Tell me who you are, and where you come from ?
My name is Susan Sparks and I come from Los Angeles, California. I’ve been teaching salsa in Paris at my own school since 1992.
Why did you leave California ?
I left California because I was going to do a dance workshop. That was my first trip to Paris. I fell in love with it at that time and I said, I’m going to try to succeed, I’m going to try to come back, and I did, then I met the man of my dreams, and the rest is history.
Tell me a bit about your life from the beginning up until the time you left the States ?
I was trained to be a dancer, that’s what I wanted to do. I wasn’t a ballerina, I was a ballet dancer. Classical training first, then jazz, and I taught jazz classes in California for awhile. I had my classical training from a teacher who had a school in Pasadena, and my jazz training from a teacher in the valley, in Hollywood.
Did you travel around for your work ?
I traveled a lot, I had various jobs around the states, in Europe, various dancing jobs.
So you’ve always worked as a dancer, right from the beginning you were able to live by your passion ?
And even as a little girl did you want to be a dancer ?
Yes. (laughs) I’m not a dancer now, I’m a teacher, it’s been a nice segue.
Tell me about your training in the states, explain your transition from classical to jazz ?
We had to, at that time you couldn’t go and take jazz classes, you had to be trained in classical ballet, there was an order in which the training was given. And it’s good, it’s a fabulous base. I think that some of the professors here decided to take classical classes, I’ve heard that and I don’t think they’re wasting their time if they think it can make them better dancers. It’s the best base you can have, no matter what kind of dance you go into.
Your approach to dance is a physical expression, tell me about your relationship to music ?
I love music. I’ve never met music I didn’t like. Growing up we had a wonderful library, I listened to everything, I listed to jazz, musical comedy, music from Africa, folk songs from Israel, a great collection of world music. My father told me I could listen to everything, I just had to put it back.
What are your family origins ?
Everything, a great mixture, like a lot of Americans.
How was your dancing regarded in your family ?
Very well, my family supported me throughout my training.
In your bio, you mentioned that you trained with Bill Heiden ?
He was a dancer that trained with Jack Cole and he used Latin percussion in his classes. That was the first experience I had with the music. And also I lived in an area that was almost totally latino, they used to have large parties in the park. You couldn’t do that now but at that time, they’d have great parties, and I’d go and they’d be playing latin music, the precursor of salsa. There were very few places when I left, to dance salsa in Los Angeles.
Most of the energy was in New York, and also if you left around 1992, there was a bit of a lull also.
Yes. The two styles are very different too, they don’t start on the same beat of the music, and the LA style is much more dramatic, what can I say, Hollywood. (laughs).
Can you tell me more about your experience of Jack Cole, through your work with Bill Heiden ?
Jack Cole I don’t know, I never met Jack Cole. But Bill studied with Jack Cole, and he was one my jazz teacher. He was extremely musical and he used a lot of latin percussion in his teaching. That was the first time that I heard this kind of music, and I recognized it when I heard it again, I said aha, only now we do different things, there are different steps, now we dance with a partner and not in solo.
When did you first start dancing salsa ?
In the 1980s. There was a very fine teacher that no one talks about anymore, Ron Arciaga, who had a dance studio in West Los Angeles. As far as I know he was the first salsa teacher in Los Angeles.
It was the LA style that we know today, on one ?
Yes. He was the partner of a very well-known dancer in Los Angeles. He had live percussion in his classes, which was great. I heard about his class from a friend who said, you’ve got to go - and so I went. It was great, he would have musicians come in, he was a very classy guy, a very good dancer, it was LA Style on one. He knew the other dances too, merengue, chachacha, bolero…
You were working at the time as a dancer ?
I was freelancing as a dancer.
What does that mean ?
You go to auditions and if they like you, they choose you. It could be for commercials, for a part in a show, for anything : for acrobatic cartwheels, anything.
Tell me about your beginnings in salsa in France.
In 1992. There was no scene. There was some live music, but there were no dancers, if there were dancers there were very few. I believe there was a large Colombian community that organized lots of parties... I started the dance lessons at the Coupole in 1992 with Mambomania. I approached Laurent Erdos, and said, Laurent, your music is great, but there’s no one really dancing to it… The majority of people were doing a sort of two step, shifting from foot to foot and there were a few latino couples, but the majority didn’t know how to move to the music. I said, I’d like to give a salsa class before your concerts. And he said, that’s great. So we did on-two, because he was doing a lot of mambo. When I started teaching, I taught on-Two. So even though I now teach on one, I love to dance on two, on one, Cuban style, Colombian, everything.
(Susan shows me a flyer for her dance classes at the time, showing two classes of salsa-mambo).
Who came to the shows ?
And Mambomania played a concert once a week, a weekly live show ?
Yes. I was at the Coupole for 10 years, and the last producer was there for six years with me, and the one things that he did was to schedule a live concert every single Tuesday, not only did he push the dance, but he pushed the live music.
That sounds like a dream compared to the scene now.
There’s hardly any live music at all anymore, compared to what there was.
So all your students were Parisian, from the beginning ? And you started out teaching mambo ?
