Shaka G. Brown discusses Salsa, and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival part two

This article is part two of the interview with Shaka Gonzalez Brown in honor of the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. Part one of the interview discussed Shaka’s: background, the golden age of Washington DC’s Salsa scene, and some of the inspirations for his own social dancing style. Part two will discuss: the current state of salsa, the rise of other Latin dance styles, and the Capital Congress. The pictures used in this post were once again graciously shared by Shaka himself.

Anwar Dunbar: When I started dancing in 2002, Salsa reigned supreme, but then around 2007, Bachata ascended, and then Kizobma and Zouk.

Shaka Gonzalez Brown: They just kept coming up with things to take over from salsa (laughing).

AD: Yes, so you had these other universes coming up. How are things now? You started teaching some Kizomba yourself right? What is the state or balance now of the Latin dances?

SGB: How things now? Well, Salsa used to be the main dish. I was talking to a buddy and he said, ‘Salsa is my steak, and the Bachata is like some mashed potatoes, and one of the other dances might be like some vegetables, but I have to have my steak you know?’

So that was the case for a long time. Bachata and Kizomba are easier dances, so it’s easier to reach the masses. To dance Salsa, it sounds weird to say this – it can be hard and it can be really discouraging for someone. So you have a personality type that wants to learn it, and is going to go into something that’s hard, and they really don’t care about it being discouraging because they have a bigger goal. But there are other people who say, ‘I just want to have fun, and salsa is too complicated.’

So in terms of dealing with that, the instructors, the teachers, and the artists are the ones who have a big responsibility in terms of making it fun as people are on the path, because if you’re discouraging someone who is just starting out, they’re going to find something else to do where they feel more welcome. It’s important to let people know that, ‘You know you’re at this point now, but there’s something to enjoy about being at this point, and we’re going to be with you all of the way whether you’re an advanced dancer or just a beginner.’

I’ve seen this – the schools and the instructors that are able to build the best scenes are the ones who are open and welcome. If you look at folks like Ismael Otero of Caribbean Soul, he’ll have dancers who come in who know nothing from their first day of class, but they know they like the environment and they know they like hanging out with him. As long as you hang out with somebody you’re going to pick up their habits, and you’re going to pick up their touches.

So as the student you say okay, ‘This group of people, I’m going to dance with everybody, they’re friendly and they might be good and they might not be that good, they’re just learning but they’re all a group,’ and that’s what people want to be a part of. They want to be a part of something, so with the Bachata and the Kizomba, the basic steps are pretty simple so there’s not a big range in terms of this person has been doing this for one month, and this person has been doing this for six months.

That six month person can easily dance with that one month person, and still make them feel like they’re doing something, whereas the Salsa can be so exclusive, because as you mentioned, you can get to the social or party and say, ‘I want to dance with the person who has been dancing for five years,’ but they’re going to be so much better than the person who has only been doing it for two weeks, and that two week person could be standing there like, ‘Okay I just spent my money, dressed up, came out and now I’m just standing here not doing anything.’ Then they can go to the Bachata room and someone will grab them and say, ‘Oh you’ve been dancing for two weeks? You’re fine,’ and then they’ll be dancing all night. So it’s how that system is managed that’s really going to determine what happens with the Salsa scene, because people have more options now.

AD: I experienced that firsthand when I moved to Albany (the Capital Region Salsa Social). I did some low level teaching and tried a little bit of DJing as well; both more challenging at times than they look. I wanted to bring Salsa to the area the way that you guys did it, and it just didn’t take. Likewise I witnessed a bunch of people gravitate towards Bachata, and then Kizomba. I just didn’t understand what was going on at the time but you’re right. It’s a very interesting phenomenon.

