Echale salsita

Passion and pride ignite upon the dance floor of Dallas' salsa community

Whenever Berta Obregon hears the sounds of salsa--the hypnotic rhythms of the drums, the rapid-fire punctuation of the horn section, the primal urgings contained within it all--she is compelled to dance. It's a force greater than she, a provocative and sensual sound that sneaks up on her and compels her to follow its lead, wherever it might take her. Obregon, a radio talk show host for KRVA-Latin 107 whose peers consider her one of the finest salsa dancers in Dallas, recalls the time not long ago when she and dance partner Luis Arango were driving down Greenville Avenue, listening to salsa on the car stereo.

"Stop the car!" she yelled at Arango. "Turn up the volume!" The force of the music was becoming too overwhelming. "Open the door!" She was really into it now, no way to escape the music. "We gotta dance now!" she exhorted her partner, and they leapt out of his vehicle and spilled out onto the sidewalk of crowded Greenville Avenue, cavorting as strangers watched, bemused and befuddled by the pair's exotic movements.

"People drive by, we don't care, we're dancing," laughs Obregón, a beautiful woman whose long, dark hair spills over her brightly colored, flowing skirts. "Passion develops during the dance. I can see my partner's face change--like we're alone, all of a sudden we're igniting. It's a sensual dance but never vulgar. I mean, two people making love--who wants to see that in public?"

"Growing up in Colombia, everybody dances," says Arango. "At bebenas [block parties], in parks, salsa, salsa, music. P.M.S.? There wouldn't be any if everybody just danced salsa."

Across from a used car lot off Highway 183's windswept, trash-strewn frontage road not far from Texas Stadium, a van stands parked in front of a flat row of orange motel doors. Inside the van, Wallice de la Vega, dressed in black tux and tie, hurriedly gathers his electronic equipment and music sheets from the back seat.

He walks through the motel lobby, past the night clerk, who nods absently in his direction. De la Vega climbs the narrow carpeted stairs, his excitement rising as the driving beat of timbales and congas reverberates down the corridor. Fellow band members in the middle of sound check wave as he enters the club.

Tucked away from sight on the second floor of the Atrium Inn is one of Dallas' most frequented salsa hot spots, El Tren Latino. The air-conditioned club, with its panel of cathedral windows overlooking an arched atrium, feels chilled, cavernous and frozen now. But almost on a single choreographed stroke, 10:30 p.m. will strike and a stream of regulars will file in. Soon a rush of perfume and seamless dresses, zig-zagging stiletto heels, pouring sweat, the beating of drums, the sounds of the saxophone and Spanish, and frenzied ecstatic bodies will crowd the laser-lit dance floor.

By midnight the club is packed, and as the night heats up, driven by the mantra-like spell of salsa's pulsing and repetitious beat, the pace of the twirling dancers becomes more and more frenetic. Couples condense into tighter and tighter spinning orbs, limiting themselves to micro movements. Even so, the sea of euphoric bodies swells and glides in a collective flow of synchronism.

On this hot August Friday, de la Vega is here with his band Pina Colada, along with the band Carabalí, to celebrate Carabalí's 10 years of staying power in the Dallas Latin music scene. Thin and wiry, possessing seemingly boundless energy and armed with a degree in music business, de la Vega is a Puerto Rican-born musician, journalist and salsa dancer with a mission--a mission, he says with intensity and passion, "to promote salsa."

Since moving to Dallas 18 months ago from Denver, where he edited a Hispanic arts-and-entertainment publication, de la Vega has acquired pronounced acumen for the inner workings of the Dallas Hispanic community. Finding a pitiful lack of information on the Hispanic music beat in a city that considers itself decidedly cosmopolitan, de la Vega set out to change all that.

He has founded a newspaper chronicling the intimate goings-on of the salsa scene, started his own band, and assumed his place as one of the local salsa community's highest-profile figures--part spokesman, part public-relations agent, all addict. And like the hundreds of people who pile into the salsa clubs--those who move to the sounds of the horns and claves (wooden blocks struck together) and the fevered bass-heavy rhythms of music born of African, Cuban, and Puerto Rican heritage--de la Vega speaks of the music as one might speak of a great love, with the sort of unmitigated passion that distinguishes lifestyle from life itself.

"Salsa--it's soul food, like rice and abichuelas [beans]," says de la Vega, who radiates an unavoidable intensity when he speaks. "Once you taste it, you just gotta have more, any salsero will tell you. Salsa, it's a shared experience, and the city of Dallas is full of these addicts of all nationalities."

Although not visible to the majority of Dallasites, an active salsa scene has existed here for more than a decade. Only the Latin Jazz and Food Festival, an annual event sponsored by KRVA-Latin 107 that often brings in the biggest names in salsa music ("Mambo King" Tito Puente, Celia Cruz), receives any attention from the mainstream press.

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