AL ASAD, Iraq -- Like a runaway sandstorm, a dance phenomenon is sweeping across the desert air base here, gaining unprecedented momentum with each passing week.
Attracting an amazing diversity of hundreds of servicemembers and civilians each week from countless social backgrounds and ethnic cultures, "Salsa Night" is rapidly transforming Saturday into the most popular night of the week.
Thanks primarily to the initiative and dedication of three Marines serving with Marine Wing Headquarters Squadron 3, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, anyone seeking to become proficient in the fluid Cuban-born dance is now able to, according to Lance Cpl. Giancarlo R. Doria, security platoon, MWHS-3.
"Basically, myself, (Warrant Officer Cynthia Douglas, 3rd MAW Morale, Welfare and Recreation officer) and (Master Gunnery Sgt. Larry L. Minor, 3rd MAW logistics and operations chief) thought of doing something that would get the Marines' minds off of the stress of the everyday work cycle that we have going on out here," said Doria, a 20-year-old native of Miami.
"Salsa was something I've known and been good at teaching since high school," he added, "so I figured I could apply what I know and relate it to something that everybody likes and kill two birds with one stone."
According to Douglas, a 33-year-old New York City native, her Hispanic heritage gave her extra incentive to share the salsa experience with others. "I'm Puerto Rican, so I grew up dancing salsa," she stated. "Dancing at home with family at parties and get-togethers was a part of our culture.
"I brought the idea to (Minor) about starting salsa lessons with Lance Corporal Doria and he said that it was something he always wanted to get into."
Minor, a 45-year-old from Cleveland, commented that the rapid growth of the salsa class each week mirrored his own personal development as a student and now salsa instructor.
"Our classes started out with maybe two or three people," he said. "The instructors started me from the basics and eventually we added more and more people to our class until it grew to the point that we had to find a larger practice area.
"Our instructors took us from knowing nothing to actually looking like we know what we're doing," joked Minor.
The new instructors all concluded that the group atmosphere and energy, combined with ease of learning salsa, is the reason the classes have seen such an explosive expansion within the often-somber combat environment of Iraq.
"It's a fun way of dancing and the music attracts a lot of people, so it's something that they want to learn and be able to do" said Doria, who is of Colombian descent. "The style I teach is called 'Rueda Casino,' which is a Cuban tradition and it's not particularly made for singles.
"It's made for groups dancing salsa at the same time, which allows you to meet more people, as well as dance with a different variety of people who dance different styles. The whole purpose of that is to get everybody together," he added.
"Our students have a real desire to learn salsa," explained Minor, "so it's really not hard to teach them once you get them past the basics. Some pick up the moves quicker than others, depending on the individual, but the bottom line is, no matter how long it takes them, they eventually get it."
"The instructors break it down really simple, so that it's very easy to learn from them," agreed salsa student Sgt. Anna M. Sobecki, radio repair technician, Marine Wing Communication Squadron 38, Marine Air Control Group 38, 3rd MAW. "They're a great group of people who are fun to dance with," said the 24-year old native of Michigan City, Ind.
Since it began in early March, the Saturday night salsa class, as well as the free-for-all boogie session that follows, has given a new meaning to the term "Saturday Night Fever."
"Some people out here count Sundays to make the time go by, but I count Saturdays because that's something I have to look forward to on the weekends," said 20-year-old Cpl. Michael S. Pinta, supply administration clerk, logistics and operations section, MWHS-3. "I get real antsy on Saturday when I'm at work because I'm looking forward to salsa night."
"Salsa is something I've always wanted to learn, but never had the time to do until this deployment," conveyed Warrant Officer Diana Monroe, personnel officer, MACG-38.
"The biggest thing is it indicates the end of the week. People are always complaining that every day is like Monday on deployment, but that's not the case for me because I'm always looking for salsa night," laughed the 39-year-old salsa instructor.
"I got interested in salsa night after hearing about it from co-workers and wanted to see exactly what was going on," smiled first-time participant and 25-year-old New Orleans native, Wendy T. DeLorme, logistics administrator, Kellogg, Brown and Root, Inc. "What I found was a lot of fast dancing, sweating and people enjoying themselves."
"Being born and raised in New York City, I was exposed to plenty of salsa music growing up," recalled Sgt. Maj. Louis M. Espinal, sergeant major, MACG-38, "but this is the first time that I'm trying to learn it and learn it well, so that I can surprise my wife once I get home."
The 42-year-old New Yorker explained that, "Salsa night is going to have a big impact at Al Asad because it's a chance for all Marines and people from all ethnic backgrounds to come out on a Saturday night and have some fun, plus relieve some stress."
According to Douglas, the fact that there are no restrictions placed upon background or experience level makes the salsa course they teach ideal for virtually everyone.
"I think salsa is made for anybody who wants to learn and I think that has been proven here at Al Asad," she remarked. "Our classes have people from all types of different backgrounds, as well as a lot of people who thought they could never do it, or that they didn't have enough coordination or rhythm.
Now they're doing the salsa just fine and they're loving it," she emphasized.
Exemplifying Douglas' words is Petty Officer 2nd Class Oscar Ortiz, heavy equipment operator, Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 14, who had a strong desire to improve his salsa skills.
"When I found out they were giving salsa lessons here, it really excited me because I wanted to learn new moves, to be a stronger (dance partner) for my wife," said the 37-year-old SeaBee from Orlando, Fla. "I had the basic foundation of dancing salsa before I took the class, but my wife was really good and I couldn't really keep up with her," he admitted.
"I've learned a lot here in the five weeks I've been taking classes because the instructors are outstanding," he noted. "They are very professional, dedicated and they are really committed to teaching us the fundamentals. I feel blessed that I'm able to take this class because back in the states, people charge money for this."
Equally gratifying for the salsa instructors is witnessing first hand the growth of the students they coach.
"It's really an awesome feeling to help someone improve their salsa because the Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and civilians all come over (to the MWR center) to learn it, so once you finally help them learn the steps, they can move on to the next level and that's pretty motivating," Monroe said.