An Interview with Ismael Otero – New Jersey

Ismael OteroIsmael Otero – A True Mambo Innovator by J. Johnson

An innovator can be described as someone that creates or pioneers new methodologies by consistently going against the grain to be different. Although we may not realize it, innovators are rare! So rare that it takes hindsight to give them credit for their contribution to the respective genre.

A great street poet once appealed to his audience to recognize his contribution while he is still alive and in his prime:

“You should (recognize) Nas in the flesh, don’t wait (until) I’m dead to say (that) I was the best,” – Nasir Jones

It is such a common practice to recognize great innovators, creators and contributors to a respective genre after their prime has passed. Hopefully “LaVoz del Mambo” can go against the grain by recognizing our modern day innovators and contributors while they are still in their prime performing, teaching, and dancing amongst us.

Ismael…….You may not have met him in person, but if you are a true Salsero, you have definitely heard of him. I remember seeing him in Atlanta, GA; I spoke to him and he came up and introduced himself, “Hello, my name is Ismael” I laughed and responded, “Come on Ismael, everyone knows you.” His reply was, “I have to keep it real; I’m just a regular person that loves Salsa.”

As mentioned in his interview with Stuck on Salsa, he’s one of the few individuals in the Salsa community that is known on a first name basis. Yes, there are plenty of good dancers on the scene that possess that same name as him, but none of them have his identity.

Need proof…..at your next Salsa round table, strike up the following conversation: “I saw Ismael do the coolest move on/at…..” I’m certain the answer will NOT be, “Ismael who?” I will probably be more like:

  • Oh yeah, I saw Ismael do this really cool move on/at…
  • Can I see the tape?
  • Can you show me the move?

In other words, no true Salsero will need education on which Ismael you are referring to. On another note, I am willing to admit that Salsa dancers are very spoiled.

Need proof? Think about any genre of art outside of dance. Film, music, painting, sculpture, ect. OK…. how often have you been able to learn directly from the stars or pioneers of that genre? How often are you able to get up close and personal with the stars of these genres?

Just think; Getting up close and personal with the stars of Salsa dancing is a simple as going to the next major Salsa congress and standing in the lobby. I guarantee that you will see the greats: Eddie Torres, Ismael Otero, Juan Matos, Frankie Martinez, Amanda Estillo, Griselle Ponce, or Duplessey Walker just to name a few… Our Salsa stars are truly at arms reach and although many individuals may handle “Salsa stardom” differently; I can guarantee that Ismael Otero will be one of the most sincere, down to earth, humorous, and genuine “Salsa stars” that you will ever come across.

On that note, La Voz del Mambo salutes a “True Mambo Innovator” – Mr. Ismael Otero.


Ismael OteroJJ: First and Foremost, I would like to thank you for taking time out to interview with “La Voz del Mambo.” I have admired your dancing for sometime and you are truly an inspiration to me and many aspiring Salsa/mambo dancers on the scene. Your style of dancing is arguably the most creative and sought after styles in Salsa Dancing. Unfortunately, it’s so unique, it’s rather hard to copy :) Where does your creativity come from? Are there any outside influences that contribute to your style of dance?

OT: I guess you can say break-dancing and hip-hop are the only outside influences I have. My style is basically adjusting to the style of music I’m dancing to. If there are many styles of Salsa songs why would anyone dance only one style? Basically, I just go with the flow of the music and the moves just come out.

You always hear dancers say “just feel the music,” unfortunately no one knows how to teach that. However, when you do feel the music you begin to understand that dancing is feeling, not thinking. I just dance the way I like, so I can’t tell you something like “My style comes the old shaolin temples of Salsa.” The creative part is easy, just look at what everyone else is doing and don’t do it. Having confidence in yourself and a basic love for the dance, combined with a little hard work, will go a long way. “Just do you.

JJ: I recently took your workshops in Charlotte, NC. Although I have a lot to learn, I rarely get excited about workshops. However, your workshops were some of the best that I have ever taken. You truly have the skills to bring a dancer to the next level. For someone who has never experienced an “Ismael Otero” workshop, what can they expect? What contributes to your successful methods of teaching “advanced” dancers?

OT: My confidence and being comfortable is the key. I try to make it fun and I give people a choice of moves to choose from. Since I travel a lot I don’t know what style of moves students will like, so if I give them a selection of moves and they see something they like, then that’s what I will show them.

JJ: You are the director and founder of The Caribbean Soul Dancers. This group is arguably the best Salsa/Mambo group on the Salsa scene. How do you manage such talent? What can we expect from Caribbean Soul in the future?

