Carlos is one of the true innovators in the world of bachata. His dance style , commonly known amongst his students as ‘Cinta Style’, combines a unique brand of footwork with the traditional form of bachata. His musicality class offers students a valuable lesson in not only how to dance to bachata music, but also how to listen to it as well. Carlos was born in San Francisco, but grew up in Chicago. He has Afro-latin roots as his mother is Mexican and his father is Ghanian. I caught up with Carlos a day after he had returned from a bachata festival in the Dominican Republic. He was moving residences that night, and departing early the next morning for yet another country to teach. So, a midst the moving boxes and randomly strewn masking tape, he patiently and graciously answered my questions.
When you first heard bachata music you hated it. Considering your passion for it now that’s pretty surprising. When did you discover bachata music and why did you dislike it?
I first discovered bachata music in 2003. There was something about the sound. It was kind of boring to me. It was annoying. I didn’t like it at all. But then Aventura came out with the song, ‘Obsesion’ (sings a verse), that’s when the fusion of the R&B and pop music sounds were added to it. So, around that time, that’s when I started to dig it.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
When I was younger I listened to what I guess you would call rock music. Skid Row, Guns N Roses…that kind of stuff. My mother was always at work, she worked three jobs when I was growing up, and my moms sisters would baby sit me. Rock was the kind of music they were into, so that’s what I grew up listening to. When I was in 6th grade we moved and that’s when I got into rap and R&B music, but my mother always had New Age/easy listening music playing. So we would listen to Yanni, Cirque Du Soliel, Acoustic Alchemy, and smooth jazz.
How did you get into teaching bachata?
It was never really a plan of mine. Of course I initially started dancing because of a woman. Long story short, she knew how to dance everything and I didn’t know how to dance anything. We would go out and she would be on the floor dancing all night long. I would be on the couch waiting to at least say ‘hi’ to her, but she just wanted to dance. Needless to say, I didn’t care for her getting dipped in my face all night long. Her getting turned and sweat splashing me in the face, but it wasn’t me making her sweat it was some other dude. I didn’t really like that, so I learned how to dance.
When I first saw bachata it was boring to me. All people did back then (2004) was the basic step. I enjoyed bachata more than salsa and at the time there were a million salsa teachers, but no one was really teaching bachata. I found a partner that was as passionate as I was about doing something different with bachata. We would practice a lot all the time. We would create all these moves and turn patterns, and then do them at the club. I had a few friends who would say, ‘hey, show me how to do that…teach me how to do this’, so I would show them. They said I should start teaching. I told them they were crazy because I didn’t know anything about bachata, and I just did it to have fun. My friends and I had a mutual friend who was teaching salsa at a little Mexican restaurant. She wanted me to teach with her. I told her I didn’t know anything about salsa, but I could do bachata. She said ‘great’ because she wanted to do half-bachata and half-salsa. So, that’s how I got into teaching and I started to like it.
You started out teaching ‘modern’ style bachata, but switched to the ‘Domincan’ style. Why the change?
That didn’t happen until 2009. I was at a club in San Diego and I danced with a Puerto Rican lady who was one of the best dancers on the planet. She just jams. She was so much fun to dance with and that opened my eyes to a whole other side of bachata. I got intrigued. And with San Diego being a big military town there are a lot of Dominicans and Puerto Ricans who come here from New York, New Jersey, or straight from the Dominican Republic. So, hanging out with them I was exposed to how they dance, and how they listen to their music. And even with merengue tipico and the guitar merengues…just listening to that with them and seeing how excited they get. Its addicting and contagious so I started to really like it, and it took off from there.
Many people don’t know the history of bachata. Can you talk a little bit about where bachata originated and why its important for your students to know about the history?
I don’t know everything and I’m still learning a lot myself. I do know that it didn’t start off as a dance. The term ‘bachata’ was used to talk about a certain class of people who weren’t accepted. The Dominican dictator (Rafael) Trujillo didn’t allow bachata to be played. Merengue, Son, and Bolero were allowed, but bachata was for lower class people. It was the ‘poor peoples music’. Bachata is influenced by Cuban rhythms. It wasn’t allowed to be played until Trujillo was assassinated in the ’60s (1961). I think knowing the history is important because I didn’t like bachata until I started hanging around Caribbean people, and being exposed to the Dominican culture. Seeing how they respond to the music, their people, and their culture makes you appreciate it more. This past weekend I got back from the Dominican Republic for the ‘BachaTu’ Bachata Festival. Seeing all those (music) legends on stage through out the course of the weekend was just (pauses) there are no words to describe how important and amazing it was. It’s the birthplace of bachata. All the (bachata) artists that people listen to now, these were the artists that their parents listened too when they were growing up and dancing. These were the people who inspired them. It’s important to be aware of the past no matter what style of music you prefer, and I think its important to know where something comes from.
