(To begin at Part 1 – “Dancing has really taken me to a place of healing that I never imagined“- click here)
What has stood out to me about your dancing is that it is much deeper than just steps. You have that heart and passion for it….
SOUL! It’s called SOUL, baby! (smiles).
Yes, exactly (laughs)! So did you grow up with lots of music and dancing in your family? Where did that SOUL (smiles) come from?
Well, yes, we did listen to A LOT of music. And my sister –Irene Otero- and my brother – Ismael Otero – are six and seven years older than me. So imagine, when I was seven, they were in their teens. What do you think they were blasting? – Music EVERYWHERE. They were really into breakdancing and all that crazy stuff. And with the dancing, well, my brother and sister used to battle- in breakdancing battles, on the street. And THEY WERE BAD ASS! My sister was a beast! Don’t mess with her. Don’t even try (laughs). The way she is now in salsa is the way she was then in breakdancing, and of course, my brother too. They were the best. And I was the little sister. And so for me, oh my God, that was all normal to me (smiles). It was what I grew up with.
So at a certain point, did you start taking formal classes in any type of dance at all?
I’ve never taken formal dance classes except for learning salsa from my brother. My brother learned from Luis Zegarra, ‘cause Luis lived upstairs from us and we grew up with him. And then my brother decided to start doing his own thing. And I would just go hang out, ‘cause salsa was not my thing, in the beginning. But I learned the basics, and I caught on very quickly. Within the first three months, I was winning competitions with my brother. It was unbelievable- me and my brother were on a rampage, taking over the WORLD, just winning competitions, street-style. No rehearsals. None of that stuff. It felt like it was in us already.
But it’s not until NOW that I notice that I had a talent. The way I look at my videos now, I never looked at them like that before. So I’m kind of looking at them with different eyes now.
Wow. That must be interesting for you.
It is. It is. And I’m in awe, because I never realized I had talent then. I was grateful that people enjoyed watching me. But I never understood why. I just enjoyed dancing. You know, I never did it for attention. I’m gonna be honest, my intentions were NEVER to be in the public eye because I AM a private person. And I am a little shy, believe it or not (smiles).
And I’m learning about myself through all this stuff that I’m going through now with the MS. I didn’t really know that I had impacted so many people. And it makes me feel good right now. It makes me feel amazing to see so many people write me- oh my God- so many emails! And it’s too much for me to even respond to. That’s why I like that I’m even doing this interview, because people will also get to know me a little better through this. Up until now, they know me for my name, but they don’t know my story or who I really am.
You said dancing, and the memories of dancing, has helped you a lot. How do you feel inside when you’re dancing?
When I’m dancing, I feel the beat of the music, really. It takes control of me. It really
does. Because when I started dancing salsa, and I saw how much it impacted the way I was feeling, I started doing some research on the history of it. And I started learning about the music, about the artists- La Lupe, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Fania All Stars. How can you not be moved? I mean, it’s like planting a seed in your soul! When I would listen to what the history of salsa was, I understood the feeling I was getting. And it is SOUL. It is the soul that gets inside you. Oh, it’s such a great feeling (smiles)! It comes from within. So yeah, the feeling is just…WOW. It’s indescribable. I mean, for example, when I performed in Belgium with my brother, I let it all out, man. And that was the best time of my LIFE! (smiles).
But I didn’t know it when I was going through it. I know NOW. And I love it, and I watch my videos and I don’t cry. I’m not thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t dance.’ No. I am SO happy. Because I know that some people,… some people have it worse than me with the MS. And they can’t sit down and watch videos of themselves on Youtube dancing in all parts of the world! I’m SO thankful that I can, and that I have that to look back on (smiles).
Okay, you’re going to make ME cry now (smiles), in a good way, because I feel like whatever you were meant to learn from this, you ARE learning it. And other people in the same situation might not have allowed that learning in.
Absolutely. ABSOLUTELY. I’m open. I’m SO open because I’ve been so blessed in my life. And the thing is, when it was all happening with the dancing and everything, I was never rude to anybody. I’ve never thought that I’m high and mighty because I dance salsa. I look at people that think like that and I think they’re ignorant because they’re not doctors saving the world. I’m blessed that I’m doing it for the right reasons and it’s because it’s in my heart and soul.
But one thing that I MISS is my classes and teaching. Because for that hour and a half or two hours, my students got a chance to get away from their lives- whether it’s divorce, or teenage kids (laugh), or just Life. And for those short bits of time, I was their therapist. I was giving them therapy, and they were forgetting their problems. And I made them laugh, ‘cause I’m kind of funny, from what I hear (laughs). And it made ME feel good to have them feeling good in my presence. And I didn’t know that until now.
When I was looking up information about you on the internet, the name ‘The JLo of Salsa’ came up a lot, attached to your name. Where did that came from?
Well, David Melendez, rest in peace, started that. He was actually the first person that gave me a chance to take my dancing and teaching to a level that I didn’t even know existed for me, which started with an instructional DVD. Actually, it was a VIDEO tape… DVD’s weren’t out yet (laughs). I also later started teaching at David’s school -Starlight Dance Studio- in the Bronx. I was teaching kids from the age of nine to the age of nineteen (smiles).
And then, I was performing at the New York Congress with Danny Ramirez, and we started doing a routine- the JLo number. But then my music blew the system. So we had to stop in the middle of the performance, and get off the stage! And David Melendez took the mic and, you know how he was very entertaining. Well, he started calling out to me, “JLo Salsa. Let’s try this again!” and he called us back on, “JLO, come on out! “ And so I go back up on stage, …and WE RIPPED IT!!! (smiles) And that’s how the JLo of Salsa was born.
How did you feel about the nickname?
I am a huge admirer of Jennifer Lopez, HUGE. I love her style of dancing and her STYLE in general. So I was very flattered by David calling me that (smiles). But at the same time, that’s kind of heavy to call yourself that- the Jennifer Lopez of the Salsa world. I’m like “What? Really?” (laughs) I thought it was just a little out of my league. And I didn’t want people to think that I felt that way about myself. I was a little uncomfortable with it. But I was still happy at the same time because,… well, it’s Jennifer Lopez- Hel-lo! (laughs). So I was honored, but a little taken.
Yeah. I hear what you’re saying and admire your humbleness. But, I’m sure people are comparing up and coming young female dancers to you now, with all that you’ve contributed to the salsa world, so I don’t think it’s as out of your league as you might think (smiles).
Oh, that makes me feel crazy! But thank you.
(To read Part 3– “Everyone- the world- is helping me through this. You guys are my strength” – click here. Note: The original interview was conducted in July, 2012; therefore references to time and place throughout are in relation to that date. Nevertheless, a recent update on Yesenia’s progress is provided by Yesenia herself towards the end of part 3 of this interview).