A discussion with Karel Flores cannot be confined to usual topics, e.g. ‘who she is’, ‘how her career started’, and ‘what she believes about the future of Salsa’… Soon one realizes the discussion is transformed into a philosophical exchange and sharing of thoughts, ideas and concerns. In the beginning we were anticipating an interesting interview; in the end -I can say it with certainty, we ended up with an absolutely inspiring talk.
Without any exaggeration you are considered one of the most recognizable Salsa dancers in the world and also a pioneer in your field. Your talent is undoubtedly a basic part of who you are, but what feature would you say differentiates you from other talented salsa dancers?
I honestly don’t know. One thing I can say, is that I am very honest about my work: I know what I can or cannot do, and everything I do I truly do it with all my heart. The second is that I have a vision. And that makes the difference. I don’t dance just to dance, I use dance for something else. I think that dance inspires people and I don’t take that for granted, so when girls take my classes or my bootcamps, I have them hard on purpose, and I say to my students “I hope this can make you a better woman and a better dancer”. I believe in gender equality. I am a natural feminist and I use dance as a tool to express my vision for equality and strength, and female/male dancers taking what they deserve – just people being more open to challenges.
How do you express this vision?
I think that happiness is not something you find under the carpet, but the result of hard work and overcoming challenges. So I communicate this to my students in hope they’ll understand that class is a great rehearsal to life, I have a vision behind everything I do, hopefully that appears in my dance, and maybe that’s what makes me unique. I wanted to change the world and now I have to do it through dance, that’s what I’m trying to achieve.
We have also heard you talk about your experience in ladies’ bootcamps, and more specifically about how ladies who lack confidence gradually feel more confident as they learn choreography. Drawing from your rich experience as an instructor, would you confirm that dancing manages to crush the lack in self-confidence? And what other impact does dancing have on ladies?
I hope it does! I say to people: “unlike me this is not your job. I can’t mess up because then I’ll be jobless”. But for most of the girls who attend my classes or bootcamps, this isn’t their job. At the end of the day, nothing will happen if they mess up, if they don’t get the choreography. They are free to explore the challenge. They can try the hardest and if it finally doesn’t work out, nothing happens they just aren’t going to perform. Through dance there’s opportunity to understand that challenges can be surpassed with hard work, you overcome challenge with controlling your mind direction and focus.
How is this possible?
I work through focus a lot. When dancing, and probably that applies to everything else, there are two voices in your head. When you are looking at yourself in the mirror one voice says “Oh look how you are! Fat, ugly, you can’t dance, you‘ll never be like Karel … etc.” This is where I say listen to the second voice going “1-2-3, 5-6-7”.
It’s all about focus.
When in a dance class, looking in the mirror while the teacher counts, if you start thinking “I’ll never do that” or “can you do it again?” you’ll start panicking, because you’re losing focus. I know because I take a lot of classes myself, and I deal with my lack of confidence at times as well. So taking classes made me a better teacher, because I can understand from a student’s perspective how it is to feel subconsciously that you’re not be able to do something. Focus is very important. I say to my students: “it’s not the end of your life if you don’t do it (the choreos), but hopefully through this, you’ll learn more about YOURSELF and HOW to handle the things that DO REALLY matter. That’s the hope.
Tell us about the KF World Teams project and ideally what you wish to achieve?
It’s my favorite project. It’s how I can take my vision to another level. Because like I said, my choreographies are difficult. I am a very demanding director, if you’ve worked with me you’d know that when I demand from myself I demand from my students as well, which is a lot. But it’s always through this philosophy:
Becoming better dancers is becoming better women, better human beings.
I say “women”, because my style is so feminine. All my choreographies are shines, you’ll never see me doing anything sexy, all are shines. So obviously my market to men is limited, but my project is not only for women, it’s for people. I just deal more with women, obviously women have more problems in this world, meaning that there is still gender inequality. For me focus on pushing women to believe in themselves is super important.
And what is the idea you want to spread?
I am reading a book titled “Lean in” describing how women always feel like frauds. And it is funny because I experienced it my whole life and I didn’t think that it was a worldwide phenomenon. You are great at something and you think “I am great because somebody helped me, I had a great teacher” and not that I am great because I work hard. But when you ask a man why he’s great, he says “I was born great”. And there’s nothing wrong with men nor with women, there’s something wrong with society which make people feel this way.
Therefore I take what I read and learn, and tell to my girls that women are not a fraud, and through the Team World project, I can expand this idea in different cultures. I’m not doing this with my NY girls who live in a first world country, an intellectually super advanced society like NY. I can impart it to all cultures, to communicate it to Russia, Lebanon, to the middle east, to Latin American countries, even the US. I don’t say I’m saving the world, I just say “Together”. We’re all together in this, because they help me as much as I help them.
How is this idea coming through dance?
To achieve this, I teach my choreography by video and do yearly trainings: last year I was in New York, this year I’ll be in Paris and I have a lot of girls coming from all over the world. When we meet in a congress, we spend time together, we go to dinners, we explore the cities, and we talk about important things. And of course I teach this big choreography which we perform all together at the congress. I feel that this helps a lot, because we feed with each other’s energy, we learn together, we share things, we also have group-chats and everybody shares their stories, personal and/or professional. It’s like an amazing community of men and women (because I do have men leading these things) and through dance we are learning how to become better people.
