The sounds of maracas, guitar and trumpets soar above the buzz of the crowd as dozens of men in zoot suits spin with women in flowing, sparkly dresses. It’s another night on the dance floor of Mexico City’s Los Angeles Salon, and if not for the face masks patrons wear, the scene could have been set in almost any decade since the spot opened in 1937.
As the band performs, the dancers’ coordinated steps in classic styles like the danzón, chachachá, and mambo drum against the wooden floor. These dances share their names with the music that accompanies them, and that’s what the Los Angeles Salon is famous for. Most patrons come with a partner, seated at plastic-covered tables between songs. During breaks, they sip rum and nibble on crisps, chicharron or japanese mani (peanuts in a sweet crunchy coating).
Located in Colonia Guerrero, a neighborhood known for its nightlife northwest of downtown, Salon Los Angeles is Mexico City’s oldest traditional dance hall. The club is open two nights a week, with those retro styles on Tuesdays and salsa dancing on Sundays. The music is always live, performed by groups ranging from five to fifteen people.
Dancing is a way of life here, and a few other ballrooms in town sell Latin social dancing. “These are places of memory, temples of dance”, explains Amparo Sevilla, Mexican historian and author of a book on the city’s dance halls.
But COVID-19 and changing styles of music and movement threaten these decades-old institutions. “I’ve seen venues like this come and go. There are only a few left like this,” says Reinaldo Lozano, 82, who met his wife Elvira Salinas, 79, while dancing.
(How Mexico coped with COVID-19.)
Salon Los Angeles is much more than a local curiosity or a past hangout. “It’s a living museum,” says 72-year-old third-generation owner Miguel Nieto. It is filled with life. Here’s why this dance hall and other dance halls boomed in the early 20th century and how they’re coping with tough times.
A colorful story
Thanks to the intense urbanization of Mexico City in the 1930s, more than a dozen dance halls opened up across the city. They catered to more established and well-known genres of music and dance, including salsa, hi-hat, and swing.
With low entrance fees and cheap refreshments, ballrooms such as Los Angeles and the California Dancing Club (also still in operation) attracted diverse audiences and served as crucial entertainment for city dwellers, alongside bullfighting and boxing. Crowds showed up to feel part of a community and to meet their neighbors. “The feelings, sensations, and tensions that individual bodies express become part of a collective,” Sevilla explains.
Intellectuals and revolutionaries including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; Fidel Castro and Gabriel García Márquez showed up not to philosophize or organize, but simply to enjoy the pleasures of an evening.
In the 1940s, young pachucos began to come to the halls dressed in oversized suits, wallet chains and feathered hats, using the clothes to mock and reject the prejudices of Anglo-American society. Today’s dancers still wear bright colors and zoot suits, but now it’s an act of fashion and nostalgia that adds to the ambiance of the venue. There’s even a small shoe shop and repair shop at the entrance to keep shoppers in retro fenders and heels.
The Nieto family opened Salon Los Angeles in 1937, building the room on the site of the coal business they had operated here since the 1900s.
Over the decades, Salon Los Angeles has changed its music and its movements. In the 1930s, it was one of the first places in Mexico City to host danzón groups, which fused Haitian, Cuban, African and European rhythms.
Latin rock bands, including Café Tacuba and Maldita Veindad, made a name for themselves here in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, acts like Son Rompe Pera, which mixes traditional marimba and rock, are under the big top.
Challenges of COVID-19 and Changing Times
The COVID-19 pandemic closed all dance halls and bars in Mexico City, keeping Salon Los Angeles closed for 19 months. Owner Miguel Nieto kept eight veteran employees on the payroll the entire time.
Nieto made ends meet by renting out the ballroom to TV and movie crews. Young Latin artists, including singers Rosalía, Belinda and Lalo Ebratt, love the pink walls, spiral staircase and neon lights for photo shoots and music videos.
Nieto reopened the business in September 2021. He is fortunate that, despite government-mandated face masks and crowd size limits, many long-time customers have returned.
Many of Nieto’s customers are in their 70s and 80s. He hopes these music videos, new bands and a new series of dance lessons for kids will attract a younger generation to these worn floors.
“We are a startup with 85 years of history and experience,” he says.