Jewish Journal

Conga Kids Learn Salsa and Social Skills

Brad Gluckstein, center rear, with “So You Think You Can Dance” competitors Comfort Fedoke and Paul Karmiryan to his left, poses last fall during the Conga Kids competition at Esteban Torres High School in Los Angeles. Photo by Eddie Sakaki.

In the 1980s, burgeoning real estate executive Brad Gluckstein wandered into a country-western-themed bar in Culver City that was offering salsa dancing lessons. On a whim, he signed up.

“Over the next few years, I learned how to dance and I was very methodical about my approach, taking lessons and going out to clubs constantly,” the 56-year-old told the Journal in a telephone interview.

Apex Realty, which Gluckstein founded in 1986, evolved into a full-service real estate investment group. While he conquered the market by day, he danced merengue and more by night, even taking extended trips to Cuba, Colombia and the Dominican Republic to perfect authentic, indigenous styles of dance.

Then, in 1996, he merged his savvy for business and salsa after spotting a “For Lease” sign on a Mid-Wilshire commercial property across the street, formerly Jack LaLanne’s European Health Spa.

Two short years later, an institution was born. Gluckstein managed to pull together a celebrity ownership group comprising Jennifer Lopez, Jimmy Smits, Paul Rodriguez, Sheila E. and others to open the Conga Room, a world-class Latin music venue and nightclub. Celia Cruz, a bolero legend whom Gluckstein describes as the “Aretha Franklin of Latin music,” played opening night.

“It was this beautiful intersection of the West Los Angeles and general market, with Latinos, who came from North, East and South Los Angeles,” Gluckstein said of the club, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year.

Since its inception, the Conga Room has hosted awards shows including the Latin Grammys, iconic performances by legendary Latin artists including Tito Puente, Fito Paez and Buena Vista Social Club, prominent relief aid fundraisers, and even a party for participants at the 2000 Democratic National Convention.

“We’ve had special needs kids who really shine and obstinate kids in hoodies who end up competing. Bringing out that kind of emotion is what it’s about. The dance steps are almost secondary.”— Brad Gluckstein 

In 2008, the Conga Room moved to the L.A. Live complex downtown, rebranded to introduce hip-hop and reggaeton to the fold, and brought in more celebrity owners, including local basketball stars Trevor Ariza and Baron Davis and Black Eye Peas frontman will.i.am. The changes, Gluckstein said, have helped the Conga Room “remain relevant with multiple generations.”

However, Gluckstein’s two daughters, Leila and Sonya, initially, had no interest in Latin dance until a few years ago, when 14-year-old Leila began a salsa and swing dance curriculum at her middle school. “By the third week of the program, she was all in, coming home and showing me the steps, making me dance with her,” Gluckstein said.

Leila went on to be selected to compete against students from all over Los Angeles County. “It was a beautiful experience,” Gluckstein recalled.

Gluckstein was so moved after witnessing children from all walks of life coming together, he felt compelled to join the board of the nonprofit Dancing Classrooms Los Angeles (DCLA), which ran the program at Leila’s school. In 2016, with DCLA struggling to stay afloat, Gluckstein stepped in and reassigned the rights of the 501(c)(3) to Conga Kids, making it the corporate citizenship arm of the Conga Room.

Gluckstein is no stranger to stepping in when he sees an opportunity to help. With his daughters unable to celebrate their bat mitzvahs at Sinai Temple — the family’s temple for more than 80 years — because they didn’t attend school there, he essentially created the b’nai mitzvah program at Beit T’Shuvah, the residential rehabilitation center and full-service congregation. Leila had her bat mitzvah there, studying Torah with at-risk youth.

As CEO and board chair of Conga Kids, Gluckstein cultivated connections with government officials, celebrities, entertainment industry executives and business leaders to find donors for the program. Conga Kids began during the 2016-17 school year with 600 fifth- and sixth-graders across Los Angeles learning salsa, swing, merengue, foxtrot and tango during 10-week programs totaling 20 sessions that culminate in a final performance.

Elected officials, including Councilmembers Gil Cedillo and Curren D. Price Jr., routinely attend school culmination performances that take place in their districts, Gluckstein said. Last year at Estrella Elementary School in South Los Angeles, Price was whisked off to dance with a 10-year-old Latina in front of television cameras.

“I subsequently learned that her only parent is incarcerated,” Gluckstein said. “But seeing her dance, she was so engaging and so poised. It’s just an example of what I see daily and weekly going out to these schools. We’ve had special needs kids who really shine and obstinate kids in hoodies who end up competing. Bringing out that kind of emotion is what it’s about. The dance steps are almost secondary.”

Gluckstein is confident that the quickly expanding program, which has grown tenfold in only its second full year and now reaches more than 6,000 kids, teaches far more than dance.

“The best kept secret is the metrics being gained by kids, namely, conflict resolution, the improved social and emotional well-being of students and the restorative justice practices, which means less absenteeism by kids in the program,” he said.

It might not be a secret for much longer. Conga Kids is engaged in a corporate partnership with UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, which is conducting a comprehensive study on the topic.

On May 23, Gluckstein and a group of celebrity judges will be studying the technique of 170 selected Conga Kids dancing for the championship trophy at L.A. Live’s Microsoft Square. A fundraiser for the program at the Conga Room will follow.

Gluckstein himself, though, doesn’t have much time to show his stuff. “But once or twice a month, when we have these old-school salseros come to the Conga Room, I get a chance to really shake it.”