Recently, here in Barcelona I had the honor of interviewing a man who is not only a master of his craft but also one of the most humble and friendly human beings I have had the pleasure of meeting in the world of salsa. Here’s what we spoke about.
(*I’ve paraphrased quite a few of Javier’s responses, just to help with the translation from Spanish. Any mistakes therefore, are my own)
(R= Richie/Latin Dance Community, J=Javier Padilla)
R. Can you tell us a little more about your dance background, how you started out and how you evolved as a dancer?
J. At first I started learning Cuban style and then I moved to Mexico City to learn, learn and learn classical ballet and latin ballroom dances. So in Mexico I didn’t intend to become a professional dancer, I was just a student. I was very interested in salsa and its roots; in mambo and the old salsa. So after I moved to Barcelona I had the chance to learn from (5-time World Salsa Champions) Adrian & Anita who were my teachers and from whom I learned a lot, not just dance skills but also how to interact with our students and that’s when I decided to become a professional dancer.
R. What brought you to Barcelona?
J. (With a huge smile) Dance. Actually I came to study for a master’s degree in marketing but the thing that attracted me was dance. Once I was here I met Adrian and Anita at a social and they invited me to become part of their dance company. I had obviously thought about following my salsa journey but not with Adrian and Anita because they were such “big” teachers and I didn’t think my level was high enough to dance with them. They saw me dancing and they liked my style, a style that I was creating, little by little and from there they invited me to join them. And from there I began to change my way of looking at dance, not just as a hobby but as a professional career.
R. So you learned the whole professional side of dance from them. On another note, I remember my first time seeing Javier dance at a social and he really something else so it’s no wonder he caught the eye of Adrian and Anita.
Another thing I wanted to talk to you about is the difference between salsa as it’s danced here in Europe and in the Americas. Do you see a big difference between the two and if so, what is it?
J. The truth is I don’t really see a difference in the way people dance because the world today is really globalized and the there are a lot of latin American artists that travel to Europe and vice-versa so styles are really integrated around the word. So I don’t really see a difference because salsa is danced the same here as in Mexico.
BUT, the feeling of the dance probably changes a little. In latin America, personally I grew up listening to salsa and it was part of my childhood and I that music and those dances came to mean something very special for me. And just like me there are a lot of latinos that have a love for salsa from their childhood something that you don’t really have here in Europe.
R. Now, a lot of our readers will know that you won the mens salsa soloist championship in 2014. What was it like to compete at a competition of that level? (check out the video below)
J. (laughs) It was really hard haha. It was my first time. I was kind of nervous at first and then I was excited because it was my goal, you know, to be on a stage with so many great artists and dancers and to compete with them. I had never been in a soloist competition. I had danced in the same competition but in a different category with my dance partner David de Ménes .
Everyone goes there to defend their work, everyone has a lot of skill, lots of technique, basically you have to show everything you’ve got and everything you can do and it has to be done really well. After the competition we’re all get to know each other and we’re all friends and we support each other but the moment of competing you’ve really got to go for it. When you’re surrounded by such good dancers, by such a high level, I prefer to just focus on myself because otherwise I’d just make myself more nervous. And that was a difficult aspect, just being surrounded by such good dancers.
R. And what was it like to actually win? How did you feel?
J. Wow, it was a feeling where, at first, I didn’t know what was going on. After my performance people had told me that they liked it and that I had a chance of making it to the podium but I didn’t really want to think about the result, I just wanted to stay focused and see what happens. And then in that moment when they named me the winner, well, it’s something that you can’t really understand in the moment. You’re filled with so many emotions at the same time; you want to cry, you want to laugh, you want to scream, you want to hug someone and yet at the same time you can’t. It’s a lot of emotions because of all the work you’ve put in over the previous months, all the sacrifices you’ve made and time you’ve sacrificed not hanging out with friends, to prepare yourself well, that’s all paid off. For me, after a few hours, after a time, I came to realize what had happened… and I started to cry and cry and cry because the emotions were so intense for me.
It’s also a responsibility too because you think “and what now?”. It opens your mind a little because you have to start working again from there and have a new vision as a dancer.
R. Now, you won that competition with a performance that was very eclectic. It had elements of rumba, a little salsa caleña, ballet, pachanga. Can you give us some insight into how you created that choreography?
J. As a dancer you need to keep in mind that there are 2 types of shows; those for competition and those where you can do what you like and add in your own style.
But for competition, you have to look at the background and styles of the judges so you give a little spoonful of that style to each one. For example, if there are judges who prefer Cuban style or rumba or afro, you should prepare a little bit of that. If you have a judge who is a very technical dancer, you add technique. If you have a street-style salsero, you add a little bit of “flow’ to your choreo.
