Julio Montero Brings The Joy of Salsa to Vancouver

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Julio Montero, a Cuban-born dance instructor of Salsa and Dominican Bachata thinks that  “Canada needs Cuba” and that we all need more dancing in our lives.

While Vancouver has plenty of culture to offer, life in this rainy, expensive city can sometimes be isolating. It’s all too easy to become disconnected from community and from our own bodies. An experienced and practiced teacher, Montero is working to bring people together through the joyous rhythm of Cuban Salsa. He runs regular beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes and teaches complimentary Salsa lessons at the popular Havana Friday’s at Mangos, helping Vancouverites to connect and engage mind, body, and soul.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

It’s all part of what Montero calls the “effective system of joy”—the Caribbean dances that have brought so much joy to the world and even to this city of glass.

For all its flaws, Vancouver is a true world city. People come here from all over, many, like Montero, generously share the best of their cultural heritage. Salsa isn’t going to cure all of Vancouver’s lonesomeness, but it’s certainly going to help the city loosen up and have a ton of fun.

I grabbed a beer with Julio Montero at Steamworks Brewery to talk about his mission to imbue Vancouver with rhythm and grace.

Julio Montero: “I’m still trying to figure out how to tell the story of my life in Canada because what I’ve ended up doing here has nothing to do with what I had in mind when I left Cuba. The truth is I came with an open mind, open to what came along the way. But I did have the intention of studying at a University.”

Julio paused to sip his beer. He laughed:  

“In the world of dancing, I am a little bit of an anomaly. Most dance instructors don’t have formal training in how to teach. In Cuba, I studied to be an English teacher. Education is a very serious thing in Cuba.

So I have studied, formally, how to be a teacher. This is unusual. What happens with dancers is that they train and then they take a little two-week course in how to be a teacher, and some don’t even do that.

But knowing how to teach is fundamental; I’m talking about methodology, psychology, understanding how the learning process works.”

Vancouver Weekly: But you did it in reverse, you studied teaching and learned to dance…how did you learn how to Salsa?

Photo by Ryan Johnson

“I was just a typical Cuban dancer—what is called an empirical dancer. We learn through socialization. We don’t go to school to learn how to dance.

Now, there are professional dancers who do study formally, and these schools specialize in ballet, contemporary, Afro—we have African dances that require years of practicing to fully master.

But, the dances that have caught the world’s attention are precisely the two dances that are not part of dance school curriculums: Salsa and Rumba. When you study in Cuba to become a professional dancer, you don’t study Salsa; in Cuba, we call it ‘Casino’.

VW: Salsa is called ‘Casino’ in Cuba?

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Julio: “It takes the name from social clubs. It’s a little complicated to call it casino here because people associate that word with vice and gambling. I am an empirical dancer who was fortunate enough to have received an education in teaching.

VW: And now you run a studio?

Julio: “Actually, I rent out space. I have my dance business and I’m mobile. This gives me freedom. Because the last thing I want to have is the responsibility of a lease.

I’ll tell you more about what I do. Cuban salsa is very distinctive from the other styles of Salsa that are out there because Cuban Salsa represents our nation’s cultural heritage. Hence the importance of passing it on. Properly.”

VW: There are so many types of dance. Why do you think people get so excited about Salsa? Is it because it’s supposed to be sexy?

Julio: “There are several reasons. Yes, there are people who are attracted to the sexiness of the dance. But there are many more who are seeking a fun connection with others.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

I believe that the reason salsa is more than just a fad is because it is fulfilling an important social function… especially in a place like Canada. In urban Canada, you know, we don’t really have community and it’s difficult to connect with people. Disconnection is part of the dynamics of urban life in industrial, affluent societies.

So salsa is filling a gap: it’s helping people to connect and in the healthiest way. Because you are doing something that is good for your mind, for your soul, and for your body. And it is physical, because you have to move your body, but it also provides you with happiness.

Come on, there is satisfaction in working out— yes, I like working out— but this is very different from the joy that you get from dancing to a song. I don’t feel happy, necessarily, while working out, but dancing…it’s a different state of mind. With Salsa, you get to experience moments of happiness.

And then there is the social aspect of it. You make friends and meet like-minded people who become your new social circle. So what you experience is a change in lifestyle, because now you are a person who is always having fun.”

VW: Sounds like the best type of person to be. What do you call someone who is really into Salsa?

Julio: “Ah, salsero! There are many who go out dancing once a week in addition to taking their classes.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Over my years of teaching, I’ve seen groups of friends created through dance classes and they are still friends to this day. People come to learn Salsa and end up creating a core group of friends. It’s the best. Everyone dances together. This is where people have met their best friends. This is where people have met their husbands, their wives.”

VW: Does this result in lots of Salsa-themed weddings?

Julio: “Yes! I’ve been to many of these. I’m literally some sort of a Cupid.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

I honestly wish that the government offered people the possibility of writing-off dance classes. It would promote healthy behavior, even more so than gyms and yoga. Because dancing, ultimately, leads to being social. And by being social, your quality of life improves even more than going to a gym. I think that people with lots of friends live longer than those who work out every day.”

VW: You’re probably right—have you heard of that study that found that loneliness is as bad for health as smoking?

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Julio: “Yeah, and Vancouver has perhaps the highest rate of loneliness in Canada, or at least the highest rate of single occupancy. Although, now the cost of housing is changing that… still, that is a lot of lonely people.

VW: Lonely people in the rain…

Julio: “Many people are seeking genuine social connection.”