SGB: And because folks are on different paths sometimes, even when a person says, ‘I want to be a DJ,’ they may want to DJ because they have music that they like. I was talking with Lorenzo Haire (DJ Renzo), and we talked about how there is a difference between a DJ and music collector. A music collector is going to have music that they like, so they’ll say, ‘I’m going to play something that I like and hope that you’ll like it,’ whereas a DJ will ask, ‘What is it that I can do with this crowd?’

Renzo said the same thing. He said, ‘I don’t make up playlists. I get to the venue, start playing a song, and see how it works. If that works then I’ll work with that, but you don’t come with a full playlist of everything you’re going to play regardless of the people that are there.’ So when you have someone who says, ‘This is the music that I like, and you guys need to like it as well, and this is the only thing I’m going to play for you,’ it can turn people off. Some people might want to hear some Salsa Romantica, some Marc Anthony, some Bachata – do something to draw me in not push me away.

AD: That’s right and I was guilty of that. People definitely have different palates in terms of music and it’s a lot like eating a meal.

So Shaka on that same vein, when I first started dancing in Detroit (the YA Social), I didn’t organize any of the events, so I was unaware of what goes into: starting socials, coordinating with other studios, and building up relationships with other instructors, and I was oblivious to all of the behind the scenes stuff. I got a lot of exposure to that when I moved to Albany where I saw the politics that go on, the business side of dancing, the rivalries, and all of those unpleasant things. Describe your transition from being a student, to an instructor/performer, to a promoter.

SGB: Everything is a transition and an adjustment – like when you go from being the guy who goes out and dances to the guy who teaches, people will look at you through a different lens. There are folks I know who I see when I go out, and we chat it up each time we’re at a party. Our relationship is seeing them at the club and they have fun when they’re dancing. But if they tell me, ‘Oh I’m teaching over here, here, and here now,’ now I’m thinking, ‘Whoa wait a minute what’s your goal there?’ Now I just don’t look at you and see how you dance, but technically how you dance.

Are you just having fun? Do you know what you’re doing? Are you able to communicate that to people and teach that? I don’t want to say you look at the person as less, but you are way more critical of what they’re doing and if they haven’t taken that into account, then that can be a turnoff for me, just like if I was to suddenly promote myself as a Salsa DJ. I mean I’ve been in this thing for 15-16 years, but I know that I am not a DJ. If I tell people I’m a DJ, the DJs I respect are going to hold me to the flame. If you’re a DJ, can you handle this situation? Can you handle that situation? And I realize, no I can’t handle that situation so why am I calling myself a DJ?

So it’s the same thing with being a promoter. I’m much more of a dancer than I am a promoter because when I see folks actually promoting, I think, ‘I should be doing that.’ They’re the ones handing out flyers and talking to people, pushing people and just constantly promoting, and promoting and promoting. That’s the job of a promoter and so on. Each time you want to wear a new hat, you want to make sure you’re willing to go through what it takes to be that, or else you’re not being fair to yourself.

AD: So sometimes you have dancers who say, ‘I want to teach. I want to start a school. I want to host my own event.’ The short version of it all is that there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes when you transition from social dancing to the promoting, and the event organizing.

SGB: Every single one of those aspects is a very separate job, and you don’t need to be the do all person. If you’re just good at one particular thing, that’s going to rise. If I try to do everything and say, ‘Oh I can teach. I can promote. I can DJ. I can create flyers. I make my own t-shirts and I can bake cookies,’ then it’s like, okay which one of these things are you really going to do? If you’re average at everything and not doing one thing well, then you’re just that; average. You want to be great at something.

AD: So now Shaka, talk about the Capital Congress.

SGB: We started it in 2005 and it came out of a house party we used to do back in 2002 and 2003. We had a big apartment, my friend Dupree and I, with wood floors, and we said, ‘Why don’t we do a house party?’ I was much more of a promoter then because I would send out these long emails. They were funny and they were dramatic. It was just me trying to get people to come to the party. We must have done about six of these parties and we had people flying in from Chicago, coming from North Carolina, coming in from New York, just for these house parties. And so a promoter, my buddy the late David Melendez saw what I was doing with these parties and said that he wanted to do a Salsa Congress in DC. And so I told him, ‘I’m not a promoter,’ and he said, ‘No just do what you normally do,’ and that’s what we did for the Salsa Congress.

