An Interview with Thomas Guerrero – New York

Thomas GuerreroJohnny: First and foremost thank you for granting LaVoz Magazine an opportunity to interview you. Your dance company, Santo Rico is definitely one of the top performance companies in the world. You are one of my personal favorites and a source of inspiration for me in regard to dancing and performing salsa. For those who may not have heard of you can you talk briefly your background?

Thomas: Well first of all thank you very much for this interview opportunity. I am more than flattered to do this. I started dancing professionally in 1995 and I would say that salsa kind of choose me because I just use to dance socially. I don’t have a dance background or resume in jazz, ballet or other types of dance.

Nevertheless, to make a long story short, I started visiting the clubs in my late teens to early twenties and I started dancing socially. A friend eventually brought me into the Santo Rico Dance Company when it was being born and I was primary taught dance choreography from the streets. The group really materialized itself in 1996.

I never thought I would be at this level now, so I say salsa choose me because now I am the director of Santo Rico. So it’s a blessing because I have done this with no expectations. So by the grace of God I’m here and I have loved every minute of it.

Johnny: One of the most interesting aspects of salsa is that you don’t have to possess an extensive dance background to be a great dancer and instructor, which you have proven. How has your dance background or lack of, contributed to your success in this particular dance?

Thomas: What I like about it is that, it took me a lot longer to develop myself as an instructor and performer and I was always taught that everything comes through hard work and longevity.

Ironically, I am grateful because I think if I had an extensive dance background, I would probably be somewhere else. But I am grateful to Mambo, because it only shows how diverse the dance is because anyone that studies and respects this dance can excel. Anybody can come from the streets and do this dance well as long as they invest the necessary time and energy that is required.

So investing the time is what I’m most proud of because not having that extensive dance background made me work even harder. So through determination I have been able to excel which is why I have so much love for the dance.

Johnny: Santo Rico has an interesting history. Based on my research, I learned that Wilton Beltre originally formed the group and some situations occurred that caused Wilton to relinquish control of the group. As a result, you became the director. So you have gone from this situation, to directing Santo Rico into being one of the top salsa dance companies in the world. Can you talk a little bit about this experience?

Thomas: Well it was an immense amount pressure. Initially, it was extremely overwhelming, which is why I continue to say salsa chose me. I was in this company and after being in the company for two years; Wilton was unable to continue directing the company or the school.

Nevertheless, over time Wilton and I became very close and I guess he saw something in me and he kind of passed the situation onto me and asked me to do what I could with it. So this is experience has been gratifying and I have done this with no expectations.

However I am a very passionate person and I like to finish what I start. So I took it on, educated myself in regard to the music and dance and maintained respect for both. I also invested a lot into this, I did my own promotion and kept the school going and we went through a lot of rough roads, but those rough roads has helped us to grow and has made us stronger.

In addition, we have worked so hard to bring out such an intricate style to the dance, such as the spinning technique and partner work style that tends to separate us from a lot of genres of dance. So to see that influence on the dance has also been very gratifying.

Johnny: What prompted the development of the Santo Rico spinning technique and style of partner work that has become a Santo Rico trademark?

Thomas: When Wilton first started dancing, he used to dance with his dance partner, Brenda Byrd, a pretty famous lady in New York; and when they would dance he would double and triple spin her very effortlessly and I was very intrigued by that.

So I starting training with two girls and began working with them to develop the spinning technique; so through trial and error and process of elimination I learned how to make spinning faster and more fluid. I used to watch the ballet dancers and how fast they would spin and how they would do 5-10 spins on one foot. So we kind of put all of these things in a nutshell and put it into practice.

Obviously I didn’t develop spinning, but I used these experiences to create a style and technique. For example, I use pivoting for hand checks and shoulder checks, I also use a process called double pivoting. So these are the things that I developed though these experiences that allow the girls to spin faster and react faster off their 5-6-7 and that’s why a lot of people enjoy the style.

Johnny: As the director of one of the top salsa school in NY you come across a lot of talent through your classes and company. Is there ever a time that you see someone that has a special talent for the dance right from the beginning?

