Oakland con Salsa 

The Bay Area Salsa Congress has an East Bay tilt this year.

The fourth Bay Area Salsa Congress gets under way at the Oakland Convention Center at the Marriott Hotel this Friday. For producer-dancer Michelle Castro, who lives in Campbell, finding the right location has been difficult. Since she and partner Richard Sanchez collaborated with Los Angeles promoter Albert Torres to initiate this Bay Area amateur and professional Latin dance competition in 2001, it's been hard to put everything happening under one roof.

"We've done it in San Francisco for the past few years, but there are too many obstacles," Castro says. "With all the acts and musical performers coming, we wanted to have everything in one place. The hotel, dancing, and workshops as well as easy accessibility to the airport make Oakland the perfect location." Thousands of participants specializing in various styles of salsa ballroom dancing are expected to descend on the East Bay from Friday through Sunday. Headliner musical performers Jose Alberto "El Canario" and Oscar De Leon will be there, along with dancers from around the world.

The Salsa Congresses are internationally produced events, started by Eli Irizarry in Puerto Rico in 1996, to celebrate salsa music and dancing. Albert Torres, a Brooklyn-based New Yorker who has danced in such films as Dance with Me, heard about it and went to one. He dug it so much he brought the event to Los Angeles in 1999. Michelle and Richard, who have been dancing together since 1998, realized the Bay Area needed this type of event, so they approached Torres about organizing one here.

"We felt the Bay Area deserved to be recognized," Castro continues. "This is a huge place for salsa. We have some of the greatest bands and dancers and felt it was time. We had done other events but wanted to do something on a grander scale." What the Bay Area Salsa Congress did was galvanize the many dance teams around here, such as the Pretty Boys and Girls Dance Company, Latin Symbolics, Ricasalsa, Son de Mania, and others. Conducting workshops this year is Alex De Silva, a San Francisco homeboy who garnered fame as the salsa instructor on the television show So You Think You Can Dance. "Thank god for Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance, because it's putting salsa with the recognized ballroom dances," Castro says. "It has always been less respected and considered a street dance. But these TV programs show how salsa dancing has crossed over beyond that."

The kick-off party takes place at Cafe Cocomo in SF on Thursday night, and things get under way at the Oakland Convention Center on Friday, with workshops and an evening dance party with Orquesta La Verdad, Chino Espinosa, and guest DJs. Saturday night singer Jose Alberto "El Canario" brings his powerhouse New York City band for two sets, and Sunday's grand finale features kingpin Oscar De Leon, direct from Venezuela.

Says Castro: "Sunday we have the competition, and that's huge. The winners of this year's competition will be going on to the World Salsa Congress in Las Vegas this December, which will be broadcast by ESPN for the first time. That's my baby, so I hope we pull a lot of people in to come and watch." All the events run until 3 a.m. For details, check out SFSalsaCongress.com

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