Fun stuff in Surprising Places – The Toronto Salsa Festival


I’m in Toronto – staying at the Sheraton Hotel in Downtown Toronto to play bridge. Not very exciting travel I know – but be patient my readers. I promise that good stuff will happen!

I got to Toronto by train. I do love traveling by train. It’s not always a bargain of course. I prefer traveling ‘business’ class – more comfy seats, cleaner windows, and service. I adore service. Make me happy – do something nice for me! Serve me a meal, offer me coffee, or just smile. I’m relaxed and enjoying my travels.

Any way – Trip to Toronto included a lovely dinner, a glass of wine, desert and a glass of Port, Trip home will include a selection of beverages, a lovely dinner, and some more Port. I’m totally counting on the Port on the way back home to Montreal.

I arrive in Toronto – big city, big city smells, big city sounds, big city hassles. I drag myself and my carry-on up Young street to the Sheraton, navigating pass homeless camping down for the night and young business folks checking out the bars that line this main drag. Lot of lights, lots of action. But I’m focused. Get up the street safely (don’t get hit by a car, a trolley, or a group of revellers) and settle down for the night.

Task accomplished, I check in and check out my room. I guess they felt sorry for me – because the room is a bit of an upgrade. It’s in a corner with a lovely view, and a bit of extra space. More than ample for my needs. The bed is huge – it’s king sized, and since I’m on my own, will mostly stay unmussed.

Tuesday thru Sunday is bridge, bridge, bridge. I’ve written before about the issues with PUPs (Pick Up Partners) and this time is no different. Some great, some not so great. My favourite is the older gent from Sault St. Marie – we manage to place 8th overall – among 80 some teams. This earns us upwards of 2 Gold Master Points, and earns me some very nice praise from his wife! She’s a Life Master, he’s playing catch-up to her – and she’s very impressed by how well we did. Hey – I’m impressed by how well we did.

Fast forward to Saturday night. One reason I like Regionals are the night games. Fewer players, lots of fun, and a great chance to do well. And I don’t have to fuss with thinking about what I’m going to do that night in a strange town. So I’m pleased that there are 2 night games on offer this week – one on Friday, one on Saturday.

Friday’s night game goes as planned – I score some more Master Points – have fun – all is good.

Saturday’s night game is a different story. I have a partner – what I lack are opponents. No one shows up! Well – not enough folks show up. And the game is canceled. Bummer. Now what.

It’s 8:00 PM, it’s Saturday night, and I’m alone in the big city. Hmm.

I check out my options – and spot some kids dressed up in Salsa clothes walking around the hotel. A quick chat – and I find out that the Toronto Salsa Festival is this weekend – here in my hotel. Tonight there is a show, followed by 4 hours of social dancing. The show is due to start at 8:00 – and while there’s a cost of admission, the opportunity to see professionals and semi-professionals dance seems priceless. So I cough up the money – and get my pass.

The lovely ticket sellers explain that the show will start when it starts – there have been workshops all day, and until the room is clear, they won’t let the ‘tourists’ in. So I join a line of other earlier comers and prepare to wait.

I’m terrible at waiting actually – so after being polite for a while – I eventually start chatting with the folks in line with me. In front of me are an ‘older’ couple – not as old as me – but I’m as old as the hills – what do you expect. Their daughter is performing tonight – and they gleefully explain her hobby to me.

She has a full time job – but she joined this dance group – and they are frequently invited to perform at shows around Canada and the US. They are unique in that they are all female dancers (how unique is going to be clear later in the evening), and are in great demand. They will go to your event – do their performance – and then split up and dance with everyone. They give Salsa lessons, and make sure everyone has a great time. I can totally see why this would be a hot idea for a team building activity! And she and her fellow dancers are very cute. Fresh faced, young, and unremittingly cheerful.

The folks behind me are friends of other dancers – and as each group gets organized to enter the hall – they come over to blow air kisses (don’t mess the make-up), and share hugs and good wishes. I get a close-up look at some of the outfits – I can’t wait to see what they will look like on stage.

Eventually they get the stage clear and organized and we’re admitted. The couple in front invite me to sit with them, so we snag seats as close to the front as possible. The first few rows are saved for VIPs – which turn out to be the kids who have finished performing!

There are a lot of chairs – probably over 300 – and it’s hard to imagine that the space will be full, but eventually – it is full. The show starts off slowly with the less professional teams – and suffers from some organizational challenges – the music for the first group doesn’t start on cue. But they quickly straighten that out, and the show begins.

