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Nightfly: Hip Movement

Dance reigns supreme at salsa institution Club Tropicana.

If you were to study salsa dancing, there'd be a ton of interesting things you'd learn.

You'd read about characters like Dominican Johnny Pacheco, one of the people responsible for bringing the music to America. Pacheco was important enough to his culture that he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by the President of the Dominican Republic.

You'd read about Cuba, the country where salsa dancing originated. And you'd read about El Cantante, a biopic about salsa pioneer Hector Lavoe that should have been way better than it was, but never really had a chance because its lead actress, Jennifer Lopez, is just terrible. (Really, when the best movie in your catalog co-stars Ice Cube and is about how Jon Voight hijacks your boat and forces you to hunt a gigantic snake for profit that in turn ends up hunting you, you probably won't have to worry about clearing shelf space for an Oscar anytime soon. The irony here is that J-Lo is a phenomenally talented dancer. But we digress.)

There is a lot you might want to know about salsa dancing, but there are only two things you really need to know about it. The first is this: 3222 Fondren.

That is the address for Club Tropicana.

Though its location makes it look like prime stabbing ground (it's tucked into the corner of a shopping center on a drab section of Fondren), over the past decade or so Tropicana has established itself as the city's premiere stop for salsa, merengue and bachata dancing.

Open Tuesdays for Ladies Night and Fridays and Saturdays for live music, Tropicana regularly welcomes crowds of between 200 and 400 people, most of whom work their way to a spot on its large dance floor.

Saturday nights are typically most packed because of the artists owner Juan Carlos books; Monchy & Alexandra, Grupo Niche and Tito Rojas have all stopped by for a show or two. Even Willie Colon, salsa's equivalent of Keith Richards, has played the room.

Regardless of the night that you choose to come, though, the dance floor is always packed. All levels of dance talent are found inside, ranging from those who take lessons from people who teach dance professionally to those who actually do the teaching.

"We come every Tuesday," says nursing assistant Aleyda Ortega about herself and a group of other girls taking salsa lessons. "I feel comfortable here and can learn from other people who really know what they're doing. I've been taking lessons for three months. I love it."

"If you come here, you're going to dance," says Charles Stokley, a 29-year-old ballroom-dance instructor. "It's an institution. Places like Skybar (3400 Montrose), they have salsa 'nights,' [but] you get much more of a crowd of people who are just there because it's a 'hot place.' True dancers come here."

Glancing out onto the dance floor, it appears he's telling the truth. Just about everyone is spinning or swaying or stepping fervently, and just about everyone looks good doing it.

And now the second thing that you need to know about salsa dancing: That shit is hard.

If it's your first time, it's wise to show up Tuesdays between 9 and 10 p.m. Tropicana's classes are free, and the room isn't stuffed with 25-year-old Latinas just yet.

Because, guys, as much as you'd like to assume that you're natural athletes and will look amazing jerking your hips to and fro, you won't. Step onto the floor without any direction or guidance and you'll end up looking like your legs have been asleep for a week.

You'll look like you have brittle-bones disease and are desperately trying not to break your femurs. You'll look like Master P on Dancing With the Stars.

In short, you'll want to be Jennifer Lopez dancing, but you'll actually be Jennifer Lopez acting.
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LAST CALL

Metropolis
8935 Richmond

Metropolis (8935 Richmond), another predominantly Latino club with a penchant for salsa, merengue, bachata, reggaeton, etc., sits just a block away from Tropicana. Where Tropicana feels a little more exotic, Metropolis is a straight discotheque banger. But whichever you prefer to visit on a particular night, the other will be just fine without you; the two clubs have been open for a combined 25-plus years. Why is that?

"Latinos are real faithful to clubs," says Tropicana's Juan Carlos. "As long as you treat them right, they'll always come back."

Wait, you mean you don't have to have some a-hole door guy turning people away to create some facade of exclusivity for your club to draw a crowd? Absurd.

 
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