The festivities commence at 8:30 with dance lessons, led by the willow-thin, Colombian-born Martinez. A woman of indeterminate age, she's like the ideal dance instructor out of Central Casting, speaking in quick, sweetly accented exhortations: "Get almost on your toes -- it gives you a more Cuban motion." The crowd, which starts out numbering about fifteen, will continue to grow as the evening gets underway. It's heavy on women (very few smart-ass guys!), so when we line up with men facing women, several of the women have to take the man's part to make up for the imbalance.
At first there's no music, just clicking heels and Martinez counting. We're learning the bachata, a straightforward back-and-forth step to a simple beat. The guys mostly look like they have lead in their hips, but even without music, it's a good time.
I meet Thelma, who's visiting from New Orleans with her husband. They've been dancing together for years. "It's just fun," Thelma's husband says, "and it's a place where you meet all sorts of people -- black and white, young and old." He's right -- Club Viva! might just be the most integrated club in St. Louis. Thelma's table was a case in point: She's Latina, her husband's black, their friends white. The dance floor carries on the theme, betraying the sort of effortless integration you usually only see in Pringles commercials: black, white, Asian, Latino. There's also a pretty wide age range here, from 21-year-olds to retired couples. Age-segregated clubs are something you don't notice until you're thrust into a situation that suggests different demographics can get along. Perhaps we should start a busing program between Washington Avenue and Holly Hills.
The lessons end -- or do they? Instead, the music just stops stopping and the crowd keeps growing. It's getting crowded on the floor, and hot (Viva! does a booming business in bottled water). But Martinez is still out there, dancing with everyone, giving pointers quickly, then moving on.
Then I spot the Shark. He's in his mid-twenties, thin, dark and sculpted in his tight black T-shirt. This man is a master, whipping and spinning the ladies around, drawing them close, then leaving them glassy-eyed and panting. (Dancing is a metaphor, people. That's why people do it.) I'd talk to him, get the scoop on what it's like to be a really attractive guy who can dance well, but he literally never stops dancing.
I do manage to catch up with tall, blonde Katie after the Shark lets her go. She's in a semi-swoon, but manages to articulate the thrill of dancing with a well-schooled partner.
"Look how good he makes her look," she says, nodding back to the dance floor, where the Shark is leading yet another partner. She's right: With the Shark, the woman looks like a pro herself. The pair move like a single interlocked machine, a piece of very sexy clockwork. A naked Rolex, perhaps.
The crowd continues to grow, segueing from salsa to the bachata to something called the Basic -- which appears to be anything but. The drinks are flowing, but no one seems stupid-drunk. It's around then that I start to think Club Viva! has all the solutions. World peace? No problem. Just send the world's leaders here for bachata lessons. Lucina Martinez doesn't look like the kind of woman who takes much guff.
Racial harmony? There's something about the Latin beat that we can all agree on. (They might have to expand the dance floor, though.)
As for your love life... My advice is to get yourself and your sweetie to Club Viva! and get there early. Your partner will love you for it, even if you dance like a wounded cow. (I noticed that most of the couples who show up in time for the dance lessons start clumsily, come together with soft smiles and leave early. Food for thought.) If your chosen one won't go, refuses to try something new, refuses to risk embarrassment for you, go alone. If you're a woman, you can dance with the Shark. If you're looking for a woman, there'll be plenty of fish in the sea.