JELLY’S: CHEERS WITH A CHA CHA BEAT
A man in a Panama hat raced from a Super Shuttle van toward a dinky Kleenex- box shaped building, his overnight bag bumping over the rough cement behind him. He dropped the bag at the door and disappeared into a hard hot wind of smashing cymbals, wailing trumpets and clinking beer bottles. He had arrived at Jelly’s, a salsa club wedged between the AT&T ballpark and the weather-beaten warehouses on the San Francisco waterfront. There’ll be other shuttles along in a minute—he’s not alone in coming straight from the airport to the “Club Havana” Sunday afternoon event at Jelly’s. With its sagging neon sign in front and rusty tugboat moored in the back, Jelly’s looks more like a Hell’s Angels hangout than a salsa club. On the inside, it’s jammed wall to wall with salsa junkies and savvy tourists.
Jelly’s afternoon bashes come from a long- standing Bay Area tradition of Sunday afternoon dances called “tardeadas” that started in the 1950s at clubs such as Sweets Ballroom in Oakland. Today out of the more than twenty clubs that make up the jumping Bay Area salsa scene, only Jelly’s and El Rio across town in the warm Mission District still have Sunday afternoon dancing. El Rio’s dancing is outdoors on cement, and the Latin events draw a mostly gay crowd.
Here it’s different. The shuttle passenger in his cream guayabera (the formal linen overshirt popular among Latino men) can already wrapped his arms around a busty Latino woman with big hair and frosted highlights and drawn her onto a wooden dance floor sticky at the edges from spilled drinks. Live bands will come on later, but the afternoon begins with the D.J.s like Luis Medina whose rich mix of hard- driving new music from Cuba and vintage salsa from New York and Puerto Rico whips the crowd into such a frenzy that the dancers forget to drink(to the sorrow of the club owner), eat or even pee. Many are regulars who have been coming here every week to show off their double turns and cross-body leads for decades. Some are Latino, some black, some suburban-looking blondes. Everybody knows everybody: it’s Cheers with a cha cha beat. One dancer downing a Dos Equis at the bar said, “Jelly’s has the old-school Latin spirit. It has a down-home feel.” They all agree that the patrons at Jelly’s don’t have the snooty airs and competitiveness on the dance floor one finds at the upscale clubs such as Café Cocomo, a couple of miles to the north on Potrero Hill and The Glass Kat in the South of Market district, where the better dancers take over one area of the floor and keep out those not up to their standards. A dancer who said his name was Lenny said, “Jelly’s is where you can dance, connect with your partner, be playful and flirtatious. It’s a wonderful place to shed your inhibitions, if only for just a few minutes.”
Much of the energy comes from the live bands that come on about five-thirty. Today Anthony Blea Y Su Charanga, a 9 piece salsa band, pumps out speaker-rattling trombone and trumpet riffs from an elevated stage.
Hours of dancing force many to succumb to the aroma of charred onions and green peppers that spills in from the concrete patio out back above the green waters of the bay. Today six lanky AfroCubans, wearing XXL orange and black 49niner t-shirts have buried their faces in steamy plates piled with black beans and rice, grilled onions, salsa and barbeque chicken, a bargain at $9.
Even someone wholly new to salsa, who doesn’t know Tito Puentes from Ricky Ricardo, will be swept up in the joy and energy from the dancers. Some will try to fake the steps on the edges of the dance floor. Many will leave determined to take salsa lessons as soon as they arrange it. For a first hand look at Jelly’s and the rest of Bay Area Salsa scene check the Fifth Annual San Francisco International Salsa Congress taking place November 16-19 at the Oakland Marriott City Convention Center and Hotel.
Jelly's - A Dance Cafe
295 TERRY FRANCOIS BLVD.
PIER 50, SAN FRANCISCO, CA 94158
Images courtesy of Jelly's Cafe, El Rio, and Anthony Blea