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Feeding an Appetite for Salsa

Promoter relishes bringing to the Valley the hot Latin dance music that turned his life around.

November 05, 1998|ERNESTO LECHNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many years ago, too many to remember, Albert Torres stole a car.

The setting was a fancy neighborhood in a Latin American metropolis. Torres was walking with a few friends by a street where a fancy private party was going on when a couple arrived in a luxury car and mistook them for the valet parking attendants.

Torres and his friends wasted no time. They ceremoniously greeted the couple, bade them welcome, got into the car and drove away. It took them only a few hours to dismantle the vehicle, and many days of hard partying to spend the money they made selling the parts.

Torres was not a professional criminal. But he says he broke the law a number of times to support his expensive addictions: alcohol first, then cocaine and finally gambling.

Eventually, he decided to sober up. And he managed what very few addicts ever do. He turned his negative energy into a positive addiction: dancing salsa music.

Then, he did something even more remarkable. He turned his hobby into a profitable career.

"I've been sober for 13 years and I'm a new person now," said the physically imposing but affable Torres at Studio City's Sportsmen's Lodge, the hotel where he organizes salsa evenings every Friday. "I've come a long way since those days."

"You could say I got sick and tired of being sick and tired," he said, to explain why he changed direction so drastically. "Of course, I had to pay my dues for all the wrong things that I did. It wasn't an easy change."

Today, Torres is the most respected concert promoter in town within the genre of tropical Latin music. He has brought countless salsa acts from Cuba, Puerto Rico and New York for their first Los Angeles appearances.

"People come to my shows all dressed up, with an orgullo, a certain pride about the whole event. They come here for a nice evening of dancing. I'm trying to resurrect the elegance of the old New York salsa clubs like the Palladium."

Torres also acts as the manager for one of Los Angeles' most successful salsa acts, Johnny Polanco. But the real measure of his contribution to the local scene can be found in the creation of his own orchestra, which debuted last summer during a Puerto Rican celebration at the John Anson Ford Theatre.

"I'm not a musician," he said. "My talent is on my feet. But I do have ideas, and I came up with the concept of putting a big band together, in the style of early Afro-Cuban pioneers such as Machito. So we had 21 musicians, all dressed in tuxedos, playing tunes made famous by classic performers such as Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and El Gran Combo."

The performance was such a success that the Albert Torres Tribute Orchestra will return next year at the same venue.

In the meantime, you can catch one of Torres' shows at the hotel.

"I think the Sportsmen's Lodge is the best place in Los Angeles for salsa dancing," said the promoter, who also organizes weekly salsa nights in Santa Monica and Venice. "It has the best dance floor in town, and great lighting.

"We don't need disco lights here. We don't need to make it so dark where you can't see who's in front of you. We keep it lit so that people can enjoy watching other people dance. Salsa dancers want to show off. That's why they took all those lessons in the first place.

"This Friday, we'll have MC1 with Mazacote. On Nov. 13, we'll have another great local band, Son Mayor. And the following Friday, Orquesta Charangoa. It's a new group, and I'm trying to give them an opportunity. I didn't know how they would do the last time they played here, but they kicked some serious butt. I think I'm one of the few promoters who really listens to what his public says."

Torres is also one of the few concert promoters who starts dancing himself as soon as the band starts to play.

In fact, his dance-floor acrobatics are so dazzling, he has been consistently featured in Hollywood movies, from "The Mambo Kings" to the recent "Dance With Me."

"The key to my dancing is not based on the steps," he said. "The steps are just something that happens when you dance. And dancing is walking to the rhythm of the music. You have to feel it in your heart. Let the music seep from the floor, come to your feet, your knees, your thighs, and reach your heart. Then, you can do anything you want. As long as you're feeling the music in your heart, you're all set."

BE THERE

Salsa nights on Fridays at the Sportsmen's Lodge. 4234 Coldwater Canyon Blvd., Studio City. (310) 450-8770.

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