It's Saturday night and tucked away inside a small shopping center in Anaheim is the club J.C. Fandango's, where sultry "Iris de Colombia" has just stepped to the microphone.
She greets her audience, and, as the Latin songbird for Orquesta Fuego, welcomes the more than 175 people to another night of salsa at the popular nightclub.
Like the audience, many of whom are dressed to kill in skintight skirts for the women, and double-breasted suits for the men, Iris, whose real name is Iris Caisedo, is in something sexy, something purple. Her fellow lead singer, Antonio Bardales, sports a salmon-colored suit.
After a fast-paced merengue, Iris tells the audience a salsa tune is next, as a chorus of whoops comes from small groups of people who yell, "alriiight!" Within seconds, drinks are put down, chairs empty, and the single men trot out to ask the single women to dance. In moments, the dance floor is a gyrating mass of people.
One couple, Juan Ramon Chacon and his wife, Angelica, hurry to the dance floor. They pick their spot and as Juan lifts his wife's right hand and places his right hand on her waist, they let themselves go, getting caught up in the music. Two dances are sung, then a third, but by the fourth, which is a mambo, they decide to sit down.
"I come here because I love the salsa. We've been to the L.A. nightspots," Chacon says, mentioning several popular nightclubs in Los Angeles County, including Cache in Glendale and Wings in Covina. "But we like Fandango's better. We come here almost every weekend."
Chacon and his wife have joined thousands of others who are filling salsa clubs throughout Orange County. With little or no advertising, club owners have found that it's a booming business as hundreds of eager fans flock to the nightly salsa beat.
Salsa, for those not familiar with the style, is a mix of the brash and bright urban music of Cuban and Puerto Rican New York City.
One salsa fan, or salsero, as they call themselves, describes the music as a variety from South American countries: "Puerto Ricans have their guanguanco style, the Colombians their cumbias, Cuba brought the cha-cha and mambo to the United States and the Dominican Republic brought the hyper merengue. When you get them all together, you have a mix, a sauce zesty with tomatoes, onions and chilies and that's why it's called salsa. These different styles are under the big umbrella of salsa."
For years, cities with substantial Latino populations have held salsa festivals in Miami, New York, and Los Angeles. Salsa in Orange County is considered in its infancy, said Rae Arroyo, host of a Tuesday night salsa show on radio station KSBR (88.5) that broadcasts from Saddleback College in Mission Viejo.
"We've just touched the tip of the iceberg in Orange County," Arroyo said. "It's going to boom. Ten years ago, when my show started, there was absolutely nothing in the way of good salsa (in Orange County). People had to drive to Los Angeles. Now, there are many clubs providing great music."
What touched off the salsa wave, she and others believe, is that as the Latino population grows in Orange County, it inevitably has had an impact on the style of entertainment. They also said that the movie "Salsa," which introduced the hot rhythm to non-Latinos, has had an impact.
While popular mainstream Latin singers like Julio Iglesias, Jose Luis Rodriguez and others have been welcome in Orange County, a growth in popularity with Latin dance groups and singers has exploded with little fanfare.
For example, on Thanksgiving Day, the Anaheim Convention Center, which can average 3,000 people on a Saturday night, had a lineup of no fewer than seven different groups primarily for a predominantly Mexican audience.
With a $28 cover fee, it's become obvious to promoters and club managers that Latinos enjoy their entertainment in Orange County. And the market is growing, said Larry Robinson, Anaheim Convention Center box office manager.
Just recently, two of the biggest names in salsa, Tito Puente, "El Rey de Tymbal," and Celia Cruz, a dominant Cuban singer, paid visits to Orange County. And Panamanians still remember the night several years ago that Ruben Blades, a 30-year-old actor, singer, and songwriter from Panama, churned them into a frenzy at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
It is this international Latin flavor, along with a growing appreciation by non-Latinos, that has rocketed salsa to prominence, especially in Orange County where Latinos make up only 20% of the population.
Where Mexican norteno bands, which usually headline at the Anaheim Convention Center, attract mostly Mexicans, salsa attracts a hip, urban, racially mixed audience.
Instead of cowboy boots and jeans, salsa attracts the linen suit and knit skirt crowd.
"People I see coming into the club are more sophisticated; they're in love with the music and they want to dance," said Jose Castellanes, Fandango's owner.