Salsa dancing is a lot like another popular human activity. It can leave you breathless, sweaty and glowing at the end of the night. Or it can be something you stumble through awkwardly without really knowing what is going on.
I experienced both sides of that on a recent Friday night at The Venue, a St. Armands Circle hotspot that is an ideal place to dance the salsa, as well as other types of Latin dance, like the bachata, the cumbia, the cha cha and the merengue. On Fridays and Saturdays, from 9:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., the space comes alive with the sounds of two live Latin bands that alternate each week. The restaurant and bar also hosts DJ Nando, who spins Latin dance tunes on Sunday nights during the same hours.
The Venue, which replaced 15 South Ristorante in May, is a hip New Orleans-inspired hangout serving American comfort food, like delicious burgers. It's even got a milkshake bar that serves shakes spiked with rum, bourbon and other liquors.
I made my way upstairs to The Venue’s dance floor with my aunt, whose great passion is dancing. I entered the scene with zero Latin dance experience, but I arrived early enough for my aunt to teach me several basic moves, which are relatively simple.
After some practice steps, the dance floor got busy, but there was still plenty of elbow room. The doorman told me that Saturday nights are even crazier. If you start feeling claustrophobic, you can always take some air outside on the balcony or relax with a drink at the bar—a good chance to observe gorgeous couples and deft-footed experts dance as if it were as natural as breathing or walking, with verve and not a trace of reserve. Latin dancing is sexy and social, and it provides the best exercise of your life if you approach it with gusto, as my sore hips, feet and calves could have attested.
As a beauty queen in a sparkly pink dress sang her heart out with the band, not only did I not understand the lyrics in Spanish (which are often about love, attraction and heartbreak), I was also unsure about which types of dance went with which tunes. Thankfully, my aunt was there to guide me, but for a good cheat you can observe the movements of others before you jump in.
I feel confident dancing freestyle, but matching my rhythm with another’s movements has always been a different ballgame. It felt overwhelming at times to circulate among different dance partners, which is common in social Latin dancing, within the bounds of etiquette. It can be tricky for a newcomer, because everyone on the dance floor has a different style, depending on his or her nationality and personal flair.
It is probably easier for women to start off, since they don’t traditionally lead the dance; just showing up near the dance floor earned me offers to dance. But if you want to be King of the Salsa, you must take the initiative in finding a partner and employ some creative flourishes to keep your Salsa Queen on her toes.
Losing yourself in Latin dancing isn’t like going to regular clubs. The dancers at The Venue seemed to want to partake in a shared passion, rather than just get drunk or find someone to take home. The only memento that came home with me was the overpowering signature cologne of one of my dance partners, which might now be permanently absorbed into the dress I wore.
The Venue is located at 15 S. Boulevard of Presidents, St. Armand’s Circle. It costs $5 for ladies and $10 for gentlemen to enter the dance floor on Latin music nights.