The Vancouver International Salsafestival (VIS) has easily been one of the most successful, fastest growing, and not to mention hottest dance events to hit Vancouver. In the few years that it has been running, it has drawn many of the top Latin dance performers, artists, and instructors from around the world. Moreover, the attendees of the festival come from a range of cities just to dance and learn and socialize with other fellow dance addicts. The connections that are made between all the dancers just leaves everyone ‘wanting more’- as one of the first VIS slogans so appropriately described it.
So when I heard that next year was going to be the last of the VIS, I was completely surprised. I couldn’t believe that such an incredible event was soon to be coming to an end. But when the creator of the event- Cheyenne Kamran- began explaining the reasoning behind the decision, I definitely could appreciate and admire his conviction to maintain the quality of the event. And I thought it important share his thoughts with others through this interview. It was great to hear Cheyenne reminisce on the memories he holds of VIS but also to see the utter excitement he feels for the next and final year! “Make no mistake,” says Cheyenne, “this year will be the craziest most epic event anyone has ever experienced. Because guess what? There is no next year!”
And that’s why it’s easy for me to say that you just all got to be there!
People have often told me they are shocked when they meet you because you’re so young. It’s impressive that someone your age began what has turned into such a huge and successful event. How DID the idea come about for you for VIS?
Cheyenne: Oh my God (laughs). Okay. Well, to back up a bit, I was about twenty one when I tried out salsa at UBC. But at the same time, I was playing a lot of soccer so I didn’t really have time to dance salsa. And then, at one of the soccer games, I tore my ACL and I had to have surgery. And the doctors told me not to play soccer anymore. And for some reason, I thought that dancing would be easier on my knees (laughs). So I started taking classes, and I just fell in love with the dance. By then, I was a twenty-two year old kid excited about the dance and I wanted to DO something more with it. And for me, call it a weakness or a strength, I’m not sure, but when I get excited about something, I’ll take action on it, you know?
So the more I got into dancing, the more I wanted to put on salsa events. So we started with smaller events first with about eighty people attending, and then it kind of grew from there.
Besides the love of the dance, what motivated you to keep it going?
Well, what started out with me just wanting to grow the On2 scene here turned into ‘let’s just help out the ENTIRE scene’. There were two ‘selfish’ reasons, if you will, (laughs) for me starting this, really: 1) I got to bring out great dancers and befriend them of course (smiles), and 2) I thought that if the scene becomes better, where it’s not just five dancers that are good, then I will become better. And I also thought why not set up the dancing here, instead of always having to travel to dance? This way, it’s not just four times a year that I have an amazing experience, but I get that experience the whole year round. So that’s really how I think it started. But yeah, when we did the first VIS, four years ago, I was twenty four at the time.
Besides just having the idea, you also have to have that kind of entrepreneurial mindset to actually follow through with an idea as ambitious as VIS. It sounds like you have that mindset in other parts of your life too. Is that kind of thinking related to your background or education do you think?
Most people think I studied business, but actually, I’m an engineer. But I wasn’t going to get into engineering really. When I was in high school, I was going to do musical theater. I LOVED directing theater. I got into The Alberta School of Fine Arts. But having somewhat stricter parents (laughs) and, at the time, I guess I didn’t have the courage to kind of take that step into the arts, I ended up going to UBC for engineering instead. And I was good at it, but I didn’t enjoy it. So yeah, I did that and then I got out of school and I started a life coaching business with some friends. And then I got into the finance world- financing independent films, that kind of thing.
I didn’t have a business or entrepreneurial background. I just had to learn as I went. And with all the experience that I gained by the time I was really into salsa, even though I was relatively young, I felt I could maybe bring something else to the table. I mean, there are a lot of pioneers in the city who were and still are doing a great job. But I remember saying, okay, well maybe there’ll be five or ten things I can bring to the scene as well.
Okay, twelve. Fine! (laughs).
Yeah, more like twelve hundred or twelve thousand! (laughs) When you think back to when you first had the idea for VIS, and now you see how it has grown, is there anything that has really surprised you about the outcome of it, something that you didn’t expect?
