Pick a night and all across the area, hay una fiesta--there is a party. Set to Latin beats. They teach salsa at Washington's Lucky Bar on Mondays while Saturdays they go south of the border to Nick's in Alexandria.
Fueled by popular culture's recent enchantment with people like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez, area nightclub owners are playing host to Latino nights, merengue lessons and tropical fusion combos. But while some clubgoers are dabbling in the recent Latin splash, others are riding their own waves.
Thierry Florival-Victor--Ted Victor, a Howard University Medical School student of Dominican and Cuban ancestry who was born in Haiti--calls himself 100 percent Latin American. He's proud of the surging popularity of his culture, but maintains it has another side: The African roots of the music are rarely shown or celebrated here.
Victor, 30, likes to dance, and loves to see Latino people, including people who look like him: dark-skinned. That's why sometimes, when he has to take a break from the books, he'll don his dancing shoes and head for the door. That's why he likes to Soulsa.
Late Thursday nights at Washington's DC Live, revelers on two dance floors grow warm and moist. Speakers blast salsa or reggae or hip-hop or zouk. Or maybe DJ Sprang International spins a little soca.
The crowd, a mix of colors and cultures, is largely black, but only some of the throng are African American.
In fact, for many African Americans, it can be oddly disconcerting to see something that looks familiar, then find out that it is something else entirely--to think you see a brother, then hear his accent. Then to realize you still see a brother: people who've been separated by land or language or time, coming together from across the African diaspora and jamming to African-based rhythms from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the United States. National borders and cultural grievances get drowned out by the beat. One nation under the groove.
It might sound like a party, but it looks a little something like a reunion.
It's fascinating to watch the way some people will take a rhythm and make it their own. Like the man in the front row at the Zanzibar Nightclub in Southwest, another hot salsa spot. In his brownish double-breasted suit and matching Stacy Adams, he salsas with a sort of old-school, Four Tops kind of influence.
According to Rob Asprilla, 33, who began hosting Soulsa nights two years ago in clubs around the city before moving to DC Live last October, there is a connection that people of color feel with the music. Asprilla, along with partners Santiago Mauer, Carlos Nazati and Olmedo Nazati, publishes the Washington-based magazine Moro (which means Moor), about what they call Afro-Latino culture.
Asprilla, who was born in Colombia, says Soulsa is not only a nod to the popularity of Latin music but also an attempt to fill in the blanks. Pop culture has continued to recognize both the appeal of Latino artists and the demographic shift that makes Hispanics the fastest-growing segment of the population. Still, that visibility, in both U.S. magazines and Spanish-language television, is painted almost exclusively in whiteface.
"Our main thing is to show the diversity and beauty of the African diaspora," Asprilla says. To try to connect the music with its roots. And, perhaps, some of the people.
With a host of specialty deejays, Soulsa nights combine musical forms like calypso, soca, reggae, merengue, bachata and hip-hop. "People-of-color music," Darren Solozano, a k a DJ Sprang International, calls it in his lilting Trinidadian accent.
Though it is an oversimplification to say these styles are simply Cuban or Dominican or Haitian reinterpretations of the same rhythms, they do all have African rhythmic patterns at their core. The slave trade brushed the New World with color, and African rhythmic expressions formed new creative paradigms wherever they landed, forming the basis for much of what is known as world music.
"The Latino community is very diverse. You have Caucasian Latinos and the black Latinos, the ones that look like myself," says Abdul Khanu, a co-owner of DC Live. "You got a lot of brothers and sisters walking around here you'd never think" were Latino.
Samantha Erskine, a 23-year-old paralegal for a Washington law firm, is a hummingbird of a woman who loves to dance. Her mom is Costa Rican, her dad is Panamanian. And she lets her Afro-Latina hair down whenever she can. She goes to D.C.'s Lucky Bar, Lulu's, Chelsea's and Relish, but especially enjoys Soulsa nights. "I grew up around a lot of Puerto Ricans, a lot of people who look like me and dance really well."
It's around midnight on a Thursday and from the deejay booth Asprilla calls into the crowd. "All you Afro-Cubans represent!" "Where my Nigerians at?" "Sak Pase!"--What's up, he calls out in Haitian-Creole. There are dreadlocks and Afros and women with hair to their behinds, and suede over-the-knee boots. The smell of essential oils wafts through the crowd. Zoila Munoz, 28 and originally from El Salvador, is here with her friend Hazel Walker, 47, an African American who lives in Camp Springs. They stand near the doorway to the main dance floor and soak it all in. "I'm fascinated," Walker says, "to see all these different cultures. This is really beautiful."
Mark O. Thomas, 27, an engineer with the State Department here with his friend Treena Livingston, has been coming to Soulsa since shortly after it moved to DC Live. "I see a lot of folks like myself," he says, "as black-American as I am." Wanting to broaden his horizons, he's taking the salsa classes that begin at 9 p.m. "For people who can't make it to the Caribbean, it's the next best thing," he says.
"Besides, it's called Soulsa. We're the soul of the sa part," Thomas says, even though he seems to have more engineer than soul working as he dances.
After the lessons on the main floor, salsa music plays for a time, then other genres are rotated in. Another room features a steady stream of Latin beats, and the most skilled dancers couple up to show off their moves. Standing just off the floor, Ted Victor, moving in time to the music, points to Erskine. "That girl, she's really hot," he says. "She knows how to get down."
Victor, president of his Howard Medical School Class of 2003, often brings classmates to Soulsa to share his world.
A certain nostalgia and pride creep into his voice as he talks about the songs and the rhythms he says he was born with. "There comes a time when my Latin roots need to come out, they just need to be expressed," he says, then toggles into a stream of staccato Spanish. "Hay veces cuando no quiero hablar ingles: I mean there are times when I don't even want to speak English."
He takes the floor and begins to lose himself in the up-tempo songs. "Dame agua, que tengo calor" he sings along: "Give me water, I'm hot." As he starts feeling it, he might chant "Wepa!" (sort of a "go on with your bad self") and he's been known to lift his dance partners high in the air.
Later he moves to the main dance floor, where reggae has given way to hip-hop. And bodies are light brown and dark brown and yellow and vanilla.
"I'm supposed to be in the middle of a couple of medical books," says Victor, then he catches a beat and settles in for one more dance. Over in the salsa room, dancers cast frenzied shadows against the wall and it all becomes the same canvas.
It's something like Latino nights in clubs all around the area, but just a little newer. Or perhaps a lot older.
Meanwhile, two feet from the deejay booth, Ted Victor closes his eyes, and dances like he's home.
CAPTION: Dance instructor Ronda Cromer puts Michel Daley through some moves at Zanzibar, one of Washington's hot salsa spots.
CAPTION: Adrienne Fudge gets some salsa tips, above, from club regular Santiago Mauer at DC Live. Says Thierry Florival-Victor, left: "There comes a time when my Latin roots need to come out, they just need to be expressed."