Smile Politely

Salsa in CU, Part III: I like the nightlife

Nightclub dancing with a partner seldom evolves from the oversexed bump and grind – unless of course, it is salsa night.  There, sexiness has a form.
Social salsa dancing has its own etiquette and movement vocabulary, both of which contribute to a unique nightclub experience; while University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) undergrads drunkenly dance on poles at campus bars like Joe’s and Clybourne, a different crowd can be found spinning around the dance floor at Radio Maria, Highdive and Cowboy Monkey in Downtown Champaign.
Salsa night began at Highdive around the year 2000, and then was put on hiatus “for a variety of reasons,” explained Ward Gollings, operations manager of Cowboy Monkey. But it didn’t stay on hiatus for long.

Photo by Erin Chiou

“A year or two later, [Bris and I] decided the time was ripe to bring it back, except, this time, at the Cowboy Monkey because it had an outdoor patio,” Gollings said.

After a successful run of about two to three years at Cowboy Monkey, salsa night moved to Soma, a downtown Champaign bar with the same owner, in an effort to accommodate a larger crowd during the winter.  Salsa night was successfully hosted at Soma before returning to its current spot. It is now held every Wednesday night at Cowboy Monkey.    

During the warmer summer months, Cowboy Monkey’s salsa night draws a crowd of 200-300 people on average; during the winter, the headcount hovers around 100. And it isn’t just the club’s regulars who attend the events.
“I find that salsa night draws a different crowd than other nights at Cowboy Monkey,” Gollings said.  “There are certainly people who aren’t big on salsa dancing but who are still attracted to salsa night. It can often be quite a hotspot in town on a weeknight, or merely be an exciting place to be out and about…Salsa night always has a party atmosphere element to it.”
Salsa dancer and deejay Juan Miguel Atkinson said that the vibe is similar at Radio Maria’s salsa night, which is held weekly on Saturdays; the event always draws outside attention.

“People walk by Radio Maria – where they have big windows – and they look in to watch the dancing as they are passing by,” Atkinson said.  “A crowd gets together, and everyone gets super excited…and that excitement is contagious.”

Atkinson said that passersby and diners at Radio Maria often ask him about where they can take salsa classes and about how they can otherwise get involved in the salsa scene; he uses his knowledge of the community to redirect them.

For those salseros who are not interested in the downtown scene, the Illini Union offers salsa dancing instruction and practice on Tuesday evenings, explained salsa dancer and deejay Bris Mueller Garcés.

“Dancing at the Union seems like a good idea for graduate students – for students who live on campus and who may have spouses or children to get home to,” Mueller said. “The event ends at 11 p.m.; you are going to make sure that most [of the rowdy] people who would normally enjoy a salsa event don’t come.”

Mueller noted that many people feel that dancing is a great alternative nightlife activity because it is not centered on alcohol, drugs or sex; these people may remove themselves from the general salsa community because they think it is too crowded, or because they want to avoid the alcohol, he said. Events such as Tuesdays at the Union and early salsa instruction at the Highdive on Fridays cater to this crowd.

“You can create those kinds of neutral spaces for people to dance in…and it can be good or bad,” Mueller said.  “It is bad if it fragments the community, but good if it becomes a space for beginners to learn.”

Mueller explained that in actuality, those people who are serious about salsa dancing very rarely drink; this made salsa night a hard sell to many downtown Champaign venues when Mueller joined up with event planning company Power n Soul Pro. in 2004.

In addition to facing that business challenge in the early 2000s, Mueller and his Power n Soul Pro. business partner Doug Layne had difficulty finding venues willing to host events that catered to the black community.

“The general events held by Power n Soul Pro. can be more hip-hop based; we have some Caribbean events that are more geared toward the black community,” Mueller said. “Club owners were reluctant to hosting events where the crowd would be predominantly black… the idea scared them.”

Though the salsa dance community had a reputation for being less rowdy than the black community, club owners were averse to participating in it because they feared lost revenue from diminished alcohol sales.

“We needed to convince the owners that they were getting the demographic of the salsa community with the consumption habits of the black community,” Mueller said. “It was all about politics.”

Mueller explained that he and Layne decided to trick the club owners into hosting both a community of dancers who weren’t drinking and a racially diverse crowd.

“We did that by cleverly combining the black and Latino communities,” Mueller said. “For example, Wednesdays at Soma were salsa in the back and reggae in the front. It was very integrated, almost 1:1 ratio between black and Latino attendees.”

Now, however, the ethnic ratio has changed.

“We slowly saw that the blackness of the community became diluted,” Mueller said. “The lower-income Mexican members of the community supplanted themselves [at our events].”

Mueller said that he and Layne made it clear to the venues that they had responsibilities to the community they serve; the pair explained to nightclub owners that the Latin dancers themselves were looking for a recreational outlet where they didn’t have to drink beer, and that it would be the other people in attendance who would purchase the alcohol at Latin dance events.

“As an event planning company, Power n Soul Pro. needs to make sure that it works with venues that are sensitive to the issues of the groups attending its events,” Mueller said.

Another major issue at salsa nights is satisfying the diverse musical tastes of those in attendance.

“Right now, people are spreading out in terms of what they like to dance to,” Atkinson said. “People like reggae, cumbia, reggaeton, salsa and bachata, so as a deejay, I have to be aware of that.”

Atkinson said that when he deejays, he focuses on what mood he is trying to transmit with any given song.

“There are songs that everybody knows, but if the night doesn’t have the mood that goes with the song, you are going to break the crowd,” Atkinson said. “I try to build a specific mood every night…and what it is depends on how my day went.”

