PANORAMA - Moving to the rhythm and beat of ... Salsa

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Prospective salsa dancers shuffle in to the warm light of Walla Faces.

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Red Pepper Dance Company founder Chelsie Bonifer mixes with the faces and festivities at Walla Faces tasting room during a night of salsa dancing.

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Coupled with partners that rotate through the dance circle with a clap of hands at the end of each number, salsa dancers keep a close eye on their feet as they learn the sway of new steps.

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Chelsie Bonifer and teaching partner Ian Gregiore lead dancers across the floor.

Sarah Kokernot and Juan Martinez are in love. He holds her hand, she gazes adoringly at him. Neither can stop smiling.

It's fitting, then, that this couple - married eight months - is at Walla Faces on this chilly February night to heat things up with a big dose of salsa. The kind that gets hearts pumping and feet stepping, that is.

The dance with Cuban roots is one of energy and passion, bringing partners together and whirling them apart with the stomp of feet, a clap of hands and the flash of feet, hips and arms.

Despite the economy of movement inherent to its form - most everything happens in a series of three weight changes done in four-beat measure - it's a dance of joy, notes Chelsie Bonifer, founder of Red Pepper Dance Company.

Bonifer teaches salsa in a number of places around the area, and the first Thursday of every month is a regular gig at the Walla Faces tasting room on Main Street.

Salsa, Bonifer explains, is a social style of dance and not just for partners. Although the dance is based in long-ago cultures, it has swept the nation again. "It is an international phenomena in any major city."

People dance to express themselves and salsa is a Latin form of dance through which people can communicate, listen to drums, guitars, wind instruments and move in delight or joy, she added.

Dance events such as "Salsa Congress" - started in Los Angeles - have brought media attention. "There are now congresses all over the world."

Salsa's been in Walla Walla for some time, but reality-show dance competitions have racheted up the public's desire to get moving, she says.

Salsa is a blend of African rhythms and Spanish guitar arguably from Cuba circa 1880s, she says. "Cha-cha, Rueda de Casino salsa, and the Dominican merengue made their way into the United States around the 1950s and developed into styles uniquely East Coast and West Coast."

None of that matters this night at Walla Faces. People begin to filter in at 6 p.m., buying a glass of wine as admission to Bonifer's 30-minute lesson.

She's been at this for about $300 worth of wine, says Donna Boaz, with a laugh.

Seated with Kathy Odekirk - who's newer at this - Boaz explains that the company of other salsa lovers makes it worth coming out in all kinds of weather.

Salsa is just what people do where he is from, says Martinez, 37. The Colombian native is a writer and visiting assistant professor at Whitman College. "At some point in Colombia, someone is going to grab you and drag you onto the dance floor."

While he grades himself as a "terrible" salsa dancer, that's based on the Colombian curve, Kokernot, 29, says, with a grin.

"One of the things that makes salsa is the less you do the better you look," Martinez says. "Some of the best salsa dancers are old men."

Bonifer and her teaching partner, Ian Gregiore, do an excellent job of breaking down the moves for novices without distilling authenticity, the couple agree. "Ian lived in Colombia for awhile. He's as authentic as you can get," Martinez says.

The beauty of the dance is the multigenerational component - lively enough for the young, tame enough for those who might be battling arthritic knees or a sore back. "It is a really good time for all ages and backgrounds. It is so much fun to see people enjoying themselves that way," Bonifer points out. "Dancing is a great low-impact exercise where your brain is stimulated by learning new patterns. It can brighten your emotional, mental, and social wellness. People smile, laugh, engage in the moment and let go of tension, which helps improve your mood and can reflect on your life after you leave the dance floor … dancing is a healthy choice."

Bonifer has been teaching salsa for five years, and her dancing shoes prove it. While the strappy heels look shiny on top, they're wearing out on the bottom, Bonifer concedes. But she's loathe to give them up - in some places, the clothing is as important as the moves.

"It varies throughout the cities of the world. There is everything from casual to flashy. Many devout salsa dancers and salsa vets wear something casual or athletic. Some clubs have a dress code," she explained. "Men wear any shoe that can slide around. Most Latin dancing divas wear a jazz shoe or ballroom heel, and you can never go wrong with a pair of cowboy boots. You can move around like nothin' and you don't have to worry about anyone stepping on your toes."

Her own cowboy boots have been on dance floors from Europe to South America, the instructor says. "And they are still my favorite."

At Walla Faces, the monthly salsa lesson officially ends and the music of Caf Blanco begins, filling the tasting room with a taste of Latin jazz. Band leader Eddie Manzaneres presents the ever-increasing audience with flavors of rumba, samba, bossa nova, as well salsa. Bonifer's most recent students cram the dance floor to create a sea of movement.

She loves it, Bonifer says. "Salsa is a collective way to move through music."

There is every potential salsa dancing will be a great addition to an already-vibrant Walla Walla, Kokernot and Martinez believe. "Absolutely," they echo in one voice.

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