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.
“I couldn’t believe it was big as it is,” Asante says, laughing. “It’s so huge and the people that are here and have achieved fame, just the level of respect and love that is given to salsa teachers. It’s just a whole ‘nother world over here. It’s crazy that I really learned how to salsa in Japan.”
At the party, she met Ami Palmer, a Canadian who would later found a dance company called Salsa Revolution. After getting to know each other, the two agreed to an exchange of sorts. Palmer would give Asante more formal salsa training while Asante would serve as one of the company’s choreographers, fusing African body movement, jazz and hip-hop with formal salsa. The company comprised over 20 Japanese members, a smattering of Canadians and Australians and Asante—the sole American. It was during those long hours of rehearsal that Asante began to penetrate the social armor her Japanese colleagues wore in public settings, as they united for a common purpose and mutual passion.
Japanese salseros approach salsa with technical precision. Asante describes how they deconstruct each movement into the exact foot positioning, into each lumbar movement. “It’s rare to see a missed step if you know what to look for, but as far as the passion goes, you can’t teach that,” she says. And it’s that fire, salsa’s hallmark, which Asante feels is missing from most Japanese salsa.
"In Japanese culture you're not really supposed to have passion," Asante says, basing her theory on her time working in the Japanese school system. "You aren't supposed to raise your hand unless you're sure you know the answer, [but] you're kind of made to feel like an outcast if you're too smart," she says. "The nail that sticks up and gets hammered down? That's absolutely Japan." So perhaps it's not a coincidence that this passionate art form has taken hold of Japan? "It connects people in a way that they want to be connected," she says.
And salsa definitely provided a much needed connection for Asante. In addition to her work with her salsa company, Ameenah began teaching Latin and African dance. Her loyal students followed her, at times traveling far out of their way to do so. Over time, her visibility grew and cries of “Ameenah Sensei!” became a regular part of her personal soundtrack whenever students recognized her on the train, in restaurants or on the street.
And it's this feeling of validation and reverence that has kept Ameenah in Japan for the last seven years. It is what anchors her there for the foreseeable future. "Japan is one of the few places in the world I can be respected for what I do," she says, echoing the sentiments of other African Americans who have found their skills respected in Japan. "As a black woman when I walk out of my door, I’m looked at as a foreigner. I go into the store they aren’t looking at me trying to figure out if I’m going to steal something. It’s just curiosity about who I am as a human being, and it’s fabulous.
“I was so angry growing up, with all of the racial garbage there is in the States and coming to Japan was so freeing."
So Asante continues to put down roots in Japan, with her Ghanaian husband, whom she met in Japan and their two small children.
Back in Salsa Caribe, Asante is still on the move. “I’m definitely not a sitter,” she laughs. “I’m there to dance; I love to dance; you can’t get me off the dance floor.”
Ashleigh Braggs is a writer, formerly based in China, struggling with the transition back to life in her home country. Follow her on Twitter.