Yo Patio When I placed my bowl of soft, fresh froyo on the patio table today, the blistering sun would have wasted no time turning my peanut butter-chocolate swirl into a drinkable dairy mess. It was just there long enough to snap the above photo (with two froyo friends) on the brand-new patio at the […]

Yo Patio
When I placed my bowl of soft, fresh froyo on the patio table today, the blistering sun would have wasted no time turning my peanut butter-chocolate swirl into a drinkable dairy mess. It was just there long enough to snap the above photo (with two froyo friends) on the brand-new patio at the Brookfield Yo Mama! (Ruby Isle, 2205 N. Calhoun Rd., 262-649-3128). It has a pergola on the west side, some potted foliage and plenty of room to hang out. Besides tables and chairs, they have built-in benches. The official patio opening is Tuesday, July 3. BTW, thumb’s up on the peanut butter-chocolate swirl. Mon-Sat 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Closed Door
Just south of the intersection of Brady, Oakland and Farwell, there’s a restaurant called Fajitas Grill (1673 N. Farwell Ave.). Was a restaurant called Fajitas Grill. The restaurant that pays homage to grilled meat served inside a tortilla has given its East Side location of more than two years the heave-ho. Plans are to reopen in a different Downtown location. Where it will reopen is a mystery. The month of August is the projected reopening month. More details when I have them.

Suddenly Salad
It’s a well-documented fact that people eat more salads in summer. Really? OK, I’m making that up. But it’s entirely possible. Seven is the magic number at Café at the Pfister. That is the number of new salads that have been added to the lunch menu. For example: a Nicoise with grilled ahi tuna, lemon Dijon green beans, garlic marble potatoes, and lemon anchovy dressing; the WELL Spa caprese with fresh burrata, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh basil; and the Farm to Plate, a mix of fresh watermelon, strawberries, arugula and goat cheese. Salads $12-$14. (424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Mon-Fri 6 a.m.-2 p.m.; Sat-Sun 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m.

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Look for Dish on Dining on Tuesdays and Thursdays!

Wait! Don’t stop reading. I’m on Twitter! Follow me @ann_christenson

If you spot a restaurant opening or closing, post it on the comments section of my column, or e-mail me directly: ann.christenson@milwaukeemagazine.com

 

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Tall, blond, smart and single, Samantha Jacobs did not expect to be swept off her feet in Milwaukee. “It took me by complete surprise,” confides the 41-year-old New York journalist. After all, her research suggests that a never-wed woman of a certain age has a better chance of hitting the Powerball jackpot than of ever […]

Tall, blond, smart and single, Samantha Jacobs did not expect to be swept off
her feet in Milwaukee.

“It took me by complete surprise,” confides the 41-year-old New
York journalist. After all, her research suggests that a never-wed woman of a
certain age has a better chance of hitting the Powerball jackpot than of ever
being emotionally fulfilled – especially in Milwaukee, which statistics show is
the absolute worst location on the planet for a mature professional female to
discover her one true passion.

But then, statistics don’t account for the addictive allure of an exotic
clavè or the thrill of a sonero’s seductive croon. So who’d have
figured? Who’d have known? Who could possibly have imagined the power of salsa,
the flamboyant Latin touch dance?

“Never before has anything triggered in me a gut-level response so intense.
It made me feel like melted butter!” Jacobs gushes in Adventures of a Salsa
Goddess,
a novel published last fall by Berkley Books. “Some people compare
it to foreplay, the ultimate in safe sex. Not a few compare it to a drug, while
others claim it’s a spiritual experience.”

And then Jacobs, a character created by and resembling Milwaukee author JoAnn
Hornak, gets cosmic: “Could salsa be…the meaning of life?”

Hot on the heels of a purported international cultural phenomenon,
Hornak is caught in a crush of saucy salseras and salseros at a
uniquely festive literary event at a jam-packed Downtown tavern.