That started in 2005, and David passed away in 2007 and I continued doing the event since then. First when I moved out to Portugal and to Miami, it was like a homecoming. For me each year I was like, okay I’m coming back and doing this event which is an opportunity for everyone to be under one roof and of all different skill levels, and all different dance types, and to have access and to be able to learn from the best instructors in the world because they’re all there, and they’re available to interact. I think it’s like you mentioned, it’s important for the instructors to be available so a beginner can come up to them and have the same chance to get a dance as the most advanced dancer. Also the best instructors I know like teaching beginning classes because sometimes we think that the best instructors are going to be teaching the advanced classes.

Sometimes as an advanced dancer, you know how to get the concepts a person is trying to teach whether they’re teaching it well or not. But it’s to the beginner dancers whom you say, ‘Okay let me show you the most important aspects of what you’re doing,’ and getting that guidance from one of the top five dancers in the world, who will say, ‘Let me show you guys two things that if you get these, you’ll be able expand yourselves and take your dance to new level,’ instead of saying, ‘Oh these are the beginners. Let anybody teach them. All we’re going to do is walk back and forth and do right turns.’

There are so many ways you can grow a scene by having the right people – by having that right fertilizer for it. For me that’s what the Congress is. I know it goes well when I can put everybody in the room and just leave and know that folks are going to have a good time and that there’s not going to be any weird drama. There’s not going to be people turning down other people. That to me is the joy of the event. That’s the best part.

AD: So a Congress (in the dance context) is essentially a weekend of: dance workshops, shows-.

SGB: It’s workshops, parties, performances – and you know it’s a Latin dance experience.

AD: And it looks like you guys have expanded it to incorporate: Bachata, Zouk, and Kizomba.

SGB: Well it’s the same thing; I don’t want just steak. I want the steak, the mashed potatoes, and the vegetables. I want everything to come together at the middle of the pot. My focus is making sure Salsa doesn’t end up as the back burner-type thing. I live in Miami and outside of my window, they have the Ultra Music Festival. It’s hundreds of thousands of people all in one place, and as an event organizer, I think to myself, ‘Oh it would be great to have something like that,’ but as a Salsero I think okay there aren’t that many Salseros, and if I had that many people, I would not be able to cater to what it is that I love. I would not be able to have just David Gonzalez, Hector Martinez and Frankie Morales that I can just text and talk to on Facebook and say, ‘This is what we’re going to do. We’re putting this kind of sound together and we’re going to do the old Tito Puento version of this with him playing this,’ and knowing that’s an experience unlike any other.

There aren’t hundreds of thousands of people who will come for that, and I don’t care about that. I want to have that two thousand people come together and have that experience of seeing the New Swing Sextet, and seeing Terry and Cécile. One of the biggest joys for me last year was that I did my first performance to a New Swing Sextet song, and to have the New Swing Sextet last year at my congress say, ‘Hey I want to dedicate this song to Shaka,’ and I said, ‘What?’, and they played that song and I was able to dance to it. That for me is the magic of the event and the most important thing is saying, ‘This is Salsa. This is Latin music.’ The other stuff, I can get that anywhere.

AD: Okay Shaka I’ve got three more questions. Running a congress, what has it taught you?

SGB: In terms of organizing a congress? – finding people who are much better at their jobs than I am. I’ve also learned to hire the best people to: manage the dance floors, the sound, the installation, and manage the DJs. Each one of those tasks, I would tell myself, ‘Oh yeah I can do that task,’ but having to do all of those tasks is overwhelming and I learned that each time I find the right person that I can delegate to, then I find that life becomes so much more – Well maybe you even get a chance to dance at your own event. So I’ve learned that you go professional for as much as you can. If you do anything halfway, then you get halfway results.

