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UP ALL NIGHT / BILL HIGGINS

The Salsa Class

July 11, 1993|BILL HIGGINS

At first glance, the Tuesday night salsa class at Santa Monica's 5th Avenue nightclub looks like Latin-flavored low-impact aerobics. There's movement, but it's rhythmic and slow. Or more specifically, quick-quick-slow.

"Quick-quick-slow," instructor Ron Arciaga calls over the Afro-Cuban beat of a Los Van Van record. He's trying to get the 40 or so students to learn not just basic mambo steps, but the proper speed.

"The hardest part is getting the rhythm," Arciaga says. Some of his students obviously didn't have much of it before they arrived and they're going to have only marginally more when they leave.

Others--to be fair, most of the others--take to the class like they were distant relatives of Carmen Miranda. As they quick-quick-slow a bit more, the movements become fluid. Hips bounce. Torsos twist. Arms move like they're shaking invisible maracas.

"I let them dance and then I make adjustments," says Arciaga. "It's like throwing someone in the water and letting go." He lets them go with the basic, then has the crowd split into two groups, men on one side, women on the other. The age range is from 20s to early 60s with an equally wide ethnic mix. Almost all are single.

Arciaga steps between the two groups, showing how his feet will move: "Left-right-left, right-left-right." The first row of women steps forward and is met, minuet-fashion, by the first row of men. It's a delicate moment. Here are strangers of different sexes about to embrace. The wide-open eyes are but one indication of the mental calibrations going on. There's more than a little nervousness in the air. One woman says her most vivid memory is of her dance partners' moist palms.

When the students touch, there's a certain etiquette about not embracing too closely. It almost looks like a 19th-Century waltz done to a salsa beat. This is not the lambada.

As the couples start to move, they come up against the tricky part of salsa. They have to move together. For dancers more accustomed to the solo gyrations of rock 'n' roll, this is difficult.

"You can't slow down," says Arciaga to one rhythmically challenged man. "You have to stay at the same speed as the music." The instructor watches for a minute, then seems to realize coaching can only do so much. "It always takes the guys longer to learn," he says.

As the hour-and-a-half class continues, more experienced dancers arrive. They know Arciaga and his partner, Nikki Kilgore, start with basic steps and then teach at least one complicated turn.

It's the turns that separate the more experienced salsa Freds and Gingers from the beginners. Two steps forward, two back, open to the left, turn, open to the right. Some students take to it with amazing grace. Others look like dysfunctional dervishes.

The class ends as the band arrives to play for the regular salsa crowd. The beginners stay, but they're overshadowed by the more experienced late-arriving crowd. Some of these dancers are stunning. Besides being a living advertisement for more lessons, they show how intricate salsa can be.

The evening picks up and, as one woman says, it gets down to the essence of salsa: "You dance all night until your feet die."

Name: Hot Salsa Night on the Westside.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at 5th Avenue, the Nightclub; 429 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica; (310) 450-5693

Cost: $8 per person admission. This includes lessons at the beginning of the evening.

Dress Code: Casual. And don't wear tennis shoes; they don't slide well to a salsa beat.

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