Meet the woman trying to keep Colombian senior discos in Philly — out of her own rowhouse

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Sandra Colon lives for the chance to pull on her leopard print pants, strap on some kitten heels, and dance at a viejoteca.

“It’s literally a disco for old people,” she said.

Colon, 45, grew up in Santiago de Cali, Colombia where finding a viejoteca is as easy as finding aguardiente, the country’s popular anise-flavored alcohol.

“When you throw these parties in Colombia, you dance with everyone without knowing them,” she said. “You dance all night. People respect you. You simply enjoy yourself.”

Colon, who has lived in Philadelphia for almost 30 years, said these dance parties have always been more difficult to find in the city, a fact made all the worse this year when a Colombian nightclub closed to become office space.

Club Praga hosted the most well-known viejotecas a handful of times each year in the city’s Feltonville neighborhood. Its closure left people like Colon with no place to show off the footwork she learned in Cali decades ago.

But Colon is determined to keep the party going.

“There’s nowhere to go, so I said let me do it in my house,” she said from the stoop of her Oxford Circle rowhouse on a rainy Saturday night in September, the sound of 1970s salsa booming from her living room.

Taking matters into her own hands, Colon hauled her couch and TV to the basement to make space for a makeshift dance floor and white plastic folding chairs, and decorated the living room with a handful of Colombian flags.

The party was an experiment, a litmus test to see how much demand remains for these dances, and an earnest attempt to preserve a precious part of Colombian culture in Philly.

“I think it’s about missing your country and remembering a genre of music that’s getting lost with the years,” she said. “So you’re trying to regain and maintain it.”

Seniors want to get down too

Viejotecas gained popularity in Cali in the 1990s as a way to get older people moving, according to the book “The City of Musical Memory: Salsa, Record Grooves and Popular Culture in Cali, Colombia.”

In fact, people under 40 weren’t allowed into these parties, often held in the early afternoon.

“It’s very important for older people to enjoy themselves in a healthy way,” said Rhawnhurst resident Milena Sanchez, who remembers whipping out her ID in Cali clubs to prove she was over 40.

Organizers began relaxing the rules as viejotecas took hold in other Colombian metro areas and in some U.S. cities like New York.

But it’s not enough to squeeze a mostly older crowd into a room, Sanchez said. A viejoteca’s essence comes from its classic playlist.

The popular music heard at most Spanish clubs — think bachata, merengue, or reggaeton, music known for booming bass that moves butts to the dance floor — are out of the question.

Instead, viejoteca DJs play Latin genres from the 1970s and 80s, such as charanga, a Cuban style of music featuring flutes and violins, and salsa brava, known for its more aggressive percussion and often political lyrics.

There are also slower, but equally dramatic genres like paso doble, which is danced with steps that mirror flamenco.

Jose Cardona, a Wilmington-area DJ, adjusts his headphones while keeping the music going during an at-home viejoteca in Oxford Circle on Saturday, September 14, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

“You go to a club and they only play reggaeton,” said Jose Cardona, a Wilmington-based viejoteca DJ. “Older people don’t like that music … so I said, ‘I’m going to throw a party so people like my mom and aunts can go dance.’”

For the past seven years, Cardona has worked viejotecas in New York City clubs where hundreds of Colombian seniors show up in their Sunday best to dance. He also used to play Philadelphia’s Club Praga — which is why Colon tapped him to spin her recent house party.

‘Raising hell until the Lord calls me’

Colon’s house does not have the social media reach of a Manhattan club, so Colon had to improvise. She made a poster about the party to share on Facebook.

Then, the phone started ringing.

Colon fielded more than a dozen requests for large table reservations from people who thought the party was at a new nightclub, but fewer than 30 people showed up in the end.

“A lot of people don’t like parties in homes because, well, they don’t know the type of house they’re going to go in,” she said.

Still, Colon welcomed each of her guests — half of them complete strangers from the internet — with a tight hug and pointed them in the direction of beer and the bathroom.

One of those strangers was 66-year-old Gustavo Castañeda.

“Our music from the ‘70s ended,” said Castañeda, who dabbed the sweat from his salt-and-pepper hair with a handkerchief between songs. “It’s beautiful to see tonight. I wouldn’t miss it. Where there’s a viejoteca, that’s where I’m at.”

The party got underway around 11 p.m. and before the party ended, Colon had already decided to host another viejoteca at a venue next month.

Einar Victoria dances with his mother, Milena Sanchez, at a viejoteca on Saturday, September 14, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Dancers took very few breaks over the span of four hours, except to nosh on homemade yucca empanadas and take shots of aguardiente. A handful of guests stayed until 5 a.m., listening to the music they grew up with.

More than anything, partygoers said they were proud that no matter their age or how long it had been since they’d paid their native country a visit, they still had their moves.

“To dance, you only need the will and I have the will to dance,” Sanchez said. “I’m 71 and I’ve had two heart attacks, but here I am raising hell until the Lord calls me.”

Liiana Acero dances with Eduardo Bru during the at-home vijoteca on Saturday, September 14, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethell for WHYY)

This was especially true of the handful of Caleños (what people from Cali call themselves) in attendance.

“The Caleño who doesn’t dance salsa isn’t Caleño,” said Sanchez’s son, Einar Victoria. “Salsa is something that’s in our blood. It’s something every Caleño knows.”

Castañeda, a native of Bogotá, said dance is such a part of him, he hopes that’s how he’s remembered.

“The day I die, I don’t want masses, I don’t want priests, I don’t want anything,” he said, dancing back toward Colon’s living room as a song he recognized perked his ears, unable to resist.

“I want music … this music.”

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