What do true Dominicans think about the modern style of bachata?
The younger musicians like it because its their generation. The older musicians and singers…I don’t think they like it too much (laughs). Its nothing like how they sing or music they play. Back then the musicians actually had to play instruments, but now a good amount of music is generated on mixing boards and computers. Back in the day you actually had to sing, but now there are pitch correctors and so many changes can be made with electronically. They hide your flaws.
Would you equate it to old school hip-hop versus new school? Back in the day you had turntables and it was more of a street vibe. There was more originality.
(laughs) I can’t even listen to it (hip-hop) now. All you have to do is have a good, catchy beat and you can talk about whatever and you’ll be famous. I don’t see the artistic skill it in at all. All you’re doing is rhyming words…and sometimes the last words in the sentence don’t even rhyme!
Your teaching style is really laid back and humorous, but its also very clear, organized and informative. You don’t have a formal teaching background. What helped you to develop your teaching skills?
Sports. Growing up I was fortunate enough to have coaches that paid attention to detail. I played football in college, and every little detail made a difference. That’s how I was coached and that’s how I played. If I was running through a certain drill and I accidentally touched the cone, I would stop, and start over again because I wanted to make sure I went through it perfect. I think teaching has to be that way. For me, as a teacher, I’m really strict on knowing all the ‘ins and outs’ because people are going to have questions, and if I don’t have the answers it isn’t going to look good on me as a teacher. I try to go through every possible scenario. If I’m going to teach a new move I will practice it first…then ask a dance partner if its comfortable for them. I’ll ask questions because I want it to be user friendly, and I want to fine tune everything before I make it ‘go live’ in a workshop. I’ll test a new way of explaining something to my friends and say ‘hey, does this make sense?’. Actually, I like to try things on people who know absolutely nothing about bachata because if it makes sense to them, then it should be even more clear to someone who does dance bachata. I definitely test everything in ‘the lab’ before I put it out there.
I’ve taken your bachata musicality class and the way you breakdown each instrument within a bachata song is a pretty genius teaching method. Why is learning musicality so important in bachata?
I think its important for all dances and for all genres of music. You can learn to get ahead of the music and you know what’s going to happen before it happens. Rather than being late, you can learn to accent certain things in the music and you can play with different instruments in the music because you can hear it. You react to the music instead of robotic ‘dancing to numbers’ or memory. Thats another reason why I transitioned to the Dominican style of dancing because you don’t have to remember what move comes next and its more based off of a feeling rather than technical movement. Its makes it more fun and enjoyable. Being able to hear everything goes back to my days as a kid when I listened to music all day long, and I would pay attention to every little thing. I’ve been doing that since 6th or 7th grade. When you pay attention you begin to notice the little things that musicians are doing and its like, ‘Wow…that was sweet!’ (laughs).
You’re a big fan of the music thats produced from Cirque Du Soliel. Do you have a favorite Cirque production and how does Cirque help with your teaching?
Oh man! They have so many CD’s out there. Saltimbanco is one of my favorites. Alegria is definitely one of my favorites. Those are probably my two favorites, but there are just so many of them. When you see the shows live its incredible. The music fires you up. There’s just something about the music. Yanni too. Yanni – Live at The Acropolis was one of my favorites growing up. I would listen to all these CD’s before football games. Some people put on rock. Some people put on rap with all the explicit lyrics. Me? I would listen to Cirque Su Soliel, Acoustic Alchemy, Everything But The Girl…(laughs). I would listen to these soft kinds of music in my headphones , but I would get really focused. I would get into another world and start to hear all the little sounds in the background, and the music was constantly changing. I would get deep into the music. That made the transition easier to bachata because there are only five instruments, sometimes a few more, but with these other styles of music there are countless sounds and noises.
You’ve collaborated with Joan Soriano on a variety of projects. How did you guys meet and why do you love his music so much?