AD: The last two questions are related to performances. So the original performance you did with Psyon Mauricio Scott; the famous two man routine, is that available anywhere? Is it on YouTube? Or is it locked away in a vault somewhere?

SGB: If you find it let me know (laughing). I have some halfway versions of it but – this was before YouTube even existed. I think I have one version somewhere, but I would like to see it so that I can go and re-learn it and do it somewhere. We danced to “El Presidente Dante” by Frankie Dante Y Su Orquesta Flamboyan. I first heard that song when DJ Bruno played it at Clarendon Grill. But in terms of performances, that is important to me for people to know what song we’re performing to, and who did it and what version, because you have a lot of folks who just start doing it without knowing what they’re doing and why. So we push that on our teams and say, ‘You guys need to know the music we’re dancing to,’ because one of the most embarrassing things for me is to have a dancer on my team who doesn’t know the song we’re dancing to.

AD: The last question; the five man musical chairs routine you did at the Flava Invasion with Pyson Mauricio Scott, Gordon Neil, Sekou McMiller and Leon Rose, is it true you guys put that together in 10 minutes? One of them told me that.

SGB: That routine, we had no idea what we were doing for that routine (laughing). Gordon said he wanted us to do a routine, and we got together in the middle of the Flava Invasion, and we went over to Gordon’s house. He said, ‘I’m thinking we’ll use this song’ (The Hustler by Willie Colon). We counted out the eight counts in the song and realized there were five sections that we could use. And then the chorus so to speak – that horn riff that comes in, we said, ‘Okay that repeats, so we can all do the same thing for that chorus, and then in between, each person will just free-style.’ And then we decided that when we brought each person up, we’d just rotate the chairs. So we did that, and we kind of just listened to it, said okay that works, and then we all left. We had a specific cut of the song we were going to use, so right before we’re about walk onto the stage, Gordon says to me, ‘Oh we’re going to use the whole song,’ and I said, ‘What?’

So we’re all up there (laughing), and if you see us, we’re all counting the song throughout the chorus and looking at each other. Our plan was that we would stomp so that the other person would know that they were cued up. So you see us all just standing there – you might even see our lips moving, and then at one point in time we stomp, and if the person was off on the stomp, then they would know, because everyone else was stomping. You’d say, ‘Oh this is where we are so now it’s my turn to go out there.’That was a lot of fun in terms of how random and spontaneous it was. We all said, ‘We have to make it through this song.’

AD: Okay, because the end result was brilliant, especially when you did that flip (laughing).

SGB: Oh god. That flip – I can tell you why I did that flip, because I was thinking, ‘I can do a backflip,’ when it was my turn to go up, but Leon went before me, and Leon did a backflip and then I thought, ‘Okay now I have to come up with something else now,’ At the same time I’m counting and stomping and trying to remember when I have to go up, so I said, ‘Okay I’ll do a front flip.’ So I did a front flip and you might notice that I didn’t land on my feet. I landed on my back.

So I do the front flip, land on my back, and then I kept dancing and my back was killing me, and as I walked off of the stage, I’m texting my chiropractor (laughing) and saying, ‘Okay I’ve got to see you on Monday.’ But yes I thought I was going to break my back out there, and there was something that happened with Gordon – he was doing his free-style, and he grabbed his foot as he was spinning around, and afterwards I asked him, ‘Did you just grab your boot?,’ to which he said, ‘I was feeling it (laughing).’ That was the fun of the Flava Invasion that year. There’s a story behind everything if you get to watch that show again.

AD: Yes when I saw it, I was trying to show it to everyone and telling everyone how great it was.

Well Shaka thank you again for this amazing interview. We covered a lot. Thanks for helping me get through graduate school, your teaching and your inspiration, and even for sharing some music files here and there over the years. I look forward to seeing you and everyone else at the Capital Congress this year in June.

