L.A.'s Latin Dance Community Loses Ron Arciaga & Johnny Polanco

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When you’re young like I once was and reading Camus, Hemingway, Plath, Ibsen and others, you ponder death and think you understand it. You don’t. It’s when we get older and bear witness to our friends and family shuffle off this mortal coil, that we actually understand that death can come, as the Bible says, “like a thief in the night.” The silver lining is that hopefully, with each new day, we wake up realizing that everyday is a gift to appreciate, if not treasure.

I guess I’m feeling especially sentimental because two friends of mine—and many others in the Latin music community here in Los Angeles—just passed away within a month of one another. Ron Arciaga was my first dance teacher, who taught traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican styles of dance at the time out of a little studio on Robertson Boulevard that was shuttered after the 1992 riots. I’d signed up dance lessons after one of my music mentors, Alan Geik, who once danced the classy old-school mambo of New York’s Palladium days, recommended him to me. Aside from teaching, Ron was also a choreographer who, together with Kenny Ortega, worked on films such as Salsa (1988), with Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.

I’ve always loved the tropical music of Tito Puente and so many others, so I wanted to experience it beyond simply listening. I remember going downtown to the Biltmore Hotel to watch Tito and Celia Cruz perform and being mesmerized by their vivacious dancers, wanting to be just like them. Latin dance has a very precise, distinctive style to it.

Ron’s warmth touched so many over the 35 years that he taught and, with with his dedication and charisma, inspired many to be great dancers to move with grace and elegance. Ron Arciaga passed away suddenly Saturday, May 5, from a heart attack at 61. He will be greatly missed.

A memorial service will be held this Saturday, June 6, in celebration of Ron’s life from 3:oo–7:00 PM at the home of Trini and Birtha Arciaga: 930 North Stonewood Street, La Habra, CA 90631. All friends are welcome. Please feel free to bring any photos, stories, and/or anything you would like to share. In lieu of flowers, if you would like to make a donation to assist with the unexpected expenses that have arisen due to this untimely loss, please direct them to his wife, Nikki Kilgore.

Amistad Cojunto
Johnny Polanco y Su Amistad Conjunto. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Johnny Polanco was another fixture on the salsa dance floors of Los Angeles for years. He played every Monday night at El Floridita in Hollywood. Living on the Westside, I would catch him on Tuesday nights at St. Mark’s on Windward Avenue in Venice. He played something like 13 instruments, which is phenomenal, and fronted a devoted band that included some of the best musicians in L.A. At the beginning of his band, Conjunto Amistad (Friendship Goup), he played violin, tres and cuatro guitars, trombone, and other instruments. He once said of his long-running 22-year  Monday night gig at El Floridita: “I’ve seen the furniture and carpet change a couple of times.”

Johnny Polanco
Johnny Polanco (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The fact that he packed the house on Monday nights for over 20 years is a testament to how good his band was, and the sheer gusto of his loyal Latin dance fans who would troop out even on a week night. The club would be filled with all types: young and old, gay and straight, Latino, black, white, Asian, you name it. There was no velvet rope b.s. and no singles stuff or hustlers—just the love of dance, and all the good it does both body and soul.

Prior to becoming a musician, Johnny was a Marine Corps drill sergeant, who later worked in an auto body shop while playing six nights a week at different clubs around town. He loved it. He was a burly guy, so you can only how intimidating he must have been if you were one of his recruits. But as my friend Alan Geik said of him, “The musician I knew was a big bear of a man, gentle and kind but forceful on the bandstand.”

Johnny Polanco passed away yesterday at the age of 60, also the result of a heart attack. He will also be missed and remembered fondly by many, many people.

Memorial services will be held on Johnny’s behalf on Monday, June 8, from 4–10 PM at All Souls Morturary in Long Beach, with a second service on Tuesday, June 9, at St. Prancratious in Lakewood, which will be followed by a noon reception at Steven’s Steakhouse.

Johnny Polanco y Su Conjunto Amistad in action.

And Ron Arciaga giving an interview and salsa demonstration on Univision.

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