Santiago Ayala is only 10 years old, but from the moment he struts on stage before an enthralled 1,000-strong audience, his salsa dancing skills are evident.
"At first I was shy, but now it's easier," says Santiago, squinting under the glare of Cali's midday sun, the city known as Colombia's salsa capital.
"My father likes salsa too, but he can't keep up with me."
Santiago is one of the youngest recruits in Delirio - a non-profit organisation whose salsa show has been a hit in Colombia and also with overseas audiences.
In 2007, Delirio toured Beijing, and a year later it came to London, Paris, Madrid and The Hague.
"We were received very well in China and Europe,'' says the show's co-founder and director, Andrea Buenaventura.
"Cali is known around the world for salsa, and people expected something big - so we tried to give them that."
Delirio combines Cali's own salsa style - known for its fast-paced foot work - and circus, bringing a performance akin to Cirque du Soleil meets Strictly Come Dancing.
Created in 2006 by four women from Cali - Ms Buenaventura, Eleonora Barberena, Liliana Ocampo and Angela Gallo - the idea was to bring the city's home-grown salsa talent from the streets to the stage.
Chance to shine
Delirio's talent pool is Cali's 80-plus salsa schools - some of which are found in the city's poorer areas.
Some of the dancers had options such as going to university open to them, says Delirio performer Victoria Jaramillo, 28.
"Delirio gives them an opportunity to get ahead, and build a career."
In Cali, crime among youths is a major problem. Last year, the mayor's office identified at least 85 gangs, with members between the ages of nine to 25.
In the first few months of 2010, 47 murders were attributed to gangs, of which 16 were committed by under-17s. Overall, Cali had 1,813 murders last year.
Delirio's performers hope their shows can present another side to a city long associated with drugs and murder.
"Delirio is helping change the image of Cali as a violent city," says salsa dancer and choreographer Jose Fernando Uruena, 28.
Delirio's 150 dancers, who range between seven to 50 years old, are recruited from salsa schools Compania Artistica Rucafe, Constelacion Latina, Nueva Dimension, La Fundacion Escuela de Baile Stilo y Sabor, and orchestra Cali Latino.
Young performers are also chosen from Fundacion Circo para Todos, a non-profit organisation in Cali that teaches street children circus acts.
"The children from Cali's poor communities have a very high level of development," says Fabian Hoyos, a director of Circo para Todos and a circus performer in Delirio. "Our mission is to offer them a chance, and see if they want to take it."
From an early partnership with Circo para Todos, Delirio has come into its own with three productions, each lasting five hours.
One of Delirio's shows, Orula, follows the history of salsa in Cali from its roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico and New York.
"We wanted to show people how Cali took to salsa," says Ms Buenaventura.
"In Cali salsa has a different flavour - people from Cali move their legs very fast. It is different from the Cubans, they move from the middle of their bodies to the top."
Cali-style salsa emerged in the late 1960s with the birth of Colombia's first salsa group Fruko y sus Tesos, which modelled itself on salsa pioneers Fania All-Stars in New York.
The dance that developed, influence by the rhythms of cumbia and boogaloo, is reflected today in Delirio's monthly performances.
Held in a circus tent that fits 1,000 people, audience members sit at cabaret-style tables and dance between acts until the early hours of the morning to an intoxicating blend that incorporates cumbia, bomba and mambo.
But according to Mr Uruena, the final element of the show - when the public is invited to dance with the performers - is the highlight.
"When the public dances with us it is very intense, very emotional," he says. "Many people come back to the show just for this."
And it is this aspect that has been a winning formula for Delirio's international performances.
"During our London show there was huge participation, even more than here, because many of the people came from Latin communities," says Mr Uruena. "Some people even cried."
Delirio's international performances are supported by Colombia's ministry of foreign affairs. In Cali, half of the funding comes from private donors, while the rest is made up through food, drink and ticket sales - which go for $45 (£35) each.
The troupe's next big performance will be in May when it celebrates its five-year anniversary.
But according to Ms Buenaventura, even as the show grows to incorporate more acts, more dancers, and an international presence, it is Delirio's slogan "Made in Cali" that is at the heart of its performance, and the heart of its dancers.
"Cali is a multicultural city with high levels of marginality," she explains. "This is reflected in the complexity of the dance."
Or put more simply, as Mr Uruena says, "in Cali, salsa is in the blood".
- 14 August 2012