I’m completely utterly amazed. Imagine about 100 young, completely fit, beautiful young people dancing, performing, and generally have a wonderful time. They come on stage in various groupings. Larger groups are generally up to 6 or 7 couples – dancing in pairs of course, but all doing generally the same steps. Smaller groups of 1, 2, 4 or up to 6 dancers also come on stage. The fewer the dancers, generally the higher the quality of the performing. And the later in the evening, the better the performances too.

My favourites are a group of young men (5 of them), who call themselves the ‘Kingsmen’ – and frankly are highly suggestive dancers of seriously good caliber. They come back as a group of 6 – 3 men, 3 women – and trust me – they are memorable. I’m getting very curious about what is keeping on some of the outfits the women are wearing – so it’s not a total surprise when one gal has to keep tugging on the top of her outfit. We almost, but not quite, had a wardrobe malfunction!

Another memorable group feature women wearing string bikinis. To Salsa Dance. Really. The gals twerking in St. Croix have some stiff (hee, hee) competition in Toronto.

I’m totally loving this. The outfits are stunning, the dancing amazing – and then the professionals arrive.

OMG – right – that’s why these guys are the professionals. The beat gets more demanding, and the lifts get higher and the tossing more complex. I’m getting exhausted just watching them perform.

I will never think of Salsa the same way again. This isn’t dancing – this is ice skating pairs without the ice! One couple pushes this boundary the hardest by combining lifts, throws, spins and dance. There is even a death spiral – a spin where the woman’s head is inches from the floor – her weight supported totally by the guy. Strength, Beauty, and Speed.

My new friends invite me to stay for the social dancing, and I’m sorely tempted. There are 4 different rooms – each featuring a different kind of music. But my age and the efforts of a long day of bridge win out over my interest in watching folks dance.

I bid everyone good night – and dance well – and walk out past the rows of high heeled dancing shoes for sale. What an absolutely amazing hobby this must be.

If you ever have a chance to catch a Salsa Festival Show – and there will be one next year in Toronto on Easter Weekend – do it. Worth every penny.

Signing off to head off to my King Sized bed…

The Soup Lady

Regional at Sea – or Bridge till you drop!


18 months ago I decided to learn to play proper duplicate bridge – and I’ve been chasing that goal almost daily. Not easy.

When I was in Charlotte several months ago, a gal had her partner for a bridge cruise cancel on her, and she went looking for someone who took playing bridge seriously, didn’t have too many master points, and had the money and ability to travel.

Hmm? Did some one call my name? I’m not the best player in the world, not even close. But I’m serious about getting better – and apparently being able to afford to travel to Charlotte marks me with the money and ability to travel.

Leaving her motives aside – she asked, I thought about it, and then accepted when I found out that Larry Cohen, who I think is the best bridge teacher in the world, would be giving talks every morning.

Fast forward 3 months – and here I am. Sitting in the Harmony of the Seas, participating in a regional bridge tournament. And having a blast. It’s not for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for most folks. But for me it’s perfect. Bridge with a reasonable (and arguably much better than me) partner morning, noon and night! Perfect!

Let’s call her The Bridge Keener – and we’ve got my partner in a nutshell. Crazily enough – the deal including sharing a room – with effectively a perfect stranger, and of course playing bridge with her in all the games on offer. It’s a bit scary to share a room with someone you never really met – particularly for an entire week. So many things can go so wrong. And my sisters would tell you- I’m not the easiest room mate in the world. But The Bridge Keener has been able to cope with my outrageous behaviour, to ignore my bad roomie habits – and basically make this experience a delight.

We get up every morning with the sun – and a phone call from room service to tell us breakfast is on the way! Why they need to call me to tell me that the waiter will be knocking on my door is beyond me – but they do. So setting an alarm seems redundant. But being a tad anal, we do it anyway. Have yet to be woken by the alarm though!

Anyway – cute guy, hot coffee – and a fruit platter. What’s not to love.

After we get the day started by admiring the view from our balcony while we enjoy our coffee – we head up stairs (or down stairs – there are restaurants in all directions) for breakfast. We have consistently opted for one of the buffet places – I’m not fond of their coffee (room service coffee is better), but I do like to have a bowl of cereal and some fruit. One day I blew it by trying the grits – what possessed me? Cold and yucky. Oh well. Stick to tried and true and hard to mess up I say.