VW: On vancuba.com, you talk about the everlasting and effective system of joy that Caribbean people have conceived.” What is this system?

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Julio: “Ah, the “everlasting system of joy”—this refers to the music and the dances that have been conceived in the Caribbean region. Look, the Caribbean is a magical part of the world. It is just a bunch of tiny islands. Cuba is the largest one and sometimes it doesn’t even appear on a map. But something happened there. On these islands, through the slave trade, we got interesting mixes between African and European culture. In the Caribbean, we have created the most contagious dance rhythms in the world. Period.

The reason that Hip-Hop is so big is that the market is huge. American music rules because they have a large domestic market and they have the economic power to push their cultural product into the rest of the world. But we in the Caribbean don’t have any sort of economic power.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Jamaica has the whole world dancing reggae. That is because reggae is hot, not because Jamaicans have money to push for their music to be consumed. Cuba created what is known today as Salsa and now, across the entire planet, there are people dancing Salsa. That is because of the quality of the universal appeal of the music. Same thing for Merengue, from the Dominican Republic and Bachata, also from the Dominican. Same thing for Soca dancing from Trinidad.  

Salsa, Mumbo, Cha Cha Cha, Rumba, all that good stuff comes from Cuba.

VW: And do you teach all of these or mostly just Salsa?

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Julio: “I teach Salsa and Dominican Bachata. I focus on the dances that are more social. Anything that has to do with holding hands.”

VW: And what sorts of people are attending your classes?

Julio: “All sorts, it’s a great mix. I also get Latinos joining my dance classes. I’ve been very fortunate because people come to class because they want to add joy to their lives, so there is already a predisposition. I don’t get angry people or miserable folks. I get people who are looking to add some fun to their lives.

I have been very fortunate as an immigrant because I make my living by being Cuban. How many immigrants get paid to be immigrants? But at the same time, I feel like I am making a valuable contribution to society.

VW: It sounds like you are bringing joy to a lot of people.

Julio: “You know, what I like to say? Cuba is good for Canada. It starts with “C” and it ends with “A”. You can’t go wrong.”

VW: What prompted you to move to Canada? Cuba sounds amazing.

Julio: “Life was very tough in Cuba. Many things brought me here. The important thing is that I am here now and I love it.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

I’ve been all across Canada. I have been to Quebec. I have lived in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta. I’ve been to Hutterite communities. I’ve worked on golf courses. I’ve worked in construction. And I finished my degree at UBC, a Double Major in French and Spanish.

Right now I’m working to become a certified translator. That’s going to be my daytime thing and in the evening I’ll keep teaching dance. I will teach dance until my last day.”

VW: So how did you start teaching here?

Julio: “It’s funny because growing up in Cuba, I would have never thought that I’d be teaching dance.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

When I first arrived in Canada, and I went to a club and saw people dancing, I thought, oh my god—now I know what I can do to make Canada great again!

When I saw them dancing I said to myself: these people need help.

You know, back home in the Caribbean, as a man, if you don’t know how to move your hips well, you will never have a wife. In Cuba, if you don’t know how to grind and move your hips, you will never have children. So…you guys have it easy here.

Also, very strange, in Canadian culture, the hockey culture, dance isn’t seen as manly. Whereas in the Caribbean, dancing demonstrates virility. The better dancer you are the better candidate you are. Here, it is all about the six-pack. In Cuba, it is all about attitude.

And I really want to help men connect with their bodies because I find that men are particularly hopeless. Women are more encouraged to dance. But not men. I can’t imagine this, I don’t understand what it’s like not to dance. If suddenly I couldn’t dance, I don’t think I could even walk.  

VW: Do you find that Canadian men are receptive and ready to learn once they get in the door?

Julio: “Usually there are more women signing up. I wish the men were more receptive. They just don’t want to be helped. It’s a cultural thing, it’s not encouraged. But I think this is changing, with globalization. In Vancouver, there are thousands of men who have taken dance courses—if they have children they’ll want them to learn to dance.

VW: Isn’t it pretty hard to teach rhythm? Don’t you have to be born with it to some extent?

Julio: “Dancing is accessible to everyone. I realize that it is a little more difficult if you are into middle age without dancing. But in my system, I take it slow.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Learning is a gradual process and the most important thing is to enjoy the journey. When I think back on my dance experience, I always, always remember very fondly the time that I learned how to dance.

I didn’t learn from lessons. I learned when I was fifteen. In Cuba you learn from a friend, a neighbor…it’s an informal process but someone has to show you how to do it. And the teaching methods are obviously very unorthodox. I can’t teach people the way that I was taught, because how I was taught was people shouting at me: Do it! I had to learn on the fly.

People often want to go very fast. The problem is that this instant gratification mentality can get in the way. They should realize that it is a slow process, but if you are consistent you will get there.

I’d say, if you are consistent, I’d say it would take you six months to be a proper salsa dancer.”

VW: Six-months? That’s not bad.

Julio: “My beginner Salsa class is two months, intermediate another two months, by the time you finish Advanced, you’re pretty good.

Photo by Ryan Johnson

Funny enough, I’m teaching a class tonight. I’ve got to run—check please!”

VW: Wait, last question! Where should people go to check out Salsa and other Latin American dances?

Julio: “My recommendation, as a starter, is to check out Havana Friday’s, at Mangos, formally named Lux Lounge. I am there every Friday teaching a complimentary dance lesson. This is a great place to come and have a good time and see how fun Salsa can be.”

Photo by Ryan Johnson

This interview has been edited and condensed.