SGB: Okay thank you Anwar. I loved being a part of this, and I’ll see you at the Congress.

To learn about the stellar schedule of workshops, and performances Shaka Gonzalez Brown and his team have put together, visit the Capital Congress website.

Thank you for taking out the time to read this interview. If you’ve found value here and think it would benefit others, please share it and/or leave a comment. To receive all of the most up to date content from the Big Words Blog Site, subscribe using the subscription box in the right-hand column in this post and throughout the site, or by copying the link to my RSS feed to your email’s feedreader. Please check out my YouTube channel entitled, Big Discussions76. You can follow me on the Big Words Blog Site Facebook page, and Twitter at @BWArePowerful. Lastly, you can follow me on Instagram at @anwaryusef76. While my main areas of focus are Education, STEM and Financial Literacy, there are other blogs/sites I endorse which can be found on that particular page of my site.

Shaka G. Brown discusses Salsa and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival part one

“The combination of people on the same mission created a wave of dancers and appreciation.”

Before becoming a scientist and a writer, I was a scientist and a dancer. I fell in love with Salsa music and dance during graduate school, and became hooked. The dancer I emulated the most was Shaka Gonzalez Brown, founder the Capital Congress Latin Music and Dance Festival.

Two years ago, one of my last pieces on the Examiner was an interview with my Salsa-hero Shaka Gonzalez Brown. We talked about both his personal journey as a dancer, and his signature event, the Capital Congress which takes place every June. I’ll most likely promote this timeless piece annually as it not only discusses a magical time in my own life, but it also gives anyone unfamiliar with it, a look into the world of Latin music and dance.  The pictures in this post were graciously shared by Shaka himself.

* * *

In Washington DC, the words Capital and Congress typically bring to mind political showdowns between Democrats and Republicans. There is however an annual gathering in Washington DC which uses the same words but for a more fun purpose; the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. The much anticipated event will feature four days of non-stop: Salsa, Bachata, Kizomba, and Zouk. There will be numerous: workshops, master classes, boot camps, and parties. In honor of the event, the co-founder of the Capital Congress, Shaka Gonzalez Brown granted an interview on April 25 to discuss: his journey as a dancer, teacher, and promoter, the current popularity of the Latin dances, and finally the Capital Congress.

Anwar Dunbar: Shaka, first off thank you for this opportunity to interview you. I hadn’t been out dancing in a long time when I saw you at Mr. Mambo’s Salsa Social. I write about education and STEM-related topics for the Examiner and when I was at the social, I recalled that Salsa dancing is a science in itself. In addition to educating oneself on becoming a dancer socially or professionally, it’s also very important for personal health, and quality of life. With the Capital Congress approaching, I figured it would be a great time to potentially interview you, so again thank you.

Shaka Gonzalez Brown: It’s funny how those light bulb moments happen.

AD: Yes it is. My questions will cover a broad range of topics: your background, varying aspects of social dancing, the different Latin dances, and finally the Capital Congress. So with that, we’ll get started. So Shaka you’re originally from Washington DC right?

SGB: That’s right. I was born at the Howard University Hospital.

AD: How did you get started dancing Salsa? Is it something you grew up with or at some point did you wander into a studio? In an interview years ago in Johnny Johnson’s La Voz Del Mambo magazine, I think you said that there was a female (laughing) – which is the reason a lot of us guys get into this, but how did you get started?

SGB: I got interested in Salsa in my senior year of college at Florida A & M University (FAMU). There was a Cuban restaurant I liked going to, and there was waitress who I thought was the prettiest lady in the world. I would go there and eat about three to four times a week. One day she told me about their end of the year party; the pig roast barbecue outside party type of thing and she told me to come to it. She could have told me to go anywhere else and I would have been there.

