Ismael Otero- Still Keeping it Real

The questions and responses in this interview actually came out of a larger interview I did with Ismael a few years back, just after I met him.  I decided to take some parts of the original and post it to this new website because I love how even after five or six years, I can read Ismael’s words and still be inspired by them. (And his jokes can still make me laugh!)  More than that, it’s great that I can say, without a doubt, that Ismael Otero is still as real and open and friendly as he was back then, if not more so now.  And it’s because of this authenticity and humbleness, because he doesn’t allow the dancing to go to his head, only perhaps to his heart and his soul, that his talent is that much more commendable.  And for me, this makes watching him dance that much more enjoyable, because you can see and feel it’s coming from a good place.  

Having witnessed how unfortunately, some dancers and dance instructors over the years end up treating their students and others around them as if they are beneath them, I think that the way Ismael never seems to have gotten caught up in all of that deserves recognition. Ismael’s positive, welcoming nature has contributed over many years to the positive vibe of the salsa and dance scenes in general around the world.  He takes that charisma with him wherever he goes, and anyone around him can’t help but to be energized by it.  And that to me is an important part of what makes not only a great instructor and admirable artist, but also an inspiring individual.  Thanks Ismael!

(Note: The original interview that was done a few years back was in two parts, but I have condensed it here.  If you’d like to take a look at the original in its entirety, click  here for Part 1, and here for Part 2).

Many people look for inspiration in dancers like you. Who were your role models in the salsa/dance world? Why?

I never really had a role model. I just danced to dance, and did it for me and for fun.

Who inspires you?

My inspiration comes from other people. When I hear people say that they can’t wait to see what I come up with next, I don’t want to disappoint them. I can be inspired by anyone, from a professional to a total beginner. I just need that spark, or something to get me thinking.

What got you into salsa, and what motivated you to take it to the level that you have gotten so far?

My mother always tried to get me into salsa, but I was too much into hip hop and breakdancing.

Your mother trying to push you into salsa – was that more of a cultural thing, or was there something more to it than that? What made your mother so interested in getting her son to dance?

Salsa is part of our culture. So even when I wasn’t into it, I heard salsa in my house a lot. My mother always used to tell me that in Puerto Rico, people danced at a very young age. She would offer to take me to the concerts at Madison Square Garden, but I would never go. Stupid me (laughs).

But it was a combination of things that got me into salsa. At first, I didn’t like to be taught to dance. I was too proud. But I would wait for my mother to go to the store so I could play her salsa tapes, and then turn them off when she came back, fearing that she would tease me and say that she knew I would like the music. I didn’t want to admit it, but the music had started to take me over.

I also went to a company party and all the non-Latinos were dancing and told me that they couldn’t believe that I didn’t dance to my “own” music. My mother finally convinced me to go to a local club in Jersey and see a dance contest. And that’s when I first saw Julio La Salsa. After seeing his crazy moves, I decided to give it a try, and that was my first interest in salsa dancing.

During my short time in New York, I felt inspired to pursue many or my artistic
interests. It just feels like you can’t help but to be encouraged by that city. Do you think that your environment and location has helped to support your choice in becoming a dancer?

Well, I live in New Jersey (laughs), I know I know. It’s so close to New York and I’m in New York a lot. But I think it’s a combination of my family and the city. Everyone in my family dances or plays some kind of instrument or DJs. But I can also say that New York is so full of culture and art that it’s almost impossible not to get inspired. There are so many on, and off, Broadway plays, free shows in the parks and streets, and music and singing in the subways. So I guess I would say yes.

What do you think makes a good instructor? Do you have any tips for those wanting to improve as instructors?

It’s just practice and understanding and learning how to teach people to understand and want to practice. If you understand what you are doing, then you are more confident, and confidence is a big part of learning and dancing. Most instructors like to give off a god like vibe, but I just tell my students that if I can do it, anyone can. You just have to put the time and energy into what you want to do.

Okay, you twisted my arm, so I will tell you my secret: I know that to be a good dancer you just have to perfect the basic steps and fundamentals and techniques behind the dance. So I just take a simple yet important move like… let’s say, a right turn. And I make my students perfect it. Then I show them the millions of different moves I can do with it. When done in its basic form it looks just basic, but if you decorate it with arm movement or a cool style, maybe some pretzel arm turn patterns, then people think it’s something amazing. But if you look at the technique behind it, and take away the flash, it’s still just a right turn. When you understand things like this then you can do, and create, a million moves.

How would you compare social dancing to performing? Do you prefer one to the other?

Social dancing and performing are two totally different things (laughs). In social dancing, you don’t have to think or remember or impress. You can social dance all night and still have energy. But with performing, you do one show and you feel like you’re having a heart attack (laughs).

I’m more known for my social dancing and my choreographies, but my performance needs a little work. That’s due to my body – I’m all broken (laughs). I was a very active kid and always got hurt – fell off a train and hit a big rock and almost got hit by trains and things like that. It’s a miracle I can even walk (laughs). But the level of performances has got to such a high level that now I have to learn to stretch and practice more to be able to perform to my full potential. So watch out, because one thing I’m known for is surprising people (laughs). I enjoy doing both-performing and social dancing. But like I said before, to me, they are two different things.

Did you learn salsa On1 or On2 salsa first?  And why (or why not) do you think On1 dancers would benefit from learning the On2 style (or vice versa)?