Thomas: Well you see it… but it’s funny that you say that, because I don’t go by that. I don’t go by just pure talent; I generally go off of someone’s level of dedication. There are a lot of people that have come though doors of Santo Rico and I would have never imagined that they would’ve reached a certain level.

However, my challenge is to take a dedicated person with great morals and values that may not have a lot a natural talent, and training and help them to dance salsa at a high-level. This is the challenge for me.

Johnny: It’s rare for a dance school to be known for developing both great performers and social dancers. How have you been able to accomplish this standard?

Thomas: To me a complete dancer is a dancer who has both tools. I believe it’s important to be a good instructor, performer and social dancer. Those three things are very important to me. So I think since I kind of epitomize that when I conduct my classes.

I teach my students to learn the fundamentals soundly, learn the technique, and once students gain comfort in the fundamentals and technique they tend to want to take it to the next level. So that’s the approach I take; As an instructor you have to keep your students interested so that they see your passion and want to follow in your footsteps.

We have a large dance school now, we have four dance companies and a lot of our promotion for the school comes through performing. So people like the product that we put forward which causes them to become very interested and curious about the dance.

Johnny: You have been dancing salsa for ten years, so you have seen a lot in this dance. Can you name some people that have inspired you that may not be a popular as many of today’s top instructors and performers?

Thomas: Sure, my first mentor was Wilton Beltre. Wilton was the first person to put things in perspective. Vitico Pacheco from the Bronx is also someone who inspired me. He is actually the one who introduced me to Wilton.

As far as the ladies, when I first started dancing I met the lady named Evelyn Leon, she was originally an Eddie Torres dancer, then she came out with her own dance company, but (may she rest in peace) she passed away. She inspired me because she always expressed herself and danced so gracefully.

Brenda Bryd was also very inspirational to me because I used to always love to watch her and Wilton dance. She was also a very powerful dancer with a very unique style. Eddie Torres is also very inspirational because of all his accomplishments and most importantly his longevity. His footsteps are the ones that I model after.

Nevertheless, the list goes on and on, there are a lot of people that have inspired me along the way. I could give you a lot of more names, but we would be here forever. But overall, just watching people during the time that I was coming up provided a lot of inspiration for me.

Also watching people that have gone from being afraid to step on stage to becoming great performers that have developed their own style is also something that has been very inspirational to me.

Johnny: People frequently mention Santo Rico as one of their favorite groups to watch on stage; I’m curious to know who you enjoy watching onstage?

Thomas: Well first I would like to say that I am grateful for the compliments that we have received and I want to thank my dance company because they work very hard. My dance company is my baby and I am very proud of them, so I just want to acknowledge them.

In regard to your question, I enjoy watching Tropical Gem. I saw them when they first started and they took classes with me and it’s so amazing that they have become so powerful. So they are definitely a company that I like to look at because the epitomize perfection.

I also like to watch Johnny Vasquez and how he fearlessly expresses himself. I like to watch Eddie Torres and the way he interprets the music. I am honored to have lived in the era that Eddie Torres lived in. I have a lot of respect for what he has done and what he has meant to the dance.

Juan Matos is someone that danced under me and he was apart of my company for a while, but I like what he has developed on his own; the style that he has developed and the influence he has. He is a lot of fun to watch and I look forward to seeing him. Also, when I first started dancing I was always amazed by Vitico and Wilton, so they are very inspirational to me.

There’s definitely more people out there that I love to watch because I still see myself as a student of the dance. So I enjoy watching and I learn from watching others.

Johnny: Any Additional Comments:

Thomas: Thank you very much Johnny, this has been a pleasure. The advice that I would like to give to everyone is to stay humble. With this dance the sky’s the dance, don’t have any expectations, just keep working and you will make it. I have seen people make a lot of progress in this dance through hard work.

Also make sure you have very good direction and education in the dance and the music. Finally, I would like to see a lot more respect and harmony amongst dancers in New York and beyond so that we can keep this dance going.

Thomas Guerrero