If you’ve ever watched “Dancing with Stars” or “So You Think You Can Dance?” and wished you could do that, Los Angeles is the perfect place to experience your own “Dirty Dancing.”
In a city known for its hipster Hollywood clubs and seductive bars on the Sunset Strip, there’s another side to the nightlife in the City of Angels. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned salsero, step through the doors of any salsa club and you’ll find yourself transported to a magical place where people of all ages, shapes and sizes come together to celebrate Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Latin cuisine and a desire to dance salsa, mambo, cha cha cha, merengue and bachata with some of the world’s greatest dancers.
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The best way to get started is a beginning class from John Cassese, “The Dance Doctor,” in Santa Monica. A performer and choreographer with an impressive list of credits, John’s studio is one of the few in the area that offers drop-in classes. Whether you’re an absolute beginner or brushing up your steps, The Dance Doctor has hour-long classes every Saturday and Sunday, and his patient instructors are there to teach you the steps and skills you need to start your journey into “Salsaland.”
Once you’ve got the basics down, you’re first stop is Xiomara Restaurant for drinks and dinner. With its airy, high ceilings and intricate wrought iron decor, Xiomara embodies the elegant flair of 1950’s Cuba. Like all things Latin, enjoy a leisurely dinner of authentic Cuban cuisine blended with French and “Nuevo Latino” flavors. From unforgettable ceviche to chocolate soufflés, the mix of flavors and styles will surprise and astonish. But the real reason to come here is the mojitos. Considered the best in Los Angeles, each drink is individually prepared with freshly pressed sugar cane poured directly into your drink. But don’t eat or drink too much. You’ve still got a night of dancing ahead.
No evening would be complete without a visit to El Floridita Restaurant. Located near the heart of Hollywood in a tiny strip mall, El Floridita is a right out of “The Buena Vista Social Club.” Named after the famous restaurant in Cuba where Hemingway spent his days, El Floridita offers live bands every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday Nights. Enjoy a glass of sangria as the music kicks in and the dancing begins. Conversation can get difficult, but watching the dancing is worth the trip. If you keep your eyes open, you might just see one of your favorite Latin television stars dining and dancing beside you.
Now you’re ready to do some dancing of your own, but the floor at El Floridita is small and often crowded. So you head deeper into the heart of “Salsaland,” a 10-minute drive east from downtown, to The Granada in Alhambra.
On Saturday Nights, The Granada is the hottest salsa club in Los Angeles. Restored to its 1930’s opulence, the club features the best Latin musicians in the city and the best dancers from all over the world. The spacious landmark offers three separate dance experiences — the high-ceiling, main ballroom for those who like their music pulsating; the air-conditioned upstairs “disco” where the band’s sound is piped in from below, and the outdoor patio for those who prefer to dance de fuera de casa, outdoors..
By 11:00 the main ballroom is packed and the band is on fire. Somehow, no matter how crowded the club gets, there’s always room for one more couple. From Guitarras, the restaurant and tapas bar overlooking the ballroom, grab a seat near the railing and listen to bands like Son Mayor, Johnny Polanco and Tobaco y Ron. Watch the club continue to fill with a multi-cultural mix of dancers of all ages and talents. It’s not uncommon to see three generations of the same family dancing well past midnight, side-by-side with the professionals who make the weekly trek to this fabulous club.
If you’re feeling intimidated, don’t. Like most salsa clubs, the Granada offers lessons at the beginning of the evening. Whatever your level, you can bet there are dancers to match your skill set and it’s okay if you’re just learning. Explain that you’re a beginner-someone will happily offer you a courteous demonstration and a couple of pointers. Even if you do sit out a few songs, don’t worry. On Saturdays, The Granada stays open until 4:00 am. You’ll have plenty of time to wear to yourself out.
Flush from a night of music and fun, you’ll realize dinner was a long time ago. The perfect end to a perfect night? King Taco #10 in downtown Los Angeles. Ever since they started serving home style Mexican foods from a converted ice cream truck in 1947, King Taco has been one of Los Angeles’s best kept secrets. Even at this hour, don’t be surprised if there’s a wait. It’s a testament to the delicious carne asada, flavorful burritos, tacos, sopes and horchata, a traditional Mexican drink, that are served 24-7 in this clean and safe environment.
With your stomach full and body tired, the comfort of sleep beckons. As the sun rises, your head hits the pillow. With evening ringing softly in your ears, the gentle rhythms of your trip through “Salsaland” will serenade you to sleep.
What & Where:
The Dance Doctor (1440 4th St, Santa Monica; 310-459-2264)
Xiomara (6101 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles; 323-461-0601)
El Floridita (1253 N. Vine St, Hollywood; 323-871-8612)
The Granada & Guitarras (17 South 1st Street, Alhambra; 626-284-7262)
King Taco Number 10 (2020 W Pico Blvd, Los Angeles; 626-284-7262)
Ed Horowitz is a screenwriter in Los Angeles. He has written independent and feature films and episodic television for Warner Brothers Studios, Universal Studios, USA Network and Lifetime. He is also a contributing writer to the Café Play Short Play Series at the Ruskin Theater in Santa Monica.