Rodney Aquino is The Godfather and creator of the first bachata congress in the USA (2009). His events draw large numbers of dancers who want to experience bachata culture, music and dance at its finest. Few others have done more than Rodney to bring together and facilitate unity among bachateros. He is currently planning a bachata competition, The Bachata Gold Cup. Dance Planet Daily talked with Rodney and he gave a very candid and incredibly eye-opening look into the bachata world that he has helped shape over the past decade.
You are Filipino, correct?
Yes. My parents are from the Philippines. I was born in San Francisco. When I was 12 years old they sent me to the Philippines for school.
Did you have any exposure to Latin music and dance growing up?
My parents danced Tango. They were the stars in their generation I think! (laughs). It was kind of weird to look at them dance, but we had a lot of salsa and mambo music when I was a kid. Generally speaking Filipinos are influenced by Latin and Spanish culture, and that’s how I got exposed to it.
Although you’re widely known for your involvement in bachata, your early days in the Latin dance scene were spent teaching and promoting salsa. How did you initially get into salsa dancing?
I was into Latin ballroom. I was competing with my partner and one night I saw this guy doing some cool moves at a club. He would almost kiss women, or brush their hair while dancing certain moves. I said, ‘My God! He can actually get away with that! (laughs)’. That was about 18 years ago. I pursued salsa and I left ballroom because I really did not enjoy a restricted type of dance (ballroom).
When did you begin teaching dance and did you have any mentors who helped guide you?
I had several mentors. I had Eddie Torres as a mentor for mambo. I actually had the Vasquez brothers in L.A for salsa. At that time they were really big! I did the salsa thing but I was not really good at it. In the bay area back then if you weren’t latino, no one would want to dance with you. They would want to see how good you were as a dancer otherwise they would say no. Whenever I asked woman to dance, they would look me up and down, and say ‘No!’. That really offended me. I said to myself I’m going to start a website and gather email addresses and we’re going to go as a group! And that’s exactly what I did. We used to have a website called Salsagang.com. We’d grown to 500-600 people. In the bay area back then people could not believe that a bunch of Asians ruled the club! (laughs).
Talk a little bit more about that…So, did you find lots of resistance and discrimination when you initially started dancing?
Absolutely. It’s been that way even to this day. I call it “Dancism”. It’s that way even if you go to the Dominican communities. Lets say you go to Washington Heights in New York. You should go visit as that’s a predominately Dominican scene when it comes to dancing. If you’re a ‘gringo’ they want to see if you can actually dance their dance. Some of them are really, really purist. They say, “Hey, you’re not dancing bachata, you’re dancing this…’ You’ve got to hang with them and appreciate their culture, and then they’ll begin to look at you differently. It’s the same thing with any other dance like Cuban salsa, Rueda, or Casino.
You’re a certified Personal Fitness Trainer and you hold a 4th Degree Black Belt in the Martial Arts?
I wish I was still practicing, but I’m not practicing anymore! (laughs).
Do either of those accomplishments aid you in dance instruction? If so, how?
Yes. Absolutely! In my salsa and ballroom days, the best instructors I had were martial artists or martial arts teachers. I didn’t realize it until I started teaching. They were dynamic and skilled at being able to explain techniques. The what, where, why, and how come. These skills were applied to their presentation to a point where you don’t forget it. Its ingrained in you. I picked that up when I started teaching. You don’t gain students by the way you look. Whether you look flashy or not…You gain students through great teaching and a great class that they can actually retain. Jorge Elizondo (Also interviewed by Dance Planet Daily) is a living testimony to that.
Jorge is a great guy! I’ve met him on several occasions. I’ve taken several of his classes and he is definitely a proponent of being fundamental before you become flashy.
When were you introduced to bachata dancing and what did you think about it initially?
