INTERVIEW WITH WORLD SALSA CHAMPION "OLIVER PINEDA"
Interview by: Jami Josephson
Images by: www.samssnapshots.comJJ: First of all, let me ask you: How did you get started teaching? And Did you ever have a mentor that sort of really got you involved with it?
I started teaching Salsa 12 years ago, first with private lessons and then moved onto classes. At first I was teaching part time for some of the other schools around but then after formally establishing my own business ‘Latin Motion Dance Academy’ 5 years ago, teaching classes became a full time job for me. As far as a mentor is concerned, when I started dancing 14 years ago there was a man by the name of ‘Jose Prates’ who they used to call ‘The God Father of Salsa’. You could say he was the equivalent of Eddie Torres to New York but in Australia. He was like a mentor to me... May he rest in peace.JJ: Do you believe that a really good dancer doesn’t necessarily make for a really good teacher?
OL: Absolutely! A good dancer does NOT by any means mean a good teacher by any stretch of the imagination. This is a common myth which has proven to be untrue time after time and is a frustration that many people encounter. Dancing requires the skill of execution whilst teaching requires other skills such as communication, patience and the understanding of what one is doing! Not many dancers have both qualities. A good teacher is somebody who has depth of knowledge and understands technique and how to deal with people. Some teachers teach by feeling whilst others teach by structure. Just as some students learn by feeling and others learn more by mechanics. This comes down to preference and whatever works for them. However it all boils down to the fact that Salsa has no ‘book of rules’ you could say, so everyone has their own version on what and how to do things. A good Ballroom teacher for example may not necessarily need to be a National Champion to teach but all they need to know is the ‘book of rules’. However in Salsa it’s different. People only want to learn from someone who they admire and want to dance like because they believe that that dancer can teach them what they do. Only then to realize that that dancer has actually no idea what it is they do, let alone how to teach it (as it’s so sub conscious to them that they just feel it). That is why I believe that the best way of teaching and learning is to have all the steps broken down and understood first, then only after repetition can it become natural and relaxed to the point where it becomes sub conscious. When you learn things mechanically you will always be able to repeat it and therefore teach it. When you learn things by feeling you often will find it difficult to exactly pin point what it is you are doing. Students beware, make sure that what teachers say they are doing, they are actually doing! You can often fall into the trap of ‘do what I say, not what I do’.JJ: What’s the hardest thing to teach a beginner student?
OL: I find it quite challenging to teach beginners timing. I find that students often have it or they don’t, they can either hear it or they can’t. Students often approach me in between my classes and ask me ‘how do I hear the beat?’ as if there is a magic word that will all of a sudden make it click for them. Unfortunately there isn’t. Timing requires the understanding of rhythm which requires the understanding of music. This is a whole different ball game. A lot of teachers say, ‘listen to the clave’ or ‘feel the music’ but if a student does not know what the clave is or cannot feel the music for the life of them that advice does not really help them. Body Movement is another one. To get someone to move their body in a different way to what they have been moving for the last 20-30 years is quite difficult. It is not impossible but requires special attention. Private lessons or one on one session’s are really good for things like this. I often hold Body Movement and music workshops as I know that’s what people want. With time and the right guidance, anything can be achieved.JJ: What advice can you give a beginner teacher?
OL: Fun! Fun is one of the most important aspects for teachers teaching beginners. Fun can sometimes make the difference between a student coming back or not. Confidence and professionalism are also vital qualities of a teacher. Students like to feel confident in their teacher and in what they are learning. After a hard day at work, a student wants to be able to simply relax, let go and trust that they are in the teachers control for that hour. They trust that they are in good hands so things like presentation, how you speak, what you wear and how you look can all add to your students feeling confident in you and relaxed enough to have fun.JJ: How do you create a good student? And what I mean by that is, I’ve been told that when someone gets a student and you want to be able to maintain them, you want them to stay interested; so what is it that teachers can do or should do to create someone who’s a student that will learn well and get them to stay consistent? Are there any tricks or certain things that we should know?
OL: A ‘good’ student is not necessarily the ‘best’ student. Feedback and encouragement are important aspects for teachers to give their students as well as setting up challenges for the students that are not too insurmountable. Students like to feel that they are learning and progressing, so progressive learning is also a very good method of making them want to come back. Feeling like they are learning something new every week and then joining that to their already existent repertoire makes them feel like not missing a week. Dance with the students as well. A teacher can make a students day by sparing a few minutes to dance with them. This single act can make the difference between a student giving up or reaching their goals. And remember everybody’s name! Students feel good when you remember who they are and refer to them by their name. It shows a certain amount of respect.JJ: Can you give any advice on the best way to teach a group class?
OL: I always start my classes with a Shine warm up. As well as the students learning new shines every week, it gives the class a different element. Once partnered up I get the students to form a circle with the instructors in the centre of the circle. I find this works for me. It ensures every one has equal view of the instructors. Rotations are also very important. It gives everyone the chance to dance with one another and ensures that any partnerless people do not miss out. Also, separating the leaders from the followers and teaching their respective steps separately before partnering them up ensures that they are learning from the ground up which is the right way to learn. This also makes the class a little more interesting instead of them staying in the same position for the whole class.JJ: How important do you think it is to count as a student? Then as a teacher?
