|Photo by Adam Ryan Morris.
This story appears in the June 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
by Jenna Kashou
It’s the giant garage doors at MOCT that make this urban dance warehouse distinctive. In the summer, they open to the street and create a true city scene. In the winter, the grid of garage windows creates a checkerboard of light shining into the expansive industrial space, where live palm trees tickle the high black ceilings. Think garage meets art gallery, with a Euro twist. It’s usually a hip, fashionable crowd here, entranced by a rotating blend of innovative and sometimes internationally known DJs, and the customers flirt, imbibe and dance.
First-time visitors to MOCT might feel they’re not in Milwaukee anymore. It has a kind of New York feel to it. It’s just one of many bars in town with dance floors and vibrant scenes. If there isn’t one for a particular style of music or dance, there’s likely to be a group that organizes gatherings for the kind you crave.
For those who like to see and be seen, Milwaukee and Old World Third streets are the places to be. And for those looking to try something new, Latin dancing is slowly moving from the South Side into the mainstream, thanks in part to Alterra’s “Musica del Lago” summer series at the lakefront. A good mix of hip-hop and Latin clubs are still located in Milwaukee’s “Latin Quarter” on National Avenue and nearby. And Milwaukee is also among the rare cities with dedicated dance venues for polka music.
618 N. Water St.
Formerly the Ladybug Club (the exterior is still covered by huge ladybugs), it always has a line extending down the block. 618 brands itself as a “Super Club,” and that it is – complete with two levels, neon lights, fog machines and a disco ball spinning above the dance floor – serving a predominantly African-American crowd.
1011 N. Astor St.
What rebranded from Aqua to Aura two years ago still only attracts sparse crowds. Flashing multicolored neon lights beckon an older demographic that spreads out on the large dance floor and gyrates to top-40 tunes. Some of the crowd spills over from the adjacent Comfort Inn and Suites.
720 N. Milwaukee St.
On any given Saturday night,throngs of people looking like they stepped out of a music video line up outside this club, trying to convince the doorman with a clipboard that they should be on the VIP list. This sliver of real estate crammed between posh hot spots Distil and Umami Moto attracts celebrities like Paris Hilton, the Kardashian sisters, Nick Cannon and a diverse mix of hip-hop and electronic DJs.
231 E. Buffalo St.
After 10:30 p.m., this upscale corner bar turns “dancy,” as owner Dominic Kissinger calls it. It recently took over the luxurious space of the former Soho 7. The warm, dark wood interior, offset with bright Tiffany blue, also boasts the “Best ladies bathroom in all of Milwaukee,” insists Kissinger. With music from DJ Kelly of LaCage fame Fridays and Saturdays, the bar attracts a cosmopolitan crowd of 25- to 65-year-olds, gay and straight. BTW never charges covers and never plays hip-hop or R&B.
1905 E. North Ave.
Follow the vibrations of the thumping bass to find an East Side mainstay, a longtime dance club (strangely) beneath the Beans & Barley health food market and cafe. What was once the popular Eso in the late ’90s and Mantra Lounge for a minute in ’05 now goes by the moniker Decibel/DeepBar. Decibel features DJ Brian Bzar every Thursday and spins a mix of hip-hop and top-40 music on the weekend for the younger crowd. Ladies never pay a cover and drink free rails until midnight every Thursday. But sorry, fellas, fork over a $5 cover every night.
1311 E. Brady St.
More a like an old basement than a dance club. A mixed bag of people from Brady Street’s posh and dive bars take to a tiny back corner of the bar, lined by mirrors and hindered by low ceilings, to dance. Family-owned for 33 years, Jo-Cat’s plays the best and the worst rock and pop music of the ’70s and ’80s, along with a country tune or two. No matter the music or lack of space, it’s almost always packed by 12:30 a.m. on the weekends with inebriated dancing fools.