I lived in New York for two years. I was going to school there. Often times I would go to Washington Heights and go to Dominican restaurants. Every time I would go to a restaurant they would be playing bachata music, but I didn’t know it was bachata at the time. One couple danced it. Very simple. They weren’t doing any patterns or any turns at all. I thought, ‘They can actually dance to this music!’ I asked the waiter what kind of dance it was and he said it was bachata. I started getting curious about it. I’m a guitar player so for someone to play a guitar in that manner…I was like ‘What in the world is going on here…?’ (laughs). It was a totally different format, but I began to like the music. When I got back to the bay area I went to the Acapulco Night club. There were two ladies dancing bachata, but they were dancing differently. You know that side to side with the bump on the fourth beat…I thought it was interesting. One of them danced with me. Trust me, I couldn’t dance at that time (laughs). I loved the music but I was really beginning to hate this dance! One of the ladies taught me right there on the dance floor!
How did this love of guitar help you gain a better appreciation of bachata?
It’s more of the lyrics. The blues or country type of format. I travel a lot and whenever I drive I really get into the music. Not because of the melody, but it’s really the lyrics. I understand a little Spanish and these aren’t pleasant songs brotha! (laughs). There are some tragedies, but for some reason I’m drawn to it. It’s the emotional side to bachata.
Bachata music and dance haven’t always been appreciated by the public like it is today. Can you talk a little bit about the history of bachata and where it came from?
Bachata came from the Dominican Republic…in particular the poor and rural areas. There are two kinds of people in the Dominican Republic; the poor and the rich. To this day, the ‘elite’ denounce bachata. About three years ago some partners and I decided to start the first bachata congress in the Dominican Republic. I inquired with the hotels in Santo Domingo (capital of Dominican Republic). We wanted four or five-star hotels. I told them we were going to have a bachata congress there and if they had any space. They said, ‘Sorry Mr. Aquino we don’t have any space for you’. We had about 12-13 hotels that we called. I had an idea after about a week of calling them (hotels). I called the very first hotel and said, “We’re going to have a Latin dance festival in Santo Domingo.’ They said, “Sure, Mr. Aquino, we have space for you!’ (laughs). At that point I realized the Dominican has not changed at all. When Rafael Trujillo was the dictator there he really made sure that bachata was banned, and that merengue was king. I know a club owner as I’m friends with his son. They literally closed that club because they were playing bachata back in the day.
Wow! That’s pretty amazing!
Even to this day people still hate bachata! I was in South Korea teaching bachata and kizomba. The Angolan embassy really liked it. They sponsored me and paid for my flight. We organized a VIP party. The ambassador of Angola invited the ambassador of the Dominican Republic and his diplomats. I was excited! I told the ambassador of the D.R. that we were going to be playing lots of bachata! He wasn’t excited and he asked me, “Do you have any merengue…?” (laughs). So, no matter what Romeo or Prince Royce do, it has not changed.
I can’t believe that! What do you think it is about the music or culture that repulses them so much?
I’m almost 47 years old. I’ve seen how hip-hop grew in the United States. To this day some people like it and some don’t. It’s the same thing with bachata lyrics. It’s the lyrics. There was a time when the lyrics had a lot of sexual innuendo. Juan Luis Guerra is a very popular artist. He has won a lot of Grammy awards. He really tried to change the lyrics by creating the very first bachata album. Its called Bachata Rosa (1990). One particular song started as Cuban son, but it’s really bachata. It was a test and for some reason he got a lot of awards for it. He infused it with bolero, but bachata really comes from bolero. Most of his lyrics are more romantic instead of tragedy.
I interviewed Jorge Elizondo a few weeks back and he credited you with being the creator of the first bachata congress in the USA. What vision did you have for the first festival and was it difficult to organize?
It was difficult. I did a lot of pulling teeth. What influenced me to do it was that I participated in the first bachata festival in the world in Sydney, Australia (2008). I got invited by them. They said to me, ‘Rodney, we’ve only heard of you from Facebook and Google. We don’t know what we’re doing…but let’s do this!’ (laughs). It was a 14 hour flight there and it was storming (laughs). It turned out great. We had about 300-400 people from all over the world…New Zealand, Asia, etc. I was the only representative from the United States at that time. I told my guys I can see this happening in the United States. The moment I do this, it’s going to spread out all over the world. The minute it spreads in the USA you know everyone else will follow. That next year I did it in a hotel called Hotel Whitcomb in San Francisco. About four years prior to this, I had been fighting the DJ’s in the bay area to play bachata and nobody would play it. In November of 2008, I told Jorge and Juan Ruiz (co-founders of the first bachata festival) I’d like to talk to them about doing a bachata congress. I said let’s go to Reno. Of all places, Reno! (laughs). We had about 150 people show up. I told Jorge and Juan that 150 people was good enough. We could multiply it in San Francisco. Sure enough, we had about 300-400 people for the San Francisco festival. Those 300-400 people were not locals! They were coming from all over the world, and to this day I still remember some of them. They can tell you that was probably the best bachata festival ever. Many popular artists started there…and they now probably have their own bachata festival! (laughs).
