Barack O’Bama may be the President in the White House, but Shaka Brown is the Commander and Chief of the Washington D.C. salsa scene. Shaka was born in Washington DC and has risen to become one of the premiere salsa talents in the world. He hosts and promotes the annual Capital City Salsa Congress which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2014. He has taught salsa in over 20 countries and is also co-founder of the ClaveKazi dance studio in D.C. He is named after a Zulu warrior and leader, Shaka Zulu. Fortunately for the dance world, Shaka Brown will not kill with a spear through the chest, but may make your heart skip a beat with a smooth as butter salsa shine. Dance Planet Daily caught up with Shaka while he was in Miami.
Like so many men before you, you were inspired to begin salsa dancing by a woman. In your best estimation, what is it about women that make men want to learn salsa dancing?
I don’t think its just about salsa dancing. I think women inspire men to just about everything that they do. It’s the desire to please the opposite sex. It’s what makes men own companies, try to take over the world, and buy houses and cars. In my case it turned out it to be learning how to dance in order to gain the favor of a young lady.
You initially started with casino (or Cuban) style salsa. I read that you liked it, but got bored with it. You learned On1 style, but got hooked on On2 style…can you talk a little bit about how you discovered on2 style and why you prefer it?
I wouldn’t say I got bored with the Casino style, but that’s just what I started with. After I did that for a while, my job took me out to L.A. for four months. Once I got there I basically took a lot of ‘On1’ classes. I took a lot of private lessons and a lot of group classes. When I got back to D.C. once again there was a woman (laughs). She told me that if I was going to spend any time with her that I was going to have to dance ‘On2’. I did it quite begrudgingly, but it worked out for the best.
Do you remember the first salsa class you ever taught? Were you nervous?
Yeah, but I’m nervous every class I teach. The first class I ever taught was as an assistant at a salsa congress in Toronto. The SalsaWeb convention in May of 2000. I helped Jami Josephson with the class because she needed a guy. That was the first salsa congress I ever went too and was the first congress I ever got to assist as a teacher. The first congress that I taught under my own name was at a Chicago salsa congress (West Coast Salsa Congress) in 2003, I believe. That was a great time. I don’t remember how many times I’ve taught since then, but I know I get nervous every single time I’m about to go teach.
Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?
It depends on where I am. When I’m out at an event or out partying I’ve observed that it’s the introverts that tend to group up sometimes. Its harder to move around and meet with a lot of different people and groups. That’s more of what I do. However, if people come and hang out with me in Miami they’ll see I’m definitely not a party animal. I’m in the house. I work. I listen to classical music. You might even get bored if you hang out with me. I like to drink coffee and just chill. When I’m off work then I’m by myself at the house. When I’m on the job (dancing) then I’m all over the place.
I read the articles you’ve written for your website ShakaBrown.com. It’s very apparent that you’re an excellent writer. In addition to your writing skill you also speak three languages, English, Spanish and Portuguese and you’re an entertaining public speaker as evidenced by your hosting the DC Salsa Congress… Why is it important that you (or dance instructors in general) be effective communicators?
Dance is communication. Having the ability to speak different languages doesn’t help me that much when I’m teaching classes. For the most part, every where I go when I teach a class I’m counting 1-8. What helps me more is learning how people communicate and learn because people learn in so many different ways. That’s critical to me. If you aren’t able to adapt to the way that people are understanding you then you aren’t going to make it very far. You can’t force people to learn your way. You have to meet half way between what they can do and what you believe.
You’ve written articles on how someone can improve as a social dancer and performer…what are your thoughts on how someone can improve as a dance instructor?
I’m actually in the middle of writing an article about that! It will hopefully help some people. The biggest thing for instructors is not showing people what you can do because that’s what you do as a performer. As an instructor you have to be able to show people what they can do, and show them what they have within them. Sometimes I see people teaching classes and they try to come up with a turn pattern, or shine that is really hard even for themselves. If they’re losing people in the class then I don’t consider that a successful class. I’ve seen some classes where they teach very simple things, but they get that light to come on in people’s eyes. Those are the types of classes I’m looking for especially when I’m booking instructors for my events.
