'Salsa fever' -- or an addiction to dancing the salsa -- is still kind of new to India. The reasons behind why this internationally popular dance form hit the Indian shores relatively later still persist -- among them, a hesitation to embrace a sensual dance that involves a partner and moving to music that is not only highly technical, but also features lyrics in Spanish, an alien language.
Yet the Indian salsa community not only exists, it is beginning to thrive, thanks in large measure to the efforts of salsa instructors across the sub-continent. India now actually hosts what is billed as Asia's largest salsa congress and it is organised by a man who took to salsa dancing as a reprieve from his hard life.
The India International Dance Congress or IIDC, as it is known, was set up in 2012 as the brainchild of Bengaluru-based John Anthony, a well-recognised figure in the Indian dance community. Anthony cuts a stylish figure, and loves his shoe and watch collections. But few know of the 36-year-old's humble origins and the fact that he began his career as a courier delivery boy.
Being held in Bengaluru, the festival's 5th edition will see salsa dancing champions from across the world perform, including 'Mambo King' Eddie Torres, recognised internationally for converting what was an elusive dance form into a teachable format. On the festival eve, Anthony looks back at his life's journey thus far, sharing it over the phone with HuffPost India.
"My mother was a government school teacher and the breadwinner of the family [which includes Anthony's father, and two elder siblings]," he recalls. "I managed to complete my 10th standard, but was forced to work, as my mother could not afford my education. So, I decided that I would do both."
Anthony's siblings had grown up in relatively comfortable circumstances, when their father was also working. But by the time Anthony was born, the family was struggling with heavy debts. "My brother and sister were not ambitious or aggressive like I am, simply because they weren't brought up like that. I saw difficulty from a very young age," he says, remembering how at one point the family had to sell their utensils to make ends meet.
In 1995, a 15-year-old Anthony joined a travel company as a courier boy. He would also sweep the office floors and ensure that the premises were in working order every morning for a monthly salary of Rs 800. "My work hours were from 8 am to 5 pm. Then I'd head to an evening college (that charged an annual fee of Rs 500) to study commerce from 5:30 - 9:30 pm, and finally reach home by 12 am," he says. Commuting was difficult and expensive because his house was in the outskirts of Bengaluru, so Anthony would walk as much as he could to each place. He would also work on Saturdays, and on Sundays he would sell flowers outside his church to make extra money. "Every penny counted," he explains. "At the time, a good meal was a reason to celebrate in my family, and that's what I was working towards."
Anthony studied under a streetlamp so that his family could sleep in their one-room house. "My college dean granted me permission to sleep and study in the college late at night," he says. Disaster struck when Anthony's sister lost her husband to liver disease and was left with a 2-year-old baby. "I had to take care of her and clear our debts," he says. "There was no option other than to work harder."
In 2000, after graduating from college, Anthony joined a company as a travel manager, and maintained his exhausting routine. One day, he chanced upon a jive class at the Alliance Française and was immediately entranced. He paid what little money he had then and there, and joined the class. "Dancing was very new to India, but I enjoyed what I was doing. At an annual day in my workplace, I was asked to put together a small team and perform what little I knew," he says. "I jumbled my limited knowledge of cha-cha, jive, salsa and merengue, and we delivered a performance that received a standing ovation and many enquiries about dance classes."
Excited at the prospect of making money by doing something that was a stress buster for him, Anthony got to work. "I wanted to leave my mark on the world. After all we only have one life. As a child I'd always wanted to be a sportsman. Since I couldn't, I took to dancing," he explains. He found a gym that charged Rs 400 per hour to rent out their aerobics studio. The money was pooled and paid for by his colleagues and, in turn, Anthony taught them for free. "This was in 2005. By 2008. I had almost 300 students and a very welcome extra income," he says.
Anthony was often asked by corporate companies to teach dance during the day, but had to turn them down because of his job. Then, in 2009, he took a call, and threw in the towel. "When I decided to leave, I had saved about Rs 20,000. I borrowed a bit more money, and opened a posh studio in Jayanagar in 2010." At the start of 2011, Anthony had opened another studio under his brand, Latino Dance Rhythms Academy, and was looking for opportunities to grow. "There were a few salsa congresses where one could go, take a few workshops with artists and grow. But they operated on very small scales, and people wanted change. So I decided to give them the biggest venue I could," he says.
Though his students spurred him on, Anthony was subject to some hostility and criticism from other competitors. That didn't deter him. "I started a festival in Goa in November 2011, and after seeing 400 ecstatic faces present, I knew that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to take India to a new level, and give people more opportunities to learn dancing," he proclaims.
IIDC was launched in 2012, and though Anthony suffered major financial losses, the festival was a hit. "I got some incredible artists -- Oliver Pineda, John Narvaez, Liz Lira... but it took everything including trips abroad, and advances upfront, money I didn't even have," he says. "But it all paid off when they got here. We hosted them as best as we could, and even had a proper wooden dancing floor -- a first in any salsa congress. The response was unbelievable."
This year, IIDC is featuring Asia's largest competitive championship with 14 categories to participate in, and the biggest names across the world. Anthony continues to teach -- his academy offers 9 styles of dance available across all ages -- but says his agenda is to complete his dance education, as he now has the time to travel and actually learn salsa instead of picking it up in bits and pieces. "I didn't have the money to learn. It was always being used to clear loans, for my family or for IIDC."
Amazingly, in spite of his lack of technical knowledge, Anthony has produced dancers who have walked away with championship titles every year. "This year will hopefully be no different," he concludes playfully.
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