Salsa dancing finds its footing in the suburbs
Hayley Younkin learned to dance salsa while she was studying abroad in Ecuador. Her friend Megan LaRusso perfected her skills while abroad in Spain. The friends, both 22-year-old Wheaton College students, made a pact back in the United States to explore Latin dance opportunities and -- lucky for them -- they don't have to look any further than the suburbs.
Salsa options minus the trip to Chicago are more numerous now than they were 10 years ago, dancers and promoters say. Though it's a dancing community Younkin and LaRusso are just starting to explore, it's one they're looking forward to breaking into.
"I love the music and I love the rhythm," Younkin said. "It's a playful, really fun type of partner dancing."
The pair made a trip to Frankie's Blue Room in Naperville on a recent Thursday night to check out the scene. As the evening wore on, the regulars streamed in, filling up the dance floor with talented couples sharing space with newbies practicing their steps.
Though Frankie's is closed indefinitely following a crime there last weekend, it has been one of the longest-running and most established salsa venues in the suburbs. Each week for the last decade, dancers have come out, rain or snow, for a couple of hours of good dancing. Individuals meet, become friends -- even start romances -- and watch for each other at other locations like Naperville's Esteban's or The Foundry in Aurora, where Jed Walker hosts salsa nights.
The Aurora-based Walker is one of the few salsa events promoters in the suburbs. He has brought events to Elgin, Glendale Heights, Wheaton and Chicago over the years.
"The market in the suburbs is expanding," Walker said. "There are a lot of people trying to jump on board right now."
Walker said that has caused some problems because the market isn't necessarily big enough to support multiple venues hosting salsa nights simultaneously. But, growing pains or not, salsa in the suburbs is a hit.
"If we went into the city we would have to set aside an entire night," Younkin said. "It would be a big ordeal."
Pietro Verone started hosting Friday night salsa dancing at his Elgin restaurant, Villa Verone, more than a year ago. He wanted to reach out to a new audience and has seen success drawing a more diverse crowd than he initially expected.
As Friday evening dinner guests finish their meals, tables are moved out of the way and a DJ starts blaring salsa, bachata, merengue and cumbia rhythms throughout the Italian restaurant.
Dancers from across the nearby suburbs have caught on to the Friday night schedule, and Verone said he gets a good turnout of both Latino and non-Latino dancers. He even plans to start a similar weekly salsa night at his Geneva restaurant.
"It's good for your heart and good for your soul," Verone said of the couples dancing. "If you see people out on the dance floor, they're usually smiling."
Andres Meneses, co-owner of Chicago-based Latin Street Dancing, started promoting salsa nights full time in 2004. He has held events in St. Charles, Schaumburg, Arlington Heights, Elgin, Waukegan and Grayslake besides a packed schedule of weekly Chicago events. Latin Street Dancing hosted a salsa night at Voodoo Night Club in Schaumburg every week for six years before the club closed.
Meneses said the problem with promoting in the suburbs is getting people to take events seriously. For a salsa night to become a hit, it has to be consistent and it has to be well-attended.
"You still have to get a decent enough crowd for people to feel that they're in the right party," Meneses said. "It's not just enough to be in the suburbs to make it happen."
One time of year when the suburbs surely are the place to be is during the Chicago International Salsa Congress -- now in its 11th year -- which is scheduled for Thursday through Sunday, Feb. 16-19, at the Westin O'Hare in Rosemont.
More than 2,500 people are expected each day for classes, workshops and performances. The dancing starts early and goes late with events planned until 3 a.m. during the four nights of the convention. Tickets are available for the entire weekend or just parts of it.
Rosita Ragin-Alamin, co-founder of the Chicago International Salsa Congress, said the goal of the event is to bring together dancers as well as people who prefer to appreciate the music or the steps from afar. It strives to give young people a chance to show their skills and meet professional dancers and teachers who could become mentors as well as allow for networking among professionals.
"The congress unites cultures and generations through the music and the dance," Ragin-Alamin said.
There is no complete list of weekly salsa opportunities on a single online site, but dancers interested in working their way into the salsa scene can get some ideas from sultrysalsa.com or by checking individual bars near them.
For Esther Main, 49, of Naperville, the salsa crowd is a welcoming one that offers a safe, fun group to dance with.
"People consider this crowd their family," Main said.
Chicago International Salsa CongressWhen: Begins at 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, and continues through Sunday, Feb. 19
What: Daily classes and workshops from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; nightly showcases by dance pros followed by Latin music concerts and open dancing. For a complete schedule, see chicagosalsacongress.com.
Where: Westin O'Hare, 6100 N. River Road, Rosemont
Admission: Prices range from a $25 showcase/concert package to a $329 four-day all-inclusive plan