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Saucy Salsa

By Deborah Hirsch | Sentinel Staff Writer

September 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved. 


Best DJ: Cañabrava Night Club.

Best live music: Samba Room.

Best dance scene: Metropolis, Roxy.


Haven't mastered salsa basics yet? Many ballroom dance studios offer lessons. Salsa Heat Dance Studios specializes in club-style Latin dancing and operates studios in Maitland, Kissimmee and Orlando. Ten classes for $60 or $8 per session. For more complete class schedules, call (407) 275-0943. Salsa Heat also sponsors a social Latin dance every fourth Saturday evening at Whirl and Twirl Dance Center in east Orlando, 6949 Venture Circle, Orlando. The next one is on September 27; admission is $7, ages 15 and up. Call 407-275-0943.

Pulsating bodies swirl across jam-packed dance floors to the infectious rhythms of salsa, merengue or bachata.

"I'm just a gringo who loves Latin music," says Joe Mezak, of Orlando, at the Samba Room salsa night last Saturday. "It makes me want to dance."

Mezak is one of the faithful followers who didn't give up on the Latin dance sensation of the mid-'90s, even though several Orlando clubs have stopped their salsa nights or gone out of business over the past few years. At least a dozen venues still offer Latin music for relaxed listening or spicy baile (dancing).

Don't look for them downtown, though. Places including The Club at the Firestone, Antigua and Icon discontinued their salsa nights, and there are no all-Latin clubs there.

"It's too expensive for your average Latino owner to own there, and with Church Street having gone bankrupt, it kind of drew some of it away," says Frances Lebrón, 46, the band manager for La Sonora de Orlando. The group performs at Samba Room on Saturdays and last week started a new gig at Pierre's Steakhouse on John Young Parkway.

Many of Orlando's Latin gigs are clustered in theme park areas, away from younger crowds who hang out downtown.

"The tourist ambience gives it a special flavor in the International Drive area," says Jorge Moreno, owner of Club Copa Cabana on International Drive.

Even more flavor comes from the mix of Latinos who gather to dance. Oftentimes, DJs solicit cheers from the various nationalities, from Puerto Ricans to Argentineans. Spanish is the dominant language, though you don't need to speak it to dance or find your way around a club. As Mezak shows, there's room for Latin music lovers of all backgrounds.

"We see a lot of people who are not Latin at all and they come in," says Raul Matias, general manager of Bongos, a Cuban restaurant with weekend dancing in Downtown Disney.

Bongos has held salsa nights for about two years and sometimes hires guest instructors to teach dance lessons. Based on reports from Disney last month, 26 percent of their business comes from locals.

"That tells me that people do have demand for it, people do have money to go out even though the economy is not that great," Matias says.

Latin dancing reaches another type of crowd at Southern Nights, a gay club near downtown that has had salsa nights going on nine years now, according to general manager Cindy Barbalock.

"We have a very targeted market, it's always been consistently a good night for us," Barbalock says. "We're attracting more of a mixed clientele because we're one of the longest running."

So the real question is not where to find the dancing, but what to pick from the collection of Latin venues, live music and restaurants or clubs with salsa nights. Here's an extensive sampling of Orlando's Latin scene for adventurous salseros:


Metropolis and Matrix

Both of these techno and top 40 clubs at Pointe Orlando turn into salsa hot spots on Sundays. The adjacent venues also share admission charges, and you can skip the long lines when going back and forth. Metropolis plays more classic dance music, while Matrix cranks up the Latin house and reggaeton, a Latin-flavored combination of reggae, rap and hip-hop. The more hip music at Matrix tends to attract younger clubbers who hang out on plush furniture or cluster in groups on the huge dance floor. The driving music can get irritating for those who dislike loud, repetitive noise. But the option to shift between these two upscale places solves that problem.

Details: 9101 International Drive, Orlando; Latin night 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Sundays; $10, free for women 21 and up, 18 and up admitted; casual dress; 407-370-3700.


Southern Nights

Normally known as a gay club, Southern Nights draws a diverse crowd for its Monday Latin theme. The DJ plays a nice variety of merengue, salsa and bachata, including some Latin remixes of popular American songs. The floor doesn't fill up as fast here as at other clubs, probably because it's sometimes more interesting to watch the dancers switching off with each other. Men dance with men, women dance with women and men dance with women. Gays still seem to make up the majority of the crowd, but the atmosphere feels relaxed and accepting. If you get sick of salsa, the huge mirrored club has another show bar room with house dance music and a large outdoor patio.

