Echale salsita

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

Yet there are currently two main salsa clubs in Dallas, each of which is packed on any given weekend: El Tren Latino, which is frequented by Puerto Ricans, and El Topacio off Harry Hines Boulevard near Northwest Highway, a hot spot for Colombian expatriates. In El Tren one will hear some English, see a few Anglos and a smattering of international mix; at El Topacio, almost everyone speaks exclusively Spanish.

On Sundays only, Monica's Ac‡ y All‡ in Deep Ellum becomes an unexpected third addition to the small list--a place where Anglos, Hispanics, and an international crowd mix almost evenly. The night doesn't even begin for many Hispanics until 2:30 A.M. with the "after-hours" parties, where salsa lovers continue to dance until 7:00 in the morning.

Local salseros trace the birth of Dallas' scene back to Genaro's Tropical, which, in 1983, was named by Esquire magazine one of the top 10 new clubs in the country. Patterned after the extravagant nightclubs of the 1940s, Genaro Silva's place brimmed with the stuff of decadent dreams: curved balconies, a circular bar, polished black floors that appeared to be made of glass, art-deco tiling, low ceiling fans that rotated slowly, Godiva chocolates placed on marble plates, imported cigars and champagne in fluted glasses offered to the customers as they entered through the heavy wooden doors.

"Back then, when Dallas was flush with money, people were loose with their money," Silva recalls of the early '80s glory days. "Oh, it was great! Anybody that had people come in from out of town would take them to Genaro's Tropical. It was like Casablanca. It was just so cool. We didn't even put up a sign.

"I guess you could say I'm a real, proud Hispanic," asserts the Mission, Texas, native who was raised in a school where students weren't allowed to speak Spanish. "Genaro's--topnotch, first-class. If you tapped your cigarette in an ash tray, the ash tray would be changed. That's how I wanted to project the Latin community--Hispanics in a proud situation."

Throughout its six-year existence at Skillman and Live Oak, Genaro's Tropical fostered a rich salsa community inside its slick interior. Such local musicians as Dennis DeMetsenaere and Vicho Vicente first had their chance to showcase their talents and concentrate on salsa and Latin jazz at the club, which was among the first places in Texas to introduce white audiences to the music. And, perhaps more importantly, it gave Puerto Rican and Colombian natives a place to hear their homeland sounds, serving as both a meeting place and a temporary passport back home.

"Anglos just loved our music, but they couldn't dance worth a hoot," Silva says. "There'd be people like Sergio Zarate and Lui Arango [two longtime fixtures in the salsa scene] that looked so cool and others just hopping around. But it didn't matter. Everybody was having a good time."

When the economy fell through the dance floor in 1988, Silva struggled to keep the club open for six months, but crowds began dwindling until he eventually had to shut the heavy doors for good. Silva went into real estate until last year, when he opened up Moctezuma's, a Mexican restaurant specializing in original seafood recipes.

"I figure maybe two years, maybe sooner, Dallas will be ready for salsa and linen again," Silva says. "Dallas is maturing, but not quite mature enough."

Lui Arango, a Colombian native, had a dream similar to Silva's when, last year, he opened Frixion, a posh, upscale club at McKinney and Cole that folded shortly after its inception. For a while, the dance club featured live salsa bands several nights a week, a rarity because it's much cheaper to play recorded music than pay musicians, and the nightclub flourished for a brief while. But, Arango says, his American investor grew impatient when the money didn't come in fast enough.

Eventually, Arango says, his partner sought to capitalize on the rise in popularity of Tejano music and scaled salsa back to four nights a week; Tejano blared from the speakers Sundays through Tuesday nights. Arango knew the end was near when the Tejano crowd and the salsa crowd showed up the same night, each expecting to hear their music.

"[But] you can't put those two people together," Arango says. "Latinos hate Tejano music, and Tejanos hate that 'salsa shit.' They call it 'nigger music' because it comes from Africa and Cuba. So we have all this prejudiced shit going on in our culture, too." Finally, the backer pulled out, and Frixion was dead.

"It was so wonderful and so loved," he says wistfully of his club, tugging at his thick shock of curly black hair. "Yes, I am broken-hearted, but I am never going to let go of my dream to own a club like Ricky Ricardo's--a nice, safe, classy place where I can bring my mother."

"Good salsa demands good dancers," says Dennis DeMetsenaere, the band leader of local Latin jazz band Soul Caribe. "More than any other music I play, I can feel the connection with the dancers and the band." Indeed, dancing is as integral to the salsa experience as the music itself; as DeMetsenaere explains, if his band is hitting every note just right and there are no dancers, it becomes a "sterile experience."

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