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

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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.

Joanna Horton Salsas with Tony Nardolillo at La Rumba in 2004. (Matthew Staver, Special to The Denver Post)
Joanna Horton Salsas with Tony Nardolillo at La Rumba in 2004. (Matthew Staver, Special to The Denver Post)

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.

DENVER, CO - December 9: Chris Swank, owner of La Rumba, poses for a portrait at his nightclub in Denver, CO, December 9, 2022. (Photo by Kevin Mohatt/Special to The Denver Post)
Chris Swank, owner of La Rumba, at his Denver Latin-dance and music venue in the Golden Triangle. (Photo by Kevin Mohatt/Special to The Denver Post)

“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.

DENVER, CO - December 9: A view of the dance floor of La Rumba is seen in Denver, CO, December 9, 2022. (Photo by Kevin Mohatt/Special to The Denver Post)
A view of the dance floor of La Rumba as seen in Denver on Dec. 9, 2022. The club’s layout has barely changed in 25 years. (Photo by Kevin Mohatt/Special to The Denver Post)

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.

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