Apart from that, I think it’s really important to look at your own show from the point of view of the public, the audience. You as a viewer/consumer of your own show, do you like it or not? Are you happy with the music that you’re going to hear and the choreography that you’re going to see?
As regards to costume, for example, for mambo I would imagine a particular type of color and a particular type of outfit whereas I would imagine a different costume for something more rumbero. Everything has to be connected. You need to bring everything together to compete, you need a union of everything and that’s the creative or artistic part of the whole scene.
R. How long do you usually prepare for a choreography?
J. You need to arrive at a point, after training and training and training some more, of dominating your choreo and just be on top of everything. In order to compete well and even for a regular show you need you have to take care of 3 levels; first have the choreo well learned and trained to the highest technical level; later interpret it and by that I mean how you maintain a connection with the audience, and finally comes the combination of everything and how you put it on the stage. All of this takes a certain amount of time; around 4 or 5 months. The truth is, I only had 3 months (laughs). So I really had to run into it.
R. When you talk about the interpretation, how do differentiate the interpretation from the actual technique of the dance?
J. I think that a question that all of us dancers have is “Technique or Passion”, “Mind or Heart”, “Technique versus Interpretation”. Because on one side you have the technique, are your steps clean, is it on time, the transitions, the lines of the choreo. And then you have “feeling”. One thing is the visual and the other is what’s on the inside, what you can express. A lot of choreographies that we see on stage, might be incredibly technical but they don’t move you.
R. Do you feel that that’s a problem these days; that a lot of choreographies lack the passion that you’re talking about?
J. Yes, of course because, at the end of it all “we want to consume emotions”. As a member of the audience at an event or a congress we want emotions. We want to cry, to laugh, to dance, we want to enjoy ourselves or we even want to get serious. We want emotions. And if you don’t achieve that the choreography looks empty, it looks like technique alone, just an outline, it doesn’t reach you, deep inside. So I think it’s very important to bring both parts together to the maximum level, the technique and the interpretation.
On the other hand, if you just have “flow” you’ll lack the grand spectacle of jumps, turns and displacements. If we just dance salsa, we’ll lack the benefit of the chorepgraphy. So, I believe that both need to be well developed, always.
R. You’ve mentioned “Flow” a lot and it’s a word that I’ve heard from latin americans frequently when they speak about dance. How would you define the concept of flow?
J. (with a big smile) “Sabor” (a spanish word that literally means “flavor” but is used regularly when describing music and dance)… Yeah, “Alma” (Soul). All the emotion that you feel and that you express. A dancer needs to have flow. It might be a little different for latin jazz but “salsa salsa” has a lot of flow. That’s the soul of the dance.
R. Leading on from the choreos, who would you say are your biggest influences in the world of latin dance?
J. Wow. Well, Adrian and Anita of course because I’ve learned so much from them. In general I really admire all those dancers who are able to define their own project with their own style and then maintain it. Because, we always start out with great illusions and motivation but it’s very rare that someone maintains that project. You always have to maintain an element of surprise, something to say, something to offer to the public. Adrian and Anita have been around for 10 years, Sabor a Fuego have been around for a long time too, Mr. Eddie Torres has been dancing for a very long time and they all maintain their essence, their energy, their product. I really admire those people who create something and stick with it because their demonstrating that dance is their life, it’s not just a moment in their life.
R. Is their any particular style of music that you love to dance to socially, any particular groups or artists.
J. I really, really, really like latin-jazz. I like music that is smooth. I love mambo you know, Tito Puentes. I love salsa romatica and that whole era of music. Everything that’s strongly based in percussion and sabor. As for groups, I really like the Mambo Legends Orchestra. I don’t like to dance really fast socially. I prefer to enjoy myself and feel that I’m communicating with whoever I’m dancing with and that’s all through the music. I’m not really about dancing quickly and showing off moves. I’m more about flow and latin jazz has that power to let you feel that with your partner.
R. Obviously, you’re very well known as a teacher and a performer but which aspect of dance do you enjoy the most: teaching, performing or social dancing?
J. Well, I really like to offer… something, to people. I really like the aspect of performer. I really like to offer new and different things . To give what I can. For example I might do a salsa show and for the next choreo I might do something more contemporary.
As for social dancing, I like it too. Because you can forget about the choreography and the show and you connect with the music, your environment and your partner.
I like being a teacher too (laughs). Before, I would have said no. I didn’t enjoy it as much because I didn’t have that ability to create a choreography for other people or to teach style to other people. Now, having been working for 2 years as a teacher, I’m able to enjoy it. Watching how people evolve by means of what I explain to them. I think that’s very satisfying for every teacher.