When I had the vision first, it was kind of like it was just me in it, when I first thought about the idea. But then, when it came to the actual execution of it all, a lot of amazing people came through. And people that know us, and people that even work on the team, know that this is what we love doing. We all have our day jobs and other responsibilities. But we love doing this. The people that stepped up, whether it was Ivan, Betty, Chris, Alessandra, Nina and so many more- they all ARE the festival as well (For a complete list of the VIS team members and their full names, click here). A lot of people think, okay, Che (Cheyenne) is the festival. But it’s not really the case. YES, I had the idea, initially. But it was the people that came up, and the people that kind of rallied around the idea – that blew me away more so than I think anything else because it just wouldn’t have been possible without them. Trust me, the first one- the first year of the festival- would have been a gong show without Betty for example (laughs). It just wouldn’t have happened.
Last year, people were commenting on how they were so happy to be able to dance with the instructors and performers at VIS more so than at other events. Was that something that was discussed with the instructors beforehand, or was it just because those instructors just happened to be the kind of dancers who enjoy social dancing with others?
Well, it’s both. You will see the same artists in other parts of the world and they won’t be dancing with the ‘non-instructors’ in the same way at those other events. And I think it comes down to respect. If you talk to many promoters or congress organizers, artists are seen more as just a tool. They come out to the event, they do their show, they do their workshops, and it’s as if the organizers are done with the artists. But for us, we understand that it STARTS with the artists. So we make sure we take EXTRA good care of them.
If you ask ANY artist that has been to our event, they will tell you our hosting team has been great- the artists are well fed with gourmet meals and they are well taken care of. Everything’s organized for them. They receive these big packages way in advance, describing all the specifics of the event, so when they arrive, they have that preparation. They know what’s going on. And at the same time we also get to know the artists more on a personal level.
So I would never write in a contract ‘you have to social dance’, but because we take such good care of the artists, it’s just kind of human nature. If I am genuinely nice with you, there is no reason for you to not be genuinely nice with me. I think THAT’S what it comes down to. And when the artists are having a good time and relaxing, they want to dance and socialize, and I think everybody else has a good time as well. So we remind them to come out and join everyone, but we also make sure that their schedule is reasonable enough to do that. But we understand that if they were constantly being disrespected or not being taken care of, what would motivate them to go out and dance? So we make sure to take good care of them.
Why is the event called ‘The Vancouver International Salsafestival’?
Okay, that’s easy. I’ll break it down for you (laughs). First, ‘Salsafestival’ is one word for the sole reason that salsafestival in German is one word, and I grew up in Germany, so I thought it would be a unique kind of twist. And when abbreviated, I didn’t want it to be VISF, I just wanted it to be VIS. And the reason we went with Salsafestival rather than ‘congress’ is that we’ve had other promoters organize congresses before, and it was THEIR unique experience and unique product, and I’m sure there will be organizers in the future that will organize their own events as well. So I just wanted to make sure that ours was distinguished as its own unique experience as well. And ‘Vancouver’- well, obviously that’s because it’s in Vancouver.
And ‘International’ came about because when I first started dancing, nobody was bringing artists here from out of town. And if the people that are at the top of our scene- whether it’s our instructors, or our best seasoned dancers- if they’re not being inspired by something better, how can they pass that energy onto us students, you know? So that’s when we started bringing in artists at the time, and just getting them to raise the bar, mainly in the On2 area, but it doesn’t matter. Salsa is salsa. And for me, that’s what I wanted for the festival. I felt it important to have an INTERNATIONAL line up. So that’s why I guess that word ‘international’ is there. This is weird. I’ve never analyzed it like this before, you know? (laughs).
I know there isn’t room to bring in everyone that you want to the Festival, but is there a specific criteria of how you go about choosing who does come to perform or teach at the VIS?
