Names Rumba, but hes a salsa man

On the Rocks
by: ©2008 Greg Wahl-Stephens, Women line up for a lesson at the beginning of the night. At first there are a few more women than men, but some additional partners are recruited from the bystanders.

Every Saturday night, a 1920s-era ballroom on a dark side street just off East Burnside becomes the Mambo Lounge. From beginners to experts, people come here to dance salsa to the beat of live Latin bands.

Presiding over this romantic realm is Roger Rumba, who was born Roger Montoya in Honduras 33 years ago. Montoya discovered his love for salsa here in Oregon. Now, acting as promoter, booker, DJ and dance instructor, he's created one of the best parties in town.

He also organizes an annual outdoor summer festival called Salsa en la Calle, the last weekend in August. And by day, he programs industrial machines.

I show up at the Mambo Lounge on April 19, Montoya's birthday, but he doesn't have much time to celebrate. He has work to do.

Each Saturday evening starts with salsa lessons, taught by the charismatic Montoya. When I arrive around 10 p.m., the lesson is under way. I don't join in, which later turns out to have been a mistake.

Two lines of people face each other across the dance floor. To the left are 20 women; to the right, 11 men. Montoya stands in the center, demonstrating a basic salsa step. 'Ladies, use your sassiness!' he instructs.

Guests filter in, crowding the sidelines. It's a beautiful old room, with a high boxbeam ceiling and a broad, old-fashioned wooden dance floor. Along the sides are rows of tiered seating. There are tiny lamps on round tables with zebra-patterned tablecloths, and swaths of glittering gold fringe cover the walls.

'You should have seen when I found this place,' Montoya tells me later. He'd been hosting salsa events at different clubs around town, but felt that the salsa community needed a place to call its own. He heard there was a disused ballroom in the building, and eventually got the landlord to show him the space.

'When he showed me,' Montoya says, 'I just dropped to my knees and I said, 'Oh my God, how is it possible that this has been up here all this time and nobody knew?' '

The place did need a lot of work, he says, most of which Montoya did himself. 'I pretty much had a well-defined idea of what I wanted to do,' he says, 'That's the reason I did it myself.'

Dance is drink enough

Back down on the floor he refinished, he's instilled some basic rhythm into his students, and he manages to get everyone more or less paired up by recruiting some more experienced men from among the bystanders. Then he bounds up the steps to the sound booth, and takes up his role as DJ.

The careful steps of the neophytes soon are obscured by the feet of other couples, who fill the dance floor almost immediately. No one lingers waiting for other dancers to create critical mass, and no one waits for alcohol to get them in the mood.

'We're a dancing crowd,' Montoya says. 'We do drink, but not a lot. We come here with a purpose, which is to dance.'

As the night wears on, I notice dancers, wiping their brows, order Coronas and bottles of water in about equal proportions from the little bar in the back.

I also notice, as I watch the quick, mesmerizing moves on the dance floor, that it's impossible to figure out who is with whom.

Couples dance with a closeness and coordination that leads me to assume they must be boyfriend and girlfriend. But then, with a quick hug at the end of the song, they're each off with a new partner.

Couples don't come here just to dance with each other, Montoya says, and singles don't come to hook up. 'If it was like that,' he explains, 'that would be boring. You have to dance with everybody.'

Variety and individual expression are what make salsa dancing fun, he says. 'Everybody dances different. It's like a fingerprint.'

Excuses don't work

Cubaneo, a local 10-piece band, takes the stage. I feel like I'm in a foreign country, one where people dress up a bit more than in Portland, and in more summery clothes. I can hear Spanish and English being spoken, and there's a faint whiff of men's cologne in the air.

I'm making a note to that effect in my reporter's pad when I'm approached by a man - not the first - asking me to dance. 'I can't dance,' I tell him. 'I'm working,' I say.

As if that's an excuse. He gives me a mocking glance. It's a dare, and I take it, thus becoming the slowest, most awkward dancer of hundreds filling the floor.

There's a characteristic look that appears on the faces of salsa dancers when they're right in the thick of things. It's a smile that seems to say, 'I can't believe I'm getting away with this!'

You don't get to that high point by chance. First, you have to do the work.

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