At Radio Maria on Saturdays, Atkinson and Mueller deejay in two separate, adjacent rooms; Atkinson plays salsa and cumbia music, while Mueller plays more merengue and reggaeton.

Dance2XS Caliente Executive Director Rae Alexander explained the differences between each style of Latin dancing.

“A lot of the dance genres are also musical genres – if you listen to the music that you are going to be dancing to, you will know which dance to do,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with the rhythm of the music.”

Merengue, Alexander said, “is really basic.”  The dance is similar to a march but is not done in a march stance; it is generally slow and the dancers move back and forth.

“Bachata is more of a sexy dance,” Alexander said. “It is not as fiery as tango, but it is sexier than salsa.”

Rumba and cha-cha-cha are variations of salsa; cumbia is sometimes referred to as salsa dancing, depending on the region in which a person is learning.   

“My Mexican friends did not know what salsa was – in terms of how a beginner would learn it,” Alexander explained. “If you told them to do salsa, they would do the cumbia. There are all these different styles – New York style, L.A. Style.  A lot what style people learn has to do with culture.”

UIUC Department of Dance Alumna Kim McCarthy explained that there is a strong sense of culture when it comes to social salsa dancing etiquette as well; men ask women to dance.

“I always ask for a boy to ask me to dance,” McCarthy said. “It is almost like an old-fashioned courting.”

McCarthy also noted that when salsa dancing, people tend to talk more than they do when dancing in traditional nightclubs.

UIUC Department of Dance Alumna Erin Sansone often went dancing with McCarthy and fellow alumna Lesley Werle; Sansone, too, said she noticed the difference in nightclub etiquette in the salsa community.

“You aren’t there to find a date…You don’t get that vibe,” Sansone said. “When a guy asks you to dance, he literally just wants to dance.”

That is not always the case in a more traditional nightclub.

“In our nightclubs that we’re used to in the States, you dance with your friends; there is no partnering,” McCarthy explained. “You don’t know who is touching you or who you are touching.”

Werle said she has had similar experiences.

“If I’m not with friends and dancing as a group, there have been instances of guys asking me to dance – but they really just want me to stop what I am doing so they can put their hands all over me,” she said. “Salsa is different…it is a form. There is a structure to it.”

But that is not to say that “creeps” don’t exist at social salsa events. Mueller noted that there is an active effort on the part of salsa event organizers and venues to discourage womanizing and rowdy behavior; this is done primarily by encouraging mixing among the three primary ethnic groups who attend salsa nights.
Mexican immigrants, Latinos and Latinas from the campus community and Chicanos make up the community of cultural salsa dancers; Caucasians, international students and African Americans are represented in the community of trained salsa dancers.
“The key in the salsa community is to not allow these groups of people to congregate in any part of the room by themselves…That is when they will talk about one another and not integrate into the rest of the room,” Mueller explained. “Most of my energy on any given night is spent making sure that we have enough of each group of people that any given group feels uncomfortable acting the way they might act if they were alone.”

Mueller explained that there have been problems in the salsa community in the past when women felt objectified by the men in attendance at salsa events. 

“These guys were there drinking beer and just watching people dance. They were taking advantage of people – they don’t know how to dance but they would approach people and ask them to dance after a few beers,” Mueller said. “They were using the idea of dancing as leverage to make what could be perceived as inappropriate contact.”

Mueller said that he doesn’t judge anyone who attends his salsa events, but he does question their motives.

“It makes me upset that these guys aren’t out with their wives…they wouldn’t let their daughters or their sisters out to attend an event like this,” he said. “If these guys want to attend Latin dance events – okay, great. But where are the women who would keep them in check? If the men do something weird, their wives or girlfriends should hear about it.”

Another prominent group on the salsa scene is composed of Dance2XS Caliente members.  Atkinson, a former Dance2XS Caliente member himself, noted that the members of salsa performance groups can develop elitist attitudes when they dance socially.

“Dance2XS Caliente tends to dance in a group [when they are out at the clubs],” Atkinson said, “but that ‘performer’ attitude can be deceptive. Often, they don’t dance with other people because people don’t approach them… not because they don’t want to dance with people outside of the group.”

Alexander offered some insight into the inner workings of the group.

“A lot of people on the team go out dancing twice a week, but the amount of people has shifted over time,” she said. “When I first began on Caliente [as a freshman], pretty much everyone on the team would go to dance. Now there is that handful of people who are devoted attendees, and you have the other half [of the group] that hasn’t really gotten into it yet.”

When the group goes out, Alexander explained, they usually dance with one another in an effort to further hone their chemistry as an ensemble.

“When the girls first start off, they usually just dance with the guys on the team,” she said. “Now [the dancers] mix more [with community members], but it depends on their level of comfort.”

Atkinson said that he believes the initial uppity attitude of salsa performers fades with time, and that the time it takes varies by individual.

“People figure out why they are dancing,” he said.  “At the end, the intentions are clear – if you are here to have fun, you are going to dance with whoever else is here to have fun.”

Atkinson noted that when a salseros gets into a groove, it can be hard to stop dancing.

“When you start dancing salsa a lot, you get addicted to it…Suddenly you cannot stop dancing,” he said. “One day, I danced for seven hours straight. Every time the music stopped, I just changed partners…I think I had three changes of clothes that night.”

Though UIUC alumna and current Brooklyn resident McCarthy is almost three years out of college, she said that salsa dancing is still something that she loves to do.

“I feel like I will like to do it forever,” she said.

McCarthy recounted a story about a “crazy guy” on the Brooklyn subway who salsa dances by himself every day while screaming, “Everyone can salsa!”

“I think people can forget that,” McCarthy said. “I think that crazy guy has got a point.”

And judging from the excitement generated by C-U salsa nights, much of the local community thinks so, too.

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