- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 10, 2006

The main floor of Habana Village, a Cuban restaurant in Adams Morgan, is an image of calm and poise. Well-heeled patrons pick at maduros and sip mojitos, daintily chewing on the sugarcane garnish.

But with each step up the restaurant’s steep staircase the atmosphere of polite reserve falls away. The temperature rises, the lights dim and the blare of the horns echoes against the dark walls. Eager couples line up against the wall, the more experienced ones in the back and the novices up front, by the bar.

“Four, five, six, seven,” instructor Dwight Smith counts off, swaying his hips and sashaying among his students.

Suddenly the room erupts in motion. The rear is a kaleidoscope of curls and bright dresses, while the front is a more unfortunate collection of left feet, hummed beats and occasional yelps of pain.

Welcome to salsa Saturdays at Habana Village, one of dozens of District bars, restaurants, lounges, sports clubs and dance studios offering an increasing number of Latin dance classes.

A jump in Hispanic population — by more than 10 percent in the District and by about 20 percent in Maryland and Virginia between 2000 and 2004, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — combined with the popularization of dance-themed TV shows and movies, has resulted in a Latin dance explosion.

“D.C. probably has the number one salsa dance scene in the country,” says Earl Rush, founder of “Stuck on Salsa,” a local entertainment company that operates salsa nights throughout the mid-Atlantic area.

Mr. Rush says that on any given night there are two or three clubs in the District offering salsa lessons. He says TV shows like “Dancing With the Stars,” as well as the introduction of Latin radio station 99.1 El Sol in 2005, have contributed to the growing interest in salsa dancing

“All the dance shows on TV have a part in this situation,” he says. “You see them and you say, ‘If this clown can do it, I can probably go out and do it.’”

And the dancers are no longer only Hispanic.

“Salsa used to be a predominately Latino pursuit,” says local salsa promoter and dancer Eileen Torres. “Now it’s almost equal parts Latin, black, Anglo, Asian — and now we’re even attracting Middle Eastern dancers.”

At Habana Village, Timothy Robinson practices a “cross buddy lead” with his wife, Java. Java maintains a bright smile, but her brow is furrowed, and beads of sweat gather at the neckline of her floor-length red dress. The song ends, and Java collapses against her husband, laughing.

The couple, both black, drove from Brookville to attend their first ever salsa class together. Java says that while her husband has always listened to Latin music, it is the popularization of reggaeton music that has made her curious about the dance form. “Reggaeton has made Latin music more mainstream,” she says.

Mr. Smith, a guest instructor at Saturday’s class, says many of his friends who customarily listen to hip-hop music picked up salsa after they heard reggaeton music. “A lot of hip-hop dancers feel the music, so it’s easy to transfer to Latin dancing,” he says.

Not only has salsa transcended racial boundaries, but it has also reached across socioeconomic barriers, says Habana Village instructor Victor Yang. Mr. Yang says salsa can offer challenge and fun to anyone, be it a professional dancer or a scientist. While some students gravitate toward the sensuality and passion of the dance form, others are attracted by its difficulty and intricate footwork.

“You’ve got more professionals — lawyers and doctors — dancing,” he says. “These people are extremely educated, and they come out for the technical part.”

The salsa craze isn’t restricted to the District, insiders say. The proliferation of local and national salsa “congresses” has enthusiasts from all over the country converging to find out about new clubs, learn new moves and meet prospective salsa partners.

But thanks to the Washington area’s multicultural population, salsa lessons are even hotter here. Ms. Torres says the District’s melting pot of ethnicities, cultures and interests exposes residents to dance forms they may not have experienced if they lived in a more homogenous city.

“You have a mix of people that are from a lot of different nations and go out and happen to be partying in close proximity to each other,” she says. “They hear the music, and they see the dancing. It’s very infectious, and you think, ‘I want to be part of it.’”

First steps

Monday:

Lucky Bar, 1221 Connecticut Ave. NW — Free salsa lesson 7-9 p.m. 202/331-3733

Clarendon Grill, 1101 N. Highlands St., Arlington — Free salsa class 7:30-9 p.m. 703/524-7455

Tuesday:

Lulu’s, 22nd and M St. NW — Free salsa lesson 8-9 p.m. 202/861-5858

Clarendon Grill, 1101 N. Highlands St., Arlington — Free salsa class 7-9 p.m. 703/524-7455

Wednesday:

Zanzibar, 700 Water St. SW — Cha-cha class at 7 p.m. $5 before 10 p.m. and $10 after 10 p.m. 202/ 554-9100.

Latin Jazz Alley, 1721 Columbia Road, NW — Salsa for beginners, 7-8 p.m., intermediates from 8-9 p.m. $10. 202/328-6190

Bravo! Bravo!, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW — Beginner session at 9 p.m., intermediate/advanced session at 10 p.m. $10, 703.624.0091

Café Citron, 1343 Connecticut Ave. NW — Free lesson 8-9 p.m. 202/530-8844

Thursday:

Cecilia’s Club and Restaurant, 2619 Columbia Pike, Arlington — Beginner and intermediate salsa from 7-9:30 p.m., $10, 703/371-8256

Habana Village, 1834 Columbia Road NW — Salsa from 7-9:30 p.m., $10, 202/462-6310

Friday:

Latin Dance, Inc.’s Salsa Party, 4720 D Lee Highway, Arlington — $10 cover. Beginners from 7-8 p.m., intermediate/advanced from 8-9 p.m., free introductory lesson, 703/841-9375

The Terra e Mare Restaurant, 6108 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church . — 7:30 p.m. for beginners, 8:30 p.m. for intermediate/advanced, $15 per person for a one-time walk-in lesson or $60 for a six-week series of salsa lessons, 703/624-0091

Saturday:

Bistro-Bistro, 4021 S. 28th St., Arlington — Free salsa lessons 9-10 p.m., cover is $10 before 11:30 p.m., 703/379-0300

Latin Jazz Alley, 1721 Columbia Road NW — Beginner’s classes 7:30 p.m. for $5, intermediate classes 8:30 p.m. for $10, 202/ 328-6190

Sunday:

The Chevy Chase Ballroom, 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW — $12 for one class, $28 for four classes, free introductory class. Several classes happening at once, call 202/462-0870 for schedule.

Latin Vibes Dance Center, 7925 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring — Free basic salsa, 6 p.m., $5 cover, 301/588-4638

James R. Brantley/The Washington Times

Carla Eisenstein stands in front of a poster of the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz at Habana Village.

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