- Valérie, before going on-stage in the première of Salsamor Fever, June 8, 2005.
- Cliford leads students at Le Privé, stepping back into the past of Parisian salsa.
Please start by describing the context in which you grew up, and how you came to salsa.
Cliford : In my family everyone danced, my mother, my older brother : kompa, of course, but salsa and other latin dances, like boléro, chachacha. There was always music, and always dancing. I learned salsa at home ; Haiti is my home.
My family had emigrated to New York, and I would go there to visit them during my summer vacations, beginning in 1985. I went out to the Copacabana every night, the old one, the one before the one that burned down, back when it was in a two-story building. I would go every night, my mother said that I should set up a bed there…I did the after-works, I would eat there, and dance all night long, leaving at dawn. It was a classy place, you had to go there in a suit. I also have great memories of the Broadway 2 in Queens, where you couldn’t even take off your jacket inside, if you took off your jacket, someone would come over and ask you to put it back on. I loved that class, that elegance, dressing up to go out. I wanted to experience the same thing in France, which is why we started the first parties at l’Evasion (which is today, Le Privé, the latest arrival on the Parisian salsa club scene). I wanted to create a party where people could come, eat, drink, and dance ’portorican’ salsa. I wanted people to dress up. In Paris at that time, it was the grand era of Cuban style, everyone wore bandanas and big boots and jeans, they went out dancing in very casual clothing. I had the memory of the elegance that I’d experienced in New York, and I wanted people to dress up to get into the spirit of Mambo, or at least, just to say that you could go out looking good, and also dance salsa.
Valérie : Growing up, I wanted to be lots of things… a gynecologist. I was fascinated with gynecology, especially the sexological aspect. Architect, I love design. Lawyer… in my studies, I was oriented towards International Human Rights Law. Philosophy, I would have loved, but I had to chose my studies in terms of a career. If I had lots of money I would spend my time studying. I wanted to be so many things, everything but a dancer. But my mother told me last year, that when I was three years old, I wanted to be a ballerina. (laughs).
Even at home, in the environment in which I grew up, I was a rebel, I had my own convictions and I started to make them known to my family from a very young age. In my country, music and dance are part of daily life. The people love music, they love to move. During the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, there were always parties in Haiti, and all the parties were set to music, there was dancing, festivities, seduction. In my family there were no professional dancers, and I was really shy. When all the other kids would go to the kermesse (church social), I would stay home, and dance in my room. People listen to music at a high volume in my country - if the neighbor opens his window, the whole neighborhood hears his music, and so I would dance by myself to the music that I heard.
For Caribbean people, music is as much a part of our culture as the sun.
Can you give us an historical perspective on your first Salsa experiences in Paris ?
Cliford : When I came to France it was the era of Colombian salsa, there were a lot of Colombians and Peruvians who would go out dancing and everyone danced on one. Because I only knew the mambo on two, I didn’t understand, I thought : they’re dancing on the wrong beat !
Valérie and I went out a lot to dance Mambo, we were the only ones, and people would come up and ask us, "What are you dancing ?". That’s how the salsa that’s now known as "portorican" entered into France. We started out by teaching other dancers how to dance like we did, and Jack el Oso, Pascal, Sève and Sabrina were our first Mambo students and with them we went out dancing, a lot, to try and develop interest among the Parisians for this ’new style’. Valérie and I were the first ones to set foot at the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress in 1999, and this inspired us to put together a dance company, and to create a choreography. Our first choreography was set to "Mi Primera Rumba" by La India, and Salsabor Dance Company was born, with our first student dancers : Olivier, Gwen, Denis, Sophie, Mouaze, Séverine, Pascal and Monika). Jack el Oso, who was living in London at the time, joined the company later with Nathalie, then Agnès, Nadège, Isabelle and Fred.
- Valérie waits in the wings, backstage at the Salsamor Fever première, on June 8, 2005.
