An Interview with Thomas Guerrero, Director of Santo Rico Dance Inc.
2403 2nd Avenue -2nd Floor between 123 & 124 street
New York, NY 10035
(Also see Santo Rico's Grand Opening)
(Also see Lisa Allen's photos from the Grand Opening of Santo Rico)
Andrea Dawn Clark
March 29, 2004
After a recent two-hour dance class, writer and dancer, Andrea Dawn Clark sat down with Thomas "spin master" Guerrero to talk about everything from the studio's new Spanish Harlem address to its next 25 years under this very talented instructor. (For more of Andrea's writing, please see www.andreadawnclark.com.)
See more Santo Rico Grand Opening Photos, courtesy of Lisa Allen
Moving from his Washington Heights dance studio to Spanish Harlem…
Andrea Dawn Clark: Let's talk about this new space that you're in. What brought about the move after being in Washington Heights for seven years?
Thomas Guerrero: First of all, my lease was up [laughs]. But also there were a lot of things wrong with that building. Basically, we outgrew the place. The classes were getting too big for the space. We were loosing people because we couldn't fit 60 people in the space comfortably. There's more room here. And at the old studio—the dojo as we called it—there were columns that were getting in the way. It was hard to maneuver around them. This space is completely open. So, when the lease was up, I opened my mind and looked for something bigger and better. Actually, I do miss the old space in some ways. It was close to home [Guerrero lives in Washington Heights]. And I'm Dominican so being in a Dominican community was nice for me.
ADC: And what's this neighborhood like?
TG: This is more Puerto Rican. But even so, it doesn't matter. The music and the dance invites all races, colors, creeds. Everyone is happy here. Whether they're Asian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, white, black, they're invited and they're all welcomed.
ADC: Are you going to start putting up more flags? [Right now the studio has two flags hanging on the walls, one from Dominican Republic, one from Puerto Rico].
TG: [laughs] Absolutely! Actually that's what I want to do here—create an international theme with a lot of different flags. We've already started it with the clocks in the back of the studio. We have the time for Asia. We have the time for Europe. The west coast and New York time.
From the instructor's point of view…
ADC: What kind of students come to the studio? What about the different skill levels of dancers? Can someone who has never heard salsa music and someone who has been taking salsa classes for years, both find a place here?
TG: Absolutely. Actually, I like to cater more to the entry-level student because they appreciate it more. They're more humble and open. They do get a little intimidated at first, but they're so hungry to learn. It makes it fun for me because I know that they're coming back to learn as much as they can. They're not going to feel like, "Hey I already learned enough. I'm going to go to clubs and not come back to class anymore." That's the problem with the intermediate and advanced students. How can I say this? It's the beginner students that are actually paying the bills [laughs].
ADC: And how should someone approach Santo Rico if they've been taking salsa classes for years?
TG: I think it's very humbling for a lot of intermediate students to go back to beginners in a different studio. But that's what I recommend. No matter what school you go to, start at the beginner class because the methods and approaches may be different from your old school. Take the entry-level class and play the entry-level student. Go in and be humble. If it's too easy, gradually work your way up. That's the right way to attack it. Another way is to come to my Sunday class. It caters to mostly older students who come in new from other studios. I have four or five instructors here on Sundays and I have many different levels going on at once. So we'll take a look at you and your dancing and we'll place you accordingly. We don't let any student take a cycle knowing that they're in the wrong level. Whether you're in a lower level and you should be in a higher level or the other way around.
ADC: What's frustrating for you as a dance instructor?
TG: The most frustrating thing is students that don't practice.
ADC: Practice. Practice. Practice.
TG: [laughs] Exactly. This is a dance about practice. It's about conditioning. It's about consistency. It's about staying at a certain level. And it's frustrating when students don't practice and don't respect the dance. This dance is a very spiritual dance. It comes from Africa. Then it transcended over to the Caribbean. But it came from a very spiritual realm. It's tribal. Being an instructor, I think you have to teach your students to respect the music. Respect the instruments. Respect the dance.
ADC: As opposed to?
TG: To just hearing the count and dancing. A lot of people are lacking the knowledge of where this music came from, education in the roots of the music. Every one who comes here needs to know where this music, this dance, comes from. Whether it's salsa music, bachata, rumba, merengue, they all came from one place. Africa. That's why all these dances look alike. It's just that each country claimed a little piece of it. But it all came from Africa. These dances are so rich in tradition. It's just endless what you can learn about them. There should be no end to the learning.
ADC: What message can you give your students to overall improve their dancing?
TG: People need to know that it's not about quantity. It's about quality. It doesn't matter if you know X number of shines. It's about being so comfortable in the music that you'll be able to create your own stuff. You feel the music. You feel the music according to the clave. You feel the instruments and the timing. You could say I'm going to do 20 shines to this song, and the part of the music that asks for shines may only be 10 bars long. So if you're doing 20 bars of shines in a 10 bar portion, you're not listening to the music. You're dancing with a goal. You're dancing with a vengeance. I'm going to execute these 20 steps regardless of what's going on. That's not dancing. You've got to go according to the music. You've got to start slowly. You've got to enjoy yourself. You've got to listen to the music and see what it's offering you. All music has two things to offer you. Number one is structure. Every song has a structure. There's an introduction, then the voice of the singer—if there is a singer, which of course, provides the melody of the music. Then, after that, you have the mambo. A lot of people don't know that about the music, that comes with experience. The other thing is to know the feeling of the song. Every song has a feeling. Some songs are slower, softer, and sexier. A lot of songs are rougher, stronger, and faster—let's get down and dirty, you know what I'm saying? People need to know the difference. You'll see people dancing to a long, slow, sexy song, and in places where they're supposed to show off that slow jazzy part, they're doing turn patterns at 100 miles an hour. For me, watching that is like listening to someone scratch their nails down a chalkboard. You've got to know when a song calls for certain things. Every song gives you breaks as it goes from verse to verse. It's telling you, okay, I'm changing now. Give me something else. Act accordingly.
The spin master's first steps…
ADC: You first started learning salsa from Wilton [Wilton Beltre, one of the founders and original members of Santo Rico Dance Co]. Right?
TG: Yes. Well, actually, I didn't learn from Wilton. Surprisingly enough, I learned from the streets. Wilton was my mentor because he brought me in off the streets to learn choreography. But I've never taken a class in my life. Wilton taught me through choreography, but me taking a class and coming in to learn Suzy Qs. Nope.
ADC: And the street learning, how did that happen? Did your sister take you out to a club when you were a kid? How did that start for you?
TG: It's funny how it happened. I was more into the merengue and going to house parties and stuff like that. And then a friend of mine said, "Let's go to this club in the Bronx called Side Street." That was one of the most popular clubs back in the early 90s that offered Latin music. To me there will never ever be another Side Street. It was different cultures, different people—the atmosphere was so friendly, so rich and welcoming. Everyone loved being there so much. And also, my first girlfriend in the salsa scene used to dance with David Melendez's group. She would say, "Oh, look at this step I learned today." Then she'd do the step and I would mimic her.
ADC: Would you ever take a class now? Just for fun? For learning sake?
TG: A mambo class? Probably not. I do mambo seven days a week, so I wouldn't have time to do it. If I had the time and I could take a class from Eddie Torres—absolutely I would do it.
ADC: And there would be a line of women pushing and shoving to be your partner.
TG: [laughs] Well, it's all about expanding. We have a rumba class here at the studio and I'm starting to take that. I've been doing mambo for 11 years. It's time to expand my horizons.
ADC: Could you see yourself in a West Coast Swing class or a Tango class?
TG: I'm open to anything. But my thing is if I'm not going to dedicate myself to it fully I'm not going to do it at all. I don't like to do things just for fun. I need a motive. If I'm going to take a certain class there's got to be a purpose—like maybe if I wanted to incorporate in some West Coast Swing choreography into my salsa. But there's always got to be a purpose.
The long-term plan…
ADC: Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
TG: [laughs] Well, I signed a 10-year lease, so I hope I'm right here in this chair! My short-term goal is to continually make a name for myself in the salsa community, be a positive influence to the dance and the art. Long term, I don't think I want to do dancing for the next 25 years. I want to grow out of what I have now. Still have a dance school, but maybe have other ventures. Maybe open up a restaurant or a laundromat. I want to venture out.
ADC: With a Latin flare?
TG: Of course! [laughs]
ADC: So this laundromat will have Latin music playing in it, Dominican flags all around.
TG: Yeah! Wouldn't be me without it. We'll have maracas all over the place! It'll be a Latin restaurant. I'll have my mother cooking in the back. She's only 78, but she's still working!
All in the family…
ADC: Tell me about your family.
TG: Well, I have six half sisters and two half brothers. I didn't really get to grow up with them. They're all older. I'm the youngest in my family. I'm the only one from marriage. My mom and dad are still together and they live in Orlando, Florida. But I grew up in New York. They moved from the Dominican Republic to New York, had me. I grew up here, then they moved to Florida. Some of my brothers and sisters are still here; some of them are in the Dominican Republic.
ADC: Do they dance?
TG: Not at this level and not mambo. I have a nephew that brings his kids here to take classes, but that's about it. I'm the only mambo dancer in the family.
ADC: This was a lot of fun, talking with you. Thank you so much for your time.