3 October 2010
Susana Montero talks to Richard Marcel
Susana Montero is regarded as one of the best salsa teachers in the world. Throughout her illustrious career Susana has so far performed and taught in almost every major country in the world. She has influenced many of the top Salsa dance artists with her incredible dance skills, unique teaching technique and infectious personality. She currently lives in London with her husband where she runs the Latin Dance Academy and her own performance company. As a new member of the Club Dance Faculty, Susana is actively involved in the development of the new Salsa Associate. In this interview with DANCE she talks about her career from the beginning, how she rose to fame on the international Salsa dance scene and why she has decided to share her knowledge of Latin dance with the ISTD and its teachers.
R – When did you start dancing?
S – I was four years old when my mum took me to the Ballet school in Madrid.
R: Was it your always your ambition to be a dancer?
S – Yes, I always wanted to dance, I’ve been very lucky as I always knew what I wanted to do. There was a phase when I wanted to be a painter but I changed my mind the moment I tried!
R – How long did you study dance for in Madrid?
S – I did about 10 years at the Conservatory in Madrid, which is how you get your qualification in dance. I did Ballet and Flamenco and I also had to do Contemporary and Jazz and all those things so it takes about 10 years to cover all of that. After that, if you’re good enough, they take you on board to join the company otherwise you can audition for other places.
R – Did you perform in Madrid also?
S – Yes, I danced in the company until I was 24. At the same time, I was finishing a PHD in psychology. I had to stop performing, however, as my parents couldn’t afford to pay for both my sister and me. The company, I’m afraid, didn’t give a lot of money. It turned out that I could get more money teaching Ballet than actually dancing and performing, so I left the company and started teaching for them at the school in order to pay for my career as well as my sister’s.
R – At what stage did you come to the UK?
S – While teaching for the company, I was also working as a psychologist. I was doing too much and decided that I needed to take a break. I took a year off and thought: “let me go to England as learning English would be useful to me anyway”. So that’s how I came here.
R – What did you do when you arrived?
S – To start with I was working for the University of Madrid doing research for them. I was researching books and sending them back a study. I still work for them sometimes when they call me.
R – How did you start dancing Salsa?
S – Well, I started dancing Salsa by accident really. I used to go to an English class with a friend of mine who was called Susana as well. We could only afford to go out once a week and every week she would go to a different place. One week she suggested to go to a Salsa club called Villa Stefano on a Sunday in Holborn. I said “no way, we are Latin and hear that kind of music all the time. I want to go to an English club where English people go!”. After doing that for a while we ran out of places to go so I decided to go to Villa Stefano with her. I walked in there and I just loved it! Everybody sweating and dancing and it was wicked! I had the best time ever! I didn’t know how to dance Salsa but the timing and the rhythm was similar to the Spanish Rumba so it was easy to pick up the steps but following was difficult. The guys were turning me this way and that way and I didn’t know what I was doing but I thought it was so much fun and I just loved it.
R – How did it develop from then on?
S – Well, every week I was in Villa Stefano and then my friend Susana left and went back to Madrid. When you go to a Salsa club a few times, for a lady, you only know guys. You don’t have any female friends, you only dance with guys so it was a bit difficult for me to start with. At first, I didn’t speak much English, I didn’t have any female friends and all the girls were looking at me a bit funny so it was difficult to get into it. Slowly I started meeting more people then someone tells you there is another club on a Monday somewhere else and another one on a Tuesday and then that was it, I was going dancing all the time.
R – So, were you dancing seven nights a week?
S – Yes, within six months of starting I was dancing every night for at least two or three years!
R – So what was it like in the early days of the British Salsa scene?
S – Great! It was a very small group of people going to the same places and it was so nice get to know everyone. I would say technically the dancing was basic, nothing complicated when it came to combinations even at a very advanced level but it was more about having fun. It was about moving and feeling the music and relaxing rather than technique. Now there is more emphasis on technique because it has developed so much, you know it’s a lot more advanced now. But before technique wasn’t a problem, I mean it was nice when you saw someone spin but really nobody cared and it wasn’t a big deal.
