As we head deeper into fall, Baltimore is heating up with Latin music. Latin dance clubs, long a staple of such cities as Washington and New York, are catching on in this area as the Latino population increases.
Haydee Rodriguez, the mayor's liaison to the Hispanic community, says of Baltimore's Latinos: "The population has grown tremendously, most definitely. If you look at the number of businesses in the southeast area of Baltimore alone, you see a tremendous growth from two to three business about seven years ago to 15 to 18 today."
Although the 1990 U.S. Census puts the number of Hispanics in Baltimore at 7,000, "unofficial estimates give a number of approximately 25,000 Hispanics," she says, based on contact with social service providers and community organizations.
The largest number of Latinos come from Salvadoran, Mexican or Puerto Rican backgrounds, though there are others from all over Central and South America -- and many grew up Latin dancing.
Jose Ruiz, a trim and energetic Nuyorican, or New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, speaks of early encounters with Latin music as if they embody the primal scene of his youth, experiences that changed him forever.
"We were poor. We didn't go anywhere. But my uncle took us to a Latin neighborhood in the South Bronx and I would peek through the window and see people dancing! My God," Ruiz says of his childhood in New York. "They wouldn't stop till 5 o'clock in the morning. People laughing, dancing and eating."
Now Ruiz, who has lived in Baltimore for 20 years, and other fans of Latin music don't have to turn to their memories for the exciting spectacle of Latin dancing -- clubs in Baltimore and the area have begun offering "Latin nights," or nights devoted to salsa, merengue and other Latin dance music forms.
Tapas, 4700 Eastern Ave., 410-522-5092, is the granddaddy of Baltimore Latin hot spots -- and perhaps the liveliest of them all. In the basement of their Spanish restaurant, Sevilla (formerly Rio Madrid, formerly Rio Lisboa), Tony Lloret and his wife, Kathy, both from Malaga, Spain, have been offering Latin dancing on Fridays and Saturdays for 10 years. Tapas naturally serves its namesake, tapas -- Spanish appetizers and light fare -- along with a zesty menu of music. On a recent Saturday, the small subterranean bar was packed with enthusiastic dancers and onlookers spurred on by the salsa, merengue, bachata and Latin pop music spun by disc jockey Carlos Mesia. Tony Lloret says he has seen other Latin clubs come and go, but his diverse clientele -- from Peru, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Cuba, Spain and Puerto Rico -- "find something they don't find at other places." What might that be? He notes the feeling of "mystery" the downstairs atmosphere provides, and he adds, "There's no cover charge."
Lista's, 1637 Thames St., 410-327-0040, is the latest Baltimore venue to offer Latin dancing. Owners Ruben and Kathy Evangelista have devoted a room upstairs in their popular Fells Point Mexican restaurant to Latin dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. (There's also no cover charge here.) On a recent night, a small but game crowd tried out their steps -- with varying degrees of skill. "We've had requests for the last 10 years," Ruben Evangelista says of his decision to open a room for dancing last month. "We're catering to a higher-end, over-30 crowd and there was no place for them to go."
Uno, 5803 Pulaski Highway, 410-483-4111. This club opened its doors just last summer. On Fridays, patrons can groove to the music of "International Nite," which highlights international disco tunes, and on Saturdays, dancers move to the sounds of "Noche Latina," or Latin night. Co-owners Mike Montgomery and Enrique Ribadeneira say they wanted to create a "South Beach-type atmosphere," referring to the trendy Miami hot spot. Indeed, pink and turquoise are evident in the decorating scheme, as are clusters of festive balloons, and red, green and blue neon lights. A sunken area holds a big-screen TV for sports events, and there is a gaming area with a pool table.
DJ Eddie Rijo presides over Saturday nights, but Ribadeneira says he hopes to bring in live bands once a month. The atmosphere and dress is mostly casual (although a couple of women glided recently on the roomy dance floor in long satin dresses), yet Uno is probably the most chic of the area's generally unpretentious Latin night spots.
Harry's, 2324 Boston St., Canton, 410-563-1277. This club is homier and smaller than Uno, but on a Saturday night it can be hopping, with both gringos and Latinos in the mix. As patrons demonstrate steps or take an unsuspecting reporter for a spin around the floor, they explain why they come to the club, where DJ Pedro Guilarte presides. Charles Dolde, 31, who is a construction worker, says he comes every couple of weeks with friends. "I love it, I love to dance," he says. "Everyone's enjoying themselves, and it's a more mature crowd."