Could salsa be…the meaning of nightlife? Has a ballroom blitz of mainstream
media exposure – in movies like Shall We Dance? and on ABC-TV’s “Dancing
With the Stars” – effectively transformed a decades-old Caribbean tradition into
a contemporary social sensation for legions of loose-limbed amateur hoofers
worldwide?

Taps! Turns! Kicks! Flicks!

Dramatic dips!

One thing you notice at these salsa clubs is how all the dancers watch all
the dancers all the time – not just their partners but everyone who is out on
the floor moving side to side in a pattern of six steps over eight counts of
music at the exclusive pace (of approximately 180 to 210 beats per minute) that
immediately distinguishes their preferred expression of kinetic art from
Foxtrot, Mambo, Tango, Samba and Cha Cha Cha.

Look at us! Look at them!

Look at him! Look at her!

Look at JoAnn Hornak – resplendent in a racy red party dress and matching
pumps – bending, flexing, stretching, spinning and tossing back her golden coif
like the giddy queen of a senior prom.

“When I have a good salsa, I’m on a high for days!” she exclaims. “It’s like
this huge endorphin rush. Like nothing else I‘ve ever experienced.”

At age 45, the longtime Milwaukee County assistant district attorney turned
critically lauded “chick-lit” scribe is livin’ la vida loca – still
holding court at midnight and doling out autographs for her fans between twirls
on the dance floor at Gus’ Mexican Cantina on North Van Buren Street.

She has staged a lively book-signing affair on this Friday night, complete
with a full-service cash bar, professional dance instruction from Christine
Almeida and a blistering live performance by Terry Tomes-Krueger’s Punto de
Vista Latin Orchestra.

“There’s just something about this music,” Hornak winks. “When you hear it,
you’ve just got to move!”

She moves toward a corner table stacked with paperback copies of
Adventures of a Salsa Goddess.

“For me, there’s nothing better than salsa,” she assures an eager reader.

“When I found salsa, I immediately fell in love,” she tells another.

But don’t get the wrong idea.

“I’m not the Salsa Goddess! I am not Samantha Jacobs!” she insists again and
again.

Samantha is just a character she created. The book is strictly fiction,
remember. Although it is set in the never-wed novelist’s own hometown, all
names, places, statistics and juicy incidents are imaginary; any resemblance to
actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Wink.

“It was natural to place my story in the city where I was born and raised and
still reside,” says Hornak, a graduate of St. Mary’s Academy, Marquette
University and the University of Wisconsin Law School. “They say you should
always write about what you know; well, I know Milwaukee.”

And she knows salsa, to which she’s been enthusiastically devoted since
stumbling upon her first lesson at a particularly critical personal and
professional juncture in her life back in 2001.

“It was September,” she says. “I’d just quit the D.A.’s office.”

After nearly a decade spent prosecuting hundreds of the county’s most heinous
killers, rapists, thieves and drug-dealing miscreants, she’d finally had her
fill of the criminal justice system. She’d finally mustered the courage to
tender her resignation to her legal mentor, District Attorney E. Michael McCann.

“For a long time, I felt like I was doing some good for victims,” she says.
“But after awhile, I lost my edge. My heart wasn’t in it, and I realized that I
did not want to spend the rest of my life going after the bad guys.”

She badly needed a new direction. She’d always hoped to become a writer. She
decided to learn how to dance.

“It was something I’d never really done,” says Hornak, who has taught English
in Japan, advocated (in Swahili) in Tanzania and argued bankruptcy and insurance
procedure for a high-powered Chicago law firm.

“I tried lots of different dances – swing, country, Irish – but when I tried
salsa, it just really clicked. For me, salsa provided the perfect outlet.”

Eventually, it would provide the ideal inspiration for her romantic debut
novel.

“Soon after I left my job, Newsweek magazine accepted an essay I’d
written and submitted on spec,” she recounts. “I took that as a sign from the
universe that I’d made the right decision.”

