It Makes You Move!

Put on your dancing shoes and get ready for Salsathon, a colorful celebration of Latin dance, music, food and culture. Is it just us, or is it getting hot in here?

Friday - June 17, 2005
By Norise Jastillana
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Latin rhythms run deep for Hawaii Salsathon coproducer and coordinator Nancy Ortiz — just check her pulse.

“I always feel the salsa beat in my heart,” exclaims the executive director of the Hispanic Center of Hawaii, which stages the Salsathon as a fundraiser each year. “It’s infectious, the rhythm. The music keeps you happy. It makes you move!”

There’ll be plenty of motion at Salsathon 2005, showcasing both Mainland and local talent along with Latin foods, arts and crafts, and exhibits Saturday at McCoy Pavilion. Now in its fifth year, the Salsathon is a salute to Hispanic culture, arts and community in Hawaii.

“This year we’ve got performers from New York, L.A., San Francisco, Texas,” Ortiz says of the annual event that commemorates El Dia de San Juan, a celebration of St. John the Baptist in Puerto Rico.

“I’m very, very proud of my heritage,” says the Hawaii native of her Puerto Rican roots. “I may not be from Puerto Rico, but that is my heritage.”

Though salsa arose from African rhythms in Cuba in the 1930s, the dance has taken many shapes and forms as it has moved through cultures and countries, particularly Puerto Rico. Salsa is unique in that it incorporates steps from many other dances, including the cha cha, mambo, rumba and other Latin styles, and now even hip-hop and reggae rhythms and moves.

Salsa first traveled to the U.S. with Latin American immigrants settling in major metropolitan New York, Miami and Los Angeles. It has since spread around the world, including Hawaii, where Hispanics comprise 10 percent of the population.

“I was always fascinated with salsa because it’s happy, positive music,” says Aloha Rumberos founder Judah Oschner, aka Da Lion of Judah, a Kailua native of part-Spanish ancestry who grew up around Hispanic music, but started dancing hip-hop at age 16. “I didn’t pick up the salsa until 1998. Then I went to my first salsa congress in L.A. I thought, ‘That’s it. I found it. That’s what I want to do.’”

Aloha Rumberos, a “millennium-style” salsa dance group that combines traditional steps with hip-hop moves, will be in the local lineup Saturday. Formed in 2002, the group was influenced by L.A.-based “millennium salsa” — a fusion of hip-hop, pop locking, breaks and lots of flashy techniques. For the Salsathon, the group will perform its new Star Wars routine that incorporates light sabers and capoeira, a form of Brazilian martial arts.

Aloha Rumberos member Maika Hill- Higgins, who grew up in Hilo, may look haole but insists she’s “a Latina at heart.” Dancing since childhood, she took her first salsa class as a UH student. Both she and Oschner have studied with millennium salsa originators Edie and Al Espinosa, L.A.-based dancers who will perform at the Salsathon as well as offer workshops Sunday and Monday.

“For me, salsa is stress-relief, fun, pleasure — it makes me sane,” explains Hill-Higgins, who also likes the “etiquette” that’s part of Latin dance culture. “It’s a social dance. Men have to be respectful and ask you to dance. And you get dressed up to go dance.”

All have observed salsa’s growing popularity over the last four years among people of diverse backgrounds. “There’s somewhere to dance almost every night of the week,” adds Hill-Higgins. Venues regularly showcasing salsa and Latino music include Zanzabar and Rumours nightclubs (both offering free lessons), Panama Hattie’s, Che Pasta, Club C’est La Vie and Esprit Nightclub.

The Salsathon is just one of many activities for Ortiz. This mother and grandmother also directs the non-profit Hispanic Center of Hawaii, runs Alma Latina Productions, hosts the weekly radio show Alma Latina, writes a magazine column called “Hispanic Scoops” and volunteers for numerous community organizations.

“If you give,” she says, “it always comes back to you in other ways, don’t you think?”

So it seems for Ortiz.

One of four children, she was born in Aiea and grew up in Foster Village. Her grandparents were part of the first wave of Puerto Rican plantation workers to arrive in Hawaii in the early 1900s. They settled on the Big Island, where her parents were born, met and married.

“I was the oldest child so I kept all the traditions,” says Ortiz, the only sibling who remembers her grandmother, who died when Ortiz was 6. “My grandmother taught us to take care of our family no matter what, and to show respect and love,” she remembers. “We never had much, but we had love for each other and that’s the most valuable thing.”

Ortiz was a member of Radford High School’s first graduating class and remains active, serving on the alumni board. After graduation, Ortiz moved to San Francisco to attend Heald Business College, returning to Hawaii after two years. Ortiz worked at a number of financial institutions before health problems forced an early retirement after 15 years with Pearl Harbor Federal Credit Union.

Ortiz admits that she’s busier now than ever. “I’m going 24/7. Even though I have scoliosis, I’m on no medication. This is my medicine,” she says of her work in support of salsa and Hispanics in Hawaii.

And despite two knee surgeries, she’s still dancing. “Oh, yes! The doctor said I’d never dance again, but I proved him wrong!”