Yeah, absolutely. For all you congress organizers out there (laughs),… well the first thing is that Betty will set a budget for the artist line up, and based on that, we basically go out there and we always try to make an effort to have a good mix of everything. So with salsa, we look for three different categories: The first is those dancers that have more of that clean-lined, beautiful, classy look. This year, we’re having Baila Society which fits in that description. And then we want to have teams that are just kind of down and dirty (smiles), with that real Eddie Torres, New York style salsa. Again, this year, Adolfo’s team from Italy represents that kind of style. And then we want to have teams that are just all flashy- doing flips, throws, people flying from every direction, you know? (laughs). And this year, we have The BNF Dance Company (The Ballet National Firulete) from Columbia for that. So that’s how we decide the big names. And then for each artist within that framework – because there are a lot of flashy artists, there are a lot of New York style artists, there are a lot of clean line artists- we look at okay, how good of a show will they produce? How willing would they be to social dance? How flexible are they to doing things spur of the moment if need be? And how easy are they to work with? That last one is huge, you know (smiles)? Betty gives me a one-to-two diva limit per festival (laughs). Otherwise, managing it will become really difficult (laughs)
And you recently added more kizomba and bachata to the event. How do you go about choosing those artists?
Well, with kizomba and bachata, I’m not an expert, but we have great people on our team that specialize in, or LOVE bachata. Maybe in bachata or kizomba the show component is not as important, but it’s still important for us to see how willing the dancers are to social dance, and how much the students and other attendees would be excited to learn from them. That kind of thing.
I was sad and surprised to hear that this year is the last year of the VIS. Can you explain why you decided that?
Basically, I’m living in Dubai now. And I was expecting my work to be maybe two to three years, and then we’d come back to Vancouver. But I didn’t expect to be so happy in Dubai. I didn’t think it would be as great as it turned out to be. My girlfriend and I are really enjoying it. And so at least for the next few years, I don’t see myself moving back to Vancouver right away. And it’s one thing to run the festival remotely, but it’s another thing to do it and not even live in the city. Also, some of our other directors and key team members – they’ve got other things going on with their lives now too. And we thought okay, maybe we could pass it on to someone else to run. But the standard we set, I don’t want to lose that. It’s always about topping ourselves. And I would not want this to become a watered down product.
I give a lot of props to congress organizers that run for a lot of years. I think the biggest challenge with that, however, is to make sure your product doesn’t get watered down and it doesn’t become just a money making machine. And this year, with all of us not being pulled away too far from this, we can still deliver on that quality that VIS has maintained throughout the four years. And it’s a great challenge as well (smiles), because somehow, we are even more excited about it now that it’s the last one. Because the moment we said, okay, this is the finale, the pressure on it became a million times more. And I almost feel the same way I did the first year (laughs), when we didn’t know how many people were going to show up, and what it would be like.
It sounds like you’re talking about a relationship, like it feels like the first date all over again (laughs)!
Exactly. Exactly! (laughs) Honestly, the first year, the first night, we had about twelve hundred people. But up to… I think two hours before, we did not know how many people to expect. We asked ourselves, ‘Will we have four hundred people in the room or less or more?’ We had six hundred chairs in the room at one point. And we thought, maybe we have too many chairs. Maybe we should take half of them out (laughs). We just DIDN’T KNOW! It was nerve racking but exciting. And in a way, we feel like that again.
But it’s also that feeling you get when you’re graduating or… I remember directing a musical in high school and in the last show there was that feeling of ‘we gotta give it our all!’ But at the same time, there’s a little bit of sadness. That’s what I feel with this last VIS. And that’s why I also compare it to a movie trilogy or a Broadway show. Is there a Broadway show that runs forever? No. They’re not going to run it until there are only two people coming to it, or risk the performance level and quality dropping.
There are a few great congresses around the world that are just amazing. But for the most part, if you’ve been running it for many years, often times, there will be people saying, “Wow, I wish it was as good as it used to be.” And I would hate for VIS to be that. But I can already see some people that would potentially do a great job of organizing another congress, and I hope that happens, and if it does, we will give them our full support. I just think for us, these four years, this is the time I think to end off the chapter of the VIS, at least for now.
Well, I know that people definitely feel the quality that has been upheld and put into the event for the few years VIS has been running.
Yeah, it’s really important. I mean, I think life is too short to do mediocre things. I’m sure that’s someone’s quote I just stole (laughs). But it’s true. It makes sense. Life IS so short. So if you want to do something, do it right. I wouldn’t be excited, or it would just be depressing for me frankly, to do something that’s just ‘okay’.
And in the years that VIS has been running, is there anything that’s happened on stage that has either completely blown you away, or made you laugh hysterically – something that you didn’t expect?
