So you’ve taken your salsa class at the Y. You know the essentials: 1) the one-two-three-hold four basic steps and 2) that Tito Puente, notCarlos Santana, wrote “Oye Como Va.” You’re feelin’ the clave, putting Mark Anthony in the CD changer, thinking you’re ready to bust some moves in a real club, pursuing la vida loca. . .
Well, goody for you. ¡Arriba! and all that. Have fun at Rio in Sherman Oaks, go for a little action at Monsoon in Santa Monica, but don’t you even dare dream about bringing that beginner shit to Stevens Steakhouse (5332 Stevens Pl., City of Commerce, 323-723-9856).
You have to be serious about salsa just to get there, off the Eastern Avenue exit of I-5 in cruddy old City of Commerce — better known as the home of outlet shopping at the Citadel. Stevens is a standard meat/potatoes/salad-with-blue-cheese-dressing establishment, complete with harried waitresses dressed in little faux-tuxedo getups and a décor that probably looked chic in 1960.
Yet each Sunday night, Stevens transforms into the epicenter of “L.A. Style” salsa — fast, flashy, trick-laden and cutthroat. Well-known dancers come here to let their hair down and have fun with each other — like Luis Vasquez and the rest of Los Rumberos, L.A.’s seminal salsa act; Alex Da Silva, choreographer and judge on Fox TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, with his interchangeable parade of beautiful brunette partners; and silky-smooth Walter Jones, the latest Mayan Dance Competition champ. Even “salsa diva” Laura Canellias (who, over the last 20 years, has probably taught half of California to shake that groove thang) has been known to make an appearance.
Anybody can pay the $5 cover, but after that, it’s strictly a tale of dance haves and have-nots: To the right is the bar with its small dance floor for the not-so-hardcore salsa fans, with a mix of music that includes other Latin rhythms like cumbia, bachata and reggaeton. A turn to the left takes you straight into the main ballroom, where it’s all salsa, all the time.
Even among these fervent salseros there is a hierarchy: Dancers are lumped conspicuously into two groups on the large rectangular floor. A dip in the middle of the parquet forms the quasi-official dividing line between intermediate dancers, bunched near the wall, and the professionals-only side, near the door. Heaven help those who assume they can dance — if you’re judged not good enough, you’ll soon be elbowed and jostled out of the way, back to the kiddie pool.
A little after midnight, the regulars know to clear the floor. That’s the unspoken time for the real action, when one lone female dancer is picked by a man for a showdown, a sort of spontaneous bullfight done through dance. The crowd gathers in a circle, and then for 15 minutes, only the bravest and best of the male dancers take turns stealing the woman away from one another, each trying to at once outdo the others with their flash and sizzle while challenging the woman to follow as best she can. Inevitably, the event climaxes in a dramatic dip, the dancers glimmering with a sweaty sheen. It’s exhilarating to watch, and more than a little mind-boggling when you realize that the performance — which outdoes any Vegas show — was totally improvised.