203 W. Mitchell St.
Spanish for sugarcane, Kaña is a club for those 25 years and older and is typically packed with Latinos ready to dance. The bar’s signature is its fruity mojitos and the small dance floor – separated from the front bar by a large aquarium – lends the feel of an island oasis. Fridays and Saturdays, there are DJs spinning salsa, and on weekdays, they offer lessons so patrons are ready to impress come the weekend.
Kochanski’s Concertina Beer Hall
1920 S. 37th St.
Rotating polka, rockabilly, bluegrass and blues bands from Milwaukee and overseas keep crowds of 21- to 75-year-olds dancing four nights a week. Manager Andy Kochanski loves the weird mix of people. His favorite is the Wednesday polka open jam. “All the old boys come down and jam, and the adventurous young types play with them sometimes; and then they all jump on stage and take a turn playing.”
1872 N. Commerce St.
What could be better than a cold microbrew to wash down a crispy fish fry? The Brewhaus
Polka Kings provide the soundtrack every Friday from 6-9 p.m. as the crowd bounces to and fro. The general rule of thumb – the more the crowd drinks, the better they polka.
801 S. Second St.
Enter the cage if you dare. Not just the venue, but the cage hanging over the sprawling dance floor. Raucous pairs or groups take to it to prove their moves. Catering to the gay and gay-friendly, LaCage also attracts mobs of bachelorette parties and ladies looking to dance. Just don’t flinch at the sight of a sweaty bare chest.
533 E. Center St.
A hipster’s haven in Riverwest, both the Friday-night “Retro Dance Party” and the Saturday-night “Get Down” have become Milwaukee institutions. These throwbacks to the best of the ’80s and rare funk and soul sounds are infectious. The dance floor is small, sweaty and loud. Mad Planet is also becoming a popular venue for live music from up-and-coming indie and electronic artists.
240 E. Pittsburgh Ave.
MOCT, pronounced “most,” is Serbian for bridge and does indeed bridge different styles. One of the most diverse dance clubs, its DJs spin hip-hop, electronic and dance music at least two to three nights a week. The club and its crowd are avant-garde in appearance and attitude. Brothers Nebi and Sini Torbica opened MOCT seven years ago after owning a successful club in their native Serbia. “We’ve even been lucky enough to host the official after-party for a lot of famous live acts like Lady Gaga and Kings of Leon,” says Nebi. Other big names in music like Questlove, Mark Farina, Diplo and Ladytron have all graced the DJ booth.
NOTTE Nite Lounge
1033 N. Old World Third St.
Above Tutto restaurant, NOTTE opened in 2009, adding what the owners call a “nouveau chic” style to Old World Third Street. Thursdays are for what they call “Crave” – mirrored after big-city style parties with no cover charge, great drink specials and underground house music – catering to the LGBT crowd. As NOTTE promotes it, “The only requirements: love music, respect each other, & get the f* down!” Fridays and Saturdays, DJs from Milwaukee and Chicago spin top-40 and hip-hop. The atmosphere is glamorous, and a diverse, upscale crowd enjoys bottle service in VIP areas. Weekend cover is $10 or more.
126 E. Mineral St.
The city’s only teen club for 17- to 20-year-olds. Located at a dark end of Walker’s Point, there is no signage on the building, but cops who often surround the club (looking for underage drinkers) are a dead giveaway. It’s only open Fridays and Saturdays and doesn’t serve alcohol, but kids from every corner of the city show up to pay $12 covers to dance and sip Red Bull. Saturday is strictly hip-hop, whereas Friday, anything goes for music.
1103 N. Old World Third St.
Small tables line the dance floor’s perimeter while sexed-up waitresses tend to bottle-service clients. Neon lights summon dancers to the floor like a siren’s song. One of the town’s more upscale clubs, Suite follows a strict dress code, denying anyone with face or neck tattoos down to dirty sneakers. Rumor is athletes from the nearby Bradley Center frequent Suite.
