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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Interview with Johnny Vazquez

I recently had a good fortune of interviewing Johnny Vazquez (not Vasquez) on his visit to Melbourne in January 2010. Melbourne Salsa invited him to conduct workshops and was his host here. I just finished transcribing and editing it. Enjoy!

Johnny Vazquez Interview

Serge: We're talking with Johnny Vazquez (http://www.johnnyvazquez.com), one of the founders of the LA style of salsa and one of the most well-known salsa teachers in the world. First of all, thank you for coming to Melbourne.

Johnny, how did you first start dancing? Was it something that you did from an early age? Or is it something that you started doing later in life?

Johnny: OK. No, I always dance. All my life, since I was little. The rhythm, cumbia. That is almost like the basis of salsa.

But I started dancing actual salsa in Los Angeles because of a lady who left me on the dance floor because I didn't know how to dance. I immigrated from Mexico to Los Angeles. My brothers already had a school and they were really popular there, when they started creating this style, LA On1. One night, I came to this club with my brother, and a student of my brother was having her birthday. And as is traditional every guy was supposed to dance with her.

I was sitting down, because I was embarrassed. I didn't know how to do even do one basic of salsa. She pulled me on the dance floor, and she started dancing, thinking that I'm good, because I was one of the Vazquez brothers. Everybody started making a circle and started looking at what I was going to do.

Then, for like a minute, I just danced the basic and then she came close to my ear and said, 'Listen. When you learn how to dance, we dance.' And she left me on the floor. Everybody was kind of laughing and talking between themselves. I felt really bad. That night, it was Saturday night, and I remember that I cried. I cried out in the corner of the club, because I felt really bad.

The next day I said, 'I'm going to learn to dance.' Sunday morning I was ready at my brother's studio. Taking his beginner classes.

And then the next year, I was the champion of the world.

Serge : The next year?

Johnny : Yes, the next year.

Serge : That's a lot of progress in one year!

Jose : Which year was that?

Johnny: It was in 1999. '99 Club Mayan contest.

Serge: How often were you practicing?

Johnny : I had my brother, Francisco who was coaching me. He saw my potential and my hunger to learn. Now he knew: “He's hungry. He wants to dance.” My brother Luis was his partner when they used to dance shines together but he started dancing with his wife. So my brother needed another guy next to him.

So he called me and he goes, 'I'm going to coach you. Not to teach you, coach you.' And I started training with him for hours and hours and hours until 3:00 in the morning, 4:00 in the morning. You do it again. And do it again. And do it again. Really hard.

I did my first show in Los Angeles and I saw the people clap. They clapped! Never in my life has anybody clapped for me before, only my mom. [laughter] So when after the show people started clapping, I said, 'I like this.'

I said to my brother, 'I want to compete. But I want to compete in amateurs.' It was my first competition. He goes, 'No! You are going straight to professionals.' So it was even worse, because he pushed me and pushed me. I used to dance and cry. He pushed me and pushed me, until I did a competition with all these people who were already dancing for years. They were already instructors and popular. I won the first place. That was in 1999.

Jose : How old were you at the time?

Johnny : I'm 30, so I was 18 or 17.

And the next year, 2000, again. I was the champion again. 2001, I repeated. I was the champion again. And the good thing about it, it was 3 years with a different partner each year, and that is more difficult. Not with the same partner. And then I did so many other competitions inside L. A., and New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas. Thank God, I won, I won, I won. And I also got 2nd places, because in this life it is not always the first place.

Gabby: I like that woman that left you on the dance floor. Because if it wasn't for her...

Jose: Let's have a drink to her! [laughter] If it wasn’t for her you would not be here today.

Johnny : Now that you said it, listen to this.

The year before, the year after I became the champion, they'd given me the check and the trophy. Right? I'm the champion, da da da! And she was a student from the school I was in so we knew each other.

