Rumba on Main Street

A new club heats things up downtown/

It's 11 p.m. on a Saturday night downtown, and things are getting hot.

Salsa hot. South-of-the-border-hot. Sexy, steamy, sweaty, dancing hot. And that's cool. It's what brought the crowd here in the first place.

"Here" is the Rumba Room, at 303 South Main. It's easy to overlook the new-ish spot, whose small-ish sign and deceptively small facade actually encompasses 55,200 square feet of downtown's most valuable club and restaurant real estate these days, with a capacity of 300. The club offers free salsa lessons on weekends, as well as private lessons during the week. Translation? You can take lessons for a few hours after work for a week and make John Travolta look like a klutz by the time Saturday night rolls around. (Hint: Gentlemen, ladies love a good dancer).

Owners Jim Davilla, Edgar Mendez, and Alex Labrador met about six years ago, and after a few years of back-and-forth discussions about opening a Cuban-themed nightclub somewhere, the trio decided on Memphis. Edgar was the dancer, who'd honed his skills in San Diego and Los Angeles, earning a reputation as one of the best instructors in the business. After a move to Memphis, he hooked up with Davilla, whose expertise is in management and entertainment, and Labrador, the computer whiz. The combination was perfect. It was time to combine the talents and start a club of their own.

Not that things fell into place perfectly. "We argued about everything from the cocktail menu to the placement of the coat rack," laughs Davilla. "And of course, how much we would spend on it all. Alex will pinch a penny until it screams, but that's why we are successful now, I think. Everything is a democracy. Three owners, two votes wins. Period."

With the location of the coat rack (as well as everything else) decided upon, it was time to open.

Business was good from the beginning. "The Cuban crowd is a late-night crowd,"

explains Mendez. "They don't start showing up until around 10 p.m. or so."

He's right. At 10 sharp, the doors open, and suddenly, a line has formed out the door and down the sidewalk. Within the hour, the place is packed with young and old, black and white, Latin American, Asian, and everyone in between, looking to have fun.

Instructors take to the stage and urge everyone who wants lessons onto the floor. The steps are deceptively easy. The crowd quickly catches on. Then, more are added. Then a few more. The next thing you know, those three simple groups of steps have turned into a steamy dance. More people, encouraged, hit the floor to try their hand (and feet). The instructors move around the room, giving tips here, offering advice there, and then suggest everyone switch partners. By midnight, pretty much everyone in the Rumba Room has danced with one another — a brilliant marketing move. 'There are no strangers here at the end of the night, " smiles Davilla as he scans the intermingling crowd. "Everyone here is a VIP. In this club, we are all here for a good time, and we will all leave happy with more friends."

And some hot new moves, to boot. M

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