Thanks to you of course!
Your events are incredibly popular in the latin dance community. The San Francisco Bachata Festival, Reno Bachata Festival, among others bring huge crowds because of the quality instructors and artists who attend…what experiences and feelings do you want dancers and participants to take away from your events?
That it’s a fun dance. That it’s all about having fun and meeting new friends. You meet new friends from all over the world. Let’s say you go to Japan or Paris. You can connect with friends you’ve met (from past festivals) and they will show you around like family. It’s an amazing thing. You have this commonality…almost like they’re your brothers and sisters. Most people tell me that it’s a friendly festival and that its better than a salsa congress because there are no snobs here. That really is whats making the festivals click. Of course, the bigger they are the more you lose the friendliness. We’re trying to keep that in tact.
Creating a quality festival must take an incredible amount of planning and organization. What’s the most difficult aspect of putting together a festival?
Straight to the point!
Hotels cost money. Inviting teachers like Jorge. Flying them, feeding them, and paying them for their workshops. Sometimes I will get carried away and invite bachata bands…and, of course, that costs money. Ninety percent of the time you have to pay them in advance. Our customers usually purchase tickets at the last minute…and that can be a problem! Initially when I did festivals it was fun and a party. Now, it’s almost like an addiction (laughs). A passion becomes an addiction to the point where you say, ‘Oh, I want to do a bachata festival here. What? Colorado doesn’t have a festival? Let’s have one!’ Organizing is difficult. You have to have a staff. They have the same passion. They’re not looking to make money. They just want to have fun and they want bachata to spread all over.
You’ve been deeply entrenched in the bachata culture for almost 15 years now, how has it changed since 2000 when you initially became involved with it?
The biggest change is that when we started no one knew what they were doing. No one knew if they were dancing it the right way, or not. They would such watch couples or look at Youtube. They started creating their own moves based on the music. Now its really getting popular and money is involved where people can take a piece of the pie. Some Dominicans are getting involved now that have never taught bachata before. In the Dominican Republic you might see three or four dance studios, but there are no bachata clubs. If you were to say, ‘Rodney, I’m going to the Dominican to dance this weekend can you suggest some clubs?’ There are no bachata clubs there. They all play raggaeton, merengue or some other beats. If you really want to be hardcore there are some bachata clubs there…they are whore houses in the barrios. They’re not advertised. They are by word of mouth!
Really? That’s fascinating!
That’s one thing the government of the Dominican Republic needs to know! They could do a lot of business if they promoted tourism by emphasizing bachata. We have to give credit to Aventura, Romeo, Prince Royce and urban bachata. You can feel the difference in the beat. There is more bass and instruments. They’ve improved the lyrics. That’s really getting popular among the young people which is really important at this point. That’s how I think bachata has changed…and I think it has changed for the better. Romeo hooked up with Usher to make a hit song. That’s a good start!
In reading various articles about you from around the web I’ve found that you’re really big on keeping unity in the bachata community whether you dance ‘modern bachata’ or ‘Dominican bachata’ etc… I saw a quote from you on one of your events that said “No Judgement, its all about having fun”. Why do you think it’s important to maintain this sense of unity?