R – Who were your early influences?
S – Well, no one as a teacher to start with. I was working in the evenings so had to go straight to the club, I could never make the lessons, so, because I was learning by dancing with the guys, I was getting a lot of bad habits. It was my trip to Cuba that made all the difference for me and then I thought, I really, really want to learn this.
R – So when did you go to Cuba?
S – After I won a Salsa competition! (She laughs out loud). In ’98 I did this competition, the UK Salsa Championships with a guy called Chandi. I won that competition without much knowledge about the dance. We won because we were creative and we came out with something new. For the standard at the time we were good enough to win but coming from Ballet, which is very disciplined and structured, I needed a teacher, someone to tell me what to do and what not to do, I couldn’t just carry on like that. So for me it was a wake-up call, I thought now that I won a competition I can do this, I need to learn now because I saw there was an opportunity there for me. It was also an opportunity to still have a place in the dance world. Leaving the Ballet company was very hard, although I didn’t regret helping out with the family, it wasn’t really my choice to leave and not dance, so Salsa was like a second chance. My first trip to Cuba was for two weeks and I went crazy! The first thing I did when I got there was look for teachers for everything! I met this guy called Lazaro from Havana who was my first Salsa teacher.
He was teaching me every day and I learned everything from Son to Cha Cha to Casino – everything! Funnily enough, when I was dancing for the National Ballet in Madrid, we once had a guest choreographer from Holland who wanted to choreograph a mix between contemporary and Afro Cuban so I was trained in Afro Cuban already and knew all the Orisha’s and everything. It was only when I went to Cuba that I realised it was all related to the Salsa thing. Up until then I always thought it was a separate thing and didn’t realise I could use it in the Salsa. Lazaro explained that the Afro Cuban could be used in Salsa to influence the way you move and interpret the music then it opened my mind and I started developing my dancing even more.
R – So what happened when you returned to England?
S – I came back and booked another ticket to Cuba! Three months later I was back in Cuba, but for a month this time. I had more lessons with Lazaro in Havana then had lessons with the Ballet in the city of Santiago and it was much better because I had a full understanding of the music, which I didn’t have before. This is when I discovered the Clave and the Congas and everything and to me musicality was important.
Then I came back to England and met Eddie Torres, the ‘Mambo King’ from New York, who was visiting London. I absolutely loved the guy as he was the most amazing dancer I had ever seen but he danced differently from what I had seen in Cuba, so I thought this is something I have to learn. I immediately booked a trip to New York with my new dance partner, Leon Rose, for two weeks and took lessons from Eddie Torres and Nelson Flores, who was there at the time as well. We came back and I booked another trip to New York, again this time for a month and took more lessons with Eddie Torres to learn as much technique as possible.
That was something I didn’t get in Cuba. In Cuba I learned musicality and body isolation and movement but no technique. After that I started to go to Salsa congresses in the states and discovered the LA style, very flashy and with acrobatics. It wasn’t my kind of dance but I thought if wanted to become a performer here, I had to learn these things too. So, I booked a trip to LA! In LA I learned from Salsa Brava who created the LA style. It was easier as I only had to learn the style and the tricks as I already had the technique from New York. After that, Leon and I won a competition in the UK and the prize was an all expenses paid trip to the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress to perform in the show and that was a break-through for us.
That is when we made a name internationally and also had the opportunity to learn from the Puerto Rican’s. Then I saw the Puerto Rican style – how elegant they move and how their own traditional dances make them as expressive as the Cubans when it comes to body movement. They use the same body movement but different steps. Then I decided to book a trip to Colombia with Mario. We went to Cali and took lessons to learn the pachanga and the boogaloo, actually Mario didn’t take many lessons but I wanted to learn everything.
R – Which was the first Salsa congress you taught and performed at?
S – My first congress was in Holland, a place called Harlem. There used to be a festival every year and the first European congress ever was at Harlem and it ran for seven years in a row. That was my first international congress. Before then, I used to go to the Pontin’s Salsa weekenders. That is where I started teaching at a higher level. Pontin’s was like a mini congress. The people from Holland saw me, Leon and Mario at Pontin’s and invited us to teach in Holland so when they put on the first festival in Harlem we were first on the list as international teachers, which was cool. After that me and Mario taught a lesson at the Canadian Congress because one of the teachers didn’t turn up. We were so nervous because there was 500 people in the class and it was a massive congress.
R – And how has your career developed since then?
S – Well, I was teaching lessons in the UK but I saw an opportunity to work abroad, not only because the pay is much better than the UK, but it was a way to travel and see the world, which is what I missed the most. I was booked to teach and perform all over the world and enjoyed meeting other people and learning from other people. I can’t believe that as a teacher they were paying me to go there then pay me for my job and then I could take lessons from whoever was there for free so that was like wow! For a good couple of years I used to take lessons from all the great Salsa teachers and dancers, no matter what. After that things started to change on the Salsa scene, there were lots of congresses, lots of teachers and lots of performers and the atmosphere wasn’t the same. There wasn’t that feeling of being around your family like there used to be. It’s still good, don’t get me wrong, you get a much better quality than you used to get before. They are more professional, the performances are amazing and the standard is getting higher and higher all the time.
Although I made a name for myself on the international Salsa scene I wasn’t only interested in the fame so I started looking for another motivation. I wanted a new direction and that became the school. I wanted to have a school and raise the standard in the UK to become as high as the other countries. The only way to do that is to have a school to train people, you cannot do that in a club. So we opened the school two years ago and it’s hard work but people are getting used to the courses already. I think we have started a trend as people are opening more schools out there now. We started with six week courses in Salsa and now we have expanded that into Bachata, Mambo, ladies styling, all sort of things that are related to Salsa on the Salsa scene right now. It’s going very well.
R – How often do you travel now?
S – I used to travel every weekend but now it’s two a month so I’m reducing that slowly. I choose the congresses that I want to work at, which is a very privileged position to be in. I am very happy with that and guess I earned it.
R – Are there any particular experiences that stand out in your career?
S – Yes, my first competition with Chandi, that was amazing. Also, performing with Leon at the Puerto Rican Congress was just brilliant. It was the biggest congress in the world at the time and we performed in front of 4000 people. Opening the school was a very special moment also. Then there are special moments at every congress made by students. If somebody comes to you and says that was the best lesson I ever had, that is like wow! That is a special moment for me.
R – How do you feel about your involvement with the ISTD?
S – This is a big thing for me, I never thought I would have this opportunity. After leaving the Ballet in Madrid and after starting the school I thought that was as far as I could take my Salsa. I knew about the organisation and its high standard but never dreamed of having an opportunity like this. I think it the best chance to get Salsa to the highest level possible. No matter how many schools I have I can’t achieve this without an organisation, which has the strength and background of the ISTD. For me, it is an honour to be part of this organisation with all its experience and great teachers.
R – What other ambitions do you have?
S – I would like to create my own performance company for the first time. It would be great to train people to the level that I know. Through the school I would like to train people to the highest possible level as I need to pass everything on.
R – What do you like to do other than dancing?
S – Um...I like lying on my sofa and watching telly! Because my life is so active I need to do things which are not so active. I like reading a lot, so that’s a book per week but if I can spend time watching a film with my husband, that is a real treat. We also like walking in the park and we can walk for hours so that’s another relaxing thing to do.
R – If you had to give one piece of advice to a dance teacher, what would it be?
S – As a dance teacher I have one rule; you always need to know more than your students...always! So that means you’ve always got to keep learning. You can’t allow one of your students to know more than you. When that happens it’s for two reasons; you got lazy or your student got really good, which could be something to be proud of. As a teacher I think you always have to develop yourself and learn from other people out there.
Photo shows Richard Marcel and Susana Montero at the 2009 ISTD Summer Celebration