Valérie : I came to Paris eight years ago. The mood has changed from great warmth, to elitism. When I first came here there were lots of Latinos who would go out dancing, there was always live music, it was more spontaneous, there was more laughter. People started to learn ’portorican’ salsa, they mastered it, and they started to make it an elitist dance, believing that it made them better than other people. For me, that’s racism, or dancism. It goes against my conception of the spirit of salsa. We have a role to play, through education. That’s the paradox, we’re not like that and yet we can’t understand how people retain that from what we teach. I rarely go out dancing anymore, I’m bored to death when I do, everyone’s out there gazing at their own navel, dancing like machines, and nothing happens. People tell us that’s our role, to say, that’s not what salsa is. We work with people from many different horizons to wake up our students. The idea has been passed on to our teaching staff. We have to give back a vision of salsa that has disappeared from the dancefloors, today.
Who are the artists that inspire you ?
Valerie : Richie Ray, Bobby Cruz, especially Sonido Bestial, Mongo Santamaria, Yuri Buenaventura, Mambo Legacy, they’re a very strong orchestra, their music is clean… Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Mano Rivera, Rubén Blades, Eddie Palmieri, I danced to his music in Bern. For dancing, those are my favorites. I also like French variety music, Edith Piaf, Léo Ferré, Michel Sardou, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, the great divas of american soul. Mary Jo Blige, Whitney Houston, Ella, Miles Davis. In my CD player, there’s only salsa music, that I never listen to. Indian music. I love everything ; it just has to make me tremble.
Cliford : In my CD player, there’s a lot of bachata, I listen to a lot of bachata and old merengue from 20 years ago, it’s very rich music, engaging, it’s music that a dancer can plunge into, as compared to the binary merengue that one hears these days. Right now I’m listening to one bachata over and over again ; when I love a song, that’s all I listen to. Julio Iglesias I’ve loved since I was a teenager, and I can’t even count the number of young ladies I’ve courted over the strains of Julio…(he smiles). He has a beautiful color to his voice, there’s warmth, you can hear the emotion when he sings, he’s classy. It’s true that he only sings about love, sad love, but he has his own style. I have a lot of respect for artists who believe in what they do. With him, you always know it’s him. There are a lot of young artists who sing about love, but you can’t hear their experience… I love his romantic side, you see that less and less these days. I love salsa artists from the 80s and 90s, Ray Sepulveda, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Tony Vega, because that’s what everyone listened to when I was in New York. I’m a huge fan of Oscar d’Leon. There aren’t a lot of albums that I love, mainly, I like songs : Idilio de Willie Colon, for example, what a beautiful duet, what a melody, and for the melody, and the words, and the idea that is expressed through the music.
How are your choreographies born ?
Valérie : It’s never the same : you can start out with an idea, and then listen to music to find the song that matches it, or you can see something in a film, in the street, even in the subway. We try and find the link that brings all the pieces together. When you have the soul of an artist, everything is a source of inspiration, that’s why as a dancer, dance itself is not my inspiration, it can be a beginning dancer that I meet in class, inspiration is everywhere.
Cliford : When I was growing up, I watched my mother create choreographies, and in Haiti I was also a founding member of a dance school, "Concorde Salsa", so I had learned how to translate an idea into a danced gesture. Sometimes you find the song first, sometimes, the idea influences the choice of the song. For Saigon Street and Salsabor Café, and Salsamor Fever, it all started in a conversation with my brother. He said, "It would be interesting to make a choreography about G.I.s in a brothel in Saigon." I started to think about it, and Saigon Street was born, set to "Asian Mood". For Salsabor Café, it was also in talking with my brother that the idea came up, and with Valérie we wrote the script and put the choreography together. Our choreographies have passion, love, romance as their themes, because for me, that’s the soul of this music, and we try and stay faithful to the music.
- Salsamor Fever, June 8, 2005.
How do you and Cliford work together as a team, how do you divide the work ?
Valerie : It comes down to our personalities. We’re complementary. It depends - he will work on the dance steps, I’ll work on the ’film’. We put the ideas on the table, and the result is a compromise between what each of us wants. His strong point is that he can align a choreography, he can take an idea and match the steps and moves that go with it. I’m more of an ant, I try and read into the music, to sketch the structure, the story, the finish work, but our styles complement each other.
Cliford : Creation is easy for me. The hard part is the rehearsals, but I’m getting better at it.
Valérie : For me, the best part is putting the pieces together. When I was little, I would have loved to have been behind the camera. To direct, to produce. The hardest part is to put the steps together with the music, with precision. When that happens, it’s wonderful. For me the hardest part is to not have the money to put a show together, from the beginning to the end, to not be able to pay people. The hardest of all is probably to not be inspired.
