Two starred-and-striped flags hang on the walls at Belinda's Nightclub. One has fifty stars for fifty states. The other has one star: for Puerto Rico. It's Saturday night, and colored light twinkles on the ashtrays on red-vinyl-covered tables, bounces off a mirrored ball, and oozes across the flags. The music overflows with machismo. It's all about love and wanting to be kissed.
At Belinda's--a Latin dance hall in a building that once housed the West Side Irish American Club--if someone asks you to dance, that's all they're asking. The floor clears when each song ends, then fills again seconds later. No one wants to look idle--not the young guys in jeans and shirtsleeves, not the richly packaged couples in suits and little black dresses who spin at all the right times. The only chatter comes from the bar, where a group of guys watch the fight on TV--Trinidad, a Puerto Rican, is pummeling Whitaker, a stateside American.
This Saturday, Invacion Secreta, one of about six Dominican-style merengue bands that regularly perform at the five-year-old club, owns the stage. A horn section plays staccato beats. Underneath it all are three percussionists--one on congas, one with a drum in his lap, and one whose sole mission seems to be the punishment of an oversized cheese grater. Two synchronized dancers at mics belt out Spanish lyrics.
In between sets, Mauricio Sola tries to talk over the slightly lower volume of the DJ. Sola has been in the United States for five years and doesn't speak English. He came from El Salvador and found work in a Cleveland factory.
"This is my first time," he says in Spanish. He came with some people from work. They are taking pictures of each other. Sola says he's not dancing because he doesn't know how. When asked what he thinks of the band, he gives the universal "so-so" hand signal.
The twenty or so couples that hit the floor as soon as the combo returns seem to disagree with that assessment. The congas thump, the brass punches the air, and their hips shake back and forth. Meanwhile, the synchronized frontmen recast the traditional subject matter, like plucking petals off a daisy: "Yes, you love me, yes, you want me, yes, you want me, yes, you love me . . ."
Belinda's Nightclub, 9613 Madison Avenue (216-651-1968), features live Latin dance music on Fridays and Saturdays. Cover is $5 for men; women get in free.