BLOOMINGTON - The infectious tropical sounds coming from The Clarion Hotel Bloomington three nights a week set it apart from other Twin City nightspots. Latin beats from South America, Central America, and the Caribbean echo throughout the hotel's After Dark Lounge.
"The music is so infectious," said Beni Arroyo of Bloomington. "It's hard to just watch - you'll want to go out there and dance," she said.
No worries for the inexperienced: "They'll lead, you just follow," she said of the people requesting a dance partner.
Raised in New York in a Puerto Rican household, Arroyo said she's always loved Latin rhythm. She's often among the 100-plus crowds fueled by disc jockey Alex Parra's Latin rhythms.
Parra, a local mechanic, calls the success of his disc-jockey service, The Record Player, and the Clarion shows "a dream come true."
A 15-year resident of Bloomington, he arrived here from Colombia by way of Miami. While in Florida, he found a natural audience for the Latin music. It took longer for it to catch on here, though, he said. His DJ service plays all kinds of music, but he's also led Latin music nights at several B-N clubs.
"It is a very invigorating sound. People love it," said Cathy Hempstead, a Twin City dance instructor.
Owner of Dance Partners, she said dancing in general has gained popularity - thanks to TV's "Dancing With the Stars."
Parra keeps current with Latin dance trends via his professional ties, bringing audiences the same new songs and classics people hear in Miami and New York clubs.
He also offers beginner step demonstrations during each show's first hour.
"Some people have never taken lessons, and they just pick it up. Other people have been dancing this way all their lives," he said. Throughout the night, it's not uncommon to see Parra hit "play" then find a partner and join the crowd.
He takes requests and plays favorites from salsa, merengue, bachata and other dance styles.
"It really has an international feel," he said, citing favorites like Grupo Niche from Colombia and Don Omar from Puerto Rico.
Dancing's broad appeal
One Friday night, Arroyo stepped through a crowd about 120-strong, eventually reaching the parquet dance floor.
Already there was her friend, Alissa Matiya of Bloomington - extending her arm high above her head to meet her dance partner's hand. Soon, Matiya spun in quick, tight circles, her long blonde braid twirling along with her.
A Chicagoan who stayed in Bloomington after attending Illinois State University, Matiya said she'd rather visit Parra's program than go to downtown clubs, which she described as full of college kids.
Miguel Ventura of Bloomington said he's found people from many backgrounds at the Latin nights. On one night, he talked with friends who hailed from his hometown in Mexico, as well as friends he's met here from Illinois, Guatemala and Puerto Rico.
Spanish speakers do fill much of the crowd, but Matiya cites herself and other non-Hispanics at Parra's events as evidence the draw is wider. University students from Chicago suburbs, local white-collar office staff and factory workers mingle among the crowd.
"Something about it is friendly," said Lee Daggs of Bloomington. "I like the music, the atmosphere - all of it."
While most downtown bars seem to cater to one kind of audience, Arroyo said she likes the variety of people she meets.
"There's more of a mix here," she said.
She doesn't like to bring a date; instead Arroyo finds many people ask each other to dance. There's a clear understanding among the crowd that a dance is just a dance, not a matchmaker, she said.
Julian Lopez of Bloomington prefers hip-hop music to the Latin dance. But he's found Parra's events are popular among his friends, so it's a good place to socialize.
A boon for business
Clarion manager Richard Chanofsky credits that popularity for skyrocketing lounge revenue since October. After Dark's tally for an average month prior to the dances ran about $3,000. But since, revenue is closer to $20,000 monthly.
In many Latin American cultures, dancing, even at informal gatherings, is quite common, said Carmela Ferradans, who heads Illinois Wesleyan University's Hispanic Studies Department.
Ferradans is from Spain. In 15 years here, she's noticed few public dances. But at the same time, she's watched the Hispanic population grow. In 2000, U.S. Census figures showed nearly 4,000 Hispanics call McLean County home.
It's not unusual for people gathered together in a Hispanic home to move the coffee table out of the way and create impromptu dance floors.
"Dancing is a very big part of the culture," she said.
Disc jockey Alex Parra has been drawing big crowds in recent years to his Latin dancing nights at Twin City clubs. These days, he can be found at The Clarion Hotel Bloomington's After Dark Lounge.
Latin rhythms generally refer to synchronized drum patterns found in the music of Spain, Latin America, South America and the Caribbean. Besides these tropical styles you'll also find Latin pop, such as Colombia's Shakira and Puerto Rico's Marc Anthony, at Parra's shows:
Salsa: With a quick-quick-slow step pattern, it's backed by complicated percussion rhythms and originated in Cuba and Puerto Rico. Among ballroom dancers, the Mambo-style closely mimics salsa. Mambo is syncopated rhythm to a four-four beat. Cuban Celia Cruz is known as the queen of salsa.
Merengue: A simple pattern of step-to-the-right, step-to-the-left, repeat. Many consider this the easiest dance. Partners stand in a closed position, walking sideways or circling each other, in small steps. They sometimes separate for pretzel-like turns, but never let go of each other's hands.
Chacha: Like salsa's quick-quick-slow; but this is at a slowed-down pace. Carlos Santana's "Smooth," popular on the charts in the late 1990s, was chacha.
Bachata: Simple dance in four-four time producing back-and-forth, or side-to-side motion, with sensual body movements, grew out of the Dominican Republic. Dominican band Aventura is among the most popular contemporary Bachata artists.
Cumbia: Latin dance, originating in Colombia, characterized by short sliding steps. Variations popular throughout Central and South America, and Mexico.
Reggaeton: The youngest of the styles listed, reggaeton blends the Jamaican musical sound of reggae with Latin American styles and American hip hop. Often features rapping in Spanish, like that of the popular Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina."
SOURCES: Cathy Hempstead, Dance Partners; Alex Parra, The Record Player; Answers.com Web site
Shall we dance?
When: 9 p.m. to close; Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays
Where: The Clarion Hotel Bloomington's After Dark Lounge, 1219 Holiday Drive (near the intersection of Veterans Parkway and Illinois 9)
Details: Salsa, bachata, merengue, cumbia, reggaeton and Latin pop are some of the styles disc jockey Alex Parra plays, with free, informal beginner dance lessons from 9 to 10 p.m. each night.
Cost: No cover charge.
Information: Call (309) 662-5311 or
Classes and more
Other offerings: Dance Partners will host a general dance - with some Latin dancing components - from 5 to 8 p.m. Sunday at Miller Park Pavilion, Bloomington. Cost, $6; (309) 661-0529 or www.dancepartners.info.
Classes: Cathy Hempstead, owner of Dance Partners, teaches Latin dancing at her studio and through partnerships with Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department, (309) 434-2260 or www.cityblm.org; and Heartland Community College's community education programs: (309) 268-8160 or www.heartland.edu/communityed