R. Do you have any particular philosophy when it comes to teaching? What do you think makes a good teacher of salsa?
J. From the people I’ve learned from it’s the ones who teach you how to “dance”. They don’t just teach you steps or patterns, they teach you how to feel and how to move. They’re the ones who ask you “what is salsa?”, “where does it come from” “why is it danced like that?’, “why is it called that?”. They let you know all about what you’re doing. I really admire teachers who provide that type of information because I think of dance like another type of education, just as if we were in school. As teachers of dance, we need to act as if we were teachers in primary or secondary school. We need to educate our students about all the aspects of dance; about it’s history, about all the dancers that have helped to create it, the full depth of the dance.
R. What do you feel is the most difficult aspect of salsa to teach?
J. That would probably be… one’s own style. It’s difficult to teach your own style to your students. So instead I try to teach people how to move themselves so they create their own style. So they feel the music in their own way, not like me. I prefer to give you some guidance, like how to give you some “sabor” like moving your shoulders, moving your torso and your body but you give it the style that you want. I also encourage my students to take classes not just with me but with other teachers so they take something from each teacher and find their own style.
R. What has been your favorite dance moment?
J. Just before going on stage you feel something special. Every time. People have told me that the day you don’t feel nervous or emotional or adrenaline before going on stage, the show will never be the same.
So before a show I always feel adrenaline, or some sort of emotions or nervousness, butterflies in my stomach that makes you think “I want to do this NOW”. I think, in that moment, you don’t feel well because of your nerves but finally in the show it converts into energy , into adrenaline. Like those nerves explode out of you and in that moment you feel something really good.
I think I’ve felt like that every time I’ve done a show and it’s something really beautiful.
R. And on the opposite side of that, what’s been the mot embarrassing moment you’ve had while dancing.
J. Whenever something goes wrong in a choreography, if you forget something or if there’s been a disconnect with your partner, a bad acrobatic, it’s a moment where you really feel bad because you always want to offer the best show for the audience and if you mess up, even if people say “don’t worry, I loved all the rest”, you still focus on that bad moment and think “If that hadn’t happened I’d feel much better”. And even when you get a lot of support from the audience, saying that they like the show you still think that it isn’t true because you know that you made a mistake. Even if they didn’t notice, you know it.
R. Is there any one in the world of dance who you want to dance with but haven’t had the chance to yet.
J. Lots. Socially, I’d love to dance with a lot of people. And I dance as a follower too as I have a same-gender dance-partner, David de Ménes, so I’ve developed that aspect as a follower. I’ve wanted to take out various famous dancers like Super Mario or Adolfo Indacochea because they’re artists that I admire a lot for their way of dancing and the way they perform patterns. I’d like to feel the connection that they create. But I don’t really know how they’d feel about dancing with a guy (laughs).
As for the girls, I’d love to dance with Karel Flores and Magna Gopal, you know, with some really great dancers, to feel the same thing; their connection, how we’d communicate with each other, how they express a social dance with their bodies.
R. Just before we finish up, do you have any advice for people who are starting out in the world of salsa.
J.It might sound a little clichéd but it’s very true; “Follow your dreams”. It’s the only way to listen to your heart. Since I was a child I always dreamed of dancing, but I grew up in an environment where you were supposed to work, study, get married, have some kids… a “normal” life. But inside I knew I loved to dance and thank God I’ve had the opportunity. So if you really want something, just keep going after it because you’ll get it (points to goose-bumps on his arm “look how emotional I get”, laughs). If you have a lot of faith that it will happen, it’ll happen. I’m still in the process, I wanted it and little by little it’s happening. Obviously, I still have a lot of goals I need to achieve, I need to grow a lot more, but I’m on the right track.
If it’s something you really want to dedicate yourself to, you can’t take it as a phase or something that’s all the rage. Because it’s the ones that really dedicate themselves that continue learning. And not just salsa but other styles too because the world of dance continues evolving and you continually need to update yourself and learn from great teachers and from everyone; your peers who are developing just like you can give you something.
Follow that dream and work for it. The physical with the spiritual; You need to have the faith that you’re going to do it but you need to work and dedicate yourself, search for new opportunities.
R. Similarly, for more advanced dancers who want to get to the next level, what advice would you give them?
J. That they never stop learning. You have to learn from everything. Respect where you came from and from whom you’ve learned and again, follow your dream. Because if hadn’t crossed paths with certain people along the way, we wouldn’t be where we are. If I hadn’t met Adrian and Anita I don’t know what I’d be today. They opened my eyes and allowed to realize what I wanted to dedicate myself to. I’m sure that has happened to every dancer.
You need to maintain yourself, keep thinking of offering something new and give a little surprise every now and then, to maintain the spark and the energy so that your project stays alive.
R. For anyone who would like to contact Javier about classes and performances you can check out his page: