Traversing downtown Indianapolis on a Saturday night in February can be a monotonous disposition. The sidewalk along the southern strip of Meridian Street is aflutter with cops and drunks, as the bouncers yell at scoundrels and the hostesses seduce the curious youth with the promise of cheap drinks and scandalous music.
Just a couple blocks to the north, there is something promisingly unfamiliar stirring. Steel drums gently project through double-glass doors and onto the street. A full arrangement of horns blasts through the wintry mix, as it glazes the ground on Washington Street with slippery mischief.
Inside Marques Gunter is teaching 10 or 15 nervously eager patrons of Adobo Grill how to Salsa dance, for free. In an hour, Sangria will be flowing and the dance floor will be full. The upscale Mexican restaurant is quickly renovated into a nightclub, as whites, blacks, Hispanics and everyone in between are sweating in rhythm to the medley of Salsa, Merengue, Reggaeton and Latin Pop.
The bar is open, but the bartenders keep busy with conversation - most dare not Salsa with drink in hand. Like Salsa dancing itself, the environment is flavorful and bustling; sexy and warm, yet controlled and innocent.
Gunter takes his leave from the dance floor; his 15 students have the two or three moves they'll need to survive the night. He makes conversation, enjoys a drink on the job and constantly checks lighting and audio.
From his physique, you think he should be at the Colts game, lining up on the flank opposite Reggie Wayne. From his day-job and favorite pastimes, you think he might be at home watching Battlestar Gallactica
But the savvy, 29 year-old entrepreneur from Detroit is one of the city's most promising party promoters - when he's not manning the Information Technology systems of Eli Lilly or working on his internet start-up company.
His motivation to push forward through three jobs - he openly admits - is meeting women.
But Gunter is nothing if not a Renaissance man, whose weakness for women is only rivaled by his lust for diversity in culture and fun.
"You look at the businesses opening downtown," Gunter says of the typical Indianapolis nightclub. "I asked a friend of mine what Cadillac Ranch is; well it's BW3's on steroids. We're trying to bring something different, not what's on every corner of this city."
While Gunter's parties are exceptional, they are not the first or only multi-cultural dance events to entertain Indy's culturally curious adventurers.
Salsa for a cause
As Indy's longest running Latin dance night, Thursday dance parties have been going on at the Jazz Kitchen for 14 years, says Gunter, and that is where he first fell in love with Salsa.
"These two instructors gave a Salsa lesson," Gunter explains, "And it looked fun, it looked hot, and it looked sexy - so I started going to their Thursday nights."
It didn't take long for an addiction to take hold of him, and he soon found solace from the discomforts of a new city, as well as a heaping dose of confidence.
"You're going to hold yourself with a higher level of confidence; in both your personal and office life [after learning Salsa]. I don't know how that works, but when people who are pure introverts become good dancers their confidence gets elevated, because you have a skill-set that most people in this city don't have."
After being recruited by Eli Lilly for an IT job, Gunter moved to Indianapolis without any friends or family within a hundred miles. To pass his time off the clock, he tried internet dating without success, and then joined a car club for his Pontiac Grand Prix - which, predictably, did not plug him into the sexiest of social scenes.
"Yes!" he emphatically responds, when asked if his affinity for women is the driving force behind SalsaIndy, his dance studio turned promotional company. "I still admit that to this day," Gunter says. "When I was in the car club and dancing at the same time - I was like 'why am I still in a car club with a bunch of guys, instead of dancing with all these beautiful women?'
"I knew it would be a great way to open up my social network and meet women," he says of his first Salsa class. "And also I was looking for that home - that family - in addition to chasing after women."
Despite the seeming disparity between his interests of dance and computers, his passion for them shares a common motif; his interest in human connectivity. "With the dancing you have something to connect with people on," Gunter says. "Just like when you're an IT geek you can hang out with IT geeks of all ethnicities, all backgrounds, all social classes; because you connect with computers. And the same thing I found with dancing.
"On my ladies' dance team we have a white girl, a black girl, a Jewish girl, an Asian girl - we all have a connection. We don't care where you're from or how much you make, if you're about the dance, you're our best friend."