Why Chicago in the 30s ?
Valérie : It was a very glamorous time, there was finesse, money, banditry, men in tuxedos, elegance, it’s about sex and money, and brillantined hair. I love the movie The Cotton Club. Salsa is a form of expression like any other, we’re not forced to stay in the traditional subjects. Mambo itself went from the street to the cabarets, so it’s true to the music as well.
How did you decide to set Salsamor Fever to live music ?
Valérie : It seemed obvious to us. The question was more of a financial one. It was clear that we had to give grandeur to the show, and the most extraordinary thing of all is to put live music into the show. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough space on the stage, but for us it was clear : the show had to be set to live music, that’s the truest form.
What has changed in the salsa community in Paris since you’ve been here ?
Cliford : What we’re losing, is live music. Eight years ago there was a different ambiance, salsa was new, less technical, there was more pleasure in the dance itself, and the parties. And most of all, there was a lot more live music, the parties were filled with Latinos, very few French people danced. At Les Etoiles, people would stand in line all the way out to the corner just to get in. Today, there are people who dance salsa, who have never danced to live music. For me, that’s like a kid who was brought up eating fish sticks and chicken nuggets, without having ever seen a real fish, or a real chicken. I grew up dancing to live music, at the kompas dances. There is a real interaction between the dancer and the musician, for example there’s a part of the song where the pianist will play a long solo, so that the couple dances more closely. It’s a game between the dancer and the musician, they communicate. That’s why we’re trying, with Salsabor, to put the live back at the front of the stage. Every student will take up and instrument and will learn how to play it to try and learn the music from the other side too. For the past year we’ve been working with the Ecole Abanico, the only afro-caribean music school in Paris. We made live music an essential part of Salsamor Fever.
Romanticism is being lost. Even though I studied philosophy, have read Kant, I left all that behind me. The soul of this music is romance, the soul of this music is passion. Salsa is the interweaving of cultures, also, that’s why salsa can become popular in France, why it can take root in ’foreign’ soil. Salsa is beautiful because everyone contributes, it’s like a mixed-race child, there’s a little bit of Africa, a little bit of the West ; it’s the meeting ground between two worlds, and from a painful history, a joyous music was born, because every culture worked together to create it. There is something in the music that makes you happy. No one comes to salsa like they go to a step aerobics class, it’s engaging, it becomes part of you.
Valérie : The major change that I’ve seen, is that we have acquired a certain technical level. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves, what’s happening in Paris, is worse in New York. We’re not original, in the way that we behave. People acquire more and more technical skills, but they lose their souls more and more, as they dance. People who know us tell us that we have not changed. People come back, we’re not on a pedestal. As long as people feel alone, they will continue to go to dance classes, but for the culture of salsa we still have work to do because it’s not just the classes, it’s also the music, it’s the socializing, buying a drink, talking with people around a table. It’s cyclical, right now, it’s the high point for salsa dancing… The live music in our show was very much appreciated, but there’s work to do to showcase it. Dance and music are two twin sisters, they are the two sides of one coin.
Salsa is a culture, it blends everything that is social, tradion, modernism, but before all that, it’s a lifestyle. It’s the lifestyle of a culture, in its very birth salsa is a blend of Africa and the West, it becomes universal. But because it touches the body, there is a humanism to salsa that is very important.
Where will the future find you ?
Valérie : Haiti. I see myself in my country, in my home. When you’re an expatriate, you’re never at home. I don’t really know what I’ll be doing, I think I’m capable of doing anything. I don’t know where I’ll be but in 25 years I’ll still be free, who will live in function of the choices I have made.
Cliford : In 10 years, in 25 years, I hope to be somewhere that’s warm and sunny, I love Paris but it’s grey here. I want to be with my family and my kids, sipping a multicolored cocktail with those little umbrellas. Salsa ? I’ll still be in it, I think that even when I’ll barely be able to walk, I’ll still dance. It’s then that you see the finest dancers, when they no longer have the physical force to show off their technical prowess, the essential remains, the swing and the class. Teaching and shows are not everything for me. In salsa, nothing can ever replace improvised dancing : for me, this for me is essential.
- The première of Salsamor Fever, June 8, 2005.