Never too old to salsa in Colombia

Scores of dance clubs for seniors, called viejotecas, are now drawing younger dancers to its classic rhythms.

By , Contributor

This tropical city is notorious for its sultry weather and hot salsa dancing. It's a place that conjures visions of palm trees, nightclubs, and beautiful young people.

But these days, it's Cali's seniors who set the gold standard for salsa.

For more than a decade, dance clubs geared specially to the older set have been on the rise. Called viejotecas, which literally means dance clubs for viejos, or old people, they have become one of Cali's most popular spots for the dancing that makes this city famous.

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But it's not just older people coming out to dance to the classics. Their passion for authentic salsa has reinvigorated the dance for young people, bringing them back to an important part of local culture, while helping preserve it.

"Cali salsa is its own dance; we dance fast, we pick up our feet, and we really know how to turn. It's got its own flavor," says Luz Ayde Moncayo, an award-winning salsa dancer who runs a studio in Cali. According to Ms. Moncayo, the most authentic Cali salsa still happens at the viejotecas, which she calls a "movement and a living cultural record."

The force behind that movement is Carmen Roman, who founded the first viejoteca in Cali, and now registers them. Today, more than 90 of the clubs are officially listed.

"In creating the viejotecas, Carmen Roman helped preserve the heart and soul of Cali," says Moncayo. "She constructed a space for our own authentic dance culture, where young people could come to discover classic salsa and make it their own."

On a recent trip to Poliactivo, the first viejoteca she founded, Ms. Roman arrived in an impeccable navy-blue polka-dotted dress, matching pumps, gold jewelry, and enormous sunglasses.

"The elderly here in Cali are very well organized; we have over 600 groups for senior citizens," she says. "So when I was given a large space to administer as a senior center in the early '90s, I realized that we could do a lot more than calisthenics."

The idea was simple: the viejotecas would open early, charge a few dollars for admission, and play classic salsa records. Seniors had to show identification proving they were over 40 to get in. Roman says at first only single female retirees showed up. But then men started coming, and it began to look like a regular club.

"But we always maintained decorum and decency," says Roman. "That's the mark of a real viejoteca. I've been known to kick people out for dancing too close." As she pulled up to Poliactivo, a two-story cement and tile senior center, salsa music pulsed through the air. At 4 p.m., the space already held several hundred people, mostly seniors.

On the dance floor, an elderly fedora-hatted man turned slow circles with his wife – who wore a sequined cardigan and brown house slippers – while younger couples did more complicated spins. All the windows were thrown open anda half-dozen ceiling fans lifted some of the humidity.

"This is what we call the tropical vibe," says DJ Silvio Castro, who spins at Poliactivo every weekend. Mr. Castro transitioned into the 1960s classic "Ajiaco Caliente," by Puerto Rican singer Eddy Palmieri, and the dancers kept moving.

One in particular stood out: tall, trim, and dressed head to toe in black, a sharp contrast to his white hair. He and his partner performed expertly synced sashays, sidesteps, skips, kicks, and spins.

Luis Carlos Rojas is a retired sign painter and viejoteca regular. He likes the clubs because they help him stay fit and keep up old friendships; he also says he's glad to see a younger crowd showing up.

Maria Rosa Gonzalez is one of that younger set. "I admire this place because [it] helps people who might feel solitary or lonely as they get older," she says. Ms. Gonzalez plans to continue coming to viejotecas as she, too, grows older.

"It's the music that made Cali, and this is a place for working-class people of all ages who are out to dance," says Gonzalez. "We're not here to dress flashy or be seen."

Even upscale clubs have adopted the tradition, hosting "viejoteca nights" when they charge a fraction of the usual entrance and shelve the pop-influenced salsa of today for the same classics Castro spins at Poliactivo.

Nonetheless, Poliactivo clearly owns the real viejoteca atmosphere. As the sun set, a chandelier of multicolored bulbs flickered on, the salsa heated up, and the gray-haired couples moved closer – though not enough to ruffle Roman, who sipped Sprite at a table with Mr. Rojas.

"There's a saying here that goes, 'For as long as the body endures, there's always willpower to spare,' " said Rojas. "As long as I can, I'm going to keep on dancing."

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