Remarkably, on the strength of her Newsweek article, she was recruited
by an editor at the fiction division of St. Martin’s Press in New York.

“It was an unbelievable opportunity,” she says. “But I hadn’t even considered
writing a book, especially a novel. So I needed to find a subject.”

Of course, she’d already found it, and it was a fitting metaphor for a single
working woman’s desperate search for midlife self-realization.

“There’s something unusually empowering about the whole salsa scene. It‘s
extremely passionate and intense, and it’s a fantastic way to meet new people
because it crosses all cultural backgrounds and socio-economic lines.”

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Viva la variedad! Viva la Salsa, an equal-opportunity obsession teeming
with provocative plot possibilities, not to mention a wide-ranging, ethnically
diverse demographic ripe for mass market literary exploitation.

So enters Samantha Jacobs, reporting undercover for an imaginary
Cosmopolitan-like national magazine, assigned to investigate the mating
rituals of the great unwashed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“No one will ever ask who you are or what you do for a living before they ask
you to salsa,” says Hornak, whose protagonist finds enlightenment via the dance.
“It’s hot and it’s emotional, but it’s completely removed from the typical
alcohol-driven singles bar pick-up mindset.”

Still, she does describe salsa as “the vertical expression of a horizontal
desire,” suggesting another very definitive mindset.

“It can get pretty steamy out there,” she concedes. “I’ve developed crushes
on many of my partners, but it has yet to lead to anything like what happens in
my book.”

Wink!

“Sometimes you just have to avert your eyes from the person you’re dancing
with…if you don’t want to take it any further. For me, it really is all about
the dance.”

One step forward. Replace.

One step back. Repeat.

“Salsa is a constant challenge because you want to keep getting better and
better,” says Hornak. “It took me more than a year to get halfway decent. It
took at least another year before I would dare to approach a talented partner.”

Samantha, for the sake of exposition, would need to be a bit more fleet of
foot.

“Salsa is everywhere, and it’s increasing in popularity every day,” says
Hornak, as she makes her way back to the dance floor. “There’s salsa in Turkey,
salsa in Korea, salsa in South Africa.

And even salsa in Milwaukee. “Just look around,” she laughs.

Look at Casa Vieja, Hot Water, Texture, Club Belize and Club Havana.
Look at the lines outside of these Milwaukee clubs.

“Isn’t this just a wonderful way for all of our cultures to come together?”
asks Christine Almeida.

Dazzling in a sequin-encrusted silk gown, the vivacious founder of the
Milwaukee-based Latin Dance Company gracefully maneuvers the black, white,
brown, yellow, tall, short, fat, thin, old, young, gay, straight, male, female
salsa crowd.

It’s Saturday night, 11:00, and we are toe to toe amid wall-to-wall dancers
at the onetime H.H. West office supply store that is now the glitzy, multi-level
Ladybug Club on North Water Street Downtown.

On stage, Terry Tomes-Krueger leads an all-star jam of muchas
músicos
through a rousing rendition of the Gipsy Kings’ interpretation of
Tito Puente’s “Ran Kan Kan.”

“Salsa is my life,” says Almeida, a native of Waco, Texas, who has lived in
Milwaukee since 1978. “I grew up dancing the salsa; now everyone wants to do
it.”

And if they’re doing it hereabouts, odds are she taught them how – at UWM,
Carroll College, Danceworks, Casa di Danza and myriad barrooms and classrooms
throughout the city.

“At least a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred,” she says, estimating the number
of local salseros (male) and salseras (female) she’s trained since
2001. “Salsa is the kind of thing that gets under your skin. As soon as you’ve
mastered a few of the fancier moves, you’re permanently hooked.

“There are more than 500 combinations in salsa dancing,” she adds. “But you
can have a great time just knowing the 10 basic steps.”