When Gunter moved to Indianapolis from Detroit, he found a city that was safer and cleaner than his hometown, but he was disturbed by some of the apparent social challenges before him. "I had no idea what Indianapolis was," Gunter says, laughing at himself, in retrospect. "I knew they had a thing called Indy 500 that had cars going around in circles for no reason for a couple hours, and you get all sunburned watching it.
"Frankly, Indianapolis has really high barriers between social classes, ethnicities and all that - there's just so many pockets here, it's very frustrating."
Like a true computer geek, Gunter likens his efforts to sell Salsa to Indianapolis to the latest technological hotcake on the market.
"Here, [Latin dance] is like the Apple iPhone. They created the demand for the iPhone... it's not like we wanted this magical touch screen phone. Apple sold it to us until we fell in love with it. And that's the same thing with Midwest promoters - we have to create the demand. I make sure on the web site I have pictures, lots of videos - pictures of pretty women - to create what's already in bigger cities." (See: www.salsaindy.com)
Though Gunter still struggles with his sense of place in Indianapolis, the self-described introvert was encouraged by what he found after looking a little harder. "When I found the Salsa dancing community, those barriers are no longer there; I didn't have to try to fit in."
While Salsa dancing opens up a warm welcoming experience for some, Gunter also realizes that there is a learning curve for the average Hoosier that is used to cover bands and the National Top 40 rotation, which can sometimes be alienating for newcomers.
"Salsa is for everyone"
The Saturday night dance parties at Adobo can be intimidating for a Salsa virgin like myself; one moment, the dance floor is at a perfect medium - there are enough bodies filling the space to hide the novice from the harsh watchful eyes of the dinner crowd. Then a Reggaeton song begins, and the novice's dancing confederates leave him, fully exposed, in all his uncoordinated shame. He leaves the sparse dance floor for the balcony, to cool down and gulp down some liquid courage. Then, at once - like a broken pinball machine - the room is tilted at a 45-degree angle and the entire dancing population of Indianapolis converges on the dance floor, spinning and moving with such sexy grace that he cannot help but feel like he's simply in the way.
"The only way we can solve that," Gunter explains, "we realized we have to encourage them. When we see them we have to ask them to dance. We have to remember that; because we got so used to dancing with each other. We're not trying to be snobs; we just got into that habit. I just remind my dancers to ask other people to dance and create an environment where everyone is comfortable."
The Salsa learning curve is a formidable one to most of the Midwest. In order to bridge the comfort gap between novice and expert, Gunter has set the two up on a blind date at the Jazz Kitchen.
"We're going to open up the back room for lessons in parallel with the Salsa night," he explains. "So the idea is that those people getting out of class stay for the party afterward. Then we already have the students there for class, and our dancers are there, too, for the Latin Night."
If all goes according to plan, the hard-core salsa dancers will be mingling with the students and showing them how the pros do it, as the unsuspecting students two-step their way out of class and into the live world of Salsa.
However, Latin Night at Adobo every Saturday is still the bread and butter of Gunter's promotions company. "Adobo will always be a mainstream night; that is our flagship event. It's what helps bring income so that I can run dance teams without worrying about their costumes bankrupting me."
As for the Salsa virgins caught in the whirlwind of Salsa, Merengue and Reggaeton at Adobo, Gunter says that they need not be afraid.
"We never feel that a beginner couple is in the way; that has never crossed any of our minds. We make room for everyone; we don't think we own the dance floor. Salsa is for everyone, I'm not just saying that to bring students in; you don't need to be a professional."
But it won't be as fun if you don't learn a couple moves, Gunter says. "Everyone should take some lessons. You might not get it at first, but the only people I've seen that I would say can be truly uncoordinated are those at a much older age, like late 40s or 50s and have never done any dancing in their life.
"But usually they pick it up - yeah they take a lot longer, and they only learn a few things, but then they go out and have the time of their life, and I've made their life better."
Gunter's SalsaIndy dance studio was certainly not the first in Indianapolis. It wasn't even the first of Gunter's; or the first of Gunter's to be named with the words "Salsa" and "Indy."
Before starting his own dance studio, Gunter became a business partner of a peer student who had opened a studio by the name of "Indy Salsa."
It was a natural (if somewhat opportunistic) progression when the partners split for Gunter to name his new studio "Salsa Indy."
"The reason that I chose that name was not to be a dick," he explains, "but I actually had that domain name registered before we did the Indy Salsa dance company. It ended up working out though because [Indy Salsa] went under."
