won’t go into the details here, but I’d highly recommend the Chora Church and a boat ride up the Bosphorus), ate a ton of delicious food, and managed to feel functional and human for the duration of the festival.

The Festival

As for the festival itself, well, it was wonderful. The pre-party featured two live musical acts and though one was a bit too Cuban and the other a lot too reggaeton for my dancing taste, it was an absolute treat to watch and to dance to live latin music again. The following night featured another live band La Maxima 79 who were absolutely great fun. Their charismatic front man, Fabrizio Zoro, is exactly the Italian you’d imagine leading a salsa band, and their set was an excellent mix of romantica and classica with some stellar piano from the band leader, Tony Velardi. Though there was no more live music for the rest of the festival, any live music at all is a welcome addition to European congresses.

The Shows

In terms of shows, there were some stunning pieces by Tropical Gem, Grupo Alafia, Group Aura, and a variety of Turkish and Italian couples, there were also a fair few that perhaps were not quite ready for an international congress stage. I suspect that Istanbul could benefit greatly from an afternoon show or two where they could continue to support the growth of amateur artists, while also reducing the length of the evening shows.

I was also somewhat baffled by the use of themes in the shows. The Friday night’s Red Carpet theme was carried off beautifully with the performers coming to the stage down a red carpet through the audience with all the photographers playing paparazzi, but then on the Mythical White Night Saturday, things got a little strange. The premise was that the world had lost all musicality and creativity and what was left had been sealed in the book of musical legends guarded by magical creatures and accessible only to the pure of heart. As a result, interspersed throughout the evening were birds, Na’vi, and other creatures dancing around the stage with the white clad dancer who was presented as ‘pure of heart’. There was nothing wrong with the contemporary/jazz/broadway dancing that was done, but I just felt that it was a little out of place at a salsa festival and really didn’t add to the evening. Perhaps I’m just too much of a purist.

But back to the shows themselves. Tropical Gem was electric. They always are, but I am always amazed by the energy, charisma, and sheer strangeness that they blend so well into every show. I was also charmed by Grupo Alafia’s latest number with Terry as a guest, and might maybe have a new salsa girl crush.

I haven’t had a new salsa girl crush since 2012 when I saw Fiorella Franceschini dancing in Puerto Rico. I would die to have her charisma and her style and every time I see her dance (even socially, as in Milan), I am in awe. Now I’ve seen lots of other female salsa dancers with incredible training and ability, but none of them have struck me like her, none of them until Ezgi Zaman.

On the Saturday night, Ezgi performed a beautiful contemporary number on the theme of preventing violence against women. I was impressed but didn’t connect to it as a dancer (being completely incompetent in anything contemporary). The next night however, she hit the stage with a solo and I was smitten. It was so musical and so clean! I mean there were also things that were brilliant and acrobatic that this body will never be able to pull off, but the musicality, that I want. So now I have two salsa idols. One Italian, one Turkish. I should probably find a New Yorker and a Puerto Rican to adore, but for now, Fiorella and Ezgi are it!

The Dancing

After the shows, of course there was social dancing. I’d been warned by a Turkish friend here in Dublin that the local level in Istanbul was not very high, but apparently when the best from the whole country turn up with a sprinkling of Taiwan, a touch of Singapore, and a whole passel of other Mediterraneans, the level is raised.

Though I was alarmed to find that many of the Turkish On2 performers did not dance chachacha, I did have some absolutely spectacular On2 dances. There were tall leads a-plenty and if you were willing to pass on the really popular fellows, there were lots to go around. I had hoped to also dance with some of the international pros but it was a bit of a revolving door for them there so I decided to take a step back.

It seems that in Europe, most dancers have no compunction about grabbing the pros for a dance no matter the difference in level. I suppose that they are brave for doing it and I’m sure it does improve their dancing, but I could not help but see how laborious it seemed for the pros. Most came for a few dances and then fled the ballroom. Those few that stayed longer spent the night looking hassled and exhausted, never having a chance to leave the floor for a sip of water or even a moment’s rest. I could not bring myself to contribute to their suffering.

It may seem elitist and unfriendly but I like the hierarchy that exists in New York and Puerto Rico; it means that we all get to watch the pros social dance and it means that when we reach that level, we still have the chance to dance with our peers and near superiors rather than spending our entire night being bored or being injured by dancers attempting to do things that they know we can but perhaps they are not yet able to do. I foresee a blog on this topic in the near future but, until then, you’ll have to trust that I am not saying this out of elitism and I have agreed with this since the days when I was a beginner who had no right to trouble any level of performer.

The Kizomba

Now in addition to the salsa, I did find myself dancing a bit of sensual. On the Thursday, I was staying in a hostel some 10 minutes from the venue, so when the main ballroom was being cleared after the shows, having nothing better to do, I headed downstairs to the sensual room. It was a real mix but I had two very nice Kizombas and a smattering of nice bachatas before I trotted back to the salsa room.

Then on the Sunday night there was a charity event which somewhat impeded the dancing in the main ballroom and lead to the playing of a bachata. I happened to be talking with a Turkish fellow from Germany when the bachata started and somehow we ended up dancing. I haven’t had a bachata that good in ages. His lead was absolutely crystal clear and he was strong enough that my balance was never compromised no matter how fast we transitioned or how little of my weight was over my feet.

Having been won over by the bachata, I consented to head down to the kizomba room for a bit of casual instruction. I’ve thus far resisted learning kizomba, but when a really good lead offers to teach you a bit on the dance floor? Well you don’t exactly say no. And boy was I glad I didn’t. Half a dozen songs later, he was convinced I’d been lying when I said I didn’t know kizomba, and I was a ball of blissed out putty in his hands. Sometimes you just connect with someone and everything feels so right the lead is almost telepathic.

Sweaty and aware that we were probably reaching a number of dances in a row that might be noticeable we headed towards the door to return to the main ballroom in hopes that the salsa DJs were back on the decks but, before I even left the floor, there was a hand on my arm and I was being lured back in. I did take a quick break to dry and rearrange my kizomba-hair-disaster but then I was back, dancing with the lovely local lead from Thursday. We danced much more simply than the previous, but his embrace was cozy and comfortable and his lead was clear enough for me to avoid embarrassing myself with my ignorance of any kizomba step at all, so I just snuggled in and enjoyed the ride.

Another half-dozen songs later I finally headed back up to the salsa wondering how I’d managed to spend nearly an hour in the kizomba room. I won’t say I’m a convert, but I’m much more open to the possibility of an enjoyable kizomba these days. I can certainly see the appeal, especially if you like your partner.

The Verdict

And then it was over. Monday had come and it was a flight back to Dublin for me. With heavenly food, a divine hotel (my only complaint was having to pass outside to reach the festival space on rather chilly nights), and endlessly lovely, friendly dancers, I would recommend Istanbul to anyone who wants an interesting vacation garnished with live music and solid selection of higher level On2 performers and social dancers.

Nearly recovered,
The Salsa Girl

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