I have a few friends in the salsa scene who have met and danced with you (Katie Seamans and Lily Vasquez)…and the one word they all both agreed upon to describe your dance style was ‘smooth’. How would you describe how you dance?
It’s a mix. I never started out with the goal of being smooth. If some people were to complain about my dance style it would be that they might not know what I want them to do. That’s probably a big part of being smooth is that I don’t know what I want them to do (laughs). I just like to move and feel the music. As I start moving…I make adjustments to how they respond. Some used to say, ‘It was confusing dance with you because you don’t have a strong lead’. I realized all had to do was just relax and whatever happened was what my goal became. So if I’m opening up for a cross body lead and she doesn’t go, then I’ll just do something else. Or if she does do it then that’s what I’ll go with, but it’s not like I have more than 2-eight counts planned in advance. I have an anecdote, if you don’t mind.
There was a guy interviewing two chess players and he asked, ‘How far in advance do you think of your moves?’. One of the players said, ‘I think eight moves in advance.’ The other player said, ‘Well, I pretty much think about one move. It’s the best move!’. (laughs). That’s how I approach the dance. It’s not really all planned out. You keep going with the best way to make an adjustment and take it from there.
One thing I’ve observed from watching videos and reading articles about you is that you’re very thorough in your teaching and choreography. I read that as early as 8th grade you were writing and studying hip-hop dance counts…why is it important to you to be meticulous in preparation and training?
The devil is in the details. Everything for me is about what details there are to make someone accomplish what they want. If I’m teaching a beginner class I try not to overwhelm them with details. What I find is that as people advance they want to know the difference between what makes something work well, and what just makes something work. I try to make sure I’ve got enough grasp of all the details in anything that I do. So if a person wants to know exactly where their weight is on certain count then I can describe it to them, instead of telling them just keep moving and it will work out.
The 9th Annual Capital Congress (or DC Salsa Congress) was held a couple of weeks ago (from June 13th– 16th). As we mentioned before you hosted the event…Can you talk a little bit about what it means for you to be such a big part of the event and why its special to you?
Oh my gosh! It started out as the DC Salsa Congress. But we started getting complaints from people because only in the first year was the congress actually in Washington D.C. It was still called the DC Salsa Congress for six years when we had it in Virginia. I knew that I wanted it to be the Capital Congress and it helped us to be able to promote the event as well. If we told people it was the Washington DC Salsa Congress then they felt it should be in Washington, DC…as opposed to if we told them it was the Capital City Congress then it includes the entire DMV (Acronym for DC Metro Area. DC, Maryland and Virginia). The event really started as a house party!
I used to do house parties in DC with my roommate. One day we didn’t have any food in the house so we said let’s have a party! (laughs). We’ll tell people to bring food and we’ll provide music and dancing, and everybody will be happy. We did that and it took off. It started out as a joke. I would write-up these long emails describing how awesome the party was going to be, and we would do recaps of the party and take pictures. It really grew way bigger than we expected. Our entire house was packed with people who were dancing, having fun, and eating. There would be people from the neighborhood that we didn’t even know. They would just walk in the house just to see what was going on. We never had any trouble with anyone. David Melendez took a look at how we were promoting the parties. He said he wanted to do a congress in DC and he wanted me to be his partner! I told him I didn’t know anything about how to do a congress and that he should talk to a promoter. He told me that I knew how to do what he needed. It’s a great feeling each time people come to the congress because it feels like a big house party!
*Note. David Melendez was founder of the Starlite Dance Studio in the Bronx. He was a noted Mambo instructor/promoter in the NY/NJ area. He passed away in 2007.
What experiences or feelings do you want people to take away from your events?
I want them to come away with the feeling that they are welcomed no matter where they’re from, what style they dance, or what language they speak. They feel like they can come and feel comfortable being on the dance floor. My only gripe about my event is that I don’t get a chance to party. I’m working the event! I make sure that anyone we hire for the event is going to contribute to the party in the same way that I would. There going to be there social dancing, giving fun workshops and giving great shows. There is very little of the stuck up attitude at our event. That’s what people say they like the most about our event. Everyone is really down to earth. They have fun on stage and they teach well. And you spend time with them at the party and that’s critical to keeping the feeling behind the event.