The demise of Indy Salsa is a sadly familiar story with dance studios in Indianapolis. Following a golden age leading up to the Recession, rival dance studios across the city became engaged in an ugly war of attrition with one another - boycotting the events of other studios and blasting rival leadership via blog pages.
"We went through a dark time and then the recession hit, and it wiped out a lot of the small dance companies and studios. But we learned our lesson, those wounds are healed now. The community has forgotten about it - except for old-timers like me and [local dance studio IntoSalsa]. We're on a positive path to bring it back to where it was a few years ago."
Gunter nostalgically reflects on the time of milk and honey for Indianapolis Salseros, before the turf wars hit a boiling point. "It was a year before the recession got bad - it was our peak when the numbers were there and the Latin nights had 300 people, and 50 of them were dancers - that to me is a successful Salsa scene for Indianapolis. "
Like most industries, the dance community learned from mistakes of the last two years and learned to play nice.
"I don't want to put words in other people's mouths," Gunter says, "But at one point I felt like [IntoSalsa] wanted to be the end-all-be-all. But I think that's changed."
Recently, IntoSalsa and SalsaIndy coordinated Haiti Relief projects. When IntoSalsa held their benefit, SalsaIndy pumped the brakes on their promotion effort for that week's Latin Night at Adobo. In turn, when Gunter threw his "Salsa for a Cause" Haiti benefit at Adobo the following weekend, IntoSalsa graciously declined to interfere.
"Dancing is about fun," Gunter says, "So the last thing you want is to feel that you're in between a battle between dance studios, and I'm 90% sure [IntoSalsa] feels the same way I do."
IntoSalsa, which is SalsaIndy's biggest competition, hosts a weekly Saturday night dance party at El Meson Mexican Restaurant on the city's Northwest side, offers dance lessons and hosts a performing dance team, in addition to their public events.
Always looking to expand his own share of the market, Gunter offers a free Salsa dance lesson at Urban Element downtown, every third Tuesday of the month, followed by a dance party with DJ Lucio - giving students, outsiders and hardcore dancers alike an opportunity to experience multiple events from multiple promoters throughout the city.
As Gunter attempts to establish his empire in Indianapolis, his geeky roots appear in their purest form when asked for his ultimate goal as an entrepreneur. "World Domination," the World of Warcraft gamer answers with a laugh; yet his abundant self-confidence suggests that it might be secretly tucked away on his lengthy to-do list.
"I've seen so many cats here try to copy what I do," Gunter boasts, "And not to be cocky - but they've all failed except for me and [IntoSalsa].
"To me being a club promoter is the highest compliment," he says. "You work 40-50 hours a week, you're stressed and tired, and you have one or two days to have fun. You're paying me for you to enjoy your one or two days a week... I think a lot of club promoters forget that.
"I was that guy in college that would just go out there and dance and not care. I'm not embarrassed when people look at me... I like expression."
However, for all his genuine interest in the social and personal benefits of his chosen form of expression, Gunter wraps up his love for Salsa with one thematic addendum.
"And also," he says matter-of-factly, "Women like dancing."
SIDEBAR: Salsa dancing in Indianapolis
The Jazz Kitchen
5377 North College Ave
Marco Dominguez and Fernando Ramirez
Latin hip-hop, Salsa, Merengue and Bachata
Thursdays, 9 pm - 2 am. $7 Cover, women free before 10 pm.
Free dance lesson at 9:30 pm.
Adobo Tequila Bar
110 E Washington St.
Bachata, Salsa, Merengue and Reggaeton
Saturdays, 10 p.m. - 3 a.m. $5 for ladies, $7 for men
Free Dance lesson at 10 pm.
901 N. Pennsylvania St.
Salsa, Bachata, Merengue and Reggaeton
Every third Tuesday, 9 pm 1 am. No Cover
18 & Over
Free dance lesson at 9pm.
El Meson Mexican Restaurant
8920 Wesleyan Rd.
DJ Jimmie Jim and DJ Phlipp
Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, and Reggaeton
Saturdays, 9pm-3am. $7 cover
The Red Room
6335 Guilford Ave.
Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, and Reggaeton
Wednesdays, 9pm-1am. $5 cover.
Dance lessons from 6pm - 9pm.