OL: For students at a beginner level it is very important to count. Counting assists with timing. Counting also gives clear indication as to where ones foot is supposed to be stepping on which beat. It is a tool by which dancers use at any level. The difference is that counting for more experienced dancers should eventually become second nature and should be like an internal metronome which you do not necessarily need to say out loud. All your dancing steps should be done simultaneously with the counts for the counts to have full effect. As a teacher, counting has become sub conscious regardless of what level it is. When the music plays in my classes, I generally only count for beginners but when I am breaking down steps, turns or shines, counting is essential regardless of what level I am working with. Counting meaning timing is the one thing that keeps you and your partner in sync with one another.JJ: What are some pointers on how to be a successful dance team and can you give us the positive side as well as the negative side?
OL: Behind every successful dance team is great team spirit and a strong team leader. Team spirit is a great thing because it makes people feel like they’re not on their own and gives them the opportunity to get out there when they ordinarily wouldn’t. The negatives to having a team; A team is only as strong as its weakest link so the more people you work with the harder it gets… but the bigger the reward in the end!JJ: There are a lot of salsa congresses these days, can you give some advice how one could get involved with performing or teaching at these events?
OL: Most Congresses only accept performances by video submittance first. As far as teaching is concerned, Congresses are a business and organizers of the Congress will always book instructors that have a name and are guaranteed to pull in the people. So in order to teach at a Congress you have to have a name. You develop your name by working hard on your dancing, making a presence on the dance floor and attending as many of these events as possible to create a bit of a following. Promoters may then approach you and ask you to teach at their Congress, however some times it does not hurt to ask. Also, being humble is very important. Many promoters eventually get feed up of dancers who do not dance with anyone because they think are too good for them. This is not beneficial for a promoter to have such dancers at their events so being humble and down to earth definitely works. Always remember, cream rises to the top no matter what.JJ: Being someone who travels a lot to other congresses you see a lot of other teachers teach. Is there any advice you can give or anything that you would like to see teachers do that you don’t see often?
OL: I see so many good dancers not pay enough attention to technique and the finer details of the dance such as leading, following and styling. Teachers tend to think they can get away with just teaching turns, turns, and turns and students will come back… Well, the funny thing is they do! Because that’s what they’re used too, however I get the most positive feedback in my classes when I work more on quality not quantity. It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it’ so teaching students how you can make such simple turns look so effective I think is the way to go. It also changes the way students dance as most students do not pay enough attention to the music and therefore just turn, turn and turn. ‘Sabor’ is the key and until teachers start to teach 'Sabor' they will never unleash the true potential of their students. Good luck teachers as ‘Sabor’ is not that easy to teach.JJ: A lot of dance teachers are coming up with there own dance groups these days … I’ve heard some teachers feel it’s now necessary to have a dance group in order to be seen and get students… do you feel this is true or at least necessary?
OL: No not necessarily. It depends on the market you are trying to target. For example, some people rely on the already existing market for students while others go out and create a new market of people. Marketing at the end of the day is what works. Whether it’s performing, giving out promotional material, advertising or doing free classes it’s whatever works for you. Having said that though, my ‘Rising Stars’ which are my highest level advanced student team have been great for my personal exposure and for my school. So all in all, having a dance group is a great way to get yourself out there and get yourself known, however it is not the only way.JJ: I have placed this question in many places about an official certification for salsa. Many respond that we should not have certifications and syllabus as it would ruin salsa and its street style or some even say adding structure would eliminate the freedom and spontaneity of the dance. What do you think? And do you think it’s necessary to have certified instructors in salsa?
OL: Yes! I do. The problem with Salsa today is that because there is no governing body as such, any one is free to teach. That is fine in a way because it opens the market more for all of us to benefit from however people who don’t know any different often get fooled into learning what they think is Salsa but is actually Flamenco with fruit on their head! Maybe not so much in other countries but this particularly affects the Australian public as dance is just not in their culture. I think that there should be rules and guidelines to a particular extent. For example, a Cross Body Lead should be a text book thing however what you do to embellish the Cross Body Lead is entirely up to ones self and its style. That is the difference between Fundamentals and embellishments or turn patterns. Turn patterns are made up of fundamentals repeating themselves such as Inline turns, 1 ˝ Left or Right turns. Fundamentals should be universal and any one wishing to teach them should be accredited. Having said that, there are a lot of different styles of Salsa so the fundamentals would obviously have to differ slightly but there are still fundamentals. And as I said before, as long as the fundamentals are the same, the way you embellish it is up to you. Therefore this should not stop the flow of creativity and spontaneity; in fact it should enhance it.JJ: You recently won the World Salsa Championships in Las Vegas (CONGRADS!) Could you tell us how you prepared for such and event and offer some points as to how to be a winner?
OL: Luda and I have been dancing together for 10 years now so our preparation would be different to someone who has been dancing together for say only 1 year. Our rehearsals get slightly more frequent as we get closer to the event but we always make sure we do not leave things till the last minute. The end result is that you want to feel as relaxed as possible both with each other and the choreography. The spot light is like a microscope so any hesitations, uncomfortable ness or unconfidence will show under the spot light. Therefore it is important to be at ‘one’ with yourself, the choreography and your partner so much so that it is like second nature. It is hard to say HOW to be a winner. A winner is not someone who necessarily wins but someone who accomplishes what they set out to accomplish… whatever that may be. To win competitions especially high level ones, it helps to have the X factor; Compatible in all aspects technical, mental and physical.JJ: Last but not least…Are there any sayings that you have, that you always say to your students? Is there a motto that you’ve run through? I have a little column, and it has “Advice from the Legends,” just little blurbs that someone can read and say, “Oh yeah, that’s a typical Oliver saying.” Is there anything that you have?
OL:‘It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it’
‘Be yourself; there are enough other people’