It’s interesting that you brought up the attitude you wish to foster at your event. I’ve talked with other dancers, instructors, and promoters who feel that the overall attitude at salsa congresses is ‘stuck up’ or ‘clickish’. I’ve never heard these terms used to describe dancers at bachata congresses. Why do you think the opinion exists?
Well, believe it or not, salsa as opposed to bachata is a lot harder, and because of that salsa attracts a particular personality. It generally takes guys about two years two feel comfortable about what they’re doing in salsa. For girls it might take a little bit less time, but you can see the difference between someone who has been dancing two years and someone who just got started. I think it takes so much work, and the ‘Type A’ personality becomes more dominant at a salsa congress. People are a bit more driven, so people will say, ‘No, I don’t want to dance with you because I’m trying to get to this point’. It might take them three or four years to get to a certain point. Once they get to that point then they can chill out a little bit more. They get to the event and are more relaxed, and they know people who they want to dance with. It creates a different ambiance. If someone has been taking two weeks of a bachata class then they can go to a bachata congress, and be ok. They know that they will be fine and people will dance with them all night. They don’t have to be particularly good at it, but they just need to have the basic step down and know how to do a left turn and right turn. Maybe have some basic styling and a few tricks. I think because of that you get a wider range of people, and so people aren’t as concerned about being shot down or rejected. It makes things easier in that respect.
What are your thoughts on performers/instructors dancing with students/attendees who attend the congresses? It is important?
I think that can make or break your event. It’s important to have instructors who understand how important the social aspect is to a congress. The event is going to come up short if the instructors feels their job is to just teach and perform, and they’re not on the dance floor socializing and giving people a chance to connect with them. That really is the difference between salsa and anything else. If you want to see a great performance you can go to a concert and probably spend less money. You can go see Chris Brown perform and spend less money than you would to go to a salsa congress. It’s going to be a greater performance and it’s going to be more organized, but you’re not going to get a chance to hang out with Chris Brown! You’re not going to have a drink with him and then him ask you to dance. People put so much energy into salsa and sometimes the instructors seem unreachable. However, when they find out you can actually talk and hang out with them, it snowballs and gives them more incentive to keep going to events that a particular instructor attends.
Whats your biggest thrill that you get from dancing? Is it teaching? Performing? Perhaps meeting new people through dance?
The traveling is probably the biggest reward for me. Every time I get the chance to go someplace that no other job I’ve ever had has afforded me…that’s something that makes me feel really appreciative of what it is that I do. Being able to travel and see the world was always an important thing to me growing up. I never thought I’d be able to do that. People ask me to come to Japan, China, Singapore, Europe, or South America and I realize it’s special. It gives me a rush every time.
You wrote on ShakaBrown.com that one of the 5 ways to improve your social dancing skills was to be ‘goal oriented’. Have you set any goals pertaining to dance that you’d like to accomplish over the next few years?
I feel like I’m always working on something new. I’m excited because I’ve got the chance to perform and travel with Maria Ramos from New York. It’s reinvigorated me in terms of what I do with the dance. Also, next year will be the 10th year that we do the Capitol Congress and so I want to make sure that’s something people really enjoy.
Who are dancers that you love to watch perform, or dance socially?
There are people I love to watch social dance, perform and teach. It’s a range. Performance wise, I really enjoy watching Adolfo (Indacochea). I love watching Gordon Neil perform. These are folks I see perform on stage and they have ‘it’. I enjoy watching anyone social dance when I see a connection between the partners. I see how two different people are connecting and it may be dancers who are famous in the salsa scene, or it may just be two dancers. I like to see the energy build up. It’s like talking to someone without actually talking.
Last question for you and I was somewhat surprised when I ran across this story…apparently one night you were briefly taken to the other side by the grim reaper and tried to eat a girls head while dancing Kizomba? Is this true?
(laughs). That was a joke that I wrote. I was dancing Kizomba in Portugal. The dance is very much about the connection, and you can dance it in a room that’s pitch black. People get into a zone when the dance begins and a lot of times girls just close their eyes and feel out the dance. So I was dancing with a girl when all of a sudden a buddy of mine came around the corner with a huge camera and I just made a crazy face. The girl still had her eyes closed and she didn’t even know what was going on.
For more information about Shaka please visit his website at ShakaBrown.com.