Salsa smoothie is the real deal

8:23am Monday 2nd June 2008

By Mike Pryce

YOU wouldn't have thought there was much an ex-carpenter from the village of Stoke Heath, just north of Droitwich, could have taught the people of Cuba, a Caribbean island just south of Florida, about the art of salsa.

But having packed away his spirit level and screwdriver, John James - he hyphenates the name now because it looks more showbiz - has become the real deal on the dancefloor.

Talk about coals to Newcastle, this is high stepping it to the Havanans in some style.

John-James recently came fourth in an international dance competition at the world renowned Salsa Cafe in Havana and has held salsa classes all over Cuba.

He's welcomed like a native wherever he goes and loves the place to bits.

Now his claim to fame extends well beyond knowing the family of Trudie Styler, the wife of pop star Sting, who also live in Stoke Heath.

But his journey from jobbing chippy to salsa smoothie has been circuitous to say the least.

"I've always loved magic," he began, which slightly threw me as that appeared to have nothing to do with carpentry or dancing.

It became clearer when J-J explained that although he trained and worked as a carpenter straight from school, he had always had a "second life" as an entertainer, working the clubs, pubs and parties, weekends and evenings as a magician.

"I first got hooked on magic as a child," he added. "I just loved doing the tricks."

However, by his own admission, his manual magic act was not exactly Paul Daniels. "It was below average," he said. "The sort of thing a seven-year-old child could work out."

Then he discovered mind magic - mind reading, auto suggestion and psychology - and everything shot up several gears.

He went on courses to become a hypnotherapist, psychotherapist and a certified practitioner of neuro linguistic programming. He's got more letters after his name than Alistair Cooke.

This led to John-James working the cruise ships as a kind of nautical Paul McKenna. In the course of his adventures, this Sinbad the Psychic stopped off at many ports in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, one of which was Cuba.

"I was entranced by the island as soon as I landed," he enthused. "The people, the scenery, it was all so intoxicating."

The dancing too.

"I found people would dance just about anywhere. In cafes, in the street, in hotels, in their homes. There always seemed to be music and dancing. In Cuba, people dance like we would hold a conversation. They need no excuse. It's woven into the fabric of their lives. They hear music and they dance. Almost with anyone who happens to be around at the time. There's Dirty Dancing everywhere. It's infectious."

To start with, J-J booked himself a two-week holiday on Cuba, during which he learned more about the dance they were all doing and when he returned home he took salsa lessons in Birmingham.

By the time he went back to Cuba a couple of years later, he was an expert. This time he stayed for six months and really got in the groove, travelling the island taking part in dance contests and giving lessons.

At this point you may wonder why a nation that dances as naturally as the English discuss the weather needs any tuition on the dancefloor, but there is an explanation.

"Salsa has many forms and styles," J-J said. "There's the New York salsa, the LA salsa etc etc. In Cuba it is very free flowing and organic, almost improvised as you go along, with few set boundaries. A bit like comparing a jazz session with a routine pop song. In Birmingham I had learned Puerto Rican salsa, which has its own style and they found new and interesting in Cuba."

Presumably for the reason that although they are near neighbours in the Caribbean, not too many people would emigrate from Puerto Rico to Cuba. They'd rather go to America.

Anyway, John-James from Stoke Heath became something of a salsa sensation on Cuba. Now he's back home, he's spreading the word over here and currently runs 15 classes a week throughout Worcestershire and the West Midlands, including Bushwackers and Drummonds in Worcester.

Even in care homes and nursing homes. "No one is too old," he said. "One lady I teach is 92."

There's a website newsalsa-salsa.co.uk that explains everything and shows some of the moves.

"One of the good things about salsa is that you can dance it outside just like they do in Cuba," he added. "On patios, terraces, in courtyards, on lawns, anywhere."

So this summer you can push the Celia Cruz CD in the player and salsa round the barby with anyone you fancy. Just watch your chippolatas don't catch fire.

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