Article by Natalie Maniscalco, photos by Chasi Annexy & styling by Paola Andrea
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If you’ve ever had the opportunity to take a class at BAILA Society, you’ll quickly notice the difference in the way they train, perform and market their company– with precision, quality and class. Co-founded by Daniel Enskat, Joseph Rivera and Ahtoy WonPat-Borja, BAILA Society has quickly become one of New York City’s most respected Salsa dance companies for their innovation and professionalism.
During a recent photo shoot with photographer Chasi Annexy, we caught up with Ahtoy, one of BAILA Society’s founders and the artistic director of the company. Originally from Malojloj, Guam, this pint-size fixture in today’s salsa scene not only comes with a long-history of professional dance experience but she is currently obtaining a PhD in epidemiology from Columbia University.
SALSEEK: Where are you originally from and when did you come to the United States?
AHTOY: I came to the mainland US by myself when I was a teenager to train with the Houston and San Francisco ballet companies. I permanently moved to New York to go to Columbia University when I was 17.
SALSEEK: How was BAILA Society created?
AHTOY: BAILA Society (BASo) was originally conceived by my partner and co-director, Daniel Enskat and was founded by the two of us along with Joseph Rivera. It was first a private member's club that catered to professionals that wanted to connect with the global salsa community while traveling for business. We ran exclusive luxury travel programs before starting salsa classes for the public. We're also very proud to say that we pioneered learning salsa "on 2" over the internet and now have a library of over 1200 videos for beginners and pre-professionals alike. Today we see ourselves as a multi-faceted organization that includes our international performance company, our online dance academy, and our non-profit work. All of those aspects arose out of our shared love for dance, our desire to bridge communities through salsa specifically, and our enthusiasm for using different creative media and outlets that helps us reach people worldwide.
SALSEEK: When and how did you start dancing?
AHTOY: I received my primary training in classical ballet in Guam with John Grensback, former principal dancer of the Houston and Joffrey ballet companies. I was actively engaged in several activities prior to dancing, such as competitive swimming, music, and American Sign Language, but my parents sensed that I was moving toward dance in odd ways. For example, I never swam to win but rather for the "technique of the movement"; I swayed and bobbed while playing the flute or piano; and I used to "choreograph" sign language to the words of songs. When I attended a dance concert for the first time at the age of ten, I sat on my Dad's shoulders to get a glimpse of the dancer’s feet. He later would tell others that I was so awestruck that I could only mutter the words, "I want..." Soon after, I won a scholarship to Guam's ballet academy. Several dance disciplines followed until the beginning of my salsa life. I was recovering from an injury with a poor prognosis when a friend recommended that I learn salsa to help pass the time because it would be "low impact" and easy on my body. I was working at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital uptown, and Santo Rico was the neighborhood salsa school. Three months later, I began dancing with Xibicion, their student company, and went on to teach and perform with Santo Rico professionally for the next three years. Salsa is definitely not "low impact" at Santo Rico, but I am grateful that I had the opportunity to dance there. The skills and experience I gained while working with Tomas Guerrero (the Director of Santo Rico Dance Company) are still some of the most important ones in my life as a dancer.
SALSEEK: Do you prefer performing or social dancing and why?
AHTOY: When I first started dancing salsa, I preferred performing because I was coming from a concert dance perspective where you spend most of your time in the studio honing your craft with the ultimate goal of exhibiting that craft on stage. I learned how to social dance on the road while performing in other countries because it was part of my job. I'll never forget going to Club Cache a year into dancing salsa professionally when a friend said to me, "Wow, Ahtoy, your social dancing is so much better now!" I was offended at first, but I was luckily beginning to appreciate salsa's rich history as an improvisational art and the immense creative potential that is contained in each moment on the dance floor. Today, I would choose social dancing over performing because I've learned that in salsa, every dance is a rare and unrepeatable symphony of rhythm, technique, emotion, and human connection. There's nothing like it.
SALSEEK: What do you love most about Salsa over any other form of dance you’ve trained for?
AHTOY: Continuing from my last response, I think the magic of social dancing is the best reason for anyone (and everyone) to learn salsa. It's hard to find another activity that allows for artistic expression, easy and enjoyable interactions with others and a way to stay fit without feeling like you're working. But for me personally, I remain passionate about salsa because it's relatively new and is still developing. I think artists can experiment with incorporating different styles in salsa while still appreciating and respecting its history and tradition.
SALSEEK: BAILA Society incorporates yoga into its training, why and what are the benefits of doing so?
AHTOY: Yoga is one of the few disciplines that comprehensively benefits both the body and the mind. Daniel and I find it invaluable in our daily lives. For our company, we have seen that it builds strength and flexibility as well as mental focus. We practice it in rehearsals as well as before performances. Inevitably, someone backstage will ask us why we are standing on our heads before call time, and many of our fellow salsa performers and students have been encouraged to take up the practice after hearing how much we love it.
SALSEEK: What positive and negative changes have you experienced in the scene?
AHTOY: I feel that through the years, the salsa community has generally been receptive to how expansive salsa has become in terms of style and audience as well as the types of media through which it is transmitted. For example, I have been working with themes and motifs in salsa and have tried to create pieces that are spatially dynamic, communicate a message, and are part of larger theatrical productions. I am so grateful for the overwhelmingly positive feedback I have received for my work. On the other hand, some people wish that salsa could remain traditional, and a few have reacted defensively to how much salsa has changed in the past few decades. It would be hard to prevent salsa (or any art form for that matter) from being influenced by other social and artistic trends. For salsa to remain a vibrant and relevant art, it has to continue to progress and incorporate new ideas. We have to continue to do that while respecting and preserving salsa's heritage. While my performance style is considered innovative, it is still rooted in salsa tradition and history.
