Coronavirus shutdown threatens Mexico’s storied dance halls

Mark Stevenson

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The Salon Los Angeles had been crowded every weekend since 1937 with couples twirling to mambo, cha-cha-cha, salsa and danzon. Everyone from slum-dwellers to movie stars and millionaires have danced at the fabled hall that boasts, “Anybody who hasn’t been to the Salon Los Angeles doesn’t know Mexico.”

But the Mexico City dance hall, like other night establishments, has been fully or partially shuttered for more than five months due to the coronavirus pandemic and its owners say they are in debt and may have to close and demolish it.

Patrons, some of whom show up in the zoot suits of the 1940s, said the loss to the city’s social and cultural life would be irreparable.

This past weekend, the dance hall was reduced to holding bake sales and a craft fair and asking for sponsors to save the venue where Cuban musicians like Pérez Prado and Beny Moré helped popularise mambo.

Its owners said they understand the need for social distancing but feel they have received scant help from officials.

Tables and chairs sit the empty Salon Los Angeles during an event to raise money and keep open the iconic dance hall amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Mexico City. PHOTO: AP

“We are last in line in priority, in terms of strategic businesses” the government helps, said Miguel Nieto, the third generation of his family to run the business started by his grandfather. “But I have to call attention to the fact that we are a priority in terms of mental health.”

The dance hall is a way, he said, to reduce the stress, isolation and domestic violence the lockdown has engendered.

Mexico City’s other dance halls face similar dire circumstances amid a pandemic that has hit Mexico particularly hard, with the world’s fourth highest total confirmed COVID-19 death toll. The storied California Dancing Club — where taxi dancers still plied their trade up until the March shutdown — pledges wistfully to return. The owner of another dance hall, the Salon La Altena, died during the pandemic.

Nieto said it would be a double tragedy if the Salon Los Angeles succumbs to this most antisocial of pandemics, which has brought night life in Mexico’s capital largely to a halt.

“This kind of activity, dancing, is important, and it is important to change this trend toward isolation and not communicating with other people. We have to stop social isolation,” said Nieto.

There are a few rules at the dance hall: no fighting and when the orchestra plays a mambo, everybody has to get up to dance. But with 25 employees to pay — apart from the countless musicians who have been thrown out of work — Nieto said he can only make it a few months more.

“Every month it is harder to make the (debt) payments,” he said.

Its broad wooden dance floor is surrounded by mirrors and neon signs installed in the 1940s. Located in one of Mexico City’s rougher neighbourhoods, the colonia Guerrero, the Salon Los Angeles projects the kind of image of danger, excitement and faded glamour that pervaded dance halls in movies of the 1940s and 50s, the “golden age” of Mexican cinema, when gangsters or boxers would fall in love with a dancer.

But the hall has also changed with the times: Nieto is promoting a young band that combines the tropical instrument known as the marimba with electric guitars and drums. He doesn’t want the hall to become frozen in time.

“We don’t need to be declared a ‘cultural legacy monument’ because we already are one,” said Nieto. “It’s impossible to copy the Salon Los Angeles because it’s impossible to revive all the people who have come through here.”