Unity is always good in print, as everyone knows. Having everyone gather together in one place is almost impossible, but doable. I think unity is obviously important when you’re promoting something that is not mainstream yet. I think its even more important when you’re promoting something that was hated or oppressed in the first place. Unity would be a very strong weapon to all of those who oppose it. The very idea of bachata is simplicity, therefore the new dancers who come to the festivals don’t need to be intimidated because everyone there is like them. So if they can maintain that mentality and have the powers that be united it would really be great whether they are competitors or not. Jorge (Elizondo) and I are friends, but we are competitors at the same time. It’s a healthy competitiveness. If we didn’t have both Coke and Pepsi then soda would never improve! (laughs).
How did you get the nickname Rodchata?
I didn’t create it, that’s for sure (laughs). I went to Los Angeles to this club called El Granada in Alhambra, California. It’s a very popular club to this day. We asked the DJ to play bachata…and he played merengue! I said, ‘No, no, no…bachata!’ (laughs). The minute he started playing bachata I danced with a very popular salsera at that time…I think she used to be the partner of Johnny Vasquez. We were dancing bachata and everyone was watching. Someone taped it and then they posted on my site and on a site called Salserosweb.com. A guy name Milton coined the phrase “Rodchata”. He said, “We’re going to start calling you ‘Rodchata’!” At that time I wasn’t teaching yet and when I got into the business of teaching, I said that I was going to use the name, Rodchata!
You were married to Isidra last year, correct?
This Monday (July, 1st) is going to be our first anniversary of our wedding and our fifth anniversary of being together! I met her at the first bachata festival in Reno. At that time she was just getting into bachata and she didn’t know me. That’s where it all started. There comes a time when you realize someone is the one! So far so good.
How has she helped in your success up to this point?
She is the boss of the festivals! (laughs). I’m not really a business man like I told you. This is just a passion. When it comes to business I’m not Donald Trump where you can have that magic touch. She commands my festivals. I do the pre-planning of the festivals, the negotiations and the advertisements. If I were to do that I would be really good. Professionally I’m a psychologist! I can’t believe I left that out laughs). During my festivals my wife is the boss. I’m not even allowed at the registration area (laughs).
You recently created a new event , the Bachata Gold Cup. Can you talk a little bit about that event and why you decided to create it?
Great question. Glad you asked it. There are a lot of bachata competitions going on in the world. Some of them are sponsored by salsa events and I like that. I judge in a lot of them, particularly the World Latin Cup. I’ve judged there two years in a row. I was the only bachatero judging salseros dancing bachata! Most of the judges are either ballroom competitors or salsa instructors. The bachateros always complain that every time they see video of the winner online, that its not really bachata and they blame the judges! You can’t blame the judges because when they present the criteria for judging the competition, we judge it accordingly. With that complaint, I decided to do a competition where every style (of bachata) is there. We created it so there we will have different divisions for traditional or Dominican…whatever you want to call it. Then we’re going to have another division for bachata fusion and you can do whatever you want to with the dance. You can do lifts or whatever. In this way dancers will know the difference, but also people can participate and compete in both divisions. And we will make sure that all judges are respected in the bachata community and are bachateros. And as an incentive we are going to make it tennis or ballroom style where scores are accumulated. Your world ranking will be determined by how much you compete and place. So far I’m getting good responses! I’m really excited about the Bachata Gold Cup…if it does well then we’ll do it all over the world! It’s going to be apart of the San Francisco Bachata Festival and it’s going to be sanctioned by the IBCA (International Bachata Competitors Association). Almost all of my festivals will have these types of competitions.
Are there any goals specific to dance that you’d like to accomplish over the next few years?
There are two. One is the competition. I really believe it will maintain the presence of bachata. A lot of doubters are still thinking bachata is a fad…like with Lambada and some other dancers. That’s the reason I’m doing this competition is to keep it alive and inspire the students to do more and pursuing excellence. The second is completely outside of bachata and its called Kizomba. Have you heard of it? (laughs)
Yes sir! (laughing) Quite a bit!
The first time I tried to dance it I was in Europe. The woman was doing everything and I panicked! I like this dance! Its Tango with hips. Last year I did the second Kizomba festival in the USA in San Francisco. Jorge (Elizondo) did the first. I’m going to do it again this year. That’s another vision of mine.
For more information about Rodney you can email him it “Rodney@Rodchata.com’ or his Facebook page here: Rodney Rodchata Aquino.