Grab That Dos Equis and DANCE!

Spinning in infinity: Dancers at El Nuevo Rode
Raoul Benavides
El Nuevo Rodeo
3003 27th Ave. S.

Leaning over the long bar at the El Nuevo Rodeo nightclub, I make a bet with my buddy Alejandro. "Think these cowboys will rumble?" I offer. "Bet somebody gets his ass kicked here every night."

I size up the odds of a fight as I look around the three full-length bars and over the dark-stained wood floors of the six-month-old Latino dance hall, located at Minneapolis's East Lake Street and 27th Avenue. The new Rodeo almost passes for a literal bucking bronco roundup, jam-packed with so many vaqueros that I feel naked without a Mexican-style cowboy hat of my own. There must be five cowboys for every señorita in the joint, producing a collective machismo that would make Hemingway blubber for his mama.

By 10:30 p.m., the crowd has already swelled to about 700 as a DJ spins a mix of classic Mexican banda oldies and some more modern ranchera norteña music. Some folks huddle peacefully on the sidelines, tipping back a few Modelos, eyeing the opposite sex's finer curves, whether they come packaged in a halter top and short skirt or in tight blue jeans with a big belt buckle. Granted, this could be the regular raw energy of any chic new club, but somehow it feels like the combination of free-flowing tequila and a full moon on a humid Saturday night could cause a few fists to fly. I wouldn't be taken unawares if somebody tried to start some trouble with me and Alejandro, who--thank God--grew up boxing on Chicago's west side. But, hell, maybe that's just my beer-buzzed bias. So let's call it 50-50 on the odds and order another round, shall we?

El Nuevo Rodeo Night Club and Restaurant lies at the heart of East Lake Street, which has served as a cross section for a full range of communities and ethnicities over the years. Before the husband-and-wife team of Nicholas and Maya Santamaria-Lopez opened El Rodeo, the space had been a more rundown Latino club called Vannandy's. The Lopezes both credit the former club, which lasted about six years, as a pioneering meeting place for Mexicans and Latinos in Minneapolis. Now El Rodeo has replaced it with a more resounding Spartan-cowboy restraint.

This isn't the first successful turnaround the duo has mastered, either. Ten years ago, Nicholas Lopez launched the Latino dance night La Noche de Salsa, on Mondays at the Quest. The first of its kind in the area, the theme night hit Minneapolis long before the salsa craze swept through downtown, into the white suburbs, and back again. At the time, Lopez knew La Noche was a way to bring together a mixed Latino and white crowd. Now, he believes that even though mainstream salsa nights are already over-saturated, Latin music venues will only grow in popularity in Minnesota.

"Latin music is a culture, and it is not a fad. It will always be there," he says. "Minnesota is booming with northern Mexican communities and they can support places as big as ours. Minnesota is the last place to get new cultural trends, bro. But we're trying to take the lead."

Maya and Nicholas, now 33 and 43 years old respectively, met about eight years ago while seeing Morris Day and the Time at First Avenue, where they would later launch Latino dance nights on Thursdays. Nicholas's girlfriend at the time didn't want to spend the $18 to get into the show, so he went on his own. "That was an expensive $18 for her after all," Maya now jokes.

Maya, who was born in New Mexico and came to the Twin Cities for college, and Nicholas, who grew up on St. Paul's historic West Side, later formed Midwest Latino Entertainment. Over the years, the company has helped to book and promote everything from gigs at the Ordway to events at the State Fair to St. Paul's Cinco de Mayo festival. Maya also sings in her own Latin band, Sabor Tropical. As the Lopezes quickly became power players in the Latino community, they decided to open a club that would market almost exclusively to Northern Mexicans and Latinos.

"I see [El Rodeo] as being part business but also as a community space," Maya says. She goes on to explain that, besides serving cowboys, El Rodeo also houses weddings, cultural and fashion shows, youth dance classes, and Mexican wrestling tournaments. (With a full-scale ring and multiple masked grapplers, the bimonthly Lucha Libre events always draw rowdy family crowds.)

"I feel honored that I was able to take what I understood in my community in St. Paul, and bring it to Minneapolis," says Nicholas. "East Lake Street is so vibrant right now. We're at the hub."


Nicholas is right. Right now, Alejandro and I feel like East Lake Street is the most vibrant place in the world--although that could have something to do with the fact we've gotten into more than our share of Dos Equis. So, after picking up another round and giving up our expectation that a wrestling match might break out around the bar, we head to the dance floor to take in the El Rodeo scene further. There's not much stepping room on the floor as various norteña music styles get the crowd hopping over nearly every available space.

Somewhat akin to Tex-Mex tejano and banda styles, ranchera norteña sways with sweeping vocals, accordions, and the full gamut of synthesized sounds. But in some songs, you can hear what almost resembles a cross between polka and pop club music, and it has a dance that goes with it.

"They call that quebraditas," explains Alejandro, who was born in Mexico and now works in Edina for Wells Fargo. "It means breakdancing, and it only got started about four years ago."

At first glance, I wonder why it's not called "freaking." Many couples keep their upper halves locked together, shoulder to shoulder. To an up-tempo beat, they sway their hips and straddled legs from side to side, stepping around in rhythm. Sometimes, the men spin and twirl the women. During other songs, the dancers split and go solo. With knees bent in, they bob back and forth; some of the men almost look like they're feigning broken limbs. Their movements are fast and stiff, but never clumsy.

"It is very free and open, this dance," says Jose Perez in Spanish as I quickly translate his speech into my native tongue. "You can do anything." Perez heard about El Nuevo Rodeo on the popular Latino radio station, Radio Rey, while he was working at his roofing and construction job in Minnetonka. From the shine atop his bald noggin to the curl in his waxed mustache, Perez strikes a remarkable pose when compared to the herds of button-shirted cowboys gathered around him. Before he straightens out his black, white-shouldered suit and steps back onto the dance floor with the woman beside him, he adds, "This place is very safe, too. No fighting."

In fact, many of the patrons at El Rodeo contradict my early tough-guy predictions by repeatedly mentioning the club's peaceful atmosphere. Maya Lopez notes that, after paying the bands, she gives a great deal of El Rodeo's door profits to security costs. According to Nicholas, rumors used to abound about gang problems and fighting when this space used to be Vannandy's. Not so with El Rodeo, whose mannered clientele ends up dismantling the brawling Mexican cowboy stereotype.

"With machismo, there can sometimes be a violent side, but there is also the gentleman side," Maya says. "Men come in here with their silk suits, their most expensive boots and hats, and carry $100 bills in their pockets. In our culture, despite your economic class, you are still raised to have class and respect for each other."

I believe her. I haven't felt anything but welcomed all night. And suddenly I'm out on the dance floor with absolutely zero recollection of how I got here or who this woman is who is holding onto my hips. Alejandro is nowhere to be found.

"You're drunk," the woman says.

"This is true," I reply. "But I have a job to do. So let's dance."

At some point, a norteña band takes the stage and continues to boom-bop-bop-boom away. During the next half-hour--or is it two hours?--I spin from one quebraditas dance to the next, until the señoritas have decidedly taken the lead. We quickly twirl and bob around the crowded floor, and I begin to wonder if 1) I'm going to get ill and 2) these women asked me to dance out of the desire to toss somebody else around for a change instead of getting tossed themselves.

By the end of the night, I am totally spent, feeling like I have bathed in the sticky residue of spilt beer and sweat on the dance floor. Dios mio.

Guess that I was right after all. Somebody's ass did get kicked, and that ass was mine.

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