Details: 375 S. Bumby Ave., Orlando; Latin night 8 p.m.-3 a.m. Mondays; $5; 18 and up; casual dress; 407-898-0424.



This two-story pop dance club gets packed on Wednesday Latin nights. Get there too early, though, and you might be ushered into a male strip show. Seriously. Dancing picks up around 10:30 p.m. There are at least three dance floors to choose from, all with separate DJs. Some of the more practiced salseros show off their perfected moves in the smaller front room. The largest floor in the main room attracts a mix of dancers at different levels. On the upper balcony, there are more bars and a smaller, super-crowded dance floor where a younger gang grooves to Latin hip-hop.

Details: 740 Bennett Road, Orlando; Latin night 8 p.m.-3 a.m. Wednesdays and the first Friday of every month; $10 for those under 21, otherwise $7 for men and $5 for women; 18 and up admitted; smart dress; 407-898-4004.


Latin Quarter

It's a restaurant by day, but starting on Thursday nights the tables are pushed back to clear out a multilevel dance floor partially lined with indoor waterfalls and video screens on either side. Sometimes the second floor balcony, decorated with flags from various Latin nations, is also open. Being at Universal Studios CityWalk, Latin Quarter tends to attract more tourists and Anglos. Having such a vacation-happy, mixed crowd makes the dance scene less intimidating, though. It's not uncommon to see groups of people dancing among the couples. There are also many seating areas by the dance floor, the main bar or on the balcony where the music is actually soft enough to hold a conversation. Thursday ladies-night crowds seem surprisingly small considering women get quite a deal with no cover and free drinks all night long. Parking is also free for everyone after 6 p.m.

Details: Universal Studios CityWalk; 11 p.m.-2.a.m Thursday through Sundays; $7, $10 for women under 21; women 18 and up except Thursdays, men 21 and up; casual dressy; 407-224-2800.

Club Copa Cabana

Though Club Copa is located in a strip mall somewhat removed from the rest of the hoopla on I-Drive, it still brings in a good-sized, almost entirely Latino group on the weekends. The elevated dance floor is on the small side, but it works for the amount of people there. There's also an upper balcony in case more space is needed, lots of tables for resting and plenty of loud music. The laid-back atmosphere and eager dance partners make Club Copa a good place for beginning dancers, although the crowds are a little more meat-markety than elsewhere. It might be more fun for group outings -- there's no lack of aggressive men who do their best to zero in on single women.

Details: 5454 International Drive, Orlando; 9 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Thursdays through Sunday; dance lessons on some Fridays from 7-9 p.m.; $7; 18 and up; casual dress; 407-351-4868.



Bongos, a Cuban restaurant at Downtown Disney, hosts a large, talented live band on Friday and Saturday nights, with a DJ between sets. Occasionally, they also have special dancers, guest appearances or salsa lessons. The kitchen stays open until midnight on weekends, but the loud music makes it hard to have a dinner conversation. Plus the food is tourist-town overpriced. The best bet is just to come for dancing and chilling out. Finding a place to stand without blocking the dance floor or hallway can be tricky, but there are a number of bars with funky stools shaped like conga drums and mosaic-tiled countertops. The band does some halfway Latin variations of popular songs, but they get into more classic stuff during later sets.

Details: 1498 E. Buena Vista Drive, Downtown Disney West Side; 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; salsa lessons on Saturdays at 8 p.m.; free on Fridays, $5 on Saturdays; all ages before 11 p.m., then 21 and up; dressy casual; 407- 828-0999.

Cañabrava Night Club

From the outside, this little spot in the middle of a strip mall in south Orlando doesn't look like much. But inside, there's a wide room with a smooth wood dance floor surrounded by a bunch of little tables. Bright neon decorations glow under black lights -- a little bowling-alley chintzy but also kind of fun. There's always the amusement in discovering hidden lint on clothing or seeing contacts shining strangely luminescent. The dancers come from all over -- Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and more. The DJ plays a good variety of music, switching from one type of dance to another every couple of songs. The club also has hip-hop on Thursdays and shows sports games on Sundays.

