Ex-cop Howard Carney has been hooked for years. While working with the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department, he was known to occasionally squeeze in a fix while on the job.
"In uniform, I used to sneak to the salsa club," Carney says. His face registers a guilty grin. "My partner would stand at the door with a flashlight, and I'd dance a few, and he'd flash the light at me if we got a call and had to go."
Back then, "the club" was usually Westport Beach Club, whose salsa night Carney helped launch. In later years, the Madrid Theatre, at 3810 Main, became the scene's unofficial headquarters for one Friday night a month. Salsa nights in that majestic space attracted non-dancers, too — people who went simply to observe all the beautiful bodies in motion.
One longtime dancer likens the Madrid to New York City's legendary Palladium; another equates it to Woodstock — both apt comparisons now that the Madrid's salsa nights are history, too.
The Madrid's management never had a liquor license, and its wary midtown neighbors, already fed up with the area's late-night traffic and noise, opposed the venue's attempts to get one. For years, the Madrid's organizers skated over city regulations by acquiring a temporary catering permit for each salsa event. But in January 2008, an amendment to the city's liquor code changed the requirements for obtaining catering permits, crippling the Madrid's ability to host anything but private parties such as weddings and corporate events.
Carney, 44, is one of the city's best-known salsa instructors and promoters. There are two others: Josh Hernandez and Victor Mabu. After the Madrid closed its doors to salsa, all three scrambled to fill the void. But rather than coordinating their efforts, they schedule events in bars and clubs on the same nights, competing for slices of a splintered crowd.
Carney, Hernandez and Mabu don't get along. Each claims to be salsa's most legitimate partisan. Hernandez says he welcomes the competition. Mabu says the drama among rivals poisons the scene. Carney wishes the other two would just go away.
But it's the dancers who are vanishing, thanks to the discord. One salsa veteran told The Pitch, "If the salsa scene should die, God forbid, it would be because of the promoters."
Carney stumbled into salsa. It was the late 1980s, he recalls, and he was at a Halloween party at a VFW hall in Lawrence. He heard exotic music coming up through the building's stairwell and followed the sound downstairs.
"I walked into this room, and there were all these people spinning and dancing together," Carney says. "I was amazed. I stood there for over an hour, just staring at them."
The experience turned Carney into a voracious collector of salsa recordings, but it would take another decade for him to take his first dance lesson. In 2000, Carney finally worked up the nerve to sign up for classes at Louis Bar's dance studio in Overland Park.
"He was a total beginner, yes; he never danced salsa before," Bar says of Carney. Bar was born in France, and he speaks English with a beguiling trill. "He took [lessons] with me, two or three months. He is, I can tell you this, the most genuine person for salsa."
Reconciling his two identities — part-time salsa dancer, full-time cop — wasn't as hard as it might sound. During the decade that Carney was with the KCPD — from 1991 to 2001 — he bought narcotics undercover, worked on the vice squad busting pimps and prostitutes, and investigated murders with the homicide unit. He found dancing therapeutic.