I learned On2 because most of the classes in New York were On2. There were many On1 dancers, but not many On1 schools. So I just went with what was danced most in the clubs that I went to. My preference is On2, but I also enjoy dancing On1. I really like that I get to choose a style whenever I want, so I don’t get bored. There are so many styles of salsa as far as music, so it makes sense that there would be many styles to dance to the music.

My mother always told me that a real dancer can dance to anything and in any style, and I
now see what she means. Most people don’t like what they are not used to, but if you just practice the basics On 1 and On2, your body can switch back and forth with ease. It’s all in the basic fundamentals. But it’s more than just On1 or On2. There is also “New Yorkian,” Puerto Rican style, Cuban style, Columbian Style… It’s just lots of fun doing it all.

What tips would you give to an On1 dancer who wants to learn On2 but is finding
the change quite challenging?

Seems to me that most people just don’t know how easy it is to switch from One to Two, and vice versa. You first have to understand that it’s your BODY that gets used to the rhythm. So when you hear the music, it makes your BODY move a certain way, just like when you play a hip hop song, a hip hop dancer will automatically bop his head. So when you dance On1 and then want to learn On2, you’re basically trying to do what you already do but a beat after. But your body is not yet used to it, so it seems hard.

I’m going to give up the secret right now: for a 1 dancer to switch to 2, all he or she has to do is practice the basic step. Yes, the 123 567, and break on 2 and 6. Don’t do any turns or shines first, just the basic On2 step, over and over, and your body will adjust. And when you get comfortable with the On2 timing, then everything you do On1 will automatically be easy to do On2. It’s because your BODY, not you, your BODY, gets used to it. Like I always say basic is everything. Basic is everything. Basic is everything, and Everything is Basic.

I have often heard that some On2 dancers in various cities will often reject On1
dancers. How do you feel about this or why do you think this happens? Why does the On2 style seem to be placed on a higher level than On1 in some areas or by some dancers?

There are many reasons. You have to understand that people are people and some might feel threatened or insecure, or maybe they just don’t like the other style. But a REAL dancer supports all dances and does not try to make their preference seem better by
putting others’ preferences down.

Also, in one city, dancing On 2 could be the new fad and so it seems as if dancing On1 (in that city) is out of style.

These days, at least in most places I go to, they accept all styles. You see couples on the dance floor and the leader puts up 1 or 2 fingers and dances whatever the follower wants. A good dancer is a good dancer no matter what style. If he or she gets proper training, then the style they choose makes no difference. And for the people still on this “On2 or On1 is better thing,” know that this topic was settled years ago, so get with the times. Open your mind and just dance, all styles.

I love hip hop and RnB, so it brought a huge smile on my face when you mentioned (in part I of this interview) that you were more into hip hop and break-dancing than Latin dancing when you were younger. Has your interest in hip hop contributed to your own style in mambo?

Most definitely. I was considered one of the first hip hop salseros in New York. The only other one that I had heard of who did the same was Steve Seda, but I didn’t know him at the time. The funny thing is that I couldn’t help but put my hip hop elements in my dancing because that was my style. At the time, most people didn’t like it. They would make comments like “He is a pretty good dancer, but there’s too much hip hop in his salsa.” Then, about 3 years later, it kind of became cool to blend hip hop elements into salsa. And the very same people who criticized me, asked me to help them put a salsa count on hip hop moves. I was even asked to put a salsa count on the butterfly step (laughs). Then groups like DLG (Dark, Latin Groove) made it easier to do my style. I learned to dance with timberlands and baggy jeans. One day, a lady asked me to come to her house and dance so that her son could see a cool, street guy dancing salsa. She wanted to make her son see that salsa was hip, and not just for old people.

One of the best memories I have of the 2006 New York Salsa Congress was watching you and a bunch of other salseros freestyling to some of my favourite old school hip hop/RnB tracks out in the foyer of the Hilton Hotel. Is it common in New York for salsa dancers to be quite versatile in hip hop or other styles of dancing?

Salsa and hip hop have a similar evolution when it comes to New York. It all started there, and if you listen to old school hip hop you will find a Latin influence. What most people don’t know about hip hop is that Puerto Ricans were there from the beginning, and the industry turned it into an African American-only thing. But if you listen to a lot of old school hip hop songs – like Just Begun by James Brown – you will find Latin rhythms and instruments like congas, timbales and cow bells. There’s also tumbao of the congas in Breakers Revenge, Just look at the movie Beat Street and you will see a big Puerto Rican influence. These days, most of us are ex- bboys, so it brings back memories of back in the days. We love to dance because we are dancers, not just salseros.

But whatever style you’re dancing, I do want to remind people to LISTEN, really listen, to the music, and dance to the music. Every dance should be different. Dance romantic to a salsa romantica, dance crazy to a crazy salsa, dance guaguanco when there is a guaguanco part in the song. For example, La Vida es un Carnival by Celia Cruz – it’s a cumbia! The mambo kicks in after the break! And salsa also incorporates other musical genres like bomba, rumba, flamenco, hip hop, etc., so please LISTEN and dance to the music. Listen, Listen, Listen.

I’m so glad we have kept in touch again in the past year.  Thank you again, for continuing to be an inspiration, and for being so approachable and real.

We keep it real because we can only be ourselves and why try to act, just be you.  My advice: Just be yourself- in your dancing- so that you never look like someone else, and you maintain your own unique style, but also in your life.

Your being real keeps me excited about dancers and dancing, and it reminds me to realize my own dreams, whether they be dance related or not.

Thank you. People like you inspire me to keep doing what I’m doing because I know that I’m reaching someone.

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