Then it’s bridge, lunch, bridge, dinner, and more bridge.

I know – sounds dull. But trust me – it’s never dull. Lots of things happen. Folks fight, Partners do double revokes (not a good idea), and you get lost in the bidding. I’m pretty decent on play – but if I’m in an un-makable contract – I tend to crash and burn. So instead of down 2, I’m down 4. Oh well, something to work on I guess.

More excitement – Larry Cohn’s lectures, Unlimited cookies, the possibility of placing first, and checking out the slogan wearing fellow bridge players. My favourites – Bling laden hats with “I Heart Larry Cohn” and T-Shirt slogans like “Double Trouble”, or “No one knows the Doubles I’ve seen”.

The Bridge Keener and I have been working hard at communicating with each other with mixed results. We came in first or second several times – and washed out several times. Which pretty much put us in the middle of the pack in terms of Master Points earned. Of the 236 people who participated (a totally booked out bridge cruise), we placed in the upper middle. I’d be short sighted and kinda silly not to be pretty proud of our results.

But it’s not all bridge. We spend a significant amount of our on-board time eating dinner with various members of the bridge group.

Our first night’s dinner was an unmitigated disaster. No, probably worse than that to be truthful. I wanted off the ship – and was thinking of opting out of dinner completely. 3/4 of our table mates were friends from Boca Raton – and I’m not a fan of the ladies of Boca in general – and definitely not of these ladies in particular. They carefully excluded us from their conversation – which as far as I could tell was gossip about what was happening at home. That left my partner, a 90 year old woman player with bad eyesight and bad hearing, and myself isolated on ‘our’ side of the table.

Add to this misery a terrible waitress who hadn’t smiled in about 3 years – and yup – it was bad.

So the second night the Bridge Keener and I decided to bail on that table and find a table with some empty spaces. Much, much better! But the third night we totally lucked out. The Bridge Keener recognized a gal from a previous cruise – and she invited us to join her table. And it was a hoot! There were 8 of us. The self-sacrificing friend who had agreed to partner a gal with a solid 11 Master Points. (That’s a beginner folks – and her playing got worse and worse over the course of the week), her sister, a diminutive older woman who had come on her own and spent the trip picking up partners. Her success was varied. There was a male – our token guy – who was a computer geek and lawyer and seemed a solid player. Our 6th table companion was a lady who announced she was allergic to noise – particularly my noise. So I got to try to whisper (or better plan – keep my back to her). She was a bit of a stiff neck, but apparently enjoyed our table – she dutifully came and joined us every night. My favourites of our group (aside from the self-sacrificing friend and the older woman) were a mother and daughter team. The last night I found out the daughter was 62 – (a surprise – she looked younger) – which makes her mom an unbelievable 85. They were a hoot. Not doing well at bridge unfortunately – they announced the last night that they need to find regionals with more folks at their level… – but so nice! And funny! We spent every dinner laughing, joking, and basically being silly. Our charming waiter was thrilled with us – and got in the habit of bring extra food when ever he could.

So that goes a long way to explaining my 5 services of Lobster, and my 3 servings of Rack of Lamb!

Bit more on the bridge. One of the goals of most of the players was to get their life masters. And often it’s Gold Master Points that have proven elusive and hard to get. So not surprisingly – at least 3 folks got their life masters on board this trip. One of them was part of our Knock-out exam (unfortunately we got knocked out in the 2nd round) and Swiss Teams. Charming couple, super nice, decent players – and easy to be around.

When she got the points she needed for Life Masters – the organizers made a big fuss – and on the last night they even presented her with a trophy. Man – I want to make life master on a ship and have them recognize me! It’s exciting.

This was the first time I’ve gone to a tournament with a partner – the same partner – for every game. This is a good/bad thing actually. The Bridge Keener and I are decent partners – but we need work. So as reported earlier – our results varied. With PUP (Pick up Partners) you can always pretend to yourself that it was the other guy that was wrong. With a regular partner – you have to take responsibility for your mistakes. And in my case – there were a lot of them. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs (except on the cruise ship – I don’t think an actual egg got cracked the entire trip).

So – great fun (albeit sometimes frustrating) was had. And I’m definitely doing it again. And I’m doing it with the Bridge Keener.

Signing off to study her bridge defence book – The Soup Lady

Pick Up Partners – or Exactly why am I doing this?


I decided about 18 months ago that I would learn to play Bridge better. I’ve played Bridge on and off (mostly off) for almost 50 years – but actually trying to improve – that never happened.

