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Salsa clubs--a view from the dance floor

Doesn't anyone go Latin dancing on Friday nights anymore? Time was, in recent memory, you could go out to a Salsa Carolina dance on a Friday night that was even bigger than their longstanding ritual at the Page Road Holiday Inn that used to pack them in every Saturday night. Their Friday night dances in Raleigh, at the former Plum Crazy and the Back Door, were meccas for the serious salsa crowd, with a lively social mix. When Salsa Carolina went on temporary hiatus last fall, you'd think that other local clubs would have picked up the Friday night slack. But while Saturday parties are fuller than ever, weekly Friday events seem to be flagging with the rest of the economy.

There's one theory circulating that Friday has always been the slow night for clubgoing, especially for hardworking Latinos in the service sector who might be working multiple jobs, late shifts or weekends. "After a long week, people want to stay at home, curl up, maybe rent a movie on Friday night," opines Pilar, proprietress of Montas International Lounge in RTP. "Saturday is when people go out," she says. A Saturday night crowd at Montas will easily peak at 300, and parking in the Highway 54 mini-mall location, where Bombay Grill and a Hispanic deli are also located, wraps around the back of the building by 11 p.m. Valentine's Day may prove the exception to the Friday night rule, and Montas will be open for a romantic evening of dinner and dancing.

Even La Maraka, the take-no-prisoners dance emporium on Hillsborough in Durham, had contracted their open space to one room on a recent Friday night. With two large dance halls and a game room where local Latin rock bands sometimes play, La Maraka attracts Saturday crowds of up to 600 with a DJ mix of tropical, house, R&B and Mexican regional music, adding international live acts and pay-per-view boxing on demand.

A similar tale is told at El Bravo Bravo Café, a relative newcomer to the salsa scene located in Raleigh's Brentwood shopping center. Friday nights draw Raleighites to hear a local band cover bachatas, merengues, Honduran puntas, and Grupo Niche tunes. Still, that's quiet compared to Saturday's big blowout. "Saturday is our big night," says Marlon Silva, one of the club's managers. "On Fridays, I can get a dance in late," adds the Cuban emigre, "but Saturdays, I'm behind the bar all night."

Trying to step back into the Friday night void, Salsa Carolina has reopened at the Holiday Inn Horsefeathers lounge, this time under the management of Mrs. Padilla (Tati) and her business partner. "We had 100 for our grand opening [in January]," Tati says, but notes that the extraordinarily cold weather dropped those numbers the following weekend. "We're going to try it to get it going again, and see if it works," she says. Surprisingly, the old spot looks about the same as nostalgic regulars will remember it. Same bartenders, same drink prices, same pub-style décor with slightly-out-of-place scenes of English hunting dogs and riders along the walls. Same spacious hotel lobby bathrooms with multiple conversations going on at once. Also, one might add, the same great music, with some of the hardest salsa and merengue around.

Retired owner Felix Padilla Sr. strolled in around midnight to check things out, looking slightly professorial in a sweater with a notebook under his arm. "I'm still retired, I'm just here consulting!" Don Felix said with a smile as he greeted guests, and even took a spin or two around the dance floor.

The latest trend in the Latin scene is the monthly or bi-weekly dance party. Popular with a pan-Latin crowd of professionals and students is the luxury romp held at Parizade restaurant on the first Friday of every month. Parizade's Latin Party is more than an ambience; it's a milieu, feeling more like South Beach than West Durham, with valet parking, stretch limos, velvet rope and doormen in black tie checking IDs.

"It's a lot of fun," says Ricardo Granillo, Carnavalito bassist (and Parizade maitre d' in his day job). "I like to see the people come out of nowhere. You see different people every time," he adds.

An earthier version takes place every other Saturday at Chapel Hill's Patio Loco, with students, musicians, and Franklin Street foot traffic making up the clientele. Steamy and crowded at first, it feels cozy once one realizes that everyone there knows each other, and even those who don't are singing along to the same songs--anthems like Oscar D'Leon's "Lloraras" and Elvis Crespo's "Suavemente." While the dance floor is too crowded to try out your latest exhibition mambo shines, it's such a great party, you won't care. Like Parizade, Patio Loco trends musically toward Latin American rock and pop as the main staple, with smaller sets of salsa, merengue and Latin reggae.

Salseros used to hit The Treehouse hard on Wednesday nights, but as the Chapel Hill audience has gotten younger, rowdier, and more crowded, many complain that it's harder to dance there. The Piedmont's best kept secret for salsa during the week is Wednesday nights at Montas Lounge. Opening as a practica for the Cobo Brothers mambo semester, the club welcomes other members of the dancing public from 9 to midnight. Dress codes are relaxed and rotation is heavy on the salsa, so don't miss out on a chance to cut down on workweek stress. If you're looking for a place where you can dance without stepping on someone, or if you're too intimidated to try your steps in front of the Saturday crowds, Montas also hosts a Sunday dance 7-11 p.m. that's popular with pros and beginners alike.

General tips if you're going to a Latin club for the first time: expect a membership fee in some places (Montas, La Maraka) but weigh that against lower ticket prices for members. Dress codes are common (Montas, Parizade, Salsa Carolina) though variously enforced, but it's worth it to check the Web site or make a phone call first to avoid trekking home. In general avoid jeans, hats, rubber-soled shoes or athletic gear on weekends. Like any amplified music venue, bring your own ear plugs--though the decibel levels may be fine, you want to make sure you're still dancing on the beat 30 years from now. If your supply of cold cash is limited, call ahead to see if there's a band that may affect admission price. Some clubs take reservations, so if you have a large group, call ahead or e-mail to get a table. Go early and take the free dance lesson that most places offer. Ask someone to dance, and if someone asks you to dance, say yes. EndBlock

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