OT: Energy, more energy and challenging routines! We like to test ourselves as far as choreography and make sure we do not repeat any moves. Each routine must be completely different and 98% of the moves we do are originally ours. We don’t like to copy. I look for talent from the inside and I bring it out and as a result of time and practice, great dancers are born.

JJ: Why do you feel that you are a modern day innovator for Salsa/mambo dancing?

OT: I don’t have a certain style easily noticed like other dancers. I think that my choreographies and moves tend to make people think differently; kinda outside the Salsa Box, which inspires new styles and moves.

JJ: Although there are very few dancers that can be mentioned with you in the same sentence, you genuinely come off very humble. This is somewhat uncommon. What keeps you so sincere, nice, and humorous towards dancers on the scene that admire you

OT: I can only be me. I’m not an actor so why act? I’m a performer on stage, an instructor in class, and a regular person everywhere else. Unfortunately I would probably be more popular if I played the “Salsa god” role, but I gotta keep it real.

JJ: Why have you been overlooked?

OT: I think because I’m humble, friendly, and approachable; I tend to get overlooked at times. Unfortunately, when dancers act like they are better than everyone or come off like Salsa gods, people mistakenly treat them as so. Nevertheless, when you’re humble, approachable, and comfortable with everyone, people sometimes take you for granted.

Ismael OteroJJ: If you were less social with Salsa dancers and more into yourself, do you really believe you would be more popular? Why?

OT: Yes, because people wouldn’t be used to me. In my opinion, people tend to look up to other that are not easily approachable. Of course this does not apply to everyone.

JJ: What is your definition of an innovator and who do you consider “Salsa or Mambo” innovators, besides yourself?

OT: To me an Innovator is someone who innovates innovating innovations (lol). Just kidding, it’s someone who changes the whole flow of Salsa dancing with new and different styles and moves. In addition, innovators are always trying to go to another level.

JJ: Who are some female Salsa/Mambo “innovators” in your opinion?

OT: Griselle Ponce for body movement and bomba style moves; Yesenia Paralta because she can make simple moves look sexy and complicated and has no use for a lot of props; Candy Mena for hand styling; Olivia Dasso because she can do anything; Joby Martinez because she created a dance style that has been copied by many; Melissa Fernandez because she is bringing the fire and excitement back into Salsa dancing.

JJ: Who are some of your favorite Salsa dancers?

OT: Jamie Matos, because she can follow anyone and she brings a unique street/funky style into Salsa dancing; Kimberly Flores is very sexy and fun. She will blow up very soon. As far as guys I would say Troy Anthony, Sekou McMiller, Gordon Neil and Iran.

JJ: Besides Caribbean Soul, who are some of the most innovative groups currently performing?

OT: Hacha Y Machete, they are going to blow up big. The Karisma dancers, they are one of the cleanest and sharpest groups I’ve seen. Even their student group is sharper than some pro groups.

JJ: Who are some of the best overall follows out there?

OT: There are many good followers out there but few that can follow any count or any style. Most people look for those that look good following, but fail to notice follows ones that feel good when you dancing with them. Especially the times when you don’t have to think and can do any move you want no matter how simple or complicated.

Nevertheless, my choices are: Jamie Matos: NJ; Susana Montero: UK; Magna Gopal: Canada. My reason’s for picking these 3 is because, not only do they follow everything I throw at them, but I always make up new moves because the flow is so good.

JJ: When you retire, hopefully a very very long time from now, what do you want people to say about Ismael Otero?

OT: I just want them to remember the originality and electricity we have. I want people to remember how all my routines were very different, how we set the tone, and like to go against the grain. The main thing I would like people to say after I retire is that I made a difference not only in Salsa but also in their confidence, not to just dance, but to be original.

Ismael OteroJJ: Where would you like to see Salsa 15 years from now?

OT: I want to see Salsa on the Moon! Salsa is constantly changing but I would like to see it go back, as well as, forward; Merge the old with the new; I would also like to see less of a language barrier. This is probably why Salsa is not popular in main stream America. I want to see people like Usher and Beyonce singing some kind of Salsa songs.

JJ: Any additional comments:

OT: To all the social climbers that stress that they’re the best but hate it,
Because they can’t change the fact that they still do moves that I created;
Keep egos to a minimal try to be original, then you can achieve more,
And remember there is no such thing as levels on the dance floor;
If you are truly a good dancer and do what you should,
Then you know that you can make anyone look and feel good;
Look inside yourself be cool and work hard,
And you’ll see that you too, can be a Salsa god.

Caribbean Soul Baby what what!!