Japan's Salsa Sensation

How a black American dance enthusiast created a name for herself as a salsa teacher in Japan.

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The only light in Salsa Caribe shines from the buds of red, blue and green lights strung around the room. A man croons in Spanish, accentuated by horns. Tangles of bodies fill the dance floor, but the Cuban servers can still weave smoothly in and out of the crowd. At midnight on Saturday the club still permeates with cool, early evening energy. More talented dancers can eke out space for their elaborate movements. Experience manifests itself in the shoulders and knees. And Ameenah—the dancer who agreed to bring me into this world tonight—has joints that move together in fluid concert.

 

She glides from partner to partner, the only black woman on the floor. The first, a lanky man with shiny, dark hair, lunges dramatically and shimmies his chest slightly off beat. Ameenah gently leads him into a back-to-back turn. Her next partner with almond-shaped eyes has no trouble keeping up with Ameenah’s intricate movements, though slightly stiff. Their arms form a wheel of spinning dark and light flesh above their heads.

This is not Havana, or even New York. This Salsa Caribe rests in the heart of Tokyo’s nightlife district, Roppongi. And tonight dozens of scenes like this one will unfold. Japan’s standing as a “hub” for salsa in Asia rises every day. International talent flock to the capital; specialist publications cover the dance form as a swelling number of aspiring dancers scour the city for classes.

For Ameenah Shareef Asante, salsa came naturally: She’s a trained dancer who’s studied a wide range of techniques, including African, ballet, jazz, hip-hop, Flamenco, Latin, Brazilian and Caribbean dance. Armed with sharp language skills honed in her college Japanese classes, the East Lansing, Mich., has created a name for herself as a salsera and teacher. Ameenah is convinced that she has created a niche for herself that she could not carve anywhere else, even in the States.

Originally, she moved to Fujinomiya—a rustic town of over 122,000 people located at the bottom of Mount Fuji—to teach English, as well as jazz and hip-hop dance, to elementary and middle school students in 2002. There, she caught her first glimpse of Japan’s salsa world while watching the Japanese equivalent of the public access channel. She saw an announcement for a salsa party in the same prefecture where she lived. And so she went, only to be shocked at what she found, a packed party filled with highly skilled salsa dancers.