Details: 12453 S. Orange Blossom Trail; 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; $5 for 21 and up, $10 for 18 and up; 18 and up for women, 21 and up for men; casual dressy; 407-855-1900.

Coco Bongos

Lines snake out the door for dancing at Coco Bongos, even though it's only about a mile from competitor Cañabrava and significantly grungier. The majority of the crowd is Latino, but there's room for everyone on the main dance floor -- which is where you'll be herded by the inescapable security guards. Other than a few seats by the bar along the right wall, it's standing room only. There's a whole slew of empty plastic tables on the far left, but you can't sit there unless you spend a certain amount of money. Of course, only a couple of people were shelling out much cash, leaving all that space to waste and forcing everyone to bunch up elsewhere. It becomes almost impossible to avoid standing in a walkway where club employees constantly prod people out of the way. Bonus points for live performers who randomly emerge to drum along with the music. Hidden back behind the bathrooms there's another room with reggaeton and free-for-all grinding.

Details: 11350 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando; 10 p.m.-3 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays; $7 Friday, $10 Saturday; casual dress; women 18 and up, men 21 and up; 407-859-7225.

La Carambola

The music can get deafening at this smaller club, but the easygoing crowd seemed pretty unaffected, lounging at little tables around the dance floor or against a fencelike structure in front of the bar. Some friendly dancers are glad to strike up conversations or make introductions. It does get smoky, though. The club might not be located in the nicest neighborhood, but it feels safe inside, and a security guard even monitors the parking lot.

Details: 3012 N. Goldenrod Road, Winter Park; 9 p.m.-3 a.m. Fridays through Sundays; $5; women 18 and up, men 21 and up; casual dress; 407- 671-3365.


Caribbean Beach Club

The Caribbean Beach Club is one of the largest salsa night venues in Orlando, but also by far the sketchiest. People in the parking lot at the Howard Johnson Hotel where the club is located try to charge for certain spots when there are plenty of spaces for free around the other side -- although those may require longer walks past suspicious people quietly lurking in shadows. Inside, it looks as if layers of filth have built up on everything. The floor is coated with sticky spilled drinks and who knows what else, but at least the dance floor is large enough to find a relatively clean spot. The crowd, a diverse mix of whites, blacks and Latinos, seems to have fun despite the mess. Still, there's a fair share of undesirable characters curious to know which women are married. (Boyfriends aren't strong enough commitments?) Heat emanates from another room where a mass of people boogie to reggaeton. Several security guards police the place, but there's still the walk back to the car at the end of the night.

Details: 4919 W. Colonial Drive; Latin night 9 p.m.-3:30 a.m. Saturdays; $10 for 18 and up, $7 for 21 and up; 18 and up admitted; casual dress; 407-299-0706.

Club Lava

Club Lava, once called Knight Lights, has one of the larger dance floors for Latin enthusiasts, although the mirrored walls, fog machines, sirens and video screens betray the club's techno leanings. Later in the evening the DJ plays more merengue and Latin hip-hop, also blending in popular songs that have no connection whatsoever to Latin music. The young crowd there, many of them apparently students from the nearby University of Central Florida, didn't seem bothered by the switch, though. The music may not be that authentic, but the environment was welcoming.

Details: 12289 University Blvd.; Latin night 9 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays, sometimes other special events; $6; 18 and up; casual dress; 407-482-2500.

Samba Room

A classier-dressed, older crowd gathers at the Samba Room for live salsa music on Saturdays. An elegant little outdoor bar leads into a room adjacent to the restaurant where the band performs. There are more Anglos here, but their dancing rivals even the best Latinos. Watch out for the dance floor -- it's slippery, even though you can't tell by looking at all the dancers gracefully twirling around. Even if the caliber of the dancers is a bit intimidating, their polished moves and the energetic musicians are really fun to watch. The biggest letdown is how early the music stops -- at 1:15 a.m. on the dot. At least the bar stays open until 2 a.m.

Details: 7468 W. Sand Lake Road; 10:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturdays, sometimes Fridays in the winter; $10, free if you dine there; 21 and up; dressy; 407-226-0550.

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