Dance instructor Elsybel Delgado swayed to the salsa music humming through the speakers at La Palapa Grill and Cantina on Main Street in Ellicott City. Her hips rocked side to side as she encouraged her students to feel the Latin rhythm.
"Try to dance to the beat of the music," she gently told the half-dozen or so novice dancers who signed up for the one-hour class.
The lessons, held every Thursday, have become a mainstay of nightlife on Main Street since they began about a year ago. Salsa classes start at 8 p.m., and instruction in bachata -- a slower, more sensual dance -- begins at 9 p.m. After class is over, the bar hosts its popular Latin dance party, which for the past three years has drawn a steady crowd of Hispanics and others who just want to add a little mambo to their lives.
"We're still a bar and restaurant," said La Palapa's manager, Elam E. Morales. "Just with a little twist."
Delgado and fellow dance teacher Sheena Luaehu work for Dancing With Grace Productions Inc. At least two instructors are on hand each week to teach the classes at La Palapa, which are $8 each. On a recent Thursday night, Delgado carefully watched Lori and Craig Johnston of Ellicott City add a turn to their basic salsa step.
"One, two three . . . five, six seven. One, two three . . . five, six seven," she said, counting out the rhythm of the music to help the couple stay on beat.
The couple said that coming to the lessons has helped rekindle the romance in their marriage. They've set aside Thursday evenings as "date night" -- and not even their high school daughter's pleas for a ride to the movies will interfere. By the end of the evening, they had polished up their right-hand turns and had begun to work on turning left.
Meanwhile, Zena Luevano and her fiance, Chris Valles, both of Glen Burnie, glided almost effortlessly across the dance floor. They have been taking lessons at La Palapa for about two months, though they began dancing four years ago.
"That was so smooth!" Delgado said as the couple executed a complicated crossing maneuver. "Chris, you are amazing me!"
By the end of the bachata class at 10 p.m., the bar had filled up, and a crowd had formed around the dancers. Some patrons even tried to follow along from the sidelines. After the class cleared off the dance floor, the lights dimmed, and the music rose several decibel levels.
The advanced dancers swept into the center of the room, Luaehu stealing the show as she sashayed and spun around her partner. The night was still young.
-- YLAN Q. MUI