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Charlotte Observer (NC)

Salsa Catches Fire


September 3, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Charlotte Observer (NC). All rights reserved. 

Salsa blares and disco lights swirl, but the dance floor is empty. A few people hover nearby sipping beer and talking.

Eric Guthrie smiles as if he is the first in line to ride the Hurler at Carowinds. He saunters onto the dance floor at Skandalo's, spins with his arms outstretched and throws his head back in delight.

He touches a young woman on the shoulder and leads her onto the empty floor. She sets her drink down and quickly follows him. They twirl, dip and spin. In Charlotte's thriving salsa scene, finding an empty dance floor is getting tougher. Guthrie wasn't going to let this opportunity pass.

"The one thing a dancer needs is room to showcase their skills," he explained.

Serious salsa dancers hang on weekdays, like the recent Wednesday at Skandalo's, because by Friday, Skandalo's will be too packed to move. Latorre's will be slightly better. Cosmos Cafe on Thursday night -- don't even think about it.

The Latin dance is so popular in Charlotte these days that the city will have its first four-day salsa convention, called the Charlotte World Salsa Congress. Internationally known dancers and musicians, such as Super Mario and Andy Montañez, will participate. The gathering, Thursday through next Sunday at the Adam's Mark hotel, will also include workshops for all skill levels.

"It's for people who've been curious, to come out, see true performance, learn, improve and party," said congress executive producer Henrietta Whitty, 53, of Charlotte.

Yuko Nabika, 29, took lessons at Salamandra and can't believe Charlotte has a congress.

"That's amazing to me," said Nabika, a student at Central Piedmont Community College. "It's only happened in big cities -- Chicago, New York -- but Charlotte's not that big. But it's still happening."

Salsa congresses began in Puerto Rico in 1996 to preserve the salsa tradition. Now, at least 20 cities have them, from Los Angeles to New York to Miami. Brazil, Japan and Spain also have congresses. They're typically sponsored by event promoters or enthusiasts, such as Charlotte's Whitty.

For example, Albert Torres Events launched the first congress in the continental United States in Los Angeles in 1999. The company now hosts 14 worldwide. Jose Mendoza of the California-based company said they look for cities with a vibrant salsa culture. "It means the salsa scene is growing," Mendoza said.

Charlotte's salsa scene is more stable today than it has been in the last decade.

The Latino House on Independence Boulevard was popular in the '90s, but it was on the outskirts of Charlotte. In the mid-'90s, Cosmos brought salsa uptown. Its weekly salsa night became so popular the cafe charged admission. The restaurant's ownership group teamed with longtime area promoters and club owners the Presley brothers to open Salamandra in 1999. After a strong start, interest waned and it closed after three years.

Today, the city boasts at least one Latin dance club and four restaurants that have social dances on the weekends and offer salsa lessons.

Although, Charlotte has a large Hispanic population -- at least 85,000 Hispanics live in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and the number swells to about 180,000 when you count surrounding counties -- Hispanics aren't the only ones digging salsa.

"The scene has grown and become more diverse," said Guthrie, who is African American. "More people from non-Latin backgrounds (are) at the clubs more often and actually dancing, not simply standing around."

At Latorre's on a Friday night, the floor is crowded with blacks, whites, Nicaraguans, Mexicans, Dominicans and Asians. Ladies wear dresses, skirts and pants. Men wear jeans, slacks and khakis. Dancers are in their 20s, 30s and even their 60s. The DJ spins salsa, bachata, Latin house, reggatone and merengue.

Unlike most clubs, Latorre's doesn't feel like a meat market. Guys actually ask women to dance instead of grinding on their behinds. Many people come with a partner, but it's not hard for a single person to find someone to dance with.

"It's not always about the crowd," says Guthrie, 38, who works in employee relations at Wachovia. "If you have a few good dance partners with you, you can have a fabulous night."

He spies Nabika sitting beneath the spiral staircase. It's a rare break for the popular salsera. He leads her to a sliver of floor near the railing. They're immediately lost in the music -- spinning and dipping, unfurling hands and intertwining fingers as they move to the rhythm.

Where to Go Latin dance fans can party Wednesday through Sunday in the Charlotte area. Most of the clubs listed below play a mix of salsa, bachata, merengue, Latin house and reggatone. Cosmos Cafe, 300 N. College St., (704) 372-3553. 10 p.m. Thursdays. Free.

Havana Social Club, 17105 Kenton Place, Ste. 102, Cornelius, (704) 892-7000. Dance studio offers lessons throughout the week. 11 p.m. Saturday Latin social dancing. $10

La Canasta Dominicana Restaurant, 4808 Central Ave. (704) 536-0009. Call for details.

Latorre's Restaurant, 118 W. Fifth St., (704) 377-4448 10:30 p.m. dancing Fridays and Saturdays, with group lesson at 11 p.m. Ladies always free. $5 Fridays for men; $10 Saturdays for men.

Skandalo's, 5317 E. Independence Blvd. (704) 535-3080{confirmed} 8 p.m. Wednesdays, $30 for four lessons or $10 individually. 10 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays. $10 for men, free for ladies. Prices change for special events.

Taste of Havana Restaurant, 5534-101 Albemarle Road, (704) 535-0223. 6 p.m.-8 p.m. Wednesdays lessons (only plays salsa music). $40 per four-week session or $15 per individual lesson. 10 p.m. Fridays social dance. $5 for men. Ladies free.

Time Lounge, 514 N. College St., (704) 373-2515. 9 p.m. Thursdays. Free before 11 p.m. for men, free before midnight for ladies. $5.

Ready to Start Stepping? The Charlotte World Salsa Congress is only an introduction to salsa. Along with area clubs, other resources are available for beginners.

General info on the Web:,,

Popular videos: For Los Angeles-style salsa: "Edie the Salsa Freak" video series available at For Cuban style: Eric "El Cubanito" Freeman videos at

Music: Old-school: Charlie Palmierie. Classic: Tito Puente. Pop: La India and Marc Anthony.

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