Af­ter 80 years, the band plays on

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Kate Linthicum

MEX­ICO CITY — The old dance hall doesn’t turn as much of a profit as it used to. Young peo­ple these days would rather play video games than cha-cha or do the twist.

But Miguel Ni­eto, whose grand­fa­ther opened Salon Los An­ge­les 80 years ago last week, re­fuses to quit, even as his gray-haired reg­u­lars dwin­dle, even as de­vel­op­ers dream about turn­ing the night­club into con­do­mini­ums like the con­crete apart­ment tower going up across the street.

“I’m stub­born,” said Ni­eto, who twice a week brings live or­ches­tras into his Mex­ico City night­club to play salsa, mambo and other kinds of dance mu­sic that once reigned supreme in Latin Amer­ica be­fore rock and reg­gae­ton mus­cled in. In an era of iPhones, Xbox

and Net­flix, Ni­eto likes that Salon Los An­ge­les is a place where peo­ple talk face-to­face and dance cheek-to-cheek.

“I think a busi­ness that pro­motes real hu­man en­coun­ters is im­por­tant,” Ni­eto said. “This is real life.”

Salon Los An­ge­les is the coun­try’s old­est dance hall and its best known, in part, be­cause of all the im­por­tant fig­ures who at one time or an­other swirled across the sprawl­ing wooden floor.

Mu­ral­ist Diego Rivera danced here in the 1930s, back when the city was teem­ing with left­ist artists and literati. His pain­ter wife, Frida Kahlo, once fa­mously stopped by the salon with Leon Trot­sky, the ex­iled Soviet rev­o­lu­tion­ary with whom she had a brief af­fair.

Che Gue­vara and Fidel Cas­tro both came here, and writ­ers Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez and Car­los Fuentes drank at the bar. Mex­i­can comedic ac­tor Cantin­flas, who grew up a few blocks away, was fa­mous for his dance moves at the salon long be­fore he be­came a star.

Latin mu­sic le­gends Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades and Tito Puente all played here, as the big band mu­sic that was pop­u­lar when the hall opened gave way to trop­i­cal rhythms such as salsa and its slowed-down Cuban cousin, dan­zon.

Strange stuff tran­spired too, like the time in 1997 when a sect of the Za­p­atis­tas, the left­ist mil­i­tant group en­gaged in a long stand­off with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, chose the salon as the place for a ma­jor meet­ing.

Ni­eto was an ac­tu­ary at Proc­ter & Gam­ble when his grand­fa­ther died, and he in­her­ited the busi­ness in 1972. He said most of his fam­ily mem­bers do more prac­ti­cal work. “They’re not into an 80-year-old dance hall,” he said. “They are not in­ter­ested in dance or salsa as a way of mak­ing a liv­ing.”

His grand­fa­ther, who worked in the lum­ber in­dus­try, opened the hall in 1937 be­cause he liked mu­sic and had plenty of wood to build a dance floor. He named the salon af­ter the neigh­bor­hood where it was built — a work­ing-class bar­rio known as Los An­ge­les that back then was on the out­skirts of Mex­ico City.

As more Mex­i­cans left to work in the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s, the salon adopted a slo­gan that cheek­ily ref­er­enced the large num­ber of Mex­i­cans who had moved to Cal­i­for­nia. “If you don’t know Los An­ge­les,” the now­fa­mous slo­gan goes, “you don’t know Mex­ico.”

That phrase is em­bla­zoned in red neon letters on the salon’s stuc­coed fa­cade. In­side, there’s lots more neon, and the walls are plas­tered with hun­dreds of con­cert posters and pho­tos of the good old days.

On most days, the club is pretty empty, with a small core of reg­u­lars show­ing up Sun­day and Tues­day af­ter­noons to step to salsa or dan­zon. But on a re­cent Satur­day, a line formed down the block hours be­fore the doors opened for a blowout party cel­e­brat­ing the dance hall’s big an­niver­sary. Women in form-fit­ting dresses and se­quins posed for pho­tos with men in bright suits.

“There is so much his­tory here,” said Jose de Je­sus Gon­za­lez de la Rosa, an at­tor­ney who wore a baggy zoot suit the color of a car­rot. A sil­ver watch chain draped from his pocket, and he had trimmed his mus­tache in a thin line. “We are fight­ing so we don’t lose this beau­ti­ful tra­di­tion,” he said.

In­side, Glo­ria Serrano Gon­za­les was among the first to hit the floor. Lo­cal jour­nal­ists there to doc­u­ment the club’s an­niver­sary sur­rounded Serrano with their cam­eras, drawn to her toothy smile, curly white afro and dance moves so ag­ile a stranger might ques­tion whether she re­ally is 76 years old.

Serrano first vis­ited in 1966. “I’ve found my place,” she re­mem­bers think­ing that first night, im­pressed not only with the mu­sic but also the free­dom with which women moved on the floor.

A for­mer nurse who lives an hour and a half away, Serrano has re­turned weekly since, some­times tot­ing her kids, her love for Salon Los An­ge­les out­last­ing three mar­riages.

Her fourth and cur­rent mar­riage, to Jose Car­men Cas­taneda, 70, got its start here when he asked her to dance 20 years ago.

“I knew he was spe­cial be­cause it just didn’t feel the same as danc­ing with oth­ers,” she said.

On Satur­day, Serrano was joined by her hus­band and her daugh­ter, Re­beca Ar­royo, 38, who first came to the club at age 12 and later went on to study jazz and bal­let. Just an hour into the party, they were al­ready sweaty af­ter shim­my­ing to sev­eral speedy mam­bos.

The dance floor was packed. The party had drawn sev­eral Mex­i­can ac­tors and politi­cians, as well as the Amer­i­can am­bas­sador to Mex­ico, Roberta Jacobson, who had come to cel­e­brate her hus­band’s birth­day.

Serrano and her daugh­ter re­treated to their ta­ble to cool down, both ex­pertly un­fold­ing pa­per fans. Serrano’s hus­band poured her a pineap­ple juice, and Ar­royo mixed a drink with vodka as they took in the scene, which in­cluded old-timers as well as a sur­pris­ing num­ber of young peo­ple. Many were doc­u­ment­ing the night with their smart­phones, but they were danc­ing too. Ni­eto walked by, trailed by cam­eras and beam­ing.

The mu­si­cians, who wore match­ing out­fits with big, ruf­fled sleeves, launched into a hop­ping big-band hit.

Serrano was still breath­ing heav­ily, but her hus­band leaned to­ward her and ges­tured to the floor.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s dance.”

Meghan Dhali­wal For The Times

AT SALON LOS AN­GE­LES in Mex­ico City, dancers fol­low in the foot­steps of Diego Rivera, Tito Puente and many other lu­mi­nar­ies.

Pho­to­graphs by Meghan Dhali­wal For The Times

REV­EL­ERS ar­rive for the 80th an­niver­sary of Salon Los An­ge­les, Mex­ico’s old­est dance hall, named af­ter the work­ing-class neigh­bor­hood where it was built.

BAND MEM­BERS have a smoke out­side the night­club. “I think a busi­ness that pro­motes real hu­man en­coun­ters is im­por­tant,” says owner Miguel Ni­eto.

“THERE IS so much his­tory here,” said one of the dancers at the an­niver­sary party. Big band mu­sic has given way to salsa and other trop­i­cal rhythms.

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