- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

Guests dressed to the nines and were ready to rumba at Tuesday night’s opening of an exhibition celebrating the life and music of legendary Cuban singer Celia Cruz.

Even usually decorous members of Congress were swaying to the infectious beat of Jose Alberto “El Canario” and his band f gyrating musicians and singers, especially after the evening’s host, National Museum of American History Director Brent D. Glass, made the titillating observation that he had “never seen such a good-looking crowd.”

Asked about any impending dance-floor moves, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II seemed momentarily stunned when his wife, Melinda, announced she had been “warning him for two days now” after showing off her “dancing shoes” to Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence Small in a VIP area near the speakers’ podium. But the West Virginia Democrat recovered quickly, sidling over to Rep. Xavier Becerra, the nearest Latino congressman in sight, “to yield to my distinguished colleague.”

Like many of the 1,400 guests, Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre and ballet chairman Kay Kendall wasted no time demonstrating snappy steps made famous by the late salsa queen. “I’ve been playing Celia CDs ever since I got the invitation,” Mr. Webre said before taking a break to watch young members of his company carouse nearby.

Investment giant Morgan Stanley underwrote the exhibition and opening-night party, and the company pulled out all the stops to transform much of the museum gallery space into a giant Tropicana-style nightclub with pillowed chairs and sofas, cabaret tables, and hundreds of candle lamps. Buffet tables covered with spiced shrimp, mango salad, black beans and rice, empanadas, and other Latino fare were a major draw; so were the mojitos, the deliciously potent Cuban drink made with lime juice, mint and rum.

If Morgan Stanley associates were thirstier than the average guest, they could be forgiven after Monday’s news that financier Ronald Perelman had been awarded $604.3 million in a lawsuit accusing the firm of fraudulent dealings.

“We’re happy to have something to celebrate tonight after what’s been in the papers,” one banker said as took a swig from a frothy glass. “It’s been brutal.”

No one wanted to miss the costumes, photographs and videos depicting various stages of Miss Cruz’s half-century career, ranging from her nightclub performances with the Fiery Mulattas in pre-Castro Havana to 1990s rock videos, on display on the second floor.

“She was as well known in Europe as she was in Latin America and the United States,” said exhibition curator Marvette Perezq— adding that unlike certain latter-day divas who shall not be named Miss Cruz had no need of dancers, backup singers and special effects to sway a crowd.

Kevin Chaffee

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