Echale salsita

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

As she made her way into the scene, finding the unadvertised clubs and slowly growing at ease on their dance floors, she was at first concerned she wouldn't find acceptance--especially by the women, she says, often wondering if they merely considered her "a white girl out to steal their men." And, indeed, she makes no attempt to conceal her sensuality: she wears short dresses, sometimes made of leather, that reveal long dancer's legs, and when she smokes, she drags on her cigarettes with dramatic flair, punctuating her sentences with an exhale of smoke.

But she passed the crucial test of acceptance--"Even in the bathrooms they were real friendly to me," she says--and is now an El Tren regular. On Saturdays, the bartender saves her favorite spot at the west side of the bar, the locus of all the best gossip.

"For social dancing, salsa is the dance with the most passion," Phelps says. "When I'm dancing salsa, it's like I transcend my body."

At Monica's one Sunday night, 41-year-old Dallas middle school teacher Kathleen Simmons discards her prim Talbot's-bought frock and reveals a wardrobe of flaming red Spandex. She has just spent the past hour and a half sweating in the dance studio of her instructor, Romero Gonzales, and she is now anxious to show off what she has learned.

And Monica's--the trendy Deep Ellum Mexican eatery that, for the past three years, has given way to salsa dancing and Soul Caribe on Sunday nights--is the perfect spot to showcase her talents. There, street meets ballroom, passion meets practice, and Gonzales--who once appeared on "A Current Affair" after taking 4th place in the United States Swing Dance Championship--has his own table reserved for himself and his students, who he brings to Monica's every Sunday after salsa lessons.

On this particular night, Sergio Zarate, a member of the Sunday night faithful, approaches Gonzales' table of salsa neophytes and extends his hand to Simmons, asking her to join him on the dance floor. She is hesitant at first, aware that this is an invitation to perform for the crowd, and she is unsure whether she will pull it off without embarrassing herself or her teacher.

"You go, girl!" Gonzales prods her. "You work those steps." And she does, trying to keep pace with Zarate's street-learned movements; all the while she's aware of the eyes upon her.

On Sundays, most of the El Tren regulars--including de la Vega, Arango, Obregon, Phelps, and Delgado--come here to dance, as do those from El Topacio. But a majority of the crowd are white dancers who only come to Monica's, unaware of places like El Tren or unsure of whether they would be welcome.

"Monica's is a chance for Anglos to see our salsa," says Lui Arango, who seldom misses a Sunday at Monica's, though he considers it only a stopgap until a full-time dinner-dance club opens. "They can see that we don't all look like low-riders, that we don't all have a mustache and we don't all wear thick chains, and that Colombia is not somewhere in the middle of Mexico."

Accompanying de la Vega's great love for salsa and the small local community is also great frustration--with club owners who would rather spin records than hire bands, with those musicians who hop onto the music as though it were merely a fad, and with the lack of communication that exists within the community itself.

In order to network and inform the scattered Texas salsa fans, de la Vega founded a monthly newspaper called Nuestra Salsa (Our Salsa) devoted entirely to salsa, for salseros--salsa lovers. Each month, he delivers between 3,000 and 5,000 papers to salsa clubs, Latin record stores such as Discolandia, and Hispanic-owned restaurants in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, and Killeen.

"I call the paper our salsa," de la Vega says, "because it's like publishing a political magazine and calling it Our Nation. I say it's a collective ownership. The salseros own salsa, and believe me, I have proof that it is so."

To read a copy of Nuestra Salsa is to browse through a family album of Dallas' tight-knit salsero community. The paper, which has increased from four pages to 16 over the past year, chronicles the stories and travails of the musicians, promoters, dancers, and enthusiasts. With photos on every page, the paper always features reviews of visiting salsa bands, backgrounds of local musicians and international salsa celebrities, and several pages of "Chisme and Bochinche" (translated: "Gossip and Uproar") documenting the openings of new salsa clubs, which ones joined de la Vega's El Club de Flops, rumors about club owners and musicians, and who hosted what salsa dances and how they were attended.

Unfortunately, aside from such events as the Chilean and Peruvian independence-day balls and the gigs at El Tren and El Topacio or even the rare out-of-town appearances, there are few places for salsa bands to perform. De la Vega--whose band is a "a 20-piece orchestra," he says, "on a five-musician budget" that blends classic salsa songs with a dozen originals--and his contemporaries struggle to find venues that will hire bands instead of relying on disc jockeys and records. Even worse, they must compete with bands that bill themselves as "Latin jazz," a slick amalgam of salsa and contemporary jazz.

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