What got you into dance?
I was always interested in dancing in general. And partner dancing came along for me about fifteen years ago. A friend asked me to go to a salsa night. I had no idea what to expect. We took the lesson. I thought it was pretty intense. I didn’t know what to do. And after that, the floor opened up for social dancing. I saw people were dancing together in a way that looked as if they already knew each other, like they were actually couples. But then when they finished the dance, they said thank you and then went their separate ways. And I thought how did that happen? How do they know how to dance with each other, without knowing each other? How do they know when to turn and what to do? That was my first exposure to partner dancing. And so I wanted to learn.
Yes. That was kind of a mystery back then, wasn’t it? – how couples know when to make certain turns and all of that. So you started with salsa?
In the summer of 2009, I attended Salsa by the Sea. A friend said let’s check it out. The lady who was running it had a sign up sheet afterwards for anyone who wanted to take regular classes.
So I went. And that’s how I got started into salsa classes. But I had no idea there were different types of salsa. They kept calling out all the names of the moves in Cuban salsa in my classes. And so I kept learning this Rueda style, thinking this is how we dance salsa, like it was the only way.
Oh. I love that you remember that- the process in your learning. How did you end up realizing that Rueda wasn’t the only style?
At that time, the Polish Hall was a popular place for Latin Dancing. So my friends and I went out there. And I thought I knew the salsa basic, that I could social dance because I had been taking some classes. But when I got there, everyone was dancing a different style than what I learned. And I had no idea what was going on.
I took more classes, but I still couldn’t dance the way these other people danced. I couldn’t figure out why. And it wasn’t until later on that I realized that there were different styles of salsa- Cuban Style, LA style, New York Style. That there was not only one style of salsa. So I started taking some LA style salsa classes as well.
I feel like I got to know you more through the bachata dance scene. How did you go from salsa to bachata?
Yes. After I learned salsa, of course, at the same events, they would play bachata as well. I didn’t know about bachata then. But I loved the music. And guys on the dance floor would show me the basic 1,2,3 tap. 1,2,3,tap. (smiles) I liked it, and wanted to learn more, so I took some bachata classes. But the more I started learning, the more I realized that the style I really liked was the authentic Dominican Style. That wasn’t really being taught in Vancouver at that time, so I started to travel to learn it. I heard that you learn more when you travel to different festivals because you get to take classes from instructors from all over the world. So that’s what I did. And soon, bachata became my love, more than salsa. Sorry salsa (smiles).
So is bachata your favorite?
Bachata is still my favorite. But the scene changed. And so I’m into kizomba now more because it’s totally different from bachata, from anything, actually. The feeling you get from kizomba is completely different. You need to be present for it. And listen. And the connection in it is nothing like any other dance.
And you’ve been to Lisbon, Portugal twice now, for the kizomba festival there, right? A kizomba lover’s dream come true! (smiles) What was that like? How is it different than what we would experience here or in the west coast?
It’s a different continent. So you get a lot of Europeans and North Americans coming out there- people who are in the east coast that travel to Lisbon. So that in itself is a different flavor to me. And everyone is so good. SO good. And the connection to the music and to the dancers is beyond what I have experienced before.
Did you find that the guys there were pretty open to asking everyone to dance?
The first year when I went there, there were a lot more women. So as a follow, you had to be quick if you wanted to dance with someone. You had to just be ready to ask guys to dance. And because of the amount of women that were there, there were less chances to dance, unless you’re more aggressive. Some of the dancers that attended already knew each other. So it was easier for them. They already knew if a person would accept a dance because they were already familiar with each other.
So this year, my second time around, the organizer really worked hard to get more even numbers of males and females- leads and follows- at the event.
What impressed you about the festival or kizomba scene in Lisbon?
What impressed me the most is that, well, kizomba, in Lisbon, is just “what they do”. You can go clubbing every night there for kizomba. So you get to meet all the locals that dance kizomba. They may not know certain dance steps or names of moves, but they dance to the music as if they were born to. So the level of the connection to the music is just unbelievable.
Were the leads there easy to follow even if you weren’t familiar with their style or moves?
For me, it’s very easy to follow the leads over there because for them, we as partners dance to the music together. So the moves are not that important. Here, we learn through steps, we learn how to listen to the music, but the focus is more on the steps. But the more experience you have, the less you have to think about steps. Or the more it is ingrained in you to move to the music, the steps become less important. It’s like if you speak fluent English, the conversation flows and gets better and better, compared to if you are just learning words. You don’t have to use fancy words when you are more fluent at a language. You’re just clear and it flows. It’s similar to the dancing in Lisbon. The dancers are not trying to pull out fancy moves or steps or tricks. They just flow with the music and with their partner. That’s how I see it.
Beautiful. Great analogy. Did you take classes there as well?
The first year I did. I did more workshops and more classes. But this time, the second time, I did not as much because I just wanted to social dance. I get more pleasure from just dancing with local people. Plus, you can’t do everything. You want to go to the pool parties. (smiles) You want to social dance until six o’clock in the morning. You want to take workshops. It’s hard for you to get up for class at ten or eleven in the morning after all of that. You can’t be everywhere. So you just have to eat, sleep, dance… Actually, never mind sleep (laughs). If you get two or three or four hours of sleep, you’re lucky. So I skipped the workshops this time around.
Haha! Nice! I feel like you’ve been in the partner dance scene for a long time, and you’ve been one of the few who have stayed in it. What do you feel are some of the bigger changes that you’ve seen over the years?
