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POP MUSIC : Cuban Music Gets Liberated at El Floridita

April 25, 1993|ELENA OUMANO | Elena Oumano is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Bathed in the yellow, tangerine and fuchsia glow cast by the stage lights, couples gaze into each other's eyes and smile as they sway to the infectious beat of Cuban salsa.

The men swivel their hips and bend like reeds toward their supple dance partners--perfectly coiffed women in satin, sequins and jewels. A young Latina in blue jeans, long black hair streaming down her back, dances in pleased solitude, peeking through the potted palms at her reflection in the mirrored walls.

Even the air smells like romance, Cubana style, rich with perfume and the aroma of pierna de puerco asada , arroz con pollo , fried plantains and other Cuban dishes.

The nine-piece orchestra stops for a breather, and the dancers return to their tables. A stunning, silver-haired mambo queen leaves the dance floor and greets a friend in an accent that's pure Brooklyn.

El Floridita, a small oasis of old Havana tucked away in a Hollywood mini-mall at the corner of Vine Street and Fountain Avenue, is a magic space where everyone becomes young and Cuban.

"I'm Cuban from the waist down and Panamanian from the waist up," declares Motita Miller. A pretty woman sporting a bouffant hairdo, the former interior designer and her husband, Don, now enjoy the sporting life of comfortably fixed retirees.

From sundown on, Armando Castro's Monday night party at his restaurant-club is for grown-ups and those youngsters who shun grunge in favor of the more mature pleasures of pre-Fidel Castro Cuban fun and glamour.

Closet salsa dancers and music fans from all over the city congregate at El Floridita for their weekly fix. Latino and Anglo, they are all seasoned dancers, and they are additionally inspired by the renowned musicians who gather at the club on their off nights from regular gigs to get down with the real deal: Havana-New York-Miami salsa.

And have these people got stories!

"I was in Cuba right before Castro," says the mambo queen from Brooklyn--Dotti Karlstein, a film producer who admits to being 40-plus and is currently employed as a personal shopper. "I was staying at the Nacional Hotel in Havana the night Castro took over. I remember a man went into the street to see what the 'bang-bang' noises were.

"At the time, they had a lot of old American cars in Cuba that used to backfire, but the noise turned out to be machine guns, and he was killed. My mother called from Brooklyn: 'Come home!' They packed us into buses, and in three hours we were back in Miami.

"We've been in Los Angeles for 30 years," Karlstein says, "and through the years we've gone from one place to another. El Floridita is the wonderful happening place right now, and the food is good."

She was once a dance instructor at Arthur Murray, the venerable institution that one suspects is responsible for turning out many of these wonderful faux Cuban dancers on the floor tonight. Sitting next to Karlstein is Tony Schnurer, a ponytailed psychiatrist at L.A. County-USC Medical Center who learned salsa dancing on weekend trips to Havana when he was an undergraduate at the University of Miami.

At the other end of the club, several tables have been pushed together to accommodate 22 members of the Cornerstone Theater Company, a multicultural, community-based troupe that is throwing a going-away party for New York playwright Medelia Cruz.

"I've been here three months," Cruz says. "I came to write a play, 'Rushing Waters,' and it closed last night. We wanted a Caribbean night out, where we'd have a lot of fun and dance."

Later in the evening, Antonio Santana, a Brazilian who played bass in Cruz's musical, joins the nine-piece orchestra for the wee-hours jam.

But before that free-for-all, the musicians play another set of lovingly detailed, air-tight renditions of such favorites as "Guantanamera" and "El Son Cubano." Couples switch partners but return to their mates for cheek-to-cheek action on the dreamy ballads.

Joseph Gomez, a high school counselor for the L.A. Unified School District, isn't dancing. He's stationed by the bar for the evening, his eyes fixed on the stage, clutching a tape recorder. "I drive a lot and I need good music," he explains.

The musicians launch into a melody that soon reveals itself as a tropical version of "Happy Birthday." The floor clears for the birthday girl, who takes a brief, abandoned whirl with a girlfriend and then salutes the band.

"This is my cojunta ," bandleader Johnny Polanco says during the next break, using the Spanish word that these days would translate best as posse . "I love this style of music. Most of us are from New York, so this keeps us in touch with back home. And I've been fortunate enough to get some of the best musicians in town. . . .

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