I have to give my friend Adam Taub all the credit for this. In 2010, at the Reno Bachata Festival, Adam showed the documentary of Joan. Just seeing how they live in the Dominican and how they grow up. Its all about the music and there isn’t very much money out there…they still go on and become these great musicians. So, I was really interested to meet him (Joan). I remember I was at the DC Bachata Festival later on that year and I met the manager. He was kind of spying on me (joking)…he was in one of my classes. He introduced himself to me as Soriano’s manager and I was like, ‘Oh..wow!’. I got all nervous (laughs). It’s better that he told me after the class because I probably would’ve gotten to nervous to teach. He liked that I was using Soriano’s music and we got along great from there. He told me that in a few months Soriano was going to be playing in Chicago. I was still living in Chicago at the time, so I went to the concert and got to meet him. Man, that was…awesome. I support him so much because his music is great and he’s such a humble person. He just loves singing. He loves performing. He’ll wait and take every last picture, or sign autographs until everyone leaves. I really respect that…especially in today’s world where its about being a superstar and wearing your sunglasses in the club. Or you can’t come within twenty feet of me and I have to be picked up in a black SUV. Blah, blah, blah. With Joan’s group, they’re used to having nothing and they just love playing their instruments. I met his family when I went to D.R. and he’s so welcoming…to anybody. He’ll show you around Santo Domingo and take you to clubs. That’s the kind of person he is. I will support that any day.
In Joan’s biographical DVD “El Duque de Bachata” the very first thing he says is in the DVD is “I don’t have riches, but God gave me the riches of music…” Through out the DVD you become very aware that he’s extremely passionate about his music…Its obvious you’re very passionate about dancing/teaching…How do you maintain that passion?
A few reasons. One, I feel a responsibility to my students. If they’re going to take time out of their day to take my classes, its the least I can do to give them my best effort and give them a good product. Some teachers really don’t care. They show up to class unprepared and could care less. Their attitude is ‘When is my hour over?. Ok. Cool. Pay me my money…see you guys later’. To me, how I was raised as a person, I can’t do that. I like to be there for my students because I am where I am today because of the people. They motivate me. Two, if you really want me to be honest…a lot of the promoters that keep me out their festivals motivate me too. There is a lot of politics involved. A lot of promoters may not value what I do, but I think its money driven rather than out of respect for what I do. I don’t have a school. They (promoters) say I don’t have a dance team with twenty people, so therefore I’m not bringing paying customers to a festival…but, I’m the only person that teaches what I teach, the way that I teach it. I would say the majority of people have found my classes beneficial, yet I’m still kept out of certain festivals…so that really fires me up. That makes me want to go harder and harder, and constantly improve my product, and show them that this is God’s will for me no matter what. You can keep me out of a festival, but I’ve got a product that people like. So…here I is (laughs).
Some bachata teachers perform or have dance teams. You haven’t gotten involved in those types of activities as of yet. Any particular reasons?
I have stage fright (laughs). No joke. For people that don’t know me, I’m actually a very shy person. Very, very shy person. However, when I’m teaching or coaching its a whole different animal. I guess I have two people living inside of me. As soon as I’m done teaching, I’d rather be in the corner to myself. I like to observe people rather than be the center of attention. That’s just not for me. I definitely get stage fright. I forget choreography like its my job. When you’re performing and doing routines you have to put on your ‘face’ and smile. My face would be so concentrated on ‘this comes after this…’, and you would be able to see me thinking. I’m not a performer, man. I choreographed one routine and I forgot my own routine (laughs). That was it for me. One and done. Everyone has a role, and I will stick to teaching. That’s my strength. I respect the heck out of performers…even the newbies and first timers. It takes a lot of courage to do that, so I respect them.
You’ve taught workshops all over the world…what places stand out to you because of the dancing, people, or environment?
I like everywhere that I’ve been. The new experiences and meeting new people. New cultures. Its awesome being able to travel and see different places. I would say I’m more biased towards New Zealand, Poland, Finland and Australia because I’ve been to those places the most. The foundation in those places is very strong. People take classes…and then they take more classes. That’s just what they do. Not to say that other places don’t. Over here (USA) they’d rather learn on YouTube or just go social dancing, but over in those other countries people actually take classes. So their foundation and their understanding, in my opinion, is stronger. In those four particular places the people really stand out but, again, its probably just because I’ve been there more often. I’ve made a lot more friends and spend more time out there.
Carlos recently started a website called “BachatawithCarlos.com”. The video below is a preview of what he offers to potential students. Check it out!
Last question…Barry Sanders or Walter Payton? Who would start for you in your dream back field?
(Deep breath). Come on man, those are my two favorites. (Pause). I’ve got to go with Barry.