Echale salsita

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

In fact, salsa takes its name from the phrase dancers would yell to the musicians when they wanted their music faster, hotter, spicier. Though salsa wouldn't become popular as a formal genre till the '50s and '60s, it was beginning to take shape as early as the 1920s when Ignacio Pineiro wrote the song "Echale Salsita"--which means, "Throw in a little spice."

Rick Delgado, a field service engineer for Texas Instruments raising two teenage sons on his own in Plano, can be found dancing every week. For the 40-year-old Puerto Rican native--a slender, dark-skinned man who seems to strut even when sitting down--the music conjures echoes of childhood memories both in Puerto Rico and the Bronx. He recalls walking down 169th Street in the summer, hearing the beat of congas just around every corner.

"I grew up with salsa in my ear," he says. "There'd be these guys jamming and old men playing dominos in front of the bodegas. It's like the heartbeat of the city. "

Many of those who file into El Tren, El Topacio, and Monica's are there to relive, to recapture, the spontaneity and exuberance that once defined salsa when it could be heard blasting from hand-held radios on street corners in Puerto Rico, Colombia, and New York.

"Music was one of the free things out on the streets," says de la Vega of his days as a young man in Puerto Rico. "I used to hang out with my friends, and everywhere we'd go, we carried this monster eight-track portable, always dancing salsa. We got thrown out of so many restaurants. We'd go for ice-cream and we'd move the tables, start dancing. They'd kick us out, and we'd still be dancing out the door."

Orlando Ortiz speaks of dancing as a "virus epidemic," a contagious fever that overtakes anyone who sets foot into a salsa club. A former pitcher with the Pittsburgh Pirates (1984 to 1986) whose career was cut short because of a shoulder injury, Ortiz began performing locally with de la Vega's Pina Colada before joining Soul Caribe in August of this year. Often, when the band takes a break, its audience will reach for Ortiz: men shake his hand, pat him on the back, and women will hug him.

"I see the dancers smiling and I want to sing even more," he says of the performance experience, flashing the radiant smile that even casual observers remark upon. "Then I start smiling, and the band starts smiling, and we're all contagious."

Raised in a Puerto Rican home always filled with music--his mother and her 11 sisters would often join together in song, and their angelic voices drew neighbors out of their homes--Ortiz considers it only natural that he would end up singing in a salsa band.

"On the streets, where all of us kids would go to practice and compete on who got the latest dance steps, is where I got to love the salsa so much," he says.

Ortiz is highly regarded among his peers for his ability to jump off the stage mid-performance, join the dancers enveloped in rhythmic ecstasy, then hop back in with the band without losing the time on the clave or his place in lyrics often ad-libbed on the spot. And during breaks between sets, when taped music fills in for the band, Ortiz will find his way to the dance floor.

"I become alive and really want to sing when I see people dancing," he explains. "I have to dance."

Those who populate the salsa clubs--the dancers, the musicians, the hangers-on content to gyrate alone on the sidelines--must, at some point, confront the question that faces all ethnic groups once their culture is exposed to the white community: do they invite the Anglos in and hope they do not coopt their music, turning it into a trend to be disposed of in short order, or do they exclude the white folks and sustain the salsa clubs on their own?

Berta Obregon says the answer is simple because, to her way of thinking, the question itself is unnecessary. As she sees it, whites are more than welcome in places like El Tren and El Topacio; for her, such nightclubs are points of pride, showcases for her and the community to display a bit of their culture and offer, perhaps, a glimpse of understanding into a world most Dallasites spend their whole lives avoiding--if only because they don't know it exists in the first place. The salseros do not seek validation or legitimacy from the Anglos, merely respect.

"We want to break the usual Latin stereotypes and show the Dallas community that the Hispanic community is a cross-culture," Obregon says. "We're professionals, blue-collar, everything. We want the Dallas community to know that Latin music is much more than traditional Mexican norteno music."

And, indeed, those Anglos who have stepped into the salsa scene have been warmly welcomed.

One of the few non-Hispanics that can keep pace with any Puerto Rican or Colombian on the dance floor is Nancie Phelps, a professional ballroom instructor with a degree in ballet and modern dance. She first encountered salsa at the Latin Jazz Festival; it was the first time she had seen Latin dancing outside a studio, and was lured in by a man who exuded "the sexiest, smoothest salsa," she explains, "and I was hooked."

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