An Interview with Marchant Birch – London, UK by Johnny Johnson

Marchant BirchJohnny: First and Foremost, thank you for granting LVM this opportunity to interview you. You have a very extraordinary dance resume. In December 2003 you and your partner received an award at the British Salsa Congress for most outstanding newcomers. Since then you have continued in your path of success within salsa dance. For those who may not know you, can you tell us how you got into performing and dancing salsa?

Marchant: Thank you Johnny for inviting me for this interview, it is an honor. I’m from Cape Town, South Africa, and we have a partner dance with the same basic step and similar partner work to salsa, it’s called Jazz because we dance it to Jazz, funk and R&B music.

I’ve been dancing Jazz or Jazza the Capetonians call it, and I don’t remember anybody teaching it. You just made it up as you went along and it had no specific timing, you could dance on the one or three or whatever you felt. I first encountered salsa music through a musician friend in South Africa, who played me some Tito Puente songs. When I flew over to England in 2000, the flight attendant knew me from the Jazz scene in Cape Town and told me of how similar salsa was to Jazz. So my first night in London she took me to a salsa club.

I started taking classes with many different teachers in the UK including Leon Rose, Nick (Bar Cuba), SuperMario and Susana Montero. I then started taking private lessons with Frankie Martinez, Juan Matos, Nelson Flores, Thomas Guererro, Victor and Burju (Hache Y Machete). With regard to performing, I started in a group called Yes Brazil, and then with the London All Star Latin Dancers directed by Leon Rose. Since then, I have done various projects with different partners.

Marchant Birch SalsaJohnny: You have extensive experience in Ballroom and Latin Dance. You started training in these disciplines at the age of seven. How would you describe the experience of performing and competing at such a young age? How has this experience affected you?

Marchant: Competing at such a young age made me use to expressing in front of large audiences. I had to learn all ten dances but I specialized more in the modern dances like waltz, slow foxtrot etc. I think ballroom has made a major contribution to my approach to salsa.

For example, the way I lead is based on the smooth feeling of slow foxtrot and when I teach on one, I use a quick, quick, slow, quick, quick, slow rhythm over the eight counts as the foundation rhythm. With the slow having double the value of a quick. It makes on 1 feels smoother if you express this rhythm in your lead as well. And if the woman responds to the rhythm in your lead then it will have a flowing feeling.

In slow foxtrot the rhythm is slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. Initially, I had trouble integrating my ballroom experience with salsa. It took me a long time to figure out what to borrow from ballroom and what not to. I think I should have taken my time more before I started performing salsa and I feel I rushed into it. But I can only see that now when I look back, I couldn’t see it at the time.

Johnny: You also have experience in Boogie (a style of dance similar to street jazz). You won several major competitions in this as well. Are there any influences of street jazz in your current style of dancing salsa?

Marchant: Every dance form I did in the past influence me today. In Boogie dancing, my brother Bradley was really good. He choreographed our routines and he would have been good at Mambo. My experience in that style helps me to understand the feeling of the funkier movements I learned off Juan and Burju.

However, I must mention the importance of approaching any learning with the mind of a beginner. A beginner is open to learning, the moment you feel you are an expert, you start closing up and it makes learning difficult.

Marchant Birch SalsaJohnny: You have performed with Lilly Lame (France), Andrea Stewart (Director of Duende Dance Company), and Candice Leong. How would you describe these experiences?

Marchant: Working with Lilly, Andrea and Candice taught me such a lot about dancing. Each one of them we’re different in their approach to dancing and movement. Also each one of them contributed to my understanding of salsa/mambo in a different way.

Working with so many different partners makes you adapt every time and can only contribute to your growth as a dancer. Lilly and I danced together for a few months before she moved back to France. Andrea is now dancing with Tiz (he is a very good dancer) Candice moved to Switzerland to teach and dance with her boyfriend Lautarro (Sacuye Dance Company).