I got there and they were playing Merengue. She just kind of moved around and bopped around and she asked me to dance. I didn’t know what to do, and I was confused. My friend went off and danced with her and I realized that I had been coming to this place so many years looking for that one opportunity, and I had just missed it. And that’s when I decided that I was going to learn how to do this, and maybe one day I’d get a chance to dance with her.

AD: Now in terms of your lineage, are you part Cuban?

SGB: My grandfather is Cuban; he grew up in Tampa. That’s where my name comes from.

AD: You do dance fulltime now, but your educational background is in Information Technology systems (IT) right?

SGB: Yes I studied IT; computer information systems. I graduated last century.

AD: When did you decide that you wanted to do dance fulltime in terms of teaching, performing and promoting events?

SGB: I didn’t so much decide that I wanted to do dance fulltime. For what I was doing in IT, I was getting great jobs. I graduated, and I was high in my classes. For what that experience was in school, the path I was on – I wasn’t really happy with it. My priorities in life have always been to: travel, and to interact with people, to teach and to learn – that’s pretty much what keeps me keeps me going. I wasn’t waking up excited to go to work to setup computers, and mail them off, and set up more computers. There was no joy to keeping networks secure. It was just a constant demand, and it starts to tug at you. It created a vacuum and so I said let me do this Salsa teaching thing that I really enjoy after I had quit the job, and it’s been growing since then.

AD: Now were your coworkers surprised to hear that you were this instructor and skilled dancer?

SGB: My coworkers? They just thought it was a hobby. When you’re spending more time doing your hobby than your actual job, you have to make some adjustments. My thought process was that if I’m spending 10-12 hours on a job from the time I wake up to the time I get home, and what I really enjoy doing, I’m only doing for four to five hours each day, how can I enjoy doing what I love doing for eight hours a day, make that my fulltime job and put that same energy and commitment into it? Then I would be a lot happier, and then numbers-wise I said, ‘You know I can make something like this work.’

AD: Now I don’t know if you remember this, but on one of your visits to Detroit for the Yoruba Andabo Salsa Social, I told you, ‘Shaka out of all of the dancers I’ve seen you’re my favorite,’ to which you looked at me with a surprised expression and said, ‘Thank you.’ But yes you became my favorite dancer. You’re going to laugh at this, but it got to the point where when I moved to Albany, NY, my friend Lana Ortiz literally started calling me, ‘Shaka.’

SGB: I really appreciate that (laughing).

AD: Seriously. Albany was more of an isolated community at the time so when I moved there I was saying things like, ‘Shaka Brown, Shaka Brown, he’s my favorite dancer-,’ and I would just go on and on.

SGB: I really appreciate hearing that. One day I’m going to go to Albany. Folks are going to say, ‘You’re not Shaka Brown,’ and I’m going to say, ‘Yes I am (laughing).’

AD: In another instance Lana was riding around in her car with someone from one of New York City’s well established dance companies. I called her on her cell phone and she picked up the phone and said, ‘Shaka?’ You could hear the other person literally ask, ‘Is that Shaka Brown?’ Seriously (laughing).

The first time I remember seeing you was at the Canada Salsa Congress in 2002 or 2003. I think Troy and Jorjet were having an issue with their music during a workshop, and you lent them your iPod or something. That was around the time you were leading the Clavekazi Dance Company and you guys had the original lineup. I think that was the “Golden Age” of Salsa in DC, and I moved here three to four years afterwards. What was it like? I hear so much about it. You were out social dancing pretty regularly. Psyon was out regularly and there were a number of dance companies and schools here all at once. Describe that time.

SGB: Well that Golden Age – it’s scary to think about that because to think about a Bronze Age and a Golden Age, it sounds like it was a millennium ago. That was probably 2000 to 2003 or 2004 because once I graduated from FAMU, I came back to DC, and then moved to Brazil when I quit my job. I came back at the beginning of 2001. Our goal was to start a dance company, and teach people how to dance and to promote mambo (NY Style On2 Salsa). The combination of people on the same mission created a wave of dancers and appreciation.