That’s for sure, says Karen Hink, a Brookfield senior who’s been dancing
salsa with her husband, Karl, since they joined Almeida’s class last January. “I
doubt if we will ever be able to master all the steps,” she chuckles. “But
that’s not really the point. It sure is lots of fun to try.”

Patricia Fox agrees. “You can really do a lot if you learn the basics,” says
the 42-year-old Oconomowoc mother and full-time professional auctioneer. “And
that’s a credit to Christine as a teacher. It’s amazing how she can make you
look like you know what you’re doing, even when you don’t, which is very good
for your self-esteem.”

Make no mistake: Almeida is Milwaukee’s authentic Salsa Goddess – fiercely
proud of her heritage and profoundly well-versed in the history of her cherished
avocation.

Ask, and she’ll expound upon how modern salsa music is a fusion of the
pulsating African and Latin rhythms that slavishly followed the beat of the wood
block (clavè) from Cuba to Miami, then on to New York City between 1940
and 1970.

Inquire, and she will gladly explain that what is being danced as salsa today
evolved from Cuba’s Són, which was influenced by innumerable deep-rooted
Hispanic dances – from Guaracha, Changui and Lukumi to Yambú, Comparsa and
Mozambique and, most definitely, from the abuelo of them all: Rumba.

“Salsa has been around for ages,” she says, “but it’s stronger now than
ever.”

Thanks to such popular recent films as Strictly Ballroom, Mad Hot Ballroom
and Take the Lead – as well as the likes of PBS television’s
“Championship Ballroom Dancing” and “America’s Ballroom Challenge” – old
Havana’s classic couples dance is enjoying an unprecedented surge of popularity.

And with a slew of high-profile commercial projects upcoming – including
El Cantante, the big-budget Jennifer Lopez/ Marc Anthony bio-pic of salsa
pioneer Hector Lavoe – the universal celebration promises to persevere.

And that’s a good thing, Almeida insists, because unlike any other existing
dance craze, salsa holds the potential to help save the world.

“Late last year, I took a group of volunteer salseras and
salseros to the Milwaukee County Juvenile Detention Facility in
Wauwatosa,” the instructor recalls. “What I experienced there was my ‘Aha!’
moment.”

She’d been enlisted to fashion an instruction program for the reformatory’s
growing population of young Latino inmates.

“They were the toughest audience I’d ever faced,” she says. “They had street
smarts, and they weren’t going to be manipulated. So I knew that whatever I did,
it had better be honest.”

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Almeida and her assistants put on the music and began demonstrating some
turns and combinations. The inmates held back. Some even looked away.

“The majority needed more encouragement, but the second they left their
chairs to try and dance, the change in their attitude was astonishing. It was
like they were coming up for air.”

The power of salsa!

“When the class was over, they came up and shook our hands and thanked us;
some of them even gave us hugs. They’d gone from being violent criminals back to
being children – smiling, with life in their eyes.”

Her own eyes, she says, welled with tears.

“People need salsa,” Almeida proclaims, people like her students: Dr. Renee
M. Jacquette, a local chiropractor; Robert C. Vavrek, a Milwaukee-based
agronomist for the USDA; Manuel Contravaeste, a Venezuelan student at UWM; John
Shebesta, a New Berlin piano restorer; and accountant Mary Mathison, who was
inspired to shape her entire May 2006 marriage to trucking executive Peter
Duecker around a salsa theme.

“People need something that comes from the heart, something real, something
human,” says Almeida. “This is what heals society.”

And that’s precisely why she has partnered with bandleader Krueger to form
Salsa in the City, an ambitious new production company designed to introduce the
dance and its music to Milwaukeeans.

“Our goal is to expose salsa beyond the Hispanic neighborhoods and present it
to the general population,” says Krueger, a 43-year-old mother of three and
computer software technician.

Classically trained as a concert pianist, Krueger has been a seminal force on
the local salsa scene since 2002 when she assembled the Punto de Vista Latin
Orchestra with Candido Maldonado and Johnny Marrero of the rock group Abraxes.

