South Knoxville's Copa Cabana Night Club Unleashes Hip-Hop Dance Nights

Scene & Heard: Slices of Life From Knoxville's Neighborhoods

Part of a Series

Scene & Heard: Dance

Slices of life from Knoxville's neighborhoods: north, south, east, and west.

In this fourth edition of our ongoing series, we visited different forms of dance in Knoxville to simply record what we saw, profiling the scenes and lives that help define our city.

On a recent Friday at Copa Cabana, just after midnight, the music, provided by DJ Primetime, is in full swing. The subterranean bass and skittering, anxious snare beats of Southern hip-hop blare from gigantic speakers set in each corner of the dance floor, bouncing off the reflective tiles on the low ceiling and creating an almost suffocating atmosphere inside the small, cave-like club. The songs are mostly hits from early in the 2000s—the Ying Yang Twins' "Salt Shaker," Khia's "My Neck, My Back (Lick It)," Gucci Mane's "I Might Be"—but the sheer volume of the sound system breathes new vitality into them.

Primetime, presiding over the club from his perch in the small DJ booth in the corner, punctuates the brief intervals between songs with some variation of "Let's turn this motherf--ker out!" It's a strictly procedural exhortation; there's almost nobody there to turn anything out, much less the entire motherf--ker. A small group of young women dance together perfunctorily on the edge of the dance floor, and a young man dressed like an extra from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video shuffles robotically by himself underneath the small, slowly rotating disco ball on the ceiling. That's about it. A few people are planted on the small stage next to the DJ booth, sipping colorful drinks out of plastic cups.

But it's still early at Copa Cabana. Most of the small groups of people inside are scattered in bunches at the tables that line the walls or in the well-lit lounge area in the back. The crowd, about 100 people in a club with capacity for 300, is overwhelmingly female, by a ratio of two-to-one. Much of the action is at the two bars stuck in the front corners of the building—one underneath a big neon-colored Scarface poster, the other dressed up as a tropical cabana bar. The half-dozen bouncers on duty in black "Security" T-shirts look bored; one leans up against the wall, arms crossed, and looks like he might fall asleep. Their biggest job at this point in the night is sending smokers outside.

Copa Cabana, located just south of downtown in a shopping center on Chapman Highway, right next to the Disc Exchange, opened two years ago, just a few months after Los Arcos, another club in the same spot, was shut down following a federal drug raid. The building used to be one of Cas Walker's grocery stores. Like Los Arcos, the original audience for Copa Cabana was Latin. (The tall sign in the parking lot, in fact, still reads "Latin Copa Cabana.") Saturday nights feature Mexican music and touring bands, but Friday nights are club nights, with an almost exclusively black audience. There's almost no crossover between the two nights.

You might not even notice that the club's there in the daytime; the low storefront is covered with mirrored glass, the marquee obscured by the Disc Exchange's sign advertising new releases. At night, however, the parking lot is more crowded than it ever is during the day. By 12:30 a.m., the lot is half-full and getting fuller; a small line has formed to get inside, while people smoke and talk on their cell phones on the sidewalk.

The crowd inside slowly, almost imperceptibly, gets bigger between midnight and 1 a.m. The clubgoers come in groups of three or four or five, guys together and the women together. The women hit the dance floor tentatively, in groups of three or four, for the length of a song, maybe two, before returning to their drinks; once they're out there, though, they dance with—let's call it enthusiasm, grinding and popping and making good use of the support beams that double as stripper poles. The guys stand around the periphery and watch—drinks in hand, eyes straight ahead, just watching. It's a clear-cut enough ritual that when a couple comes in together at 12:30 and eventually makes it to the dance floor, they stand out.

The music gets a little fresher as the night goes on—Roscoe Dash's banger "All the Way Turnt Up" gets a big response, as the dance floor briefly fills up and dancers shout along with the chorus. The crowd never gets entirely turned out, despite Primetime's repeated entreaties, but the mood gradually picks up and the dance floor remains more or less active. The small lounge in the back, with a couple of worn couches and bright fluorescent lights, is the most crowded part of the club; at 1 a.m., there are as many people jammed back there as there are in the rest of the building. That's when it becomes evident that Copa Cabana is a gathering place more than a dance club; it's loud and dark, but the dance floor's not the point—or at least not the only point. m