Installment: Tallinn, Estonia by Elliott Hester
on photos for more images of Estonia
finally worked up the nerve to take salsa lessons. But not at a
dance studio in Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Strange
though it may seem, I took my first tentative salsa steps in Estonia
the northernmost of the Baltic States.
this Nordic land of dark brutal winters, summer is as short as the
skirts worn by ubiquitous 6-foot blondes. But while sun can't seem
to melt the stoic Estonian demeanor, salsa's Afro-Cuban rhythms
may have done the trick.
me to explain.
Onton, a 21-year-old Estonian beauty, is a salsa lover. Such provocative
dancing might have been unthinkable from 1944 to 1991 when the country
endured a repressive occupation by the former Soviet Union. Had
couples been caught dancing salsa during the 4-year occupation by
Nazi Germany (1941 - 1944), they might have been arrested by Gestapo
agents. But in 1991, when the yoke of communism lifted and Estonia
gained its long-awaited independence, the country began to change.
language and culture were no longer suppressed. Bananas, a previously
unattainable fruit, suddenly appeared in local supermarkets. MTV
began broadcasting. And on one fateful day nearly 7 years ago, Miguel
Verdecia arrived in Tallinn, the capital. "I was working at the
Eeslitall Hotel in Old Town when I first saw him," says Triinu.
walked into a ballroom and there were all these people dancing to
this incredible music. A good-looking guy [Miguel] was in front,
showing the dance steps to everyone."
began Triinu's love affair. Not with Miguel (the Cuban dance instructor
is married to a Finnish woman), but with salsa music, dance, and
took dance classes with Miguel and joined a local club for salsa
devotees. She immersed herself in salsa music and practiced the
dance steps relentlessly. She enrolled in a language course and
learned to speak Spanish fluently, thanks in part to hours spent
deciphering lyrics from hundreds of salsa tunes. And while other
Estonian girls her age tripped to the latest techno music, Triinu
danced the night away to the music of Los Van Van, one of Cuba's
most prolific bands. Her favorite singer? Celia Cruz, the undisputed
Queen of Salsa.
time, the young Estonian grew to worship the aging Cuban singer
and her music. In 2001 she spent a fortune on a ticket to what would
be Celia's final concert in Helsinki, Finland, and one of her last
performances ever (the singer died in July, 2003, at the age of
78). But shortly before one of the most anticipated moments of her
life, Triinu seriously injured her knee in a bicycle accident. A
doctor told her she may never dance again.
the day of the concert Triinu ignored her doctor's orders and removed
the metal leg brace she'd been forced to wear. She slipped into
a sexy dress, rode the high-speed ferry across the Baltic Sea from
Tallinn to Helsinki, and then limped into the auditorium to watch
her idol perform. Inspired by sizzling salsa sounds belted out by
the legendary singer and her band, Triinu danced all night on a
knee that would soon require surgery.
was worth it," she says. "I live to salsa."
first met Triinu during a visit to Tallinn two years ago. She immediately
invited me to Club Havana, a restaurant/dance club where she had
recently begun giving salsa lessons to fellow Estonians.
in sweat in front of a dozen students, she motioned for me to join
her on the dance floor. Embarrassed, I retreated to a far corner
of the room and watched the lesson from a distance.
during my current trip to Tallinn, I loosened up.
tropical murals on the interior walls, Cuban-themed Club Havana
seems glaringly out of place among the 14th-century cathedrals and
bell towers of Tallinn's renovated Old Town. I left the quiet cobblestone
streets, stepped inside the club and into a powerful wave of salsa
music that seemed to roll in from the faraway Caribbean.
was Friday night in the Baltics. Salsa Night! The club bulged with
Tallinn's small but devoted Latin-loving crowd. While the few expert
dancers twisted and turned expertly with their partners, a larger
number of wannabes, me included, tried in vain to move our feet
one, two, three, four; one, two, three, four; in tune to the scorching
who now moves like a panther, was there as well. Led by a tall blond
Estonian who resembled Swedish actor Dolf Lundgren but worked his
hips a bit (just a bit) like Puerto Rican crooner Ricky Martin,
she spun around the dance floor as if roller blades had been attached
to her high heels. Miguel was there too, having arrived from Helsinki
with Carlos Correa, a fellow Cuban salsa instructor at Baila Baila
(www.bailabaila.fi), one of Finland's premier Latin dance schools.
the two salsa experts form "Miguel and Company," and conduct a series
of "salsa nights" at Club Havana. Both men took turns at the D.J.
booth. They would cue up a record, let it spin, and then leap onto
the dance floor in perfect step with a conga line that might have
been in San Juan or Santo Domingo, if not for the preponderance
of blonde-haired, blue-eyed salsa dancers who spoke with Estonian
was good enough to spend a few moments assisting the salsa-challenged.
She danced beside me, imploring me to follow her lead. But in the
end, Miguel beckoned her to center stage and they showed everybody
how salsa should be danced.
for Triinu's troubled knee? Judging by the hours she spent twirling
on the dance floor, it seems to be working just fine.
here for more images of Estonia
stop: Riga, Latvia.
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