Oh yeah, so many things! Okay, I’ll try to cover the top three or four moments … Oh my God. I remember the first year. Again, we were just nervous wrecks, of course. Ivan and I were behind one of the curtains on the side. And then that trailer- the official trailer- came on, and people just went CRAZY! And back stage, I just broke out in tears. And I just thought okay, THIS is what life is about!
Wow! You just gave my goose bumps.
Yeah. I just thought I could die right now, … (laughs). I was so overtaken with emotion. That was definitely one of the top moments. And then I think the second biggest moment was …in that same year, at the end of the first night- the Friday- when the shows finished. Everybody walked out, and a bunch of people, especially the international dancers that I always travel with to congresses said, “Man, if this is your FRIDAY night (laughs), what’s the rest of it gonna be like?” Because usually, congresses build up. But that first night was so good. So yeah, I remember that was an amazing moment. And last year- Jimmy Bosch on stage – the energy was incredible.
And then there was another one of those moments that again, gave me that …well, I don’t even know if I broke out in tears, but I had a tear in my eye for sure (laughs). It was when Adolfo came on to the stage last year. But no one knew Adolfo was coming. We had already talked to him and everything but were hiding him all day, covering him with jackets and stuff. And we brought him on stage, the lights were off, and we got everyone inside to watch. Albert Torres came up and said a few things and then went off stage. Lights are still off. Adolfo walks on.
Oh God. You know, there are times where I have a feeling about things, and this one, I just KNEW it was going to be really amazing. Because if we had just said, “Oh, and by the way, Adolfo is going to be in the shows,” that wouldn’t have been as effective. But if people don’t know, and one of the biggest stars in salsa suddenly is on the stage, that’s…
Ohh… it’s like a Michael Jackson moment (smiles)!
Exactly! Exactly! I love Michael Jackson (laughs). So I told Adolfo beforehand to let it build up a little bit, build up the tension and go from there. And I made sure that I was in the audience when that happened. So I was slightly to the right of the stage. I think Nima (fellow salsa dancer) was standing next to me and two or three other people. So the lights are still off, and people are screaming ADOLFO! They are going crazy. Then the lights come on, and people around me were just losing it! And I was shocked. And so Adolfo started doing his thing. And Nima was jumping up and down like crazy. HE started crying. And then I started to have tears in my eyes, because it was just so beautiful.
Again, it was that energy in the room towards what was happening. And Adolfo was going at it, and it was one of those moments again (smiles) where I just thought, “This is what we do. Wow!” And right then- and you’ll see this in the video on youtube if you watch it again- there’s a moment when Adolfo points to an area of the audience, and that was the area where I was standing. So I felt, even if it was totally my imagination (smiles), like he was pointing at me. And so that moment, I just won’t forget. Again, I thought, “This is it. This is what it’s about.” And oh my God! It was… yeah, it was amazing!
And that’s why I wanted to do Broadway musicals or theater. Because I just love that. I love the show building up, the energy- taking the audience on a kind of emotional journey.
And it being the last year of VIS, what would you like to leave people with? What would you like people to say about VIS when they look back and remember it?
That’s a big question (laughs). It’s a short question (laughs), but a big one. Over the four years, I want people to have gone through the most amazing journey as far as the feelings and energy that VIS gave them. And at the events that went by, as well as the 2013 event, I want them to have been taken on a kind of emotional roller coaster, a positive one, and to walk away from it saying, wow, that was one of the best dance experiences that I’ve had. I want people to feel that there will be nothing quite like that again.
There will be other events, maybe even better or worse, but this one will be unique in itself. And I hope that people can FEEL that every one of us, every person that has been involved, has given it their hundred and fifty percent. It’s a simple statement, but it’s not easy to get there. I want people to say, in the year of 2013, that one of the best ‘congresses’ was the Vancouver International SalsaFestival. And I think that because we know it’s going to be the last one, it’s just going to be that much better. The energy is going to be just amazing (smiles)!
(To watch one of the most phenomenal performances that took place at VIS, involving a dancer – Yen Dorado- who we will all keep in our hearts and memories, for he is no longer with us, click here: Eli and Yen- VIS 2010)