“I guess it was the answer to my midlife crisis,” she says. “I’d never
started a band before, but when I discovered salsa, I just needed to find a way
to get involved.”

Featuring sonero (lead singer) Miguel Colon and coro (backing
vocalist) Robert Figueroa, Punto de Vista has emerged as Milwaukee’s premiere
exponent of the salsa sound.

“Salsa is a universal language,” says Krueger. “Lots of people in our
audience don’t understand the lyrics of the songs we play, but they do sense the
spirit and the passion, and that’s what draws them in.”

In addition to Summerfest, Riverfest, Jazz in the Park and Rainbow Summer,
Krueger’s extraordinary 13-piece ensemble has performed at the Potawatomi
Casino’s Northern Lights Theater, the Miramar Theater and the Milwaukee Art
Museum.

Last March, Salsa in the City joined with Aurora Sinai Medical Center for a
successful first-of-its-kind salsa-oriented fitness awareness program at the
Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Salsa, it turns out, is as good for the
mind and the body as it is for the soul.

“Salsa is an outstanding low-impact aerobic workout,” says Almeida, a
certified healthcare provider who regularly treats the morbidly obese at the
weight loss clinic she operates in Elm Grove. “There’s no age barrier, no gender
barrier – it’s really beneficial for everyone.”

It’s especially valuable for those who have accumulated substantial mileage
on their dancing shoes. Studies show that people who use salsa as a form of
exercise can lower their risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia by as much as 63
percent – a remarkable statistic unmatched by any other activity, Almeida notes.

“When you dance the salsa, not only are you going through a physical action
that brings blood flow to the brain, but you’re also working out your mind by
learning how to do the steps with another person. Exercise and sociability have
been shown to significantly relieve depression and disease in people of all age
groups.”

Having fun helps people stay with the exercise, she adds. “Salsa is as
enjoyable an activity as anyone is likely to find.”

Could salsa be…the meaning of life?

“I’m 57 years old, but I don’t feel a day over 30,” Almeida smiles. “Salsa
may not be the meaning of my life, but it certainly has given my life meaning.”

Tall, blond, smart and single, JoAnn Hornak did not expect to get rich
and famous from her breakout salsa novel.

And she hasn’t – at least not yet.

“I realized long ago that money is not what makes you happy,” says the
writer, who nonetheless is anxiously anticipating the sale of her book’s film
rights to a major Hollywood studio.

“I’m just glad to finally be doing something that I truly love,” she says,
over a plate of fried green plantains at the Downtown Cubanitas restaurant on a
Monday afternoon.

“After so many years of having to stick to the facts for legal documents,
it’s a thrill to be able to just make things up. For me, the creative process
has been incredibly liberating.”

And in that way, writing fiction is not unlike dancing the salsa. “Both are
demanding disciplines,” she says. “Both are extremely stimulating and
self-affirming.”

Thus, while the narrative of her (in-progress) follow-up to Adventures of
a Salsa Goddess
will not revisit the salsa milieu, the dance continues to be
her most vital source of artistic motivation.

“I’m still out there on the floor at least two or three nights a week,” she
says.

Fact is, she still harbors a secret salsa dream. “I’d like to become a
performer,” the former prosecutor reveals. “Someday, I would love to put
together my own salsa dance troupe [for people over 40] and take it on tour
around the world.”

Never mind the denials to her readers. She would love to become a Salsa
Goddess.

“There used to be this old salsero – he had to be 80 or 90 – who I’d
see at all the clubs all the time,” Hornak tells me. “One night he just keeled
over and dropped dead right on the dance floor. And I remember thinking, ‘Yes!
That’s just the way I’d like to go out.’”

The power of salsa.

She plans to dance as long as she lives.

Perry M. Lamek is a regular Milwaukee Magazine contributor.
Photographed by Keith Claunch.

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