It’s my favorite project and I really freakin’ love it.
I hope we’ll keep growing so we can make this world a better place. It’s not only about dance, we think about starting competitions to raise funds for charities that are important to us. It is not just dance, now we are a community, we are a lot of people and we can make an impact. It’s time to do it.
In one of your interviews you said that while dancing and teaching people to dance one may lose the actual joy of dancing. And you advised people never quit enjoying dancing at the end of the day. Given that your work is strict, there is constant exposure, demands regarding cooperation with other artists and carrying out festivals, what makes you keep the joy of dancing alive?
I sometimes don’t. That’s the harsh truth. In my life I’ve been through a lot as a person because I am very passionate in what I do, but it got me into big trouble, honestly. When in the right group, it’s great because there’ll be communication and exchange, but when in the wrong group, people tend to say that I am very pushy and a bitch. For me is that I’m not going to stop fighting for my beliefs. I don’t fight for bad things, I fight for good things, for equality, for strength, for people being treated in a better way, and for ecology. I tend to have such problems that strangle my confidence. If you don’t share my ideals it’s hard to be around me, because I am very-very passionate.
Some people in the salsa world don’t care about this and it’s totally understandable. Why should we care about that when we should care about dance, we are dancers. I get it, so I tend to have friction and crisis sometimes.
How do you overcome dealing with this?
When I was every weekend in a congress, feeling like I could take care of my body, of my girls and my projects, and before I get out on show, I had the same costume, the same hair and the same make-up and I thought “this is what my life has reduced to”, and I wanted so much more. But it was reduced to wearing the same costume and doing the same routine every single Saturday.
Don’t get me wrong I love congress life, but I need to feel that I make an impact, so the way to keep my love for dance alive is to be able to make an impact. And I am not saying that making a show doesn’t, but if I don’t teach in a class, if I’m not taught by the girls, if I don’t take care of my projects, I panic. Because I don’t want to be the girl on the stage, my life is so much more than that. If your life is reduced to the acceptance of other people, then you lose control of it, because people think differently, and some people will approve and some people will not. My life doesn’t value only when I am on stage.
When do you feel that your life is worth?
My life is worth when I can do good work, that people will appreciate, when I’m able to approach people who will follow me and we can have an impact together. If my life is reduced to stage and nothing else, I panic, have existential crisis and lose my love for dance.
For me it’s more valuable than someone says you left some meaning with your teaching. Even if it is dance related, I know I have to make more effort to be a better dancer. For people is “yeah your show was amazing” and then what, Monday they will forget. I must find balance, between stage and the rest of my professional life-because I love to perform- but it also has to have a meaning.
So referring to the first question “why Karel is Karel”, the answer is that behind everything I do there has to be a bigger purpose and meaning for me- not for everyone: for others it’s just dance, I get it and I respect it completely. But not for me. For me there has to be something behind it, otherwise I feel empty and that’s when I lose my love and passion for being on stage and for dancing.
In your traveling to festivals and bootcamps around the world, what is your impression about the development of salsa on an international level?
I don’t think that salsa is less popular, I just think we have two other forms of dances who became really popular and really big in a short period of time. I thought salsa was dying but that’s a limited perspective.
I think bachata and kizomba came into the picture in a moment when salseros started getting comfortable and stopped creating, pushing, innovating.
For example you watch a show and it’s the same type of music, the same choreography, structure, the same steps, the same costumes. Everyone repeated themselves. Bachata and Kizomba came offering a completely new proposal, and people thought “ok I am tired of doing the same thing, let’s try something else”. This is probably one of the reasons. In my opinion people left the salsa world for Bachata and Kizomba just because these are new. That’s where I think we need to pay attention to.
People say that it happened because they are easier to dance. Maybe this played some role, but it doesn’t mean that we must simplify salsa for them to fit in. We need to renew and refresh it making new suggestions and excite people again. And we return to “be original, be yourself, attempt new things, and try new challenges”. Stay within what people like obviously but take chances. When you do, and if you do it in a right way, people will return back excited, hopefully.
- She was born in a family of artists, her great-grandfather was the founder of the artists’ association in Mexico. Her grandmother, dancer herself, was a pioneer of mambo and a superstar dancer in old films in Mexico. Her grandfather was an orchestra director in Venezuela and the first to introduce boogaloo in Mexico.
- Even though Salsa was in her blood, she wanted to study either politics or environmental engineering. One of the top students in her school, represented Mexico in Washington DC and UN, her family and teachers had great expectations of her. She hasn’t let them down, since her vision is to change the world through dance.
- Today she travels around the world participating in festivals, designing shows, instructing, and organizing bootcamps. There are upcoming events in New York, Beijing, and so on… You can see all of Karel’s upcoming events on her website www.karelflores.com
- One way to be Karel’s student is through http://www.salsabachataonline.com or attend her classes in New York. For more information see her website.