Cali is a city on the go. From the rush of morning traffic up its palm-lined avenues to the pedestrians crossing painted bridges and cobble stone plazas, the metropolis at the heart of the Valle de Cauca department is also one of Colombia’s great economic engines.

Hemmed-in by sprawling sugar cane fields and caressed by the eastern winds of the Pacific Ocean, as Colombia’s third largest city with more than a million inhabitants, Cali preserves its small town roots while reaching upwards with its reflective glass towers and concrete buildings. It’s a city embracing the modern, without letting go of its colonial past.  So no wonder, people flock here to work hard and dance fast.

Given a strategic location near the port of Buenaventura, Cali historically has been the gateway for many of the goods, which became common place household items in this country. From the first Ford automobiles which where reassembled there after crossing the oceans, to the arrival of the stand up piano, Cali also introduced new sound to Colombia.

With the steamers came swing and the phonograph, then the wireless and the cha-cha. The recordings of the Big Bands found an audience with the Caleños, as did  mambo and the sultry beat of son cubano. Musical styles flourished in the fertile valley and during the early 1950’s Cali embraced the outside world while forging its own musical style: Salsa caleño.

Today salsa caleños moves millions. It’s an integral part of the city’s cultural patrimony and one of its great attractions. From ‘old-theques’ or viejotecas where Sunday dancing in a romantic slow-paced style unravels to the melodies of musical greats such as Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, to the modern salsa dancehalls across  the Cauca river  in nearby Juanchito with its ‘crossover’ rhythms and upbeat salsa caleño, the city is always alive to the sound of music.

‘”Salsa speaks to the people,” says Carlos Trujillo, founder of one of the most respected dance academies in Cali. At Rucafé, dance lessons start in the morning and continue into the late hours of the night. After having participated in international salsa congresses, Trujillo has seen his city evolve into the world capital of salsa. “Salsa is the great integrator,” says this professional choreographer and producer of musical shows. “It’s a lifestyle which breaks social barriers.”

There are more than 7,000 professional dancers in the city and every day new dance schools open their doors to cater to the thousands of locals and tourists who want to improve their moves. “Many of our dancers have gone around the world to teach,” claims Carlos, who is also a producer in the acclaimed ‘Delirio’ dance production which has toured the world over with its Broadway-style show and glittery salsa ensembles. “There is a salsa boom on right now.”

In a residential neighbourhood across town, another academy helps form a generation of salseros. More than eighty students – from age six and up – attend the Nueva Dimension Artistic Foundation. It’s one of a handful of salsa schools aimed at teaching children how to dance “caleño style,” which has become known internationally for its fast rhythms and quick steps. “We will never run out of dancers,” says Caicedo, as a group of children take to the wooden floors in a studio decked which trophies and medals.

The salsa experience in Cali is so universal that it is more than just a pleasant pastime. “It’s typical of us to dance,” says Dayian Molina of the Swing Latino Academy. “It’s as common for us, as food is for Europeans.”

Founded by the many times World Salsa Champion Luis ‘El Mulato’ Hernández, Swing Latino has risen from the marginalized ghettos to conquer far away audiences. After touring with ‘Delirio’ and sending some of his most nimble dancers to Japan, Canada and Korea, ‘El Mulato’ views Cali’s dance boom as good business. “If my students don’t learn, we should just pack up and go.”

Swing Latino operates a dance academy in one of the more exclusive neighborhoods of Cali which receives foreigners. So, if you’re in the right frame of mind, know the  grooves, learn a very Colombian move. When it comes to dance culture in Cali, just take it one step at a time.