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Heavenly bodies

Las Vegas’ newest salsa night heats up the South Point

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Cristina Ventre and Tony Rico practice their moves at the South Point Casino.
Photo: Jacob Kepler

Baby-faced Michito Sanchez gives it to them good and long, just how they like it. The Cuban bandleader of the 11-piece salsa orchestra has a way with the Thursday-night crowds at the South Point, especially the women. "Bring it on!" one yells. Sanchez yells back, "It's comin', baby, it's comin'! I bet you've heard that before!" The trombones start in, and Sanchez starts spanking the bongo drum on his lap like it's a naughty child—he calls himself "skin-slapper."

Salsero Salsa Competition

A Grammy-winner from LA, Sanchez has collaborated with artists including Crosby, Stills & Nash, Elton John, Tito Puente and Juanes. Now he's leading the beat at Salsero, the newest salsa night in town. "I think there was a void in the city," he says. "We came out playing straight, hardcore salsa. We started about a year ago, and it's been growing and growing. I see new faces every week, so that's great, that means the word is getting out. People seem to love the band."

As soon as the band kicks in, the people are possessed, rising rapidly from their seats in hand-holding pairs. Or, if they're single, they ask a stranger. The music dissolves hesitancy and embarrassment and, like a magic spell, impels everyone to dance.

"Out of all the clubs in town, this is the sexiest," says Salsero's producer, Ron Cabildo. "You can compare it to the salsa clubs in LA and NYC. That dance floor is so packed. You'll feel it: It's sexy, it's stylish. It's barrio-style, tropical-style, from way back home."

One man who "feels it" is dancing out on the floor like he has been doing it since he was 2 years old—which he has, having been born and raised in Havana. Juan Rodriguez, who speaks with a deep and creamy accent, works at a car dealership during the day, sings at the Gold Coast on Saturdays and at night, "at night, baby … this is my high motivation for life." He means the salsa music, which originated in Cuba. As we talk, he taps the wall, taps the floor and suddenly bursts out in song: "La rumba es tan buena!" He can't take it any longer—he has to dance. He invites me to be his partner, but I hesitate, considering his staggering skills. "Honey," he says, arms spread wide, looking at me over his inexplicable sunglasses, "there is never going to be ‘the greatest dancer.' It's whoever is enjoying the music the most."

Maybe the salsa craving runs in his blood, as it does for many Latin-American transplants. "There has been an influx of Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians, Argentines, El Salvadorians and Peruvians," Cabildo explains. "Mexicans like the banda and norteño music. Then there are the people that have been left aside. What they want is here."

Can't salsa? Meet Rene Delgadillo, the mustached man in the zoot suit and wingtips, "the only salsa-dancing magician in the world," "the paragon and godfather of Vegas salsa" and dance instructor/choreographer/dancer extraordinaire. He and his petite partner, Tess, are happy to teach you at the free class that starts at 9 p.m.

Of course, you don't have to be Cuban—or a good dancer—to enjoy the competitions. Every week Salsero hosts a competition of professional dancers. The contests run every 10 weeks, and the champions walk away with a giant trophy and $1,000. The year's biggest competition is August 28, a showdown of the three champion pairs from past events.

While the Vegas salsa scene is decades behind those of LA and New York, everyone at Salsero expects it to burgeon. Right now, couples are coming from California and Utah to compete, but in the future they are likely to come from as far away as Florida, New York, Canada and Mexico.

"People are nicer here," one competitor says. "In LA they always let the people from LA win. If you're from out of state they will boo you. Nobody claps for you there, but here they clap for you and welcome you. That's why I think The Mayan [a popular LA salsa club] is going down, and this place is going up."

Salsero Thursday, 10:30 p.m. South Point Showroom, 9777 Las Vegas Blvd. S., 796-7111, Southpointcasino.com

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Jennifer Grafiada

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