We would go out dancing just about every night: Clarendon Grill on Mondays, the Barking Dog on Tuesdays, and then Zanzibar on Wednesdays. Zanzibar was like the peak of the week and after that we just kind of worked our way around to other place the rest of the week; Thursdays and Fridays we would go to Havana Village, and the Salsa Room/Cecelia’s. Saturdays there was Relish which changed its name to Ooh La La, and that was right downtown. Sundays you might have off unless you had a barbecue over someone’s house. But there was just so much opportunity for people to go out and dance, and go out and practice.

You had people who just loved the music and loved the dancing; people like Eileen Torres. It was so important to her that she would be at Zanzibar regularly. Folks would come out and she would use that as an opportunity to teach them about the music and the artists. She would bring people down from New York City and say, “This is Pequeño Johnny playing the congas.” And so in that way, she would bring life to the music so folks were more connected to what was going on, and we really appreciated that.

And even the DJs, DC has some of the best Latin DJs in terms of their knowledge of the music and their commitment to knowing what they’re doing when they’re playing. It’s not just, “Oooh I like that song.” They looked at the album, the singers, the percussionists, every single person on there to ensure that it was going to be a good combination. We took a lot of it for granted because I just thought that was how it was supposed to be. I didn’t realize until I started going out to other cities that there wasn’t that appreciation and the same focus on the music in other places.

AD: Now on that same vein, what’s the Miami Salsa community like in comparison to DC’s or New York’s?

SGB: Miami is a different kind of scene. It’s definitely more Latin. In terms of Salsa, there are way more stations. You can turn on the radio here and hear Latin music all of the time. That’s not an issue. In DC, you’ll have Nancy Alonzo – you’ll have stations where for the next two hours, she for example will have a Salsa program, and that’s all they’re going to do.

She would do a similar thing to what Eileen did at Zanzibar; promote the knowledge of that particular Salsa culture, whereas down here in Miami, you turn on the radio, you’ll get a station that speaks Spanish, but you’ll get lots of Bachata and a wide range of other Latin genres, so it’s not necessarily very specific to where you’ll only get Salsa. I really can’t speak on New York, because I know it has a huge salsa community, and with the amount of Puerto Ricans and Nuyoricans there, it’s way past what I would feel comfortable discussing. When I’m in New York City, I just like being out there on a corner and seeing someone with a conga,
and just enjoying the music.

AD: Yes there is nothing like it. I went to the Jimmy Anton Social after not going for a couple of years, and I saw the same core group of folks dancing hard for four hours on a Sunday evening. There’s nothing like it.

So a year or so after I saw you at the Canada Salsa Congress that first time, you actually came to Detroit; the first of three times, and I think it was around that time that I bought your Advanced Turn Patterns VHS with Griselle Poncé. Shortly thereafter I was doing the arm bump move where you bump her hand with your elbow and catch it on the other side. Then I got you step by step series with Yesenia Peralta. The interesting thing is that after I watched your instructional videos and then watched you social dance, the two looked very different.  The following is rare footage of Shaka dancing with the great Magna Gopal at the 2007 Atlanta Salsa Congress.

As opposed to going move to move to move, which is what a lot of young (and older) dancers do, your dancing (partner-work and styling) looked very improvisational, and very organic – almost like you were out there experimenting every time with every song, and with every lady. You just made it look really easy, and really fun. You also had your own image: the polo shirt, jeans, sneakers, etc. How did you develop your style? Who were your influences?

SGB: I developed that particular style because I like Kung Fu movies. I know that sounds funny but I spent so much time in college watching Kung Fu movies and it wasn’t about the plot. I just loved seeing the interaction of the fight sequences. I didn’t want lots of cutaways, and I wanted to see how a fighter would go from this move to that move and after that move how he would go to this move – and so it’s not a plan. In my mind it was not knowing what was coming up, and just seeing how people reacted to it. That’s what I love.

