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Salsa Hot Spot

None of the local clubs, shows or restaurants can match the spice of this downtown dance party.


It could be a fancy wedding. Nearly 2,000 people, from teens to 60-year-olds fill the ballroom. A group of guys strolls through the bar area, wearing the de rigeur suit and jacket, cognacs and stogies in hand. The girls are dressed to the nines in slinky, short swirly dresses, long clingy dresses and high, high heels.

The dance floor is packed, couples twirling, dipping and turning to El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, the island's most venerable salsa band.

There are clubs. There are restaurants with 10-piece bands. There are even salsa shows at the Hollywood Bowl. But for sheer dancing pleasure, local salseros know nothing comes even close to the smorgasbord parties at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where up to 3,500 aficionados willingly shell out $30 to $50 every few months to dance to some of the world's best bands.

The dances have been held at the Bonaventure for more than 10 years, its producers, Panamerican Productions, relying mostly on mailings and word of mouth to draw a regular crowd for its bashes every three to four months. The one taking place this Saturday, on the eve of Easter, is, according to promoter Edgar Orjuela, the second biggest party of the year, behind only New Year's Eve.

Orjuela draws big crowds by having good bands, at least one very strong one per package. Saturday's dance should be a winner with Colombia's Grupo Niche, one of the most popular salsa bands among Angelenos, which will alternate with two other Colombian groups: Sonora Dinamita and vallenato and cumbia master Aniceto Molina.

All three are big favorites with the Mexican and Central American crowds, and Orjuela expects droves of people, including the ever-increasing number of non-Latinos who have been finding their way to the ballroom in recent years.

There's nothing particularly appealing about the Bonaventure's California Room, where the dances take place. It's a huge space, lots of round tables surrounding a spacious dance floor. It's pretty neutral, pretty sterile, with none of the adornments found in glitzier, older hotels like the Biltmore. But during salsa parties, the place jams, with most people taking to the dance floor in a room that comes to life as soon as the 10-piece (or more) bands hit the stage.

"These are the best bands in the world," says salsa enthusiast Salvador Jimenez, 61, a Mexican who is a regular at the parties. "And the place is great. I'd rather pay to come here than go to any old place."

Aleida Marroquin, a 21-year-old Guatemalan in a low-cut red dress, agrees. "It's a classy place. There's no riff-raff here."

Naturally, at those prices, riff-raff tends to go elsewhere, and the general ambience, according to one party-goer, is "safe, safe, safe." The room boasts an exclusive 200-seat VIP area. The cost doesn't include drinks or food, sold in the anteroom leading to the ballroom.

Bonaventure parties are cozy and familiar. Many of the patrons are regulars, and the place is a veritable United Nations of dancers from all over Latin America, who, no doubt, associate these evenings with similar bashes back home, a la big-band parties from the '50s.

Nowadays, good salsa is found in many venues in Los Angeles, but it's hard to top the overall dance and listening experience found in this ballroom. And the three months in between concerts will give you a chance to save up for tickets.


The Westin Bonaventure Hotel, 404 S. Figueroa St. in downtown Los Angeles. For tickets and information call Panamerican Productions at (213) 489-2064 or Ritmo Latino at (213) 385-2151. $30 advance, $40 at the door, $50 for VIP seating.

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