A new Latin dance school in Maadi seeks to pump new life into Cairo’s budding salsa scene and put more of Egypt’s aspiring Latin dancers on the international map.
By Dominika Maslikowski
Mihai Banu has been dancing since he was four years old. His first memories of dance are of him swaying and spinning in his family’s home in Ploiesti in 1989, the year of the Romanian Revolution when the country toppled the communist regime. Dancing remained his hobby as he worked through a series of various jobs until 2012, when he discovered salsa and realized that dancing was his life’s passion. The following year, Banu founded the Latin Love Dance School with branches in the Romanian cities of Ploiesti and Campina. The guards at Banu’s local grocer in Romania know him from watching the security cameras, where he’s seen constantly smiling and humming, doing a quick spin before picking up an item.
Last month, on a humid day during Ramadan, the 28-year-old dancer sat in an office in Fustat, preparing for the opening of his dance school’s first Egyptian branch in Maadi. The dusty apartment blocks of Old Cairo are a long way from his native Ploiesti, a small city known for its oil refineries, and he misses his family. Banu had never been to Egypt before, but made the trip on good faith to open the Maadi branch.
“It’s a big risk because there’s a difference between Africa and Europe and a country like ours, but if you don’t take risks you won’t succeed,” Banu says. “I see now as the right moment to do it. The salsa movement here is not very developed. [Egyptian dancers] have a good level of dancing but all of us can improve and make it better. Our main goal is social dancing, but if there are people who are interested in competitions then of course we can help them.”
His Egyptian friends are helping him settle in and working with him to put the finishing touches on a spacious studio that hopes to bring different people together to perfect their dancing and enjoy socializing. Dancing is, after all, an international language, Banu says.
The Cairo school is set to open its doors on August 3 with a three-month long beginner’s dance class that meets three times a week. The class takes students on a dance tour that ranges from simple merengue to more complex Latin dance classics like the lively salsa or the more slow and sensual bachata. The response has been great, Banu says, noting that by mid-July, there were some 450 people registered for the class.
There’s an exam at the end of the class and a diploma, which Banu says isn’t difficult or anything to stress over, and then students can move on to higher classes. The beginner’s class, Banu says, aims to strike a balance between teaching students technique and making their time in the studio relaxing and enjoyable. More advanced students have the option of taking private lessons.
“The difference between our teaching style and others is very simple, but at the same time complicated. We’re trying to make it equal parts of teaching and socializing with people, because if you give people too many technical details they get bored and confused,” Banu says. “At the same time if you joke with them too much, they won’t learn anything. So we combine the two and we make them understand the steps in a fun way. If you come to our dance classes and you want to learn very fast, you start small with basic steps.”
All you need in order to start are a pair of comfortable shoes and LE 200 per person for the first month of classes, but you don’t necessarily need a dance partner. Most people don’t have partners, Banu says, and the students who signed up for the beginner class will be easy to pair up because an equal number of males and females have registered. Those who don’t want to dance with a stranger can sign up a family member to serve as their partner.
While Cairo’s dancing scene is mostly occupied by the young, there are also elderly couples who love Latin dancing. A background in sports or other forms of dance usually helps, but there’s no set answer to how fast a student can expect to become great. Some can advance quickly in months, while others take years. Banu says the important thing is to enjoy the process.
“It’s all about making people happy and making them relaxed,” Banu says. “If you don’t want to go to the gym, you can come and relax after a difficult day and also get some movement. When you go to a gym, you just work out and that’s it. When you’re dancing, you’re burning calories and learning something new.”
The beginner’s class is taught by Banu and his Romanian dance partner and teacher Cristina Simion. They will stay in Cairo for the rest of the year until the studio gets on its feet and then work between Romania and Egypt. Back in Romania, Banu’s dance school has made its mark on the country’s dance scene by taking part in events like the Manifest Life Festival in Campina, the Salsa Place Winterfest Festival in Buzau and the Salsa Linda Dance Fest in Targoviste, among others.
In Cairo, Banu is training a team of instructors who will later teach courses at the school’s Maadi branch. Ahmed Hatem Hussein is one of the instructors-to-be and part of the reason why Banu came to Cairo in the first place.
Hussein, currently the manager of Latin Love Dance School’s Maadi branch, was on a month-long business trip in Romania three years ago and didn’t have much to do. On a whim, he went along with a friend to a salsa class and fell in love with the movements and the atmosphere. Today dancing is like a drug, he says, that he thinks about whenever he hears music. Last year in Romania, he won third place in a salsa dance competition.
Hussein had joined the classes at Banu’s school in Romania when he first started dancing, and the two later met up at salsa events and festivals and became friends. They soon began talking about Banu coming to Egypt to extend his dance school.
Hussein had vowed to advance his technique when he returned to Egypt, but it wasn’t always easy. There’s a good salsa school in the city that taught him a lot, but he says it was difficult to learn other Latin dance styles from top-notch instructors all in one place. Since Egypt is more conservative than Eastern Europe, Hussein says he also faced an array of stereotypes and misconceptions when he took up salsa.
“In Romania they’re more open-minded about this, so the community there is much bigger. The fees are much less than in Cairo, so anyone can dance and you don’t have to be a billionaire. In Egypt, we don’t have a good economy so not everyone can dance,” Hussein says. “Egyptians are also not open-minded, and when you tell them you’re dancing they think it’s belly dancing or something for women. I had friends who said, ‘What is this?,’ and when they tried it they came back with their friends. So never judge something that you’ve never tried.”
There are great salsa dancers in Egypt who improved their skills over years of experience at dance schools and international festivals, the Cairo native says. Dance parties and events are held almost daily in Cairo, but they’re not all successful or have many participants. What makes the Latin Love Dance School different, Hussein says, is that it offers private lessons to advanced dancers and teaches people to move with musicality and rhythm.
While the school is now focusing on getting the beginner’s class going, it also has plans to take Egypt’s more advanced dancers to the next level. Banu says there’s a big Latin festival in Romania in the works for 2015, and he’s already discussing the prospect of bringing some Egyptian dancers along. There are also discussions about the dance school putting on a salsa festival in Cairo that will offer something different than the few already running, Banu adds.
“I think my best quality is not that I’m the greatest dancer or the nicest person,” Banu says. “But it’s that I’ve got the best team in Romania, and I can surround myself with the best people in Egypt.”