Nancy Ortiz: ‘keeping traditions’

Always an active member of Hawaii’s Puerto Rican community, Ortiz got her first exposure to radio as a teenager when she was asked to do commercials on KAHU. That “gift of gab,” as she calls it, led to a radio show for KISA, where she stayed for 17 years before moving to Hawaii Public Radio station KIPO. Now at KWAI 1080 AM, Ortiz is still hosting Alma Latina, Latin Soul in Spanish, from 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays. It’s the longest running Latin music radio program in the Pacific. “I love it,” she says of her time in the studio each week. “I’m so happy. My whole life comes alive. Even when I’m doing the radio show by myself, I’m up dancing.”

Her on-air visibility led to lots of requests from listeners for recommendations for performers. That interest launched Alma Latina Productions, an entertainment promotion company that Ortiz owns, operates and manages. Alma Latina Productions is responsible for bringing salsa and Latino groups to Hawaii from Puerto Rico, New York and Los Angeles as well a promoting local talent such as Rolando Sanchez and Salsa Hawaii and Tommy Valentine y Sus Amigos.

Around 1990, someone suggested that Ortiz stage a “Battle of the Latin Bands,” which showcased musica typica, the traditional music of Puerto Rico, as well as salsa, which was just coming into the islands. The success of this early venture was a catalyst for creation of the Hawaii Salsathon, launched by Latin Lady DJ Margarita in 2001 as a fundraiser for the Hispanic Center of Hawaii, or Centro Hispano de Hawaii in Spanish.

Established in 1998 by Ortiz and three other Hispanic business and community leaders — Jose Villa, Martha Sanchez and Mary Lou Brown — the center has two primary objectives: 1) to serve as an advocate for the Hispanic community by offering service, support and referrals to community organizations and agencies, and 2) to promote Hispanic arts and culture. As volunteer executive director, Ortiz relies on a band of volunteers to accomplish these goals.

“We provide information and referrals, but we do so much more,” says Ortiz of the center, which was established to serve the more than 100,000 Hispanics in Hawaii — approximately 30,000 of them Puerto Rican. “The center serves all Hispanics, even non-Hispanics. We never refuse anyone who needs help.”

Ortiz remembers one such case: a woman from Peru with a very sick child.

“The mother had a very hard time speaking English, and the daughter was very, very ill — and there were no monies. I was able to call The Queen’s Medical Center, and they said they’d get her a translator. The little girl had pneumonia and was in the hospital for four days.”

About a week later, Ortiz was “teary-eyed” when the mother came back with a basket of little goodies to thank her.

“Nancy is a tireless, model person,” says Latin Lady DJ Margarita, whose Latin Lady Enterprises now co-presents the Salsathon with Ortiz on behalf of the center. “If I talk about her I’ll start crying. She’s taught me a lot. Nancy is the Hispanic Center of Hawaii. She’s dedicated her body, heart and soul for no compensation. You don’t find that kind of dedication much.”

Ortiz is also active in many community organizations, among them: the United Puerto Rican Association of Hawaii, Puerto Rican Heritage Society, Hawaii Latino Health Advisory Board, Prevent Child Abuse, Hawaii Music Awards, and the American Business Women’s Association- Punahele Chapter, which named her Woman of the Year in 1997. “I’m really proud of that because those are my peers,” she says.

She married her husband, retired Navy Master Chief John Albert Ortiz, 25 years ago after hiring his band to play at a function. Ortiz is bringing her daughter and a granddaughter into the business, she says, “I’m trying to keep it in the family.”

In her rare “down time,” the Kaneohe resident enjoys “hanging out” with her family, she says, “We enjoy each other, we laugh a lot.”

And they dance salsa, of course.


Hawaii Salsathon 2005

Saturday, June 18 11 a.m.-7 p.m. McCoy Pavilion, Ala Moana Beach Park Donation: $10 in advance, $15 at the door; $5 active military and seniors 60- plus; free for children age 12 and under

Featuring Conjunto Tropical, Tommy Valentine y Sus Amigos, Son Caribe, Luisito Rosario (New York), Conjunto Alegre (California), Edie and Al Espinoza (California), Son D’ Hawaii, Dream to Dance, Aloha Rumberos, Tango Hawaii, Capoeira Hawaii, Salseroso’pele, The University of Hawaii Latin Dance Club, LA Salsa Kids (California), Baile Folklorico Tropical (Texas).

The family-friendly event also offers Latino and local foods and refreshments, party jumps, arts and crafts, product booths and face painting. Advance tickets on sale at Hispanic Center of Hawaii, 941- 5216; Alma Latina Productions, 285-0072; Mercado de la Raza, 593- 2226; and United Puerto Rican Association of Hawaii, 847-2751. For information, call Nancy Ortiz at 941-5216 or Latin Lady DJ Margarita at 318-4299.

Other Salsathon 2005 Festivities

Salsathon 2005 Preview Conjunto Alegre and salsa dance performances by “LA Salsa Kids” Friday, June 17 7:30-8:30 p.m. Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center / Free

Salsa Dance Concert

Showcasing headliners from Salsathon 2005 Saturday, June 18 9 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Kapono’s, Aloha Tower Marketplace $10 in advance; $15 at the door (21 and over)

Father’s Day Celebration & Salsathon 2005 Aloha Party

Salsa with Son Caribe and other Salsathon 2005 artists Sunday, June 19 8:30 p.m.-midnight Esprit Lounge $5 cover charge (21 and over)

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