So for one year, I knew who she was, but I never danced with her. [laughter] So this is what happened. She comes to me after I won the contest and all my friends were there congratulating me. She comes and says, 'Oh, Johnny, congratulations! Good job. ' She hugs me and says, 'When you have a chance, save me a dance.' And I whisper into her ear, 'Come here. When you learn how to dance, then we dance.' [laughter] [applause]

I swear. I was so mad, but then I laughed. Not at her. No. I said, 'It was because of you that I'm here. Thank you.' Honestly.

Jose: So tell us about the LA style history. Who do you think was one of the first people to start dancing [inaudible] on one?

Johnny : Ok, this is what happened. In Los Angeles when I arrived, it was a couple of guys changing the whole style of dancing.

Jose : Were they ballroom dancers?

Johnny : No, they were Colombian style. It was different, because it was so much Latin ballroom too. A lot of Latin ballroom. But when you used to go to a Latin club really Latino, they used to make these little moves you know like in Columbia. Because it was always this song: Cali Pachanguero. Nobody knew about going forward and back and line. It didn't exist! It was more related to a cumbia, a cumbia step. More jumping, more boogaloo music.

So what happened when I started dancing, my brother Francisco, who was one of the first to create this style, and this is something I want to point out. A lot of people think LA style. It is. But it's Vazquez style. We created the line style On1. We did it with Rogelio Moreno, with Alex da Silva. 

So what happened, my brother Francisco, he said, 'We need to change this. You can't dance the whole song together with the woman.' You can dance a whole song together with a woman. So in my country, Mexico, we have a famous actor and dancer. Who's like Gene Kelly, you know? But he is a Mexican actor. His name is Martin Adalberto Resortes.
'Resortes' means 'la goma.' A rubber. Like a rubber, elastic. They used to call him 'Resortes' because the way he used to dance swing, tap dance, and spins. We used to watch his movies, right? When he was doing tap and all these things my brother started saying, 'We need to put this into a salsa.' Right?

So every time he used to go to the club, he used to go to a lady and start making turns. Doing a lot of crazy stuff. I swear to God, all the people thought my brother was coo coo because it was not normal to see a guy doing that. You know what I mean? There were all these moves and stops and breaks.

But a year later, it became stylish and fashionable and all the guys started doing that. And watching Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire. It became so, and because of that footwork is now part of salsa. It's part of mambo. Mambo is not the same as salsa. And it's part of the top step. Stop, swinging, movement. And that's what we put into a salsa. Because you can do that, because that's why it has that name Salsa. You can mix it with all Latin rhythms.

So that's how the L.A. Style start growing. And everybody's like, 'Have you seen the L.A. Style? On1?' And it was salsa in a line, ‘salsa en linea’.

We went for our first time in Puerto Rico in '97 for the biggest congress in the world. The biggest first salsa congress ever. In Los Angeles, we didn't know the line. Like we used to dance here to there, here to there. When we got to Puerto Rico congress and we saw all these New York people, they’ve had so much influence on us and we felt inspired by New York people. I want to say this. All of us. When we went to see them perform in Puerto Rico, they were on a higher level than us. But we didn't know better. We thought it was only us because we never went out of L.A. So in Puerto Rico, we had a chance to meet Italians and New York people. The Venezuelan people used to dance with their right foot forward first. Everybody, when we got together there, everybody discovered something new. But only two different styles will stay forever. They are on2 and on1. Because Venezuelans dance differently, Cubans dance differently. Different timing, different music. But still it’s either on1 or on2. These are the only two.

So Venezuelans changed to dance on 1. They used to dance like this, with the 1-2-3. 5-6-7-8. With the right, then with the left. They went there and said, 'We do salsa and it is with the right, ' and they changed it for us. We didn't know that salsa could be in a straight line, because performing on stage you had to go from one side to the other side. But it stayed like that. After that in social dancing, it began to be the same. That's why they call it 'salsa en linea.' So that is how I started.

And then we, the Vazquez brothers, started putting in tricks. And in salsa, it was not common. On the dance floor, social dance, you will see everybody flipping the lady. Doing this trick and that. And that one thing made us different than the New York style. That's when people started saying: 'New York style: shines and moves on 2. L.A. Style fast, spinning and tricks.’

