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 Carabal’, to celebrate Carabal’'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.

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."

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."

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.

"I want to play the music of my race," he says. "I want to play salsa. I could play Latin jazz three or four nights a week, but I don't want to do that. I want to play the music of my roots--and I don't mean today's roots, I mean the real music."

De la Vega has watched as a few clubs have tried to host live salsa and watched as they closed down and became restaurants or parking lots. The problem, he concludes, lies with the lack of promotion outside--and even within--the Latin community.

"In order to get a live salsa club we have to take our great music to the largest segment of our community--Anglos," he says. He stresses the need for a radio program featuring salsa; after all, Tejano only became popular with a larger audience once it became a mainstay on FM stations like KRVA and KNON, attracting audiences who have few easily accessible outlets to the music. And de la Vega stresses the need for a high-profile salsa club once again--a place like Genaro's Tropical of a decade ago, a joint so extravagant and classy people will line up by the thousands just for a peek inside.

"You just gotta imagine [that] here in Dallas," says Silva, who imagines such a time again. "Some old, big, ugly, crushed velvet curtain opens up slowly, they pull them back, and you like to see some guys. Pow! Stand up and throw that trumpet back and blare it out. You like to see them bend back--pow!--for that first beat and knock down that timbales and that salsa and get after it.

"And then the saxophones lean back. Bam! Hit it! You want to see a baby grand--you don't want to see an organ--and those guys in double-breasted white suits. Four guys right there in front with microphones coming down, their feet are already moving. Maybe one will have a big trombone..." His voice trails off as he describes his fantasy.

"The salseros have to stick together to stay alive," Silva insists. "I've made my mark, but I want to help create a movement. If we don't support each other one way or another, you'll kill the music. You'll kill the movement.

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