606 S. Fifth St.
Among the Mexican restaurants on Fifth Street is a deceptively large hip-hop nightclub. Texture’s bilevel space is a winding maze with competing hip-hop DJs and a young, predominantly African-American crowd with lots of scantily clad women. The strict dress code must apply only to men.
1230 N. Van Buren St.
Often derided as “Victims,” Victor’s is a wildly eclectic club with a diverse demographic – everyone from college kids to cougars. You may see a pair of septuagenarians ballroom dancing, a young couple grinding, a giggly group of coeds, and a creepy loner scoping out girls and trying to dance behind them. Victor’s has been around for some 50 years, and, oh, if those walls could talk. But would we want to hear everything they’d have to say?
Wherehouse / Hot Water
818 S. Water St.
This large converted warehouse on the far east end of National Avenue overlooking the KK River will wow you. Step inside to find two large gorgeous rooms, stages and dance floors. Two clubs for the price of one! A crystal chandelier hangs over a loft space for VIPs. While Wherehouse focuses on salsa dancing every Saturday and special events, Hot Water has different styles on different nights, including Argentine tango, West Coast swing and even line dancing. General manager Adam Smith calls it a melting pot for dancers of all styles and levels: “Dancers are dancers, they don’t care what color you are. Often people just come to observe.”
788 N. Jackson St.
Cultivating an “underground” reputation, the bar resists being listed as a dance club, but it has a DJ Thursdays through Saturdays (and sometimes live music) as well as a large back room with a dance floor (for years, the old Park Bar space). There’s a dress code, the crowd is typically swanked up, and the music swings popular with an occasional ’80s throwback.
Alas, the dance halls that once catered to the ballroom styles of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are long gone. Studios like Fred Astaire(323 N. Milwaukee St.), East Towne Ballrooms(614 N. Broadway), Studio 611(611 S. Layton Blvd.), Casa di Danza (21415 W. Greenfield Ave.) and the Delaware House(2499 S. Delaware Ave.) continue to teach new generations of dance enthusiasts and host monthly dance events. Also, clubs like Footnotes, The Dancer’s Circle and USA Dance organize special events for their members. Admission ranges from $10-$15, generally with special events that include dinner for an extra fee.
Other Specialty Clubs
Jumpin’ Jive Club
For more than 10 years, the club has offered lessons in swing dancing and hosted open dances at the Milwaukee Ale House every Tuesday and at Rooter’s in Waukesha on Wednesdays.
Milwaukee Rebels Swing Dance Club
Dedicated to West Coast swing, on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month, the Milwaukee Rebels dance at Hot Water starting at 8 p.m. They also hold dances at Casa di Danza studio in New Berlin.
Cream City Swing
It holds a weekly social dance every Thursday night at the Bay View Brew Haus, with a rotating mix of teachers who offer six-count/East Coast swing lessons from 8-9 p.m. for $5, and then social dancing afterward for a suggested $5 donation. “At our social dances, we have people dancing six-count, Lindy Hop, Charleston, Balboa, Collegiate Shag and blues, just to name a few,” says group organizer Andrea Toussaint. “We typically have 85-100 people each week of all ages; I think our oldest dancer is in his late 70s.”
Silverado Country Kickers
Robert Skubal has been organizing lessons and dances through this group for the past 20 years. “I started back in 1990 and travelled around teaching line dancing and two-step, then it became real popular on the South Side,” he says. He holds events every Thursday at the Norway House (75th and Oklahoma) for a $7 admission, teaching mostly country line and partner-pattern dances. “The crowd is more mature, but it’s loyal,” he admits. Although participation in his weekly groups has dwindled from a few hundred to a few dozen, Skubal notes the rise of new country-themed bars popping up Downtown and hopes there’ll be a next generation of country dancers to teach.
For more info about dance events and lessons, Frank DeRaimo of Pointer Marketing publishes the monthly Dancers’ Dateline. Call 262-338-8538.