SALSEEK: What are your personal/professional goals for Baila Society?
AHTOY: Seven years ago, when Daniel pitched the idea of BAILA Society to me, he asked me what my greatest dreams in dance were. My timid answer made me realize how small my world was and how little I wished for myself then. Daniel taught me to dream big in order to live big. So let's start with the biggest ones first: My greatest goal for BAILA Society is for it to reach the widest audience possible, whether it be through performing, teaching, or through our online academy, so that more people can appreciate salsa music and dance. For myself, I hope to always be able to be involved in dance in a way that I feel fosters passion and creativity without having to sacrifice for economic gain. Dance professionals often find themselves caught in a system of jobs that help keep them financially afloat but that get in the way of their personal development. Fortunately for me, BAILA Society's ongoing teaching model (especially our online academy) allows me to choose the activities that I most enjoy.
Just recently, Daniel and I began training with multi-world champion and adjudicator Billy Fajardo in adage, or partner lifts (those in the salsa community might recognize this genre as "cabaret" in salsa competitions). Billy is a true mentor who brings so much expertise, experience, generosity, and sincerity to every session we have together. Training with him has been a challenging, transformative process as Daniel and I are learning a completely new way to dance together and I am drawing on my early ballet training again. I have frequently felt like a bumbling beginner in many regards, but Billy gets the best out of me because he also trained with the American Ballet Theater before his work in salsa and other partner dances. This is the first time that I feel that I am integrating everything I know about dance and movement in general into one piece. I can't wait for our adage debut!
SALSEEK: You are a full time student finishing your PhD in epidemiology, how does that affect your training and world traveling for performance?
AHTOY: It's difficult of course, but I have always been devoted to dance and science simultaneously throughout my life (imagine The Nutcracker and a science fair on the same campus). I began to struggle more when I took up more creative roles in both spheres (choreographing and directing in dance and designing research studies in epidemiology) as opposed to being a part of an organized group (a dance company or a research team). I will be finishing my dissertation over the next 2 years and will have to move onto the next stage of my career, so we will see how my dance life changes in response. Daniel and the BASo family have been very supportive of me, so none of this would be possible without their help.
SALSEEK: What is your favorite city to travel to and why?
AHTOY: My recent favorites are Istanbul, Toronto, and Sofia, where I have had very memorable social dancing experiences. But if I had to pick one, it would be Seoul, Korea. I have always loved dancing there. The first time I was invited to perform there, I was a rookie in Santo Rico's professional team, but the organizers in Seoul put me on their billboard sized posters throughout the city. That was the first time I had a line of dance partners at a social. One of my teammates once cut the line and carried me to the bathroom so I could take a break. I have returned a few times to perform and judge their national competitions and each time I am impressed by the passion and energy, combined with technical perfection in the Korean salsa community. At a salsa party in Seoul, everyone gives me their best dance, and since I end up dancing all night non-stop, I am dancing my best dance too, for every dance. Even today, whenever I see one of my friends from Korea at another Congress, we run to each other screaming and jumping up and down ready to have the dance of our lives together.
SALSEEK: What has been your most memorable performance and why?
AHTOY: My most memorable performance was our first Bailando Por Una Causa, a dance showcase we organize annually in partnership with the Latino Commission on AIDS to benefit HIV/AIDS awareness efforts. Bailando is special for so many reasons. First of all, it's just the right thing to do and a great way to get involved in the fight against AIDS while doing what we love. Joey, one of our founding partners, passionately pursued this project because his mom died of AIDS and his dad is a survivor with HIV. It was also the first time that we worked to together with Natalie and Chasi of Salseek, which brings us full circle in this interview!
For Bailando, I was charged with the tremendous task of creating a full-length dance production including a medley of all of BAILA Society's pieces through the years. We had 4 weeks of rehearsals, 24 dancers, 12 minutes of choreography consisting of 9 pieces and 6 costume changes (about 30 seconds to a minute to do each one right off the side of the stage). I had the lofty goal of having the entire company work together; both repertory dancers and apprentices, and that each of us would learn the other group's pieces. It was whirlwind experience where I played many roles: dancer, choreographer, music editor, director, costume designer, stage manager, and producer. The salsa community and the public in general really supported us. I'll never forget being under the spotlight on the Museo del Barrio stage, looking straight at Eddie Torres (whose son, Eddie Jr., was performing with us), feeling the support and coordination of my entire company alongside me, and having the undeniable certainty that all of this mattered.
SALSEEK: Besides dance, what are your passions?
AHTOY: Food (healthy but yummy), fashion (petite but not child-sized), family (Guam and elsewhere), and geekery of all kinds (anime, sci fi, gadgets, DIY home improvement). That about covers the gamut of non-dance, non-epidemiology stuff!
SALSEEK: What is something people don’t know about you?
AHTOY: I suffer from stage fright. Not the usual pre-performance jitters, but real, debilitating, fear. Despite being a performer since a young age, my stage fright has only gotten worse through the years and at times it makes me want to quit my job. On the day of any performance, I wake up and tell Daniel that I can't do it anymore. But there are two things that I have found comfort in. First, yoga before a performance gives me peace of mind and helps my body find stability and balance. Second, having my company out there with me gives me a sense of familiarity and boosts my drive to get on stage and enjoy the moment.
For more information about Baila Society, visit www.bailasociety.com