People come and go throughout the years. Things change. But one of the most interesting things I have witnessed is seeing people come into dance for one thing, and then end up staying because they get something totally different out of it than they first expected. For example, some people come into dance looking for just a fun pastime or to find a date or a relationship. But a lot of them who came in with that intention end up staying because they fall in love with the dance instead.
I love how you are able to see this, and have witnessed these changes over the years. And what changes would you like to see happen in our scene in the future?
What I want to see more in dancing here is to get people to come together to get to know each other, rather than just dancing and going home. Sometimes, you don’t even get to talk to each other. Some people try to change that by asking others to go for coffee to get more connected with each other in the community. I do that all the time.
Yes. We talk a lot about being connected in the dance, physically or energetically. But sometimes we don’t even know the name of the person we are dancing with or why they are there.
Dancing in general is a good thing and the dance community is fantastic. People come from all different walks of life. We never need to ask each other “What do you do for a living?” when we first meet. It is almost irrelevant because we are all made to just feel equal. Dancing makes us equal. No judgments about cultural backgrounds or social or financial status needs to be made. Instead, we ask “What other dance do you do?” or “Who did you take classes from?” or “Where are you going next? Which festival are you attending next?” It’s great! (smiles)
We have something in common. And I’d like to see more opportunities for people to share and connect through this commonality and get to know their fellow dancers from that point of view.
And you came up with an event to help with this, right?
Yes, my friends and I- Vivian Wang, Cesar Salazar and myself – the three of us came up with the idea of having an event that is more than just a social in a dance studio setting. We wanted something where people could feel like they can go social dancing but also dress up and make it a night out- in an atmosphere where they could talk and mingle and get to know each other. I got the idea from when I traveled to Lisbon. I love kizomba, and I enjoy dancing in a club scene so much, so I thought why don’t we have that same concept here?
Well, Kizomba Kings and Queens seems to have been a hit so far. You started it last year, right?
Yes. The name came up from a club that I went to in Lisbon – it’s called Kings and Queens. Vivian and I thought it would be a great name because when you dance, you want to feel like a king or a queen. (smiles)
We had the first event in November of 2016, last year. And we got great feedback. People love new events. New venues. It worked well. So we continued it. We’ve done it five times now. The fourth and fifth time we changed it to include dinner and dance. And it was a success. People come to eat together and talk before dancing. They were provided with the time and a space in which to get to know each other. Some people who have been in the kizomba scene for four or five years came out. Some people who have been at kizomba but have disappeared from the scene came back just for these nights. And everyone got to welcome and meet all the newcomers. It was a dream of mine. And it was great seeing it the dream come true right in front of me (smiles).
Well, you definitely make one of the “hostesses with the mostest” at these events. People are loving it.
Thank you. It has been a great success. I want to continue to help make kizomba a friendly community where we always welcome new beginners and also give variety to those who have been in the scene for a longer time. Because kizomba is a beautiful dance that has the power to bring people together.
And YOU, Sunipa, definitely bring people together. Besides the fact that I love your dancing, that was one of the biggest reasons I chose you for this interview. You just have this energy about you that adds a lot to the scene. Have you always been that way? Is that just your personality?
I like the motto treat people like you want to be treated. I am always friendly and making friends. So I guess it’s my personality to begin with and this fits really well with the dance community. I always get a chance, every single night, to meet new people through dance. What can be better than that? And if I’m out every night (laughs), I very easily notice people from out of town. So I make it a point to welcome them. Why shouldn’t I? Because when I go to other cities, those locals welcome me too, especially if they see, oh, she knows how to dance a little bit. (smiles).
A little bit? That’s an understatement. You’re a beautiful and fun dancer. And not just as a follow, but also as a lead (smiles).
Thank you. I just love how I can go to another city, and a guy who I don’t know will just put out his hand to ask me for a dance because we are there together. And that’s a conversation to me. You don’t necessarily have to be talking vocally. You talk through dance. And sometimes, you dance with one person all night. And it’s nothing more than just a dance. But it’s wonderful.
So again. I am naturally a friendly person who likes making conversation, especially one on one. But it also comes from how I have experienced people being so friendly and welcoming to me. Dance fits with what I naturally do and what I love to do, how I like to be towards others.
What does dance mean to you?
Dance is happy. It is full of happiness. When you dance, it doesn’t matter if that day you have a headache, or you have something heavy on your mind. Even if you have a little bit of a stomach ache or even heartache, you come to dance and I guarantee if you have good dances, you don’t remember that you have headaches or stomach aches or pain for however long those songs and dances last.
And it’s contagious. Happiness is contagious. A smile is contagious, right?
I think you’re contagious!
Well, that’s good. Because personally, I like to make people smile (smiles). Sometimes, I see people come to dance and they could be there for different reasons. Maybe they just want to come and sit down and listen to the music. They don’t feel like dancing. And that’s okay. And if you DO want to come to dance, even better. Or just come and hang out and talk to people who may sit down and take a break from dancing. And that’s okay too. It’s a safe place.
I have many friends who want to just come and hang out at the dance, even though they don’t dance to many songs or to every song. Because they like the atmosphere. They like the energy of it. And the music is great! Sometimes, the music hits you and you feel like moving. And so you get up and dance. If you don’t feel like it, you sit down and watch. Watching people dancing is also fun. I love it! And seeing people express themselves through dance is amazing.