I’m not really a fighter so the closest thing I get to that is partner dancing. It’s the same thing of – I’m going to try to do this thinking that my partner is going to do that, and if they don’t do that I need to be able to do something different and adjust to it in such a way to make it enjoyable, and non-painful. It’s the adjustment to that that I love. So what I did was I took classes anywhere that I could, because I liked seeing how different people taught.

But the moves that I’ve learned in the classes, I’ve never taken it as, ‘Okay this is choreography.’ These were tools with which I would try to figure out how to get from one to the other. Likewise the way that I teach, I try to teach things in terms of them being very granular; you can do this move at this time, and you can do that move at this time, and then you can make this transition – so the students can kind of build their own dance.

So when you watch me dance, I’m not going in there with a plan. I’m just going in saying, okay it looks like this person likes this band or they don’t, their arms are strong or they’re not, or maybe they like this kind of song – so all of those variables are what I throw into a soup, and as a chef I say, “Okay what would I do with these ingredients?” And that’s where it comes from. It’s like my mind is constantly running, but I’m living in that moment, and that’s what I love about it.

AD: That’s fascinating because when dancers start out, if the partner work breaks down for whatever reason, the lead or the follow will apologize for making a perceived mistake. The other thing I observed watching you was that your musicality was always on point.

SGB: Sometimes I’m dancing with someone and they say, ‘I’m not sure I can follow you,’ and I tell them, ‘I have no idea of what I’m going to do, so I can’t expect you to know so don’t worry about it. There’s no plan here. We’re just going to enjoy this song right now.’

AD: Now one of the other most important things I learned from you when you visited us at the Yoruba Andabo Salsa Social in Detroit was that you danced with all of the ladies regardless of level and had a blast with all of them. When me and some of my peers were younger dancers and trying to prove ourselves, we only wanted to dance with the intermediate and advanced ladies, but I noticed that you didn’t discriminate and afterwards I decided that I too would dance with everyone regardless of level, and try to make it fun. So you learn a lot by watching.

SGB: Yes you do. There’s no scale; this is a good dancer, this is a great dancers, this is a fantastic dancer and you only want to dance with people at this level or at that level. It’s kind of like an ocean where you say, ‘I only want to go in the ocean where the water is this deep.’ There are so many things to appreciate at so many different levels. Every single person you dance with, you’re understanding them, and you’re talking with them and communicating with them. If their timing is horrible, that’s what you guys can work on; giving her something you guys can share and appreciate.

Sometimes I get turned off when someone says, ‘Oh you should dance with this person because they’re a good dancer.’ As I dance with them, it might not be a good dance because what someone else considers a good dance might not be a good dance for me just because they can spin a lot or they’re really light. Being really light isn’t just the dance because I’ve danced with people who didn’t really do anything at all, but I learned something because it was a particular song where they told me, ‘Oh I really love this song,’ and for me I may have just heard the beat and wasn’t listening to what they were listening to. I may hear something else and I learn something, and it didn’t matter how many times we spun or how many cross body leads, or turn patterns we did. It was about that experience, and you get that from every dance.

AD: That’s interesting because as young dancers, when you go to Congresses, you feel like you have to dance with: Magna Gopal, Griselle Poncé, Anna Masacote, etc.

SGB: The “A-Listers”.

AD: Yes and if they tell you, ‘No,’ you’re crushed but if they say, ‘Yes,’ it makes your whole weekend, and you feel like you’ve really come up and been validated in some way.

Thank you for taking out the time to read this interview. It will be continued in part two of, Shaka G Brown discusses Salsa, and the Capital Congress Latin Dance Festival. To learn about the stellar schedule of workshops, and performances Shaka Gonzalez Brown and his team have put together, visit the Capital Congress website.

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