Only a fool would voluntarily go to Chicago in the middle of January (and before I get any haters, I grew up in an even colder place, so I know what I’m talking about). I spent the last 24 hours in Chicago and although my visit there was by no means voluntary, my consolation prize was some salsa tourism.

Was it worth the $20 in cab rides, $10 cover, $2 mandatory coat check, and $20 bar minimum (which the bartender sweetly informed me of after handing me my $7 drink), having to wait an hour for the DJ, which didn’t start until 10:30 (on a Tuesday night?!), and then dragging my tired self out of bed at the crack of dawn the next morning to give a presentation whose sole purpose was to deliver some bad news? The verdict’s still out on that one, but let’s rewind, shall we…

When I arrived at Green Dolphin Street at 9:30, the place was a ghost town. Maybe we DC folks are just not night owls, but any salsa club would be pretty crowded by that time on a weekday, and if there was a lesson, it would be just finishing up. A latin jazz combo was finishing up in the bar area for a couple folks sipping cocktails at tables. The empty and still-lit dance floor gave me a chance to examine the attractive entertainment area. It’s an older building, with gorgeous wood flooring and the bar and paneling are also all in wood. At one end is a small recessed stage for the DJ or a band. The floor turned out to be wonderful to dance on.

A lesson soon started up and for lack of anything better to do, I joined in. Luckily, it was an intermediate level, and taught on 2, so I didn’t have to relearn my basic. The instructor had a nice style and a good way of teaching. He taught some cute shines that one could easily incorporate into social dancing, and something called a 3 o’clock turn that I had not seen before. Basically, the follower pivots 90 degrees to the right (i.e., to 3:00) on the 2 beat., and the pivots to 9:00 on 3, before completing the turn on 4-5, and back stepping on 6-7. The leader mirrors that and the instructor taught various ways of leading it, with left and right hands.

After the DJ started, I got asked to dance on the 2nd song. The tough part about salsa travel on your own is “breaking the seal.” That is, getting some exposure on the dance floor so that others, not knowing who you are and if you are any good, will want to dance with you. The risk you run is that your first dance will be with some guy that does not lead very well and you will come off looking bad. Luckily, I had a reasonably good first dance and although I did not enjoy the same popularity that I had in Seattle, I danced a reasonable amount.

The highlight of my evening was a cha cha cha– my favorite dance but elusively hard to find leaders that are both good at it and that enjoy playing around with the rhythm in their footwork. Because cha cha is slower, you have time to be playful and have fun with it, which is one reason that I love it so much. So, thank you man in the red shirt for my wonderful cha cha, for approaching cha cha with the same sense of fun and spontaneity that makes it magic. If I had a cha cha top 5, you’d be on it.

If I had to characterize Chicago salsa, based on my night at the Green Dolphin, it would be “straightforward.” That is, good, solid, constant partner dancing. Very few shines or embellishments. Lots of turns, but not too many multiples. Certainly some inventiveness and unexpected elements, but not in excess. Surprisingly, being the midwest, I would have expected a slightly more friendly scene. No one really tried to strike up a conversation, but sometimes when you just came to dance, that is okay too.

Finally, to return to my second paragraph, there is no excuse for making it so expensive to go dancing. I understand that salsa night isn’t exactly a cash cow, but a $20 drink minimum on a weeknight– and on top of a $10 cover?! That is utterly obscene. No wonder I didn’t see anyone drinking anything– not even bottles of water. I think the bar would make much more on quantity than price if it did not have that minimum. On that basis alone, I’m not sure if I’d return to Green Dolphin, or at least not without smuggling in my own water.

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