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Valencia – dances with Spirit, Satchmo and Collectiva 2017/10/29

The seaside city of Valencia is home to inspiring blues dance teachers and festivals. However during my visit, the blues teachers were away on tour, their social scene dormant. My bad blues timing and lodging over a 12-lane ring road on the fringe of a smelly-yet-trendy immigrant barrio made me wonder if I had made a mistake in coming to Valencia. Luckily a vibrant culture of other dances and arts made up for the blues drought.

Also, the fast-gentrifying neighbourhood of Ruzafa grew on me, thanks to easy cycling access, good cafes and a friendly host. A welcoming Bulgarian lady hosted me... let's call her M. She had previously lived in Cuba and worked as a dancer in the Dominican Republic. Until the 2008 financial crisis, she had worked in real estate. M. said  that permanent work is impossible to get in Valencia at her age (46), so she makes her living from Airbnb. She stopped dancing a few years ago due to injury and other issues. In her abundant free time M. is utterly dedicated to learning the flute. She practices constantly but is also considerate, moving to the most distant room when I’m there, to give me more quiet. Her creative spirit also finds expression on her apartment walls– neatly arranged rows of amazing Cuban vintage movie posters. She has a large collection and changes the display regularly. We get on well. After a night or two in her home, I invited her out for a drink to get more intel on Cuba.

M. had lived in Havana for a few years... she says it’s fun for tourists, but a tough place to live. If you can pay for a restaurant meal it's ok, but food shopping means a full day of standing in line in various shops. Getting internet is difficult... you can buy minutes from touts in the park, but they will probably rip you off. It’s hard to find an honest dancer in the Cuban salsa scene
... the men are all in the hunt for a gringa to seduce, a ticket to the free world. 
Having said all that, if you love music and dancing, you must go there, says M. In the countryside it's all reggaeton. In the city, the bars host live Son de Cuba, the sound that brings so many tourists to the island.

On my first night, I walk down Calle de Cuba through the barrio of Ruzafa to get to Valencia city centre. Tonight's band is hosted by the shopping mall to attract custom, so the stage is awkwardly located close to a busy intersection. Still, the band is good and the speakers loud enough to overcome the roar of the traffic. As night falls, I enjoy my first Lindy Hop dances with the friendly Valencia locals, surrounded by a tight circle of onlookers.


The next day I went to the regular Friday social in the Ruzafa home of Spirit of St Louis dance school. ‘Spirit’ boasts a hip and cosy bar, three dance studio floors and a big backyard. Two studios were filled with dancers... a big room for swing, a smaller one for Brazilian forro. The DJs started at 23.30. Soon after I started dancing, a woman came over and greeted me warmly – it was Laura, who I had met dancing swing in Sydney. She has since returned to live in her home country of Spain, in a nearby town. It was nice to see a familiar face, share a photo with our Aussie mates via Facebook. The party was still hopping when I left at 03.00 in the morning.

The next day was a Saturday. I hired a bike to attend two clandestinos: open-air street local social dances. This ride across town took me through historic and beautiful parts of the city. The first clandestino was Lindy Hop – in a lovely sandstone square between museums of art and archaeology. About six or seven couples were dancing most of the time, as the tourists watched us. They smiled, taking photos, enjoying the sweet, swinging jazz. My Sydney acquaintance Laura was there too, and captured a video of me dancing with a local female lead called Bea.

One of the great things about most swing and blues communities in Europe and Australia is a conscious ethos of gender equality and inclusiveness. Your role in the dance is not determined by your gender. Whatever your identity, it’s your choice to lead or follow. However, as each role requires different skills, most people have to stick with whichever role they have learned. To switch roles you must learn both sides of the dance. This can be humbling experience – even after years of dancing, you have to become a beginner again. Nonetheless, it’s widely agreed that to learn both roles makes you a better dance. It’s a much admired skill to be able to switch.

At my request, another video was captured: my dance with Jesus, one of the Satchmo swing school teachers. He had brought the laptop and speaker, by taxi at his own expense, and was DJing the clandestino. He also had the smarts to bring a popup banner inviting all to try swing. I asked him if he got much trouble from the authorities. “Sometimes yes, neighbours call the cops. But so far no trouble at this location.” Good work hombre!

After the dance I had lunch in the famous Plaza de la Virgen. A very handsome man was sitting beside me. The waitress gave me his bill by accident. After I handed it over, I asked he if was visiting town. He said yes, he's visiting Valencia with his wife who is an artist. She's exhibiting an interactive sculpture as part of the Intramurs festival. He showed me a video of a group of people using her large drawing machine. Then I told him about my travels and learned that he and his wife are into 5 Rhythms dancing and contact improv. He invited me to visit them some time in Holland. Sweet!


After lunch, I spent a few hours in the green lung of the city: Antiguo Cauce del Rio Turia. The name explains the odd shape of this narrow park that snakes through the historic centre – it used to be a river bed. I was so happy just to lay down my sarong on lush, clean grass. Above me, stretched the thorny arms of a glorious flowering baobab tree, hugging blue scraps of sky. For company I had a pair of robin redbreasts, a turtle dove, hovering insects feeding on nectar. I did meditation, yoga and muscle rolling on a bed of pink blossoms and clover. Some of these routines are painful, but necessary with so much dance, to manage or avoid injury. A beautiful environment keeps the focus on the outcome: release of tension, pain-free movement. After this workout I always  I feel lighter, less tired and more relaxed.

The Saturday evening swing clandestino was planned at Plaza Benimaclet. To my surprise I found a large, temporary vinyl floor taped to the concrete paving stones. Ambient music played from the big speakers and two couples dressed in typically baggy clothes were dancing contact improv. I had stumbled upon Circuito Bucles... ‘a festival of dance in urban and unconventional spaces.'


When I asked at the information desk if I could join the dance, I was told they were rehearsing for a show. I sat down beside the vinyl floor and one of the dancers invited me to join them. I took off my shoes and rings, threw my bag in the corner with their stuff and joined in the dance. It was a lovely spontaneous moment ...a really nice surprise. I had two great dances with experienced men. A third man was a bit scary... he turned me upside down while holding my arms (my landing gear!) – dangerous over the concrete floor. I ended that dance pretty quickly and then had a lovely dance with a contact novice in a slinky purple jumpsuit.

After Contact, I decided to make my way to the Lindy Hop social which had moved to the studio nearby ...another fine venue, another hour or two of dancing ... and my cup was full. Exhausted, I planned my ride home over dinner. I remembered what a maze the historic centre was during the day, and was relieved to find a bike lane ring around it – a quick and easy ride home.

I had come to Valencia expecting to dive into a vibrant local blues and fusion scene. This did not materialise, but I still had a ball… and I didn't even make it to the beach. Three free dance parties, nature time and friendly people – not bad for one day. Four days in a row of sunshine, free dances and cultural festivals ... thank you Valencia, you rock!


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