Editors' pick

The Salsa Room

Dance Club
The Salsa Room photo

Editorial Review

In Clubs, Grooving To a Different Beat
By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 1, 2002

Inside the spacious Arlington dance club, brass horns blare and men wail songs of passion. On the black-and-white checkerboard dance floor, couples spin each other like tops to the one-two-three Latin beat.

"Oh, my God, I love this song!" Jewel Minyana, 37, squeals as she makes her way to the dance floor with a group of female friends. "This is the new dance I was telling you about. Lemme show you!" she says, pushing her arms out in front of her friends to make some space.

It's a typical night at Cecilia's on Columbia Pike. The club has one of the largest dance floors in the region and is a mecca for those looking for music from south of the border. But tonight, the throngs of dancers moving through the neon lights and cool mist being blown from under the stage are not twisting their hips in expected salsa fashion.

Instead, the tune that has the crowd in a frenzy is a new song by Juanes, a Colombian singer playing the latest South American craze: Latino rock, which has its own style of lilting dance. Dozens of dancers of various ethnicities -- Mexican, Salvadoran, Bolivian and Dominican, like Minyana -- shimmy onto the dance floor, their interest seemingly piqued by the somewhat hard beat.

"We come here obviously to dance to the salsa," Minyana said later after catching her breath from the latest twirl on the dance floor.

Minyana, with long, wavy hair and wearing white pants and sequined top, had found a partner of handsome dark looks and a tight muscle shirt on the floor and was now sitting next to him at the long wood-and-brass bar.

"But we have so much fun when we dance to the other music they play here," she continued. "From Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico or other places. It's different and . . . it makes for a more diverse evening."

While salsa music continues to spin its way into the dance clubs in Arlington and the region, those same venues are finding that a handful of other sounds -- from cumbia, a traditional Colombian music, to bachata, a rhythm popularized in the Dominican Republic, to Mexican mariachi -- are also becoming just as important to the modern Latin dance craze, reaping windfalls for the clubs. The night spots are finding that they must offer a mix of dance music to cater not only to their diverse Latino clientele, but also to the burgeoning interest in all kinds of sultry music from people of all colors and creeds.

"We had to expand our musical selection or we wouldn't have survived," said Victor Villarreal, 31, owner of Cecilia's, which opened in 1976 and has been in its current location for several years.

For years, the club mainly played traditional Bolivian music and salsa, but a couple of years ago, it expanded its fare to attract a more diverse crowd from various Latin countries. Since then, the club has added sets of cumbia and bachata, and will begin an entire night of Latino rock later this summer.

"We couldn't just stay doing one thing or music because there are so many different kinds of music that people want to listen to and so many people from different [parts of] Latin America," Villarreal said.

Subsequently, many of these clubs, with their eclectic selections, have become some of the only venues where Latinos from different countries come together as one to enjoy the differing sounds of the Hispanic diaspora. With a mix of residents from El Salvador, Bolivia, Mexico, Guatemala and other Latin countries, Arlington has one of the most diverse populations of Latinos in the region.

In many cases, recent immigrants remain in their own ethnic enclaves that continue to persist throughout the county. But that all changes when the sun goes down. The silk shirts come out of the closet and the high heels are pulled off the shelves. Indeed, at Cecilia's last week, the lead singers of JCJ, a Maryland band that plays at the club nearly every week, took an informal demographic survey in the middle of a energetic set of salsa and merengue music that had the crowd screaming for more. With the saxophone laying down a solo, the band members yelled out in Spanish: "Let me hear from all the Colombians! . . . What about everybody from Bolivia? Puerto Rico?" There were loud cheers for most of the dozen or so countries called.

"One of the few times that we get together as a community is in the dance clubs, parades and soccer fields," said Iris Garay, executive director of Barrios Unidos, an organization that works with Latino youth. "Very often we stay within our own communities, whether it's Mexican or Salvadoran or Bolivian."

"You really have to slow yourself down a little bit when you dance to bachata," said Ralph Marks, 52, a frequent attendee of Cecilia's Thursday night salsa lessons, who has learned how to dance to several forms of Latin music. "It's much different from salsa, but it can be kind of tricky with its steps."

Meanwhile, salsa dancing continues to be hotter than ever, locally and nationally, surpassing even the craze of the 1950s, when New York night clubs popularized the dance. Experts attribute the new popularity in part to globalization and the Internet, and the increasing number of Latinos coming into the country. And with wider appeal has come a fresh desire to dance well. Washington area clubs and dance halls report a steady increase in students looking to catch the beat. And at places like Cecilia's that have tried to expand their business to incorporate all kinds of Latin dances, the lessons have been a particular boon.

"We couldn't even get people to come in when we first started lessons," said Villarreal, saying that Cecilia's attracts about 150 people a week to its classes. "Now look at it -- it seems like we have more people every week."

On a recent Thursday, Jami Jones, 22, the club's chief instructor, led three classes of multigenerational salsa students, using a cordless microphone to call out instructions while she demonstrated several new steps. Many of the students, some novices, others experienced, said that they came both for the lessons and for the open dance session that allows people to practice their steps until midnight.

"It's just a great time to come and meet people who just want to learn how to dance and nothing else," said Francis Kane, 36, a school teacher from Reston, who has been taking lessons for several months. "But listening to the different kinds of music and bringing everyone together with different style of dance, it's just a gigantic learning experience all the time."