James Brown was the hardest working man in show business. Jorge Elizondo may be the hardest working man in bachata. Jorge’s philosophy is to create opportunity, and not wait for opportunity to fall upon you. If there were a Mount Rushmore for the founders of the bachata congress in the United States…Jorge would definitely have his place amongst those chiseled into sculpture. Bachata has swept across the world like wildfire, and Elizondo’s ‘World Bachata Tour’ continues to be instrumental in spreading the word of the Dominican born dance. The World Bachata Tour (created in 2007) is a series of festivals and dance boot camps designed to educate, and instruct the world about bachata one city at a time. Dance Planet Daily caught up with Jorge while he was in San Diego.
Musically you’re very gifted. Actually you’re a classically trained musician. Can you tell us what instruments you play and how your interest in music influenced you growing up?
I’ve been playing saxophone since the sixth grade when I was about eleven years old. I played all the way through college until I was 25 years old, and I studied music and music education. I was inspired by Kenny G. I was classically trained because the university I went to primarily focused on classical music. I didn’t get to focus to much on jazz.
What kind of music did you listen to growing up?
I was inspired by the saxophone. Arists like Charlie Parker, Dave Koz..but Kenny G was probably my biggest influence. I love how he would play something and move thousands of people with simple melodies, and make them sound beautiful. You’ve got jazz artists playing very complex things and the vast majority of people don’t understand what they’re hearing, and don’t appreciate that art form. Kenny G plays really simple things but makes it sound inspired, beautiful and moves people. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something simple that reached the masses, and inspired people. That’s exactly what Kenny G’s music does and that’s pretty much the driving force behind me playing saxophone for such a long time.
In 2002 you were working for Telemundo and a co-worker introduced you to Salsa. At the time you weighed around 400lbs….Can you talk about the challenges you initially faced learning salsa and how you overcame them?
I didn’t have too many challenges to begin with. I was already tackling the overweight aspect by going to the gym. I had never been to a club prior to ages 23, or 24. I was very nerdy…always on the computer and dedicated to my saxophone. One day my friend saw me, I was a little sad from my breakup, and he told me let’s go out (to the club). That’s when I saw salsa for the first time and fell in love. As a musician I was never exposed to salsa, bachata or merengue. I was always listening to classical or other types of music. The biggest challenge for learning salsa was the instructor that I had back home (McAllen, Texas). We spent four months on the basic before connecting with a partner. That was very frustrating for me. Taking classes for four months and not even knowing how to dance with a partner. He was doing Zumba before it was ever popular, but he just didn’t know how to teach it (salsa). He kept saying, ‘Follow me…do this, do this…’ and I was like ‘Can I learn how to dance with a partner?’. (laughs). That’s why my salsa is so good because he kept me on my basic for four months. No instructor does that nowadays.
You were teaching salsa about a year after beginning classes…what factors helped you become an expert so quickly?
The challenge I had was just having a teacher that didn’t know how to teach partner work. So, luckily, one day while taking a private lesson I saw his dance video collection and I saw something called Casino (salsa). I asked him what it was and he said it was a style that they dance in Miami and in Cuba. I was very fortunate that he let me take it home and that’s when I started to learn more partner work. I watched the video that featured Salsa Lovers (dance company) from Miami. I figured out one step. I decided for me to understand it I have to teach it to someone else, and that’s been my logic and philosophy. If you want to master something you have to be able to teach it to someone else. So I learned every single step on the DVD and then taught it to someone. The first thing I actually learned was Casino Rueda. I’ve been a teacher my whole life and this is another aspect that got me dancing so advanced. If I could do it and then explain it, then I understand it better. I started teaching Casino Rueda in my hometown and that was the first thing I was teaching. That’s how I started getting better at salsa.
World-renowned dancer Edie ‘the Salsa Freak’ featured you in her DVD the ‘Worlds Best Leads’. What qualities do you think makes a good lead in any latin dance?
I had a lady that I would dance with. Her name is Rosie. She helped me become a good lead because she wouldn’t do anything unless I lead it. And she would have us do it again, and again. There’s nothing like someone giving you instant feedback. She wouldn’t do anything just to help…she wouldn’t turn unless I made her do it. I was very lucky to have someone like her to give me instant feedback. Leading is such a difficult thing. You have salsa leads, bachata leads, kizomba leads…each one is three different entities. If you’re dancing kizomba you can’t do a bachata lead because kizomba is all chest and body. You’re not supposed to use your hands at all. With Salsa, you’re supposed to have loose hands and you get tension right when the turn is going to happen. In bachata it’s all about connection. You’ve got to have tension and connection through out the whole dance and be able to feel the body movement. Each one requires it’s own specific way of leading.