So 18 months ago I made the conscious decision to focus my energy, such as it is, on bettering my bridge play. Since then I’ve spent about 7 months playing ‘real’ bridge with real partners, and the other 11 months either studying or playing on line – or both. Mostly both I shall admit.

How is it going you ask? Not that well, unfortunately. Bridge is a really really tough game. There are 52 cards in the deck, but there are a zillion (maybe more) combinations and permutations on how those cards can be arranged in the 4 hands. And the trick is to figure out the optimum contract for each set of 4 hands – and then make that contract.

Easier to do if you can see all 4 hands of course. But that’s so not how the game works. Nope – you have to figure out the contract by bidding your hand – and trying to visualize what could be in the other 3 hands from the bidding. Example – the person to your left (LHO – Left hand opponent) bids 1 Spade. Well, he should have 5 spades, and at least 12 points. And so on.

I’m not trying to teach you how to bid, or play in this mutter. I’m just explaining that the game is complicated – and folks spend their entire lives trying to get better at it. It’s like golf. Some days are better than others, the goal is to have more better days than not so good days. But golf is a personal sport – you compete against yourself. In bridge – it takes 4 people, you and your partner – and the two opponents.

And that’s where PUPs – or Pick Up Partners get involved.

I am currently in Charlotte, NC attending their Regional competition. Like most competitions, it’s held in a big hotel, with games in a variety of different rooms, and at different levels of playing skill. To determine playing skill, there’s a thing called Match Points (MP). You get MPs by playing and winning matches of 24 (more or less) boards. In theory, the number of MPs you have earned should be a measure of your playing skill. But I’m reminded of the old joke – I’ve been doing this job for 12 years – 1 year of training, and 11 years of repeating the same thing over and over. In an attempt to make the MP system better at measuring skill, and not just being a reward for attendance, the ACBL (that’s the American Bridge League) created different colours – Black (gotten easily in club games), Red (gotten in Regional or National competitions), Silver (oddly enough – these come from Sectional Tournaments which I’ve yet to figure out how to know which they are) and the highly valued Gold Points.

Gold points are the toughest to get – and to earn the title of ‘Life Master’ – you need 50 of them. So it’s not unusual to meet folks with plenty of Black – but not enough Gold to get that title. In any case – you get the idea. There are MP (a measure) and coloured MP (another measure).

Back to my efforts – in 18 months, I’ve earned about 40 Match Points, 5 of them Gold and 2 of them Silver, – which isn’t amazing, but it is pretty decent. There are folks here with thousands of Match Points – yesterday I played (and we lost badly) with a gal with over 2000 match points. We should have done a lot better – I’m not sure what went so wrong, but there it is.

On Monday I played with a fellow with around 300 Match Points – and we placed first Overall in the Gold Rush Pairs. Some days I’m a hero, some days I should haven’t have picked up the cards.

So – partnership game – you can’t play without a partner. And I have yet to find a regular steady partner. I’ve been very lucky about Picking up Partners (PUPs) in the various cities I’ve been to, some of whom will play with me again – some of whom never want to sit across from me again – ever. (I had one PUP announce that to me about 3/4 of the way thru a game. Not one of my better days.)

So where do you Pick Up Partners? Most bigger games (like this one), have what is called a Partnership desk. Folks who aren’t fortunate enough to bring their own partner, put up a yellow card describing how many points they have, when they are available to play during the competition, and what biding conventions they use. I think there is a critical bit of info missing off the standard partnership cards. I’d really like to know how long you’ve been playing. My favourite partners generally haven’t been playing for years – they are still in the ‘learning’ mode – and know the newer conventions, and some of the newer ideas of partnership.

But it is what it is. You post your name, then other folks stand in front of the board – reading each and every card, searching for someone who sounds like they might be a good partner. It is a bit like the worst meat market ever. Think e-harmony with a scoring system. Or your first dance at Junior High – all the guys on one side contemplating all the girls on the other. If you have to post your name – you open yourself up to rejection – in a big way. And while some folks (like my 2000 point partner from yesterday) have been playing long enough to know that number of MPs is just one way of judging folks, other folks take actual point count seriously. And I have to agree. I don’t want to partner with someone with 20 MPs earned over 10 years. They probably aren’t very solid players. And in return, someone with over 1000 MPs might not want to partner me. If I’ve only been playing seriously for 18 months, I probably make plenty of beginner errors.

