A silver of crescent moon hung in the starlit sky. Casuarina branches swayed gently in the balmy sea breeze and in the distance, I could hear the roar of the sea as it pounded the sandy beach.
Fairy lights draped on the wide-spread tree branches made a glittering backdrop for the outdoor stage. The Pulai Desaru Beach Resort was indeed a choice location for the 3rd Malaysian Salsa Festival.
The resort had outdone itself with a lavish buffet of local food and barbecue fare to impress a group of mainly foreign visitors from the US, UK, Australia, Dubai, India and Asean nations of Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. Informal chatter among friends clad in casual beachwear clearly showed how everyone was relaxing at the beach barbecue.
Surrounded by so many svelte bodies well-toned from dancing salsa, the group's favourite form of exercise, the sultry night was certainly heating up!
Sri Melati dancers teach guests ronggeng steps
Salsa is a partner dance and a fusion of traditional African, Cuban and other Latin-American rhythms in different styles including On1, On2, Cuban and Casino de Rueda. This year, the festival had a busy schedule with 32 dance workshops on various styles and levels to teach the finer points in Partner-Work, Lead & Follow, Body Isolations, Footwork & Styling, Tricky Turn Patterns, and Dips, Lifts & Spins.
Dancers also enjoyed learning new moves from different dance genres like cha-cha, hip hop and bachata, a traditional dance from the Dominican Republic.
A new dance is introduced at each event and this year, it was the kizomba. Among the 500 enthusiasts were current five-time world salsa champions, Oliver Pineda and Luda Kroiter, and Ismael Otero, the Million Moves Man from New York and Leon Rose, one of UK's most innovative dance artistes.
In one of the performances that kicked off the Fest, Leon Rose and Susana Montero scorched the stage with a stunning show of graceful gyrations that was absolutely smoking!
At the start, participants thrilled to the grace and beauty of zapin, a traditional Johor Malay folk dance. The energetic moves and enthusiasm of the award-winning Sri Melati dancers certainly set the tone for the next few days of dancing in Desaru. And at the close of the opening show, the audience was invited to join the dancers in a ronggeng, another upbeat traditional Malay dance.
For Susana Montero from Spain, a highly respected dancer, renowned teacher and choreographer in the UK, this was her third visit to Malaysia. When she came for the first festival, she had booked to leave directly after but had seen enough to want to come back and see more of Malaysia.
The next year, she brought her husband and they extended their stay to enjoy a tropical honeymoon in Pulau Pangkor. This year, she came with an even bigger "troupe" - her husband, her parents and a group of seven adult students from her dance academy in London. They plan to travel to Pulau Tioman and other places on an extended 10-day stay.
Sri Melati dancers welcome guests with zapin
She was ready to try the wide variety of Malaysian food but her favourite was noodles, especially prawn noodles. "What a nice place! We love it!" declared Reyno from Bandung, Indonesia.
Echoing Montero's sentiments, Reyno was also delighted with the beautiful beach resort. Reyno, a frequent visitor, said he loved foods like nasi lemak and fish head curry.
He also enjoyed Johor treats like mee rebus and kacang pol but had a chuckle over mee bandung and air bandung which he said were quite unlike that available in Bandung!
The award-winning dancer, who has successfully competed in prestigious international salsa championships, performs and teaches in Bandung and Jakarta. Salsa clearly is his passion and he confided that he would even come to Malaysia for only one night, specifically for a salsa event!
When Lin Hamid discovered the joys of salsa, she managed to squeeze in only four formal lessons with her tight schedule as a flight attendant. But she faithfully practised her routines every night, often in different cities of the world.
These were great opportunities to learn the finer points of salsa from award-winning dancers and she soon made a worldwide network of salsa-loving friends. It all started when Lin asked her friends: "Who wants to join me for a holiday?" As the group gradually grew, she set up Lin Line Production to organise the holidays.
The four-day retreats, always at a beautiful beach resort, are packed with an itinerary of dance workshops, performances, good food, beach barbecues, more dancing.
She would also invite international award-winning salsa instructors to share new techniques with participants. These memorable retreats are now fondly known as Salsa Holidays. They were first held in Cherating in 2006, Lumut a year later and this year, it was held in Desaru, Johor.