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PUERTO RICO HERALD
The Roosevelt Plaza Festival And Some Hot Dancing Spots
By J.A. del Rosario
November 28, 2003
For local fans of tropical jazz and good dancing music, November is not just about turkey, football games and, well, turkey. Every November, on the weekend before Thanksgiving, San Juan music fans congregate at the Plaza Roosevelt for the Fiestas de la Plazita Roosevelt, an annual 4-night festival that turns the urban square into the music center of the city for one weekend. The Roosevelt plaza is a small town square in an area of San Juan that falls between the Rio Piedras and Hato Rey burroughs which makes it a perfect hang-out spot for the after-work crowd of the nearby banking district in Hato Rey and the University of Puerto Rico student body in Rio Piedras.
The Roosevelt fiesta may be small in size but big in spirit -- and in its musical lineup. Standard visiting musicians include Grammy-winning percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo and pianist Eddie Palmieri. The size of the plaza does not stop the large crowds from flooding the whole block, setting up chairs in front of the stage, and carving out a good dancing area under the stars to sweat along to every sycopantic rhythm that comes from the performers.
The loose festive mood, and the free cost take the burden off the musicians, who have traditionally taken the opportunity to embark in long jam sessions with their groups to the delight of the audience. For the salsa-dancing crowd, the festival is one of the best places to let it all hang out.
But you don't have to be here for the fiestas if you are looking for a good place to dance traditional salsa. From Old San Juan to Villa Palmera, you can find great clubs where you can either dance, or marvel at the dancers on the floor while you become equally intoxicated with beers and the wild rhythms of the infectious music.
The most common spot for a good crowded dance floor is Rumba in Old San Juan. Located in the heart of Calle San Sebastian, the old city's main party street. Rumba features a different group on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The place is air-conditioned, which means you have a chance to cool off a little after sweating a storm on the crowded dance floor. On a Saturday night, bandleader Pupi Santiago will take you through a blistering set of Cuban music that will put you to dance, regardless of whether you know how to or not.
As a matter of fact, if you don't know how to dance, Rumba is the perfect place for you. The dance floor is always surrounded by friendly locals who will gladly oblige to take you through a few steps as long as it gives them an excuse to get out on the dance floor. Whether you are a male or a female, you can hook up with a dancing partner take a few twirls, stumble a bit, step on some toes, order a few drinks between sets and have a great time.
For the intermediate crowd there is Havana in Santurce. Havana is located on RH Todd Avenue, next to the discotheque Stargate, a perfect refrence point for those catching a taxi. This is purely a salsa place. The club has a rotating lineup of bands, but its strongest attribute is the late closing hours. Havana is considered an after-hours of sorts, which means at any ungodly hour of the morning, you will find a dance floor crowded with dancers who refuse to accept that the sun is is on the rise.
And finally, for the black diamond crowd of salsa dancing, there is the mythical El Coabey in Puerto Nuevo. Make no mistake about this place, these people take their dancing seriously, which is not to say your remedial skills will get you laughed off the dance floor - but many beginners find the experience equally exhilarating and humbling.
What makes El Coabey special is that the place has a special allure for local salsa dancers. The non-descript bar features the most extensive collection of vintage salsa records, and spending a night here is like taking a crash course in salsa history.
Salsa, like most music, was greatly affected by American music. In the 1950s, the New York ballroom sound of performers like Tito Puente and Edie Capo dictated the scene. But by the early 70's, psychedelic rock and the peace movement had transformed the genre into a kaleidoscope of Latin and American influences. There is no better example of this than Ricardo Rey and Bobby Cruz's classic album "Sonido Bestial," which features fragments of Stravinsky in the middle of the fire-breathing title cut, and a Spanish, salsafied version of James Taylor's "Fire and Rain."
Enter the late 70s with the likes of Ruben Blades, and Willie Colón who elevated the salsa song to contain witty social commentary that is still considered the songwriting standard of the genre.
On any night at El Coabey, you can hear these vintage recordings filling up the room and sending the crowd into a frenzy. On some nights, the owner Cheo will kick out some special numbers, like 70's disco-salsa hits that send the crowd into an impromptu group dance routine straight out of Saturday Night Fever, but with sabor!
Regardless of where you end up, the important thing to remember is not to be embarrassed. The truth is that locals consider it a compliment when foreigners try to dance salsa. So don't hold back, leave you inhibitions in the hotel room and as an old wise man once said: Let your mind go and you body will follow.
J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: : email@example.com