WEST COVINA — There are many ways to dance a rumba. Robert Rodriguez and Ileana Diaz weave. The dance, an elaborate exercise in release and reunion, is like weaving a tricky pattern, they suggest.
As an agitating rhythm stirs their feet and hips, the couple join hands and move sensuously around each other. Rodriguez spins under upraised arms, drawing Diaz behind him. She sways with her back to him for a moment, pirouettes and, turning into him at just the right cut in the music, drops her arm around his neck. They move in place, clinging together like two pieces of Velcro.
This can be habit forming.
It's long after midnight on Wednesday night at a club called Wings, and Superbanda Azucar's racy blend of Latin-American rhythms is still propelling even the seated patrons into motion. As the dance floor vibrates with a compelling herky-jerky movement, those who have been left at the sidelines jiggle and squirm, looking around for potential partners.
"I have to be at work tomorrow," murmurs Diaz between dances. Her complaint lacks conviction. She and a group of friends, most of them youthful Cuban-Americans who go to the club every Wednesday and Sunday, give not the slightest indication that they're ready to leave.
"We don't get tired," scoffs Carmen Millo, a paralegal. "From here, we go to breakfast. Then we get home by 6, take a shower and go to work."
Wings owner Edmond Galoostian says most of his customers have been like that since he turned the club into a twice-a-week salsa venue three years ago. "It's the difference between a regular nightclub and a salsa club," says Galoostian, a short, bearded man who watches his customers from the edge of the dance floor with hawk-like intensity. "People really come here to dance."
Try to start a conversation at the bar, and eyes drift restlessly back to the bandstand.
A large, triangular room, with a sweeping view of the San Bernardino Freeway's traffic sailing by just beyond a wall of picture windows, Wings purports to be the San Gabriel Valley's hottest Latin club. Other clubs in the region that cater to the Latin crowd include the Quiet Cannon in Montebello and Baby Doe's in Monterey Park.
Salsa has gotten a mixed reception in Southern California concert halls and dance palaces in recent years. Big names, like ageless band leader Tito Puente and singer Celia Cruz, the Ella Fitzgerald of Latin music, have always drawn big crowds. But a series of sparsely attended concerts two years ago in Los Angeles theaters and dance halls has driven the music back to small clubs like Wings.
A mixed crowd of Latinos--Colombians, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Dominicans and plenty of Mexicans--frequents Wings on salsa nights. It's a dressy crowd, as cool as the club's high-tech decor, with its neon columns and Erector-Set ceiling piece. There's little of the tortuous singles scene here, with its critical up-and-down appraisals, hard gloms or scathing dismissals.
Dancing skill is paramount, customers insist. Not that everybody dances like Fred Astaire, but your way with a merengue or a cumbia is more important than a chiseled profile or an hourglass figure, they say.
"I wouldn't come here to meet women," says Gilbert Lopez, an electronics technician from West Covina. "Basically, I'm here to dance."
A Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican, Lopez, who dances in a powerful, loose-limbed style, is admittedly picky about whom he takes out on the floor. "I got off on the wrong foot tonight," he says. "This girl steps on my foot a couple of times, and then she goes into a spin and I catch an elbow in my lips. That was the first dance of the night."
Lopez patiently studies the crowd, looking for the perfect partner.
Salsa is the music of Southern California's future, contends Julio Mora, the band's suave, perpetually amused leader. The 1990s will be "the Latin decade," he contends between sets.
Latin music is usually driven by a tightknit group of drummers, pounding out infectious rhythms on congas, bongos and timbales. In recent years, those drums have become ubiquitous, Mora says.
"Even in American music, they use all-Latin rhythm sections," he says.
Monty Montgomery, the band's trumpet player and its lone gabacho (Mexican slang for an Anglo man), sees a burgeoning interest in salsa in Southern California. "A lot of people of different nationalities come up to me because they know I speak English," he says. "They love the music. It used to be that, if you told somebody you played Latin music, they'd want to know if you wore pants with metal things down the sides, like mariachis."
The music grows on you, says Montgomery, who is from Riverside. "There's a kind of fever you catch," he says. "A lot of people eat and drink salsa."