John and Liz from Salsamania
Between days 23 and 25 March, 2023, the San Francisco Salsa Festival took place, which brought together some of the cream of The Bay Area Latin music scene. One of those attending this great event was the main editor of International Salsa Magazine, Mr. Eduardo Guilarte.
On site, he had the opportunity to share with other guests and some of the organizers such as Elizabeth Rojas, affectionately known as Liz, and John Narváez. We had the chance to talk with both dance professionals to know more about their beginnings, festivals and projects. Do not miss it!
After several attempts to schedule a meeting with John and Liz, we finally managed to talk with these Colombian dancers and entrepreneurs, who began by thanking us for the contact and the opportunity to promote their passion for salsa and the community they represent.
This love they have for the aforementioned musical genre has much to do with their roots. Both were born in Colombia and left the country when they were 12 years old (they are the same age) because of the violent situation caused by the guerrilla that existed in those years.
Although those were hard times, John says these were very nice years from which he has fond memories. He remembers almost all his family members singing or playing an instrument, while he was the only dancer. All this influenced him in such a way that Latin music remains his north after so many years.
Moving to the United States
Since the social situation did not allow them to live in their country, they decided to move to the United States and apply for political asylum. At the beginning, it was not easy and the focus was on working hard to get ahead in this new country and to learn English. However, all that changed over time.
With the arrival of economic and family stability, priorities changed. John comments that his interest in music and dance perked back up due to the family gatherings that his relatives celebrated such as birthdays, quinceañeras, weddings, among others.
Although at the time dancing was not considered a serious profession, both John and Liz began to practice it at amateur level. Once they turned 21, they started going to the most popular salsa clubs, but it was all for recreational purposes. It was years later before they began to analyze all the technical and historical part of dancing to understand it better and take it more seriously.
Dancing as a profession
John and Liz started to take dancing seriously in 1999. They both attended a three-day salsa event in Los Angeles, but what they did not know is that this was the first world salsa congress in America.
This gave them the opportunity to share with the best salsa dancers in the world and they saw such impressive things that they were inspired to return next year with a well-established dance team with which they could participate fully in these activities.
Being full of motivation, they decided to create Salsamania Dance Company and performed with their team at the festival. They started doing the same thing every year, which helped them gain experience and evolve their styles.
After earning the trust of the festival organizers thanks to their talent and professionalism, they were given the opportunity to start teaching salsa workshops at the aforementioned congress. This is how little by little John and Liz began to build the reputation and credibility they have today.
In 2004, it got to a point where John took the important decision to quit his job to devote himself to dancing and Liz was quick to do the same. His resignation came with the opportunity to take a three-month trip to Hong Kong to teach salsa in a community where people did not dance it.
They managed to build a community from nothing, since at that time, Hong Kong was not a place where people listened to salsa. However, everything went well and the dancers managed to seamlessly connect with the local audience. As John rightly said, ”salsa is a universal language and you don’t have to speak that language to feel the music”.
On returning to the Bay Area, they began to practice dancing as a profession in the United States.
On this point, Liz commented that her parents became very upset with her when she quit her job because of dancing, but today, they admit that it was the right decision and support her totally.
Salsamania Dance Company
Liz told us that it was difficult to create Salsamania Dance Company because it requires a lot of discipline and healthy coexistance between different types of personalities to create a group like this and keep it together. Fortunately, John is an industrial psychologist, so he helped to prevent these aspects to be a problem.
Basically, Liz is responsible for the company’s management and John is the one who takes care of the human part of all the staff.
They started the whole process like any regular company and drew up the contracts for all those who were going to work with them, making Salsamania a much more established, structured and serious project in the eyes of everyone else. Today, it is one of the largest companies in the Bay Area.
They also took it a step further and built a salsa academic program with a thoroughness and detail that has not been seen in other projects of this kind.
San Francisco Salsa Festival
San Francisco Salsa Festival is one of the biggest salsa events in California and the United States in general and we were fortunate to have representation there with our editor Eduardo Guilarte.
It began to be celebrated in 2008 with the support of international salsa promoter Albert Torres, who was a fundamental piece in the development of the festival and talent recruitment for an event of this size, as there were many things John and Liz had to learn. That is why they are both incredibly grateful for what the congress organizer did for them back then.
To recruit artists, the dancers only require candidates to be good teachers, to share with the salsa community and to put on a good show for the audience.
They also often invite colleagues they have known for years and some recommended to whom they give them the opportunity to shine and make themselves known during those days.
Every year, they look for dancers, dance instructors, DJs and live orchestras. For Liz and John, the thing about live bands is very important, as they are concerned that there are so many clubs and venues that no longer hire these talents. This year, they focused on local bands that play on Thursdays and Fridays in San Francisco and were very happy with the results.
It is expected that the next San Francisco Salsa Festival is scheduled between days 22 and 24 March, 2024 at the same venue, which is the Marriott Waterfront Hotel.
The orchestras hired to perform for next year are Cabanijazz, The Latin Rhythm Boys and Orquesta Boyacán. The dancing couples are Alex and Judy from Colombia, Colombians Felipe from Colombia and Kathe and Mauricio and Danny from Mexico.
Difficulties in the pandemic
As dancing is an activity with a lot of physical contact and closeness, we were curious to know how they lived the pandemic and what they did to keep their project afloat in this situation.
Though they admit that those months were not easy, they have always been very disciplined with their money and had enough to resist as long as possible without working.
They tried to make up for lost time by teaching classes via Zoom as did most of their colleagues and designing new choreographies to apply when they went back to their usual activities.
In addition to this, both had not spent time with their respective families in a long time, so they also took advantage of the absence of work to reunite with their loved ones and take up those important contacts that were lost due to stress and routine.
Read also: Here we have Salseros With Attitude
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