I was thrilled when I heard that Juan Matos was going to be part of the VIS line up! I still remember repeatedly watching one of his videos years ago, when I was first introduced to salsa. And even back then, I was just completely blown away by the fluidity and smoothness of his moves and his unique style. How does he do that? I kept asking myself. In fact, it was legendary dancers like him who got me so intrigued by salsa and inspired me to want to dance. So you can only imagine the excitement I felt when Mr. Matos enthusiastically agreed to give me ten minutes of his time at VIS, even though he was just about to head out to the airport to catch his flight back home. Instead of rushing out, the hotel doors, he backtracked and followed me to the nearest couch in the hotel lobby. He put his suitcase down next to him and was so attentive and interested in my questions. To think, I almost missed him! I was so grateful for the amazing conversation we had as well as his very down to earth and approachable nature.
[Note: This is the 4th part to a series of 5 brief interviews under the title Reminisce on VIS (Vancouver International Salsafestival). To start at the beginning, at interview #1, and to learn why and where these interviews were conducted, click here: Reminisce on VIS- a series of five brief interviews)]
Is it true that you used to sneak into clubs when you were under age to watch dancers?
Yeah. It started in Santo Domingo. As a matter of fact, the first time I went to a club, my father took me. I was eleven or twelve years old (laughs). And from then on, I just started doing it more.
Sometimes kids get stubborn and don’t want to do what their parents are doing. Did you always have an interest in dancing because of your parents?
The thing is that in Latin America, it’s not even about dancing, it’s more about the music. We were born and raised with salsa, merengue, bachata- all those Latin rhythms. So I think I can speak for most people that have a Latin family, even if they were born and raised in America or in another non-Latin part of the world, when I say that we always had music around. And that’s what got me into it.
My father was a ‘champion’ in Latin hustle in the eighties. But I cannot even remember watching him dance. I just saw some videos of him. That’s not the dance I chose, but the music from my background was always there.
My dream trip would be Italy right now. Which venues or events would you recommend to definitely attend in Italy for someone who has never been there before?
Well, let’s face it, Italy is big (smiles), so it has lots of events. It depends on where you want to go. In Milan, where I lived, there are two big events going on. One is the big salsa festival which is great and it’s more international, and there’s another one always produced by the same people called the On2 Salsa Congress. It’s the only congress in the world where everything is On2. And it’s great too. It has a good atmosphere, great DJs. But it depends on what you like. I say go and try some of them out (smiles), definitely.
I think what stands out about you is your own personal style. And I feel like that’s something that can’t really be taught. What would you recommend to someone as far as how to develop one’s own unique style?
FEEL the music. Do what the music is telling you to do. Don’t go just with a pattern or the idea that ‘this has to be this way, this has to be that way’. No. Stay away from that kind of thinking. Take classes of other dancers and dance styles- like Cha Cha or Rumba or whatever works for you. Search for that one that fits you. For example, right now, in Europe, they are using a lot of ballet and contemporary and stuff like that in their dancing. And that doesn’t fit me. I don’t feel it. I feel more the Afro and the Cuban and Rumba. That fits me more. So I have learned and I have discovered that for myself. And from that learning, I have put that into my style. And even then, I don’t do it in exactly the same way my teachers taught me. When you take what you learn and you do it the way YOU feel, that is what will make it different.
Because it’s true what you said- you cannot teach ‘style’. Because for me, it’s not style, it’s FEELING. And if I feel the music a certain way, it looks different than if someone else does it. And it makes it more MY style. It’s more about how much we love the music and what it’s telling you to do.
I like that you said it’s not about style, it’s about feeling.
Yeah, well that’s how I see it. For example, you can see me doing a show today, and you can see me doing the same show tomorrow, and it will be totally different. Why? – because it’s not like when the music goes ‘pang’ on some beat, that I plan to go ‘pang’ with my head (flicks his head to the right) at that moment every time. I choreograph my dances the way I feel in that moment. People say, “You do the same show and every time you do it, you add something, or make something up to throw in that we didn’t see before.” But that’s the way the music is making me move at that moment.
You don’t know if I have problems at home, you don’t know if I haven’t eaten the whole day, you don’t know if I had too much beer before the show (smiles), or if I’m happy or if I’m sad, you know? So for me personally, these experiences affect how I feel that day, and so, what I accent and what I might add that wasn’t there the last time comes from that. It’s just about how I feel in that moment.