At the Copacabana, Latin appeal spans generations

The New York club - a hot spot for immigrants immortalized by Barry Manilow - is moving down the street and doubling in size.

Salsa music poured into the humid, late-night air each time the Copacabana's front doors opened. A thick line of young Latinos formed down the block. Inside, their cousins, grandparents, uncles, and friends were already spinning and dipping and celebrating - to merengue, salsa, the mambo.

The cover fee for the Copa's last night at this Manhattan location, where it has resided for the past decade, was a hefty $40. "Hmm," said one woman, dressed in a tight, hot-pink tank dress and four-inch heels, as she reached into her purse. "It's worth it."

On this night, the Copa - which got its start in 1940 at another New York location and gained worldwide recognition with Barry Manilow's song - was a microcosm of how New York City is shaped by its immigrants. What was once solely a Puerto Rican haunt shifted as new immigrants settled in the city. And its clientele, which now spans from Puerto Rican, to Colombian, to born-and-bred New Yorker, to Norwegian tourist, will only grow as the Copa reopens down the street and doubles in size.

New York City "is about endless recomposition," said the biographer David McCullough in Ric Burns's 1999 PBS documentary "New York: A Documentary Film." "We are forever changing it, improving it, revising it, because it's never finished."

At the Copa Monday, underneath plastic palm trees and disco balls, immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela, and Peru - as well as other polished dancers, tourists, and the curious - flocked to the club to say farewell.

"Quieres bailar?" said Porfirio as he held out his hand to a hoped-for dancing partner. The Copa is the first place in the Big Apple that Porfirio knew as a youngster from Santo Domingo. He has been coming three times a week ever since - at first to fit in, to dance the music of his homeland, and now to share his traditions with others. He scratched his goatee. "Mira. It's like this. One ... two, three. One ... two, three."

Over in the corner were four old friends, with coifed hair and pinched lips. They sat motionless, watching the 10-piece bands rouse an already-packed dance floor. From Puerto Rico, the women have spent their lives together, adapting to the pulse of New York City and watching their children grow up.

"Quieres bailar?" Julio from Mexico held out his hand. He had just arrived in New York, and it was his first time at the Copa. He had wanted to see what the buzz was about before it changes locales.

"Want to go back there?" He pointed to the back room - the Rock-Espanol room that has made the Copa unique among Latin clubs and draws the more Americanized set. These patrons, many donning sunglasses and gold chains, screamed on cellphones over the song "Can I get a whoop whoop?"

Giving a distasteful shrug to the hip-hop pouring out of the clubroom was 80-year-old Pedro. The New Yorqueno, as he calls himself, was dressed in a suit and bow tie and stood no higher than 5 feet, 4 inches. He whistled at a married woman walking by and jabbed a tourist who had just spilled his drink.

He said he'd miss this spot, at the entrance to the hip-hop room. It's where you get the best view.

On this eve, the Copa on West 57th Street was the essence of New York. As E.B. White wrote in "Here Is New York": "The collision and the intermingling of these millions of foreign-born people representing so many races and creeds make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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