You were introduced to bachata by a fellow dancer back before the dance was even mainstream. What did you think of bachata initially?
(laughs) True story. The first bachata CD I bought was at a local bookstore and it was $5. I bought it and thought it was trash. I was like, ‘This is terrible. What is this?’. (laughs). I didn’t know who the artists were and it said ‘bachata’ so I bought it. Luckily, where I lived, we had six or seven bands that played bachata, salsa, cha cha and cumbias. So, I began going out and listening to this music and watching people. Several dancers took me aside and showed me the basics. Side to side. Forward and back. What made it special to me was that there was no one giving rules, or saying to me that I couldn’t do this or that. So, I basically started making it up. It gave me so much freedom because in salsa all I got was rules. It was frustrating. It was liberating learning a dance that had no rules and I could do whatever I wanted. I could take what I learned in salsa and put it into bachata. No one told me that was wrong, or right because no one could justify it.
You and a few other instructors realized bachata had lots of potential as a dance beyond the basic 4-step pattern and began mixing it with other styles of dance… one of the innovations from this was Bachata Rueda. For those who don’t know what is Bachata Rueda and how have you helped the dance develop over the years?
Bachata Rueda was what inspired me to start teaching bachata. A dance company called Hips On Fire from Boston were the creators of the original Bachata Rueda. They created their own series with over a hundred moves. It was very popular in the Boston area, and they’re Casino Rueda lovers. They were brought down to teach at the Rueda Salsa Congress. We had one bachata class and that was Bachata Rueda. I took that one class and I really liked it. It was finally something I loved, but with bachata. I took their one hour class and learned seven or eight things. I went home the following Monday and called all my friends and told them I had something to teach them. And that was my first bachata class. I shared with them everything I’d learned in one hour. The following week was my first weekly bachata class. I was starting to make up my own stuff because I only got to experience one hour of Hips on Fire’s class and I couldn’t see the rest of their moves, so I made up my version of Bachata Rueda. I took their core techniques and movements and made up my own calls. So, I developed my own 50 or 60 calls. So, basically, Bachata Rueda evolved from two things. The originators, Hips on Fire. And me taking the basics from their core and creating my own moves. Unfortunately, I get credit for creating Bachata Rueda, but the truth is they invented it. I was just able to travel all over the US and showcase it to more people. On my website I give them full-credit for it.
You organize quite a few festivals, workshops and boot camps each year that take place all over the world…How did you get into being a festival promoter? Do you remember your first event?
My vision was to spread bachata one city at a time, and along the way I met many other bachateros. They were doing their own movements in their cities. As I traveled from city to city I got to meet these individuals. One of them was ‘Rodchata’ (Rodney Aquino) from San Francisco. He’s a person that loves to gather people together, and he had the vision to implement the first bachata congress. He saw that I was very successful with what I do and I had more contacts than anyone else. So he asked me to join him, and we collaborated. The first congress that was put together through advertising was the San Francisco Bachata Congress in July, 2009. Along the way we said lets test this idea first. Rodney and I did a sample congress in Reno in January, 2009. The Reno Bachata congress actually was the first congress, but it wasn’t the first one we were advertising publicly. It came out really well. We had over 120 people come out. We had invited all the bachateros that we had met along the journey, and they supported it. It was crazy! That was actually the first introduction into lap dance classes as well (laughs). People loved it. Ever since then somehow bachata congresses all have lap dance classes now. Its an odd combination but that’s how it began.
Do you find the lap dance class is one of the more popular features of your festivals each year?
People love it. They don’t complain. My dance partner and I (Summer Sando) collaborated for a long time and right before the congress she said she’d like to teach lap dance. Summer believed she had come up with a way to inspire women to be more sensual and confident. She felt the workshop would really bring women out of their shell and we decided to do it. Summer is a very confident woman, and she has a lot of respect for herself. Her husband is a Marine. When we put this together is was all about respect. That’s the way they conducted and approached the class. Her husband helped teach the men to respect the women before they even entered the class. That’s all a part of the routine. Men have to show respect before they even get near the ladies. Its something sensual, but the guys were going to be respectful. It ended up being a winner because no one felt they were in a ‘slutty’ class. It was sensual, sexy and inspiring.
