El Bembé, a true salsa palace, located inside a conservation house on Mompox street, beside Bogotá’s monumental bull ring and the National Museum, is the kind of place, where professional, amateur and wanna- be salsa dancers come together to dance.
As one arrives at El Bembé, you stumble across a Daliesque life-like tiger standing on the cobbled street. Door men welcome you and after paying the $20.000 pesos cover, clad you with the usual fluorescent wrist band should a meteor fall upon you, a relative will be able to identify your body under the rubble. Then ascend a spiralling 1950’s stairway which leads directly to the dance floor. A large bar decked out with the finest rums and whiskies, stands at the back, opposite the stage. El Bembé’s multi-coloured kitschy interior quickly transports you to balmy nights of Old Havana or Cartagena’s finest dance venues with inviting names like Café Havana and Quiebra Canto.
Elegantly dressed waiters in bright floral shirts lead you to your table, each laid with matching floral table cloths, as you immediately take in the amazing atmosphere and the magic begins. A live, ten piece band, lights up the night to the sounds of Hector Lavoe, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Celia Cruz, Willie Collón, Tito Puente, Ruben Blades, Fania All Stars – salsa brava at its best! With the loud sounds of percussion, congas, piano, trumpets, bass, trombones, bongos and maracas, the night begins.
I am not one to mix dancing with dining so I’m afraid that on this occasion, I did not sample the menu. The thought of tucking into a large helping of frijoles, beef, chicharrón, rice, plantain, accompanied by a glass of jugo de guanabana, at 10pm at night, to then proceed to dance to “Tu amor es un periódico de ayer” is not, what I consider a sensational combination, but my respects go to those who challenge their own rhythms of digestion. My recommendation would be to order one of the many types of mojitos on offer, shaken at the bar by competent barmen and served up by efficient waiters.
One of the joys of El Bembé, is to watch and analyse the variety of couples on the dance floor. Voyeurism is not frowned upon. Salsa experts from New York, to La Habana, to Puerto Rico and Cali, all agree that there is no clear consensus on how salsa should be danced and accept that methods and techniques differ widely.
This is certainly the case at El Bembé, as the band plays, Oscar de Leon’s “Llorarás y Llorarás” you see Fred and Ginger like couples theatrically strutting from one side of the dance floor to another, flaunting fancy fox trot footwork, twirling and swaying. We sit nervously watching every move, sipping our mojitos, should the criollo Fred and Gingers of the world miss a tempo, they could end up at the bottom of the stair case, which looms dangerously at the foot of the dance floor. Then there will be tears. Llorarás y Llorarás!
Alternatively to the sounds of Willie Colon’s “Chica Plástica” you see Cali style dancers, who prefer an aerobic approach to salsa dancing, constantly twirling, moving in and out of the well-known Cali “vueltas”, jumping slightly to every side step, using their hands like maracas when dancing separately, showcasing what flows through their blood.
You then have those couples who, locked into each other to the sounds of Luis Enrique’s “Yo no sé Mañana” inspire sensuality and conspiracy. Dancing chest to chest, legs perfectly intertwined at each turn, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, they sway gently following a tight box step dance, each movement and each embrace, expressing mutual attraction, affinity and passion. Elegant and discreet steps of seduction are also witnessed on El Bembé’s dance floor.
Any true and authentic salsa dancer knows that there is nothing like dancing to the early hours of the morning, to a stellar live band which renders tribute to the best salsa composers New York and Latin America have produced. A night at El Bembé, is a night “de pura sabrosura” and as it’s open until 4am, you’ll be living your own version of “La La Land” until dawn.
El Bembé – Calle 27B No.6-73
Other salsa hotspots and a salsa tour in Bogotá:
Quiebra Canto: If you can’t make it to the legendary Juanchito “across the river Cali” epicenter of under the stars salsa, then why not try learning some key steps at Quiebra Canto? Known for its rum-infused rumba and invited DJs, this classic bar in Bogotá’s La Candelaria offers salsa lessons every Thursday at 7:00pm. Cra 5 No.17-76
El Titicó: Named after Celia Cruz’ catchy rhyme, this Chapinero Bar celebrates the music of salsa legends from its fluorescent walls decked with pictures from salsa’s golden age to bite-sized tables to balance your ice bucket. From beginners to hardcore enthusiasts, this not-so-easy to find bar is the real thing, and even though drinks can be quite pricey, the ambience is the closest you’ll get to Cali pachanguero. Calle 64 No.13–35
Rincón Cubano: This cozy venue moves to the Cuban beat and as you order rounds of mojitos you’ll be tempted to try your moves on the small dance floor, moving between tables and fellow salsa enthusiasts. this “corner” on the Calle 19, is a favorite for the downtown salsa hopping crowd. Calle 19 No.3A-37 Local 125
Galería Café Libro:Priding itself as one of the last bohemian venues in the well heeled Parque 93 and hemmed in trend setting restaurants, this bookstore café is a musical time capsule for those willing to shed inhibition on a Wednesday night hitting the floor with classic salsa and live bands that play a gamut of tropical genres. Cra 11A No. 93-42
Bogotá Salsa Tour:A one hour dance lesson and tour of three salsa bars in Bogotá makes for a memorable night out. From $100,000 the fun begins at 8pm until 3am and groups of up to 10 people can attend. The price of a Noche Salsera includes a bottle of rum or the country’s favourite spirit, aguadiente, and a chance to really learn those key steps to becoming a true Colombian. if interested, contact: www.bogotasalsatour.co