And that's how I got the contract. I did the last competition in Los Angeles and I won. The 1stprize was to visit and dance in 16 countries around the world. And I won 1st place. The judges were Tito Puente of Wisconsin, Andy Garcia, the actor, Eddy Torres. It was Tito Puente, Jr. There were a lot of people in that competition, the L. A. Congress. It was more than 20,000 people watching us. I won and because of that, I got the chance to sign a contract with Bacardi.

Bacardi chose three competitions: New York, Puerto Rican, and L.A. I won the L.A. one. Jason Molina and Brenda Burt won the New York one. And from Puerto Rico, it was a group called Papa Tambor. So it was Puerto Rican style that is mixing with plena rumba and the breaking time that goes forward. In New York, the breaking time goes back. It's different.

They wanted to take us around the world to represent these 3 different styles. On 2, on 1, Puerto Rico. We went to South America, Europe. Asia, Africa. Boom, boom, boom for 3 years! I was the one to export the L.A. Style around the world. I was the first dancer to take this style to Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Jose : What do you think the percentage is like worldwide of people dancing on 1 vs on 2?

Johnny : On 1. It's more percentage. To learn how to dance, you got to get the first beat. 1! Once you learn how to dance on 1 then you can learn on 2. But it's more difficult for the people to learn on 2, because it goes like this [shows stepping back]. 80% on 1, 20% on 2. On 1, you can dance to any music. Any music! Swing, salsa, all sorts. On 2 you can only do salsa, mambo. That's it. Try dancing “La vida loca” on 2. [laughter] But on 1, you can. Because all the music in the world has 8 counts. The bar is exactly the same.

On 1 is always. On 2 is mostly to experiment with different styles. To be more slow for example.

But it is good. I dance both. I like it. But on1 is my specialty, and it is what I like the best since this is how I learned, on 1.

Jose: Amongst your brothers Francisco, Luis, and yourself, Francisco was the first one who brought this style to public attention.

Johnny : Yes, thank you. Francisco showed it to us.

Jose : And Luis followed?

Johnny : Luis, then me. But I was the one to take it outside the Americas around the world.

Jose : I don't see them much around.

Johnny : No. Each of us has our own market region. My brother Luis’ region is Romania, Israel.

: I saw him in Spain last.

Johnny: Francisco has the United States and Italy. And me, more Europe.

Serge: You divided the world.

Johnny : Yes. [laughter] Yes, we divided. A lot of dancers know about the LA style and I'm the one who brought it out of the US. And I’ve learnt it from them, my brothers.

Gabby: So do you perform together with your brothers anymore? Would you like to in the future?

Johnny : We can't, because we separated.

Gabby: Wouldn't it be great to have a re-union?

Johnny : It would be the best.

Gabby : When was the last time you performed with your brothers?

Johnny : The last time I performed with my brothers, all three of us, was in 1997. In 1999, just me and Francisco. Since then, we share a lot of stages. But together, no. I wish. I hope.

Frank : How about in January next year? The three of you come together?

Gabby : I knew you were going to say that. I was waiting for it.

Frank : When I win my $1 million Tattslotto ticket, I'll pay you. [laughter]

Frank Barbagallo (Melbourne Salsa) and Johnny Vazquez

Serge: How did you start coming to Australia?

Johnny : It was because of Liliana and their event. That was the Salsa Classic in Sydney, and that was three years ago, in 2007. I came with my dance partner. After that, I got closer with her. She introduced me to Jaime. Her family lives here. So usually we come to see the family. And one time Jaime said, ' Johnny, if you’re going to be here, why don't you come to my event?' I came to check it out, did a couple of workshops, and then the next year, it was official. He started bringing me out. And now for the last 2-3 years, he brings me to Sydney, Australia. Then I had the opportunity to meet these two great people here (points to Frank and Gabby). And thanks to them I have the pleasure to come to Melbourne and I hope to come back.
(to be continued)

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