From Spectators To Kitchen Dancers: A Look Into Milwaukee’s Latin Dance Scene
Every scene has its certain groups. In the salsa scene you have the spectators - the people who show up to have some drinks, listen to the music and watch. Then you have the kitchen dancers, who are Latino. Maybe they speak Spanish, maybe not, but they grew up with salsa music and dancing to it in their kitchens. And then you have your pro’s - the diehard dancers. The ones that are taking lessons and probably form a local dance team.
Very rarely is there one place where all of these people congregate together. But, in Milwaukee there once was.
I moved to Milwaukee a few months ago from New York. I’ve danced salsa in Central and South America, but never have I been in a city where everyone - from my 70 year old landlord to my coworkers - told me to go to this one spot: The Wherehouse.
Since the early 1970’s there were places to dance salsa in Milwaukee, but when the Wherehouse opened up in 2008 there was nothing really like it. Hundreds of people would be lined up at the door to get in on Saturday night – Latin Night.
Wherehouse had grandeur and mystique. Two things made it that way. One was the building itself; it was huge. It was quite literally a warehouse. Betsey Guerrero, co-owner of Mezclando Milwaukee and a dance instructor at a studio in Bay View, said that dancing at the Wherehouse made you feel like you were dancing on a bigger stage. “Wherehouse always had a big crowd. The lights were always really cool. The backdrop was really cool. You looked like you're in Chicago,” she said.
It’s true. The backdrop at the Wherehouse was cool. One night they had a pink Cadillac on stage where you could get in and take pictures. But despite it being huge, it wasn’t ostentatious; it was hidden. Which brings me to the second thing that I think gave the Wherehouse that special feel: the location. It was east of Walker's Point.
Steven Diprimo and Adam Smith, the former management at the Wherehouse, said that up until the very end of its days, people were still surprised by its location. “Tens of thousands of people have been through those doors and there are still people who didn’t know about it… They’re like where is it?” Diprimo said. “It’s industrial bleak," Smith added. “Scary streets. You’re either going to the dump or you’re going to the Wherehouse.”
But the people who did know it was there loved it. Matt Woida, the co-owner of Mezclando Milwaukee said, “There was always that kind of that little feeling of risk. Going down to Walker’s Point on the river. It was just kind of this cool place. It really kind of had this magical feeling to it.”
According to Paul Mueller, the owner of the Wherehouse, the average life of a night club is 5 years. By that math the Wherehouse lived two lives. Earlier this year it closed. Mueller said it was time to retire and he sold it. Now it houses a bar called the Cooperage.
But the end of the Wherehouse did not mean the end of the Milwaukee salsa scene. It is still very much alive.
One Sunday afternoon, I walked into Daync Studio on the city's east side to watch a team of dancers perfecting their new choreography for an upcoming show in Houston. Co-owner, Amber Rivard, was critiquing the dancers' form as they spin across the dance floor. To say these guys are serious is an understatement. And they’re not the only dance team in Milwaukee.
So, the Latin dance scene lives on in Milwaukee, but it’s the social aspect that has suffered most since the Wherehouse closed. That was probably its biggest impact on the community.
Which gives someone like Alex, a novice dancer, less options. “Granted I’m in my 30’s and currently single. This is um... one idea to meet people and see where it goes.” When asked how it has played out, he said, “I might have mentioned I’m horrible. So I’ll let you know."
However, there are resources for people interested in learning more about Milwaukee's Latin dance scene and current events. Matt Woida created Milwaukee Salsa for that very reason. The website includes information on where to take classes, teams and instructors.