Latin nightclub La Rumba has owned the scene in Denver for 25 years

The luxury high-rises of Denver’s Golden Triangle cast long shadows, but so far, they’ve failed to darken the party at La Rumba.

Its red sign remains a beacon for Latin dance and music fans, who have made the 25-year-old nightclub a cultural cornerstone on par with the museums that share this now-ritzy neighborhood just south of downtown Denver.

“I hope we can survive this makeover that’s been happening, with old places getting wiped clean,” said Chris Swank, owner of La Rumba, as he eyed the lot across the street where the 16-story, 372-unit residential tower AMLI Golden Triangle will soon rise. “We don’t own our building or parking lot, so we’re at the complete whim of developers.”

The building has been owned by the Spitzer family since the 1930s, said Tom Spitzer, whose father and grandfather ran auto shops on the property. La Rumba has been a great tenant, but Spitzer gets regular offers for the space, he said. He currently has no plans to sell it, but said that could change.

Housed in a tidy brick building at 99 W. 9th Ave., at the corner of Acoma Street, La Rumba one of the only nightclubs in Colorado to have bridged the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s done so by sticking close to its Latin-dance concept while constantly refreshing its audience — a mix of English and Spanish-speaking patrons who find a diverse and sophisticated atmosphere amid the DJs, live music, cocktails and dancing.

La Rumba hosts salsa classes and themed nights, with reggaetón, cumbia, bachata and merengue commanding the stylish dancers on the floor. They show up early for lessons, then stay on as the club opens Thursday through Sunday nights.

“The instructors will dance with beginners during club hours, which is so much fun,” said Denver resident Laura Medina, who has been dancing at La Rumba on and off for 20 years. “It’s a place where I feel safe.”

A changing neighborhood in Denver

Formerly an auto-shop haven, the Golden Triangle and the surrounding blocks have in the 21st century mutated into swaths of hulking condo complexes, museums and upscale retailers.

Nearby independent businesses such as City Cafe and Turin Bicycles — the latter being Denver’s oldest bike shop — shuttered there in recent months to make way for an 18-story residential tower from a San Francisco-based developer, The Denver Post reported. Currently, five construction projects are underway in the neighborhood, with five more proposed. All are apartment buildings.

But when La Rumba first took over its 5,000-square-foot space in 1997 — home at the time to a well-intentioned but flailing Internet restaurant/venue called Cafe Communique — the area was quiet, flat and very dark at night.

“The (cafe) owner was a professor from DU, the sweetest guy, and I felt so bad for him,” said 56-year-old Swank, who also owns the Bluebird Theater, Goosetown Tavern, Mezcal and Aurora’s Stampede. “He threw all of his money into it and didn’t have the concept nailed, so it was just way too much to handle.”

Swank and his partners in another one of his business, the music promotions company Nobody in Particular Presents (NIPP), had another vision. He and Jesse Morreale, the former owner of Rockbar, El Diablo, Sketch Food & Wine, and other bars and clubs, bought the cafe and paid off the owner’s contractors to the tune of $120,000, Swank said.

Their first concept was Ninth Avenue West, which booked bands from the mid-to-late ’90s swing/ska revival, including Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Cherry Poppin’ Daddies. From the start, capacity rooms, surprise visits from legends of the genre such as Brian Setzer (who stood in line, then hopped on stage one night to play guitar) and glowing reviews briefly made it the hottest nightspot in Denver. That was in competition with beloved Denver clubs like Rock Island, 23 Parish, 15th Street Tavern, Cricket on the Hill and Herman’s Hideaway. Only Herman’s remains.

As the retro/swing concept lagged, Swank and his partners decided to rebrand the club to La Rumba in 1999.

Swank, however, moved to Argentina for five years with his wife and two young sons, having burned out on concert promotion, and having fallen out with co-owner Morreale.

By the mid-2000s the space had already established itself as a thoughtful alternative to most clubs, and Morreale, who was running it, was teasing out its appeal by booking hip dance nights, including Lipgloss, which would become the country’s longest running indie dance party

“La Rumba was a very special room and time period for Lipgloss,” said Denver DJ and promoter Michael Trundle, who co-founded the punk-rock dance night in 2001.

Founders Trundle, Tyler Jacobson and Tim Cook turned the dance party into a national-quality destination at La Rumba, quickly welcoming a who’s-who of DJs from punk, goth, and alt-rock notables — see Marky Ramone, Peter Hook of Joy Division, Carlos D of Interpol, Andy Rourke of The Smiths, Nancy Whang of LCD Soundsystem, and dozens more.

“The dance floor was large enough to allow for the night to explode the way it did in 2005 and 2006, and it is one of the prettiest rooms in Denver,” Trundle said, praising the wood finishes, big windows, ample seating and areas for socializing off the dance floor. “There was nothing else like it for a niche scene dance party of our type in Denver.”

Lipgloss has since moved on to other venues (and will be reborn on Feb. 24 as a monthly night at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox), but Trundle, like Swank, praised the bartenders and door staff — and especially La Rumba managers Danny Dawson and Marisa Vera. Dawson started as a bartender 22 years ago and for the past 20 has run the room, she said. Swank never does anything to the club without asking her first.

Presidential candidates, Grammy-winning bands and local artists have also taken the stage at the 500-capacity club, occasionally in the same evening, as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team asked to hold a last-minute campaign event there in 2016.

“She was on the tail end of her tour and they needed a place for her to speak and address her supporters,” Swank said. “We already had huge show that night with a band from Argentina, so I fit 400 chairs in there and all these big people showed up, like (Colorado Sen.) John Hickenlooper. Then we had to shoo them all out and put in the people waiting for the rock show.”

Still, La Rumba — or “the party” in English — is best known for salsa dancing and Spanish-language music. That’s another thing Swank said he’s fortunate to have seen in the Mile High City, particularly as the early 2000s Denver salsa club Sevilla peeled away and Swank inherited its underserved market.

A diverse family of dance lovers

“People think I’m not from Mexico City because of the way I dance,” said Denver resident Jose Calvo, who been going to La Rumba since it opened 25 years ago. “But Mexicans love salsa too. It’s like a family, so when I’m there I dance with Puerta Rican, Colombian, Cuban and Venezuelan (women), too.”

“As Denver’s grown and become culturally more Latino, it’s a more diverse crowd,” said Swank, a Colorado native whose grandparents were Spanish speakers, and mother was Latina. “So here you get a gringo crowd, for whom this is exotic but also safe, and you get a Latino crowd, younger, older. … it’s just a really cross-generational thing.”

Swank has been booking big Spanish-language artists such as Julieta Venegas, Los Enanitos Verdes and Jarabe de Palo, which bring in big crowds.

With five years left on its lease and a gross revenue of $2 million last year, Swank doesn’t see La Rumba going away anytime soon. He was able to pay his 100-plus employees during pandemic shutdowns thanks to loans and grants, and he has a great relationship with his landlord, he said. If he can buy the building, he will.

“We’re getting swallowed up by development, so it’s not up to me,” he said. “But we’re doing well. The biggest thing we could do to hurt ourselves would be to change up the brand. We’re not here to reinvent, and we’re at the confluence of a lot of great things.”

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