If all roads lead to Rome, then all conga lines lead back to Laura Canellias.

Known in L.A.’s dance circles as the “Salsa Diva,” Canellias is the doyenne of cha-cha-cha, mambo, rumba, salsa and merengue, having taught Latin dance in this town for nearly two decades. Be it in nightclubs, dance studios or the Gene Autry Museum’s summer music series, San Antonio–bred Canellias is the Tex-Mex Quan Yin, a red-lipsticked, faux-fingernailed goddess delivering mercy and compassion to the rhythmically challenged suffering across the land.

Ask her how many people she’s taught over the years and she’ll blow out her cheeks and say, “Well, let’s get scientific,” and proceed to do some bastard algebra. Finally, she says, “I think it’s around 38,000.”

For Canellias, teaching is more than whether you get the rhythm, it’s about how learning to salsa can enrich how you love, laugh and connect to others on and off the dance floor. Her trademark commentary always carries a double message: “Ladies, don’t let me see your hands droop over your wrists,” she'll say. “It looks like you’re begging, and, honey, let me tell you, women don’t ever, ever need to beg.” Another Canellias-ism: “Gentlemen, always let the lady finish her turn before you get your turn. Trust me, it’s better that way.”

As a performer, Canellias’ numerous film and television credits include The Mambo Kings, Dance With Me and Out to Sea, and no less than the king of mambo, Tito Puente, considered her a “great choreographer.” She has also produced seven music CDs for Rhino Records and received enough awards honoring her commitment to dance to fill the wall of her home office in Hollywood. Canellias humbly credits her success to inspiration from the “holy trinity” — of divas, that is: Mae West for her confident, no-apologies sexuality; Carmen Miranda for her humor and sensuality; and cartoon character Betty Boop for her flirty, girlie friendliness.

“Diseases and technology have made us distant from each other,” Canellias says. “But we have a human need to touch other people. Dance lets you do that safely. You can be sexy and not afraid it will do you any harm.”

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