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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, sparkling dresses. It’s another night on the dance floor at Mexico City’s Salon Los Angeles, and if it weren’t for the face masks the patrons are wearing, the scene could’ve taken place in almost any decade since the spot opened in 1937.
While the band plays on, the dancers’ coordinated steps in classic styles like danzón, chachachá, and mambo drum against the wooden floor. These dances share their names with the music that accompanies them, and they’re what made Salon Los Angeles famous. Most patrons come with a partner, sitting at plastic-topped tables between songs. During breaks, they sip rum and nibble potato chips, chicharron, or maní japonés (peanuts in a sweet crunchy coating).
Located in Colonia Guerrero, a neighborhood known for its nightlife northwest of the city center, Salon Los Angeles is the oldest traditional dance hall in Mexico City. The club is open two nights a week, with these throwback styles on Tuesdays and salsa on Sundays. The music is always live, performed by bands ranging from five to fifteen people.
Dance is a way of life here, and in the city’s few other ballrooms are peddling Latin social dance. “They are places of memory, temples of dance,” says Amparo Sevilla, a Mexican historian and author of a book on the city’s dance halls.
But COVID-19 and changing styles of music and movement are threatening these decades-old institutions. “I’ve seen halls like this be born and die. Only a few like this one remain,” says regular Reinaldo Lozano, 82, who met his wife Elvira Salinas, 79, while dancing.
(How Mexico City grappled with COVID-19.)
Salon Los Angeles is much more than a local curiosity or bygone hangout. “It’s a living museum,” says 72-year-old, third-generation owner Miguel Nieto. It is filled with life. Here’s why it and other dance halls boomed in the early 20th century, and how they’re adapting to challenging times.
A colorful history
Thanks to Mexico City’s intense urbanization during the 1930s, more than a dozen dance halls opened across the city. They catered to more established and well-known genres of music and dance, including salsa, Charleston, and swing.
With low entry fees and inexpensive refreshments, ballrooms such as Los Angeles and the California Dancing Club (also still in business) drew diverse audiences and played a crucial entertainment role for city dwellers, along with bullfighting and boxing. Crowds showed up to feel part of a community and to meet their neighbors. “The feelings, sensations, and tension that individual bodies express become part of a collective,” Sevilla says.
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 a night out.
In the 1940s, young pachucos began coming to the halls in oversized suits, wallet chains, and feathered hats, using clothing to mock and reject the prejudices of Anglo-American society. Today’s dancers still put on bright colors and zoot suits, but now it’s an act of fashion and nostalgia that adds to the hall’s ambiance. There’s even a tiny shoe boutique and repair shop by the entrance to keep patrons in wingtips and retro heels.
The Nieto family opened Salon Los Angeles in 1937, building the hall on the site of the coal business it had run here since the 1900s.
Over the decades Salon Los Angeles changed its music and movements. In the 1930s, it was one of the first spots in Mexico City to host danzón bands, which fused Haitian, Cuban, African, and European rhythms.
Latin rock bands including Café Tacuba and Maldita Veindad made their names here in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, acts such as Son Rompe Pera, which combines traditional marimba and rock, are on the marquee.
The challenges of COVID-19 and changing times
The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered all Mexico City dance halls and bars, keeping Salon Los Angeles closed for 19 months. Owner Miguel Nieto kept eight veteran staffers on the payroll the whole time.
Nieto made ends meet by renting the ballroom to TV and film 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’s happy that, despite government-mandated face masks and crowd-size limits, many longtime patrons came back.
Many of Nieto’s customers are in their 70s and 80s. He’s hopeful that those music videos, fresh bands, and a new series of children’s dance lessons, will draw a younger generation to these well-worn floors.
“We are a startup with 85 years of history and experience,” he says.