Johnny: You have been invited to perform and teach all over the UK and beyond. Where can we expect to see you during the upcoming year?

Marchant: At the moment I have problems traveling (visa problems). Hopefully it will be sorted out by January. So for now I will just around the UK and Ireland. I was already refused a U.S. visa. I was also invited by Fogarate to perform at the West Coast congress with them this year and I couldn’t make it but hopefully the visa problem will be sorted out in the near future.

Johnny: You have gain world-renown recognition for you achievements within salsa. How does it make you feel to known that your material is appreciated and well-received?

Marchant: It’s a good feeling if people whose dancing I admire enjoy what we do, but World-renown recognition is not the term I would associate with myself. Yes a few individuals who’s dancing I respect, from the U.S. and Europe, appreciate what we do. Especially the latest choreography Take 5 (Tito Puente) that I’m doing with Miriam Oppel, has been well received within the UK and with the international teachers who saw it but to call myself world-renowned is not right at all.

I never had the exposure in all countries to be World-renowned. Exposure is needed by all dancers who want to earn a living from dance and that’s when promoters might use it to exploit dancers (those who think of earning a living from dance can learn from my mistakes).

For example, I was teaching in Spain on a salsa holiday once, and when I finished my work, the promoter (let’s call him promoter A) asked me to teach two extra classes (unpaid) because another promoter (B) wanted to see me teach with the view of booking me for a big festival. Promoter A convinced me it was a good opportunity for exposure.

So I taught the classes but promoter B never attended those classes. Later in the afternoon I bumped into promoter B and said I thought you were coming to check out my classes in view of booking me for your Festival, She said Oh no, all the teachers for that festival is already booked, I never promised anyone I would check out your classes. I felt like such a fool because I trusted that promoter A was truthful with me, I felt conned but it served me right.

When I examined the situation, there was a lesson and blessing in it for me, it made me remind myself why I’m dancing. I never before approached dancing with the desire of exposure or fame. But exposure was/is needed because I’m trying to earn a living. I always just loved dancing, whether it is in someone’s back yard or on the congress stage. Promoter A just used the word exposure and decorated it nicely so I would willingly work for free.

There is nothing wrong with working for free if the event is struggling to cover the costs and to break even, or if it is a charity event. Exposure can be helpful, as long as you are aware that working for exposure can also turn into exploitation, go for it, you might even become World-renowned.

Marchant Birch DancingJohnny: Who are some of you favorite dancers in the UK and beyond?

Marchant: In the UK one of my students named Colin, he is 67 years old and dance like his soul is free, Osbanis, Gary (Birmingham), Rafael & Janet, Leon Rose & Susana Montero, Don, Lazaro, Mario, Miriam Oppel, Mushi, Emma & Kate (and all the ladies who are always willing to dance with me).

From beyond the U.K., Juan Matos and Fogarate, Eddie Torres, Felipe Polanco, Frankie Martinez, Hache Y Machete, Nelson Flores, Jazzy (Norway) Franklin Diaz, Santa Rico, Yamulee, Nancy Ortiz and many more that I can’t think of at the moment.

The most inspirational female I danced with is Burju, she oozes feeling and raises your energy, and I just feel at one with her. On a personal level I love dancing with my wife Pepi and Candice Leong (a very close friend of ours and I miss you baby).

Johnny: Where would you like to see salsa in the next 5 years?

Marchant: I don’t even know what I will be doing in 5 years time, but I would like everyone to experience dancing in such way where they hit that zone or Dynamic equanimity. It’s a feeling of Oneness where you, your partner and the music becomes one and rhythm is the glue to unify all three. You can’t even feel where your body ends and your partners body begins, you don’t even know if you are leading or following because everything is one. In that state, no forceful leading is necessary, you are both just flowing, and the energy is just flowing. I’m not even sure if the brain gets involved because the brain can get in the way of feeling. That is what I wish for everyone to experience.

Marchant Birch