You take a lot of pride in your events…What experiences/feelings do you want dancers to take away from your events?
I want them to feel the event was well organized. When things fall into place like they’re supposed to then the dancers aren’t worried about this or that. They get a sense that they trust the schedule and that things are going to happen on time. I don’t like keeping people waiting. The most important thing is the quality. I hand pick all my artists. I scout my artists. If they can’t teach then they can’t be at my events. They have to be at a certain level of excellence because at the end of the day I’m doing this to educate the public. If I just have ‘any Joe’ teaching then my mission isn’t going to be accomplished. I need my team to understand my vision and what I want to accomplish at the end of the event. That’s why the main thing is that I get top artists who are on-time, and give excellent workshops. I also want them to dance with the students. I don’t focus to much on entertainment because that’s not my event. My event is more for learning and practicing. I give great workshops and dance time. Performances are a bonus. I want dancers to enjoy the shows, but then lets get back to dancing.
You travel quite a bit. I read that you’re on the road for 280 days a year. It would seem your popularity is one of the reasons you stay so busy…what are some of the positives and negatives of being a ‘dance nomad’ so to speak?
I’m on the road because I choose to be. I choose to educate the world. I don’t wait for someone to hire me. I pick a city and I go…and let the people and the community know I’m there. Otherwise bachata never would have grown. There’s only a few artists in the world right now who get invited everywhere, and I’m not one of them. I still continue to do business the way I did in the very beginning. My current tour I’m doing 15 cities and six countries. I decided this ten days ago. I’m teaching in San Francisco, Taipei, Tokyo, Vietnam, Bangkok, Bridgemen (Australia), and Sydney. All of this is happening because ten days ago I was inspired to go teach in those cities. I arranged the tour and bought all my plane tickets. I contacted the promoters and they’re all happy to have me, but a lot of them don’t have the funds to bring talent from outside places. I’m creating the movement and not waiting for the movement to invite me. This is what I feel bachateros do and I’ve been doing this for seven years. The only way to grow the movement is not to just visit once, but to go back and push the movement so they really appreciate it.
You mentioned you’ve been promoting/teaching for seven years…how do you maintain your passion for dancing?
It’s just in me. One day you can come follow me and experience what happens in just one hour with beginners. When I get them and what I can accomplish with them is really inspiring. I’m really working hard to become a better instructor. In one hour I can make them seem like they’ve been dancing for months. That’s what inspires me. The challenge of giving them the knowledge quickly and getting dancers moving forward, and seeing the results at the end. That’s what makes it worth it to me.
What s your favorite dance style when you’re dancing socially?
Bachata. I don’t like salsa. I’m trying not to dance that anymore. (laughs). The truth is I put everything I can give from my salsa into my bachata.
In an interview in 2007 you said that you believed one day bachata will grow and be considered as important as salsa…Do you still believe this to be the case? Why?
Its pretty clear it is now. Every salsa congress has to have bachata in it. It did exactly what I thought it would do and it continues to grow. It’s not just because of the dancing. You have artists now that are coming out with amazing music. They’re mixing modern and urban music with bachata which is grabbing young artists and students. The music itself is inspiring. For Kizomba I don’t see it growing because they don’t have the artists that bachata does. Bachata has Aventura, Romeo, Xtreme, Toby Love…these artists move people. I love listening to Kizomba, but I don’t think there is an artist out there that is going to move the masses like bachata has. I think thats why bachata keeps on moving forward.
Do you currently teach Kizomba and, if not, do you think you’ll ever teach it?
No. I’ve been promoting Kizomba for three years and I do one thing and I like to do it right. Thats why I focus so much on bachata. Honestly, Kizomba would destroy my bachata. All my techniques for bachata don’t work for Kizomba and I would have to forget everything that I know. They’re just two different monsters. As a professional I think that people who take their art seriously focus on one thing and be great at it. So I focus straight on bachata. The year I stop being a professional I will dive into everything and be so-so at everything (laughs).
For more information on Jorge and the instructional DVD’s he offers, visit his website : Bachatafusion.com