Which is true.

I make a lot of mistakes. I bid wrong – showing more points than I have, or too few. I pass when I should bid, and I bid when I should pass. And worse – I forget things – not usually what my partner bid – that’s often an error by folks who are more ‘beginner’ than I am, but I will lose track of the count of one of the suits, I might forget that a spot card in dummy is good and leave it stranded, or I might opt not to take a finesse when the odds are in favour of the finesse actually working. I have gotten better at making safety plays to make sure that the contract makes – but under the pressure of the match, sometimes I will forget that I made that play…

As I said, it’s complicated.

But fun.

In the past 18 months I’ve thrown myself on the PUPs board in 4 different Regional and National Competitions. I’m not sure that makes me a veteran, but it does give me some experience. And I’ve had some success – friends I played with in Toronto in April who were totally keen to play with me again in August. And I actually had a lady ask me to join her (as her bridge partner!) on a bridge cruise in February. So here’s my advice to folks who need PUPs.

1) Be nice to the folks running the partnership desk. They do an amazing job – there are hundreds of folks looking for partners, and their goal is to try to make as many of them happy with the match-up as they possibly can. It’s a completely thankless job and one that requires the patience of Job and the social skills of a match maker. Be nice to them. Thank them. They are your buddies in this game of finding a PUP – let them know you appreciate them.

2) It is easier to find a PUP later in the competition. I’m not sure why this is – but it’s true. I guess maybe things happen. I found my 2000 point partner because her regular partner suddenly had to leave – an emergency back home. On Monday – the partnership board was almost empty. Today (Friday), the board is almost full. But some of the cards, despite the best efforts of the folks running the desk, get left long after the player has found a match. I know – totally frustrating. But still – finding a PUP on day one of the competition is a huge challenge. Finding one later on is a bit easier. Maybe.

3) Keep a record of your agreements. Folks will say on Monday – let’s play Friday evening. Ok – that’s a date. But there are 3 games a day, and there are 7 (or more days). In my case – I needed PUPs for 16 games. And I blew it big time. Agreed to play on a team in the morning of day 3 – only to discover I’d also agreed to play in a single match in the same time slot with another person. Not a good way to make friends – trust me! I know I’m repeating myself – but on Monday at noon I needed to find partners for 16 games. I didn’t have a partner for all 16 games until Thursday at noon. At least my dance card is full now. That’s a huge relief.

4) Get your partner’s contact information. And keep notes. There is absolutely nothing worse than deciding after a game or so that you are not a match made in heaven, and forgetting that a day later. Or worse – a month later. Or in my case – a year later. Notes are critical. Email addresses matter to! You never know when you are going to be doing PUPs somewhere else and these folks will re-appear. It’s a universe after all – only so many folks in it!

5) Go over the convention card early – and try to keep to the simplest possible set of agreements. I played with 7 partners – not one of whom used the same conventions. I tried to make notes of who played how – but my little brain got completely bolloxed up by partner #5. No wonder my ability to play got worse during the week – I simply couldn’t remember if the person sitting opposite me played a specific convention – or not!

6) Be nice. Be very nice. People play a lot better if you compliment them then if you critique them. Trust me. And body language matters. If I messed up the last hand – don’t hold a grudge on the next hand – I won’t play better if you are sitting across from me with a scowl on your face. And no matter how badly I do – please don’t tell our competitors. One of my partners – after I’d played the hand, won and gotten a top score – announced – well she tried her best to lose.

7) And for goodness sake – don’t try to improve your partners play during the match. Waste of time. You’ll get them focused on the last hand – not the hand we are playing now – and it’s likely to be completely different. This advice is even more important if you are playing social bridge with your spouse. You’ll have a much better game if you just live with the mistake and solider on!

8) Always assume your partner is an expert – that they are bidding their hand correctly. And don’t try to ‘save’ them. Man – I wish I’d remembered that advice a few times when I tried to ‘save’ only to make matters much, much worse.

9) Partnership Mantras – My partner knows what they are doing – if it’s a mis-fit – Pass. My partner has a reason for doing what they did – try to imagine things from their point of view – what must they be looking at to make that bid, or not to bid. My partner knows what they are doing. They know what their hand is like – I don’t.

10) Thank your partner. Thank them when they put down their dummy, thank them when you finish playing, thank them for giving you an opportunity to play with them. They didn’t have to say yes. And they did.

Signing off to go play more bridge…

The Soup Lady