I started out teaching on two, but not Eddie Torres’s mambo. (she gets up and dances the two different styles to illustrate her point.) I think almost everybody I know in New York, Addie, Nelson, they all do Eddie’s base. I started teaching on two because Mambomania played music that was a bit retro, and it was mambo, you could hear the two, you could hear the six especially, and you want to break forward on the six. With the modern music, the Colombian music, the Cuban music, you don’t hear the two, you hear the one. I changed because my taste for the music was more for the new than for the old, and also because I love what they do in LA. I just love the energy behind it, and I love the fact that they do the acrobatics, I love what Edie does, what Alex DaSilva does, Mas salsa brava, I think they’re great. I like that kind of energy. It’s really a high-energy dance, the music is rapid and you have to be inside the movement.
When I think of a classical training, it seems to correspond to the fluidity of mambo ?
But what about allegro with all your beats, that’s not slow… you have to hit all those beats.
Yeah, I must admit that my classical training stopped shortly after I learned fifth position. (laughs).
When you started teaching at the Dance Center in 1991, before the classes at the Coupole, how did you introduce the concept of salsa ?
I said I wanted to teach a salsa class, and the sister of the woman who owns the studio owns a Tex-Mex restaurant, and she said to me, Susan, salsa belongs on my sister’s menu not on a dance program. We’re all independent there, so it’s our nickel, and she was very sweet and she said alright, you can have a chance, and people came. It was just at the time that Mambomania came, there was Azuquita, he’s always been here, he’s a wonderful musician, he’s seen both waves, the first and the second one.
When did the second wave start ?
Probably in 1992. At the Coupole, it was incredible. It was packed. The record for a class was 156 entries. I was on an estrade and everyone was on the floor from the bar to the door.
What was your schedule ?
Two classes at the Marais, one at the Coupole. The difference is that when people come to a dance school they realize they’re going to do a little work, it’s a dance class. When they come to a bar, it’s a little different. It’s not that the pedagogy is less, it’s just the way you present it, because they’re there to have a good time.
Did you have recurring students at the Coupole ?
Yes, and if they wanted really to continue they could go on to take classes at the Dance Center.
What are the changes you’ve seen in the 14 years that you’ve been teaching ?
I started at the beginning and there weren’t any dancers, and now there are a lot of dancers. I remember the first time I showed one of these (demonstrates a hand/hair flip) my students giggled, the girls wouldn’t try it. They wouldn’t try it because they’d been in class and they’d never seen it. But now, now that they’ve seen Ladies styling, it’s not so foreign to them. With the shines too, when I first did that they were like, what’s that ? With the exposure, they’ve not only seen me, but they’ve seen many many other people, so they get it. It’s good. It’s grown continuously, I don’t see a decline.
Who were your students ?
They are French, they were students, they were teachers, they worked in offices, they came from all walks of life. There were men and women, an equal balance, and sometimes there were more men than women.
What are the differences when you taught in a bar and taught in a class ?
In the bar they’re rowdier, they come for a good time and in the class you can structure more, there are less people, and you can do things from week to week.
One of the things that seems to be happening now is the fracturing of the salsa scene, into different styles. When did that start happening, and why, do you think ?
It started happening when the teachers wanted to differentiate themselves from other teachers, so they specialized. I think it was the force of the market that caused it.
Tell me about live music.
Live music is wonderful, there’s nothing like it. Live is live and no matter how good Celia Cruz is on record, it’s nothing like Celia Cruz in person, God rest her soul, what a wonderful singer. I loved the live music, but of course it was very expensive.
How much did a show at the Coupole cost ?
I have no idea, because I wasn’t involved in the decisions in that area, it was the producer that did it. I worked totally independent of the Coupole, and of the producer. Romero Diaz was the last producer. But before Romero there were four or five, first there was Mambomania with Laurent Erdos, they were more than just a house band, they were a group of artists who gave the show. They have Abanico now, but it was way before Abanico. Laurent negotiated directly with the Coupole. After Laurent Erdos, there was another producer, a group called Monica Lypso, an American singer, a great musician, and she also specialized in steel drum music from the islands, and did great salsa, and I haven’t heard of her recently. She was from the United States, an excellent musician, that was a lot of fun. After that there was another producer, and I just stayed on. I decided my price, the Coupole was décor, it brought many people into the club, and I would come in with my own caisse and someone to take the money and they would take a certain amount for me, and the rest would go to the producer and the Coupole. I really loved that arrangement, I was totally independent, I didn’t work for the Coupole nor for the producer, we all worked together. I was there from 1992 to 2002.
Did they have a rhythm of a concert per week for the ten years that you worked there ?
I think there were some nights where they only had a DJ and not a concert, but it was rare.
Who were the DJs then ?
There were many different DJs, there was Natalia, there were the twins Los Gemelos, there was Dominique Batal, but this was before there were salsa DJs like there are now. There’s more of everything now : more teachers, more students, and there are also more DJs. But the music was always very good, very varied, very good.
The live shows there are much more rare now.
Yes, it’s supposed to be the nueva era, but the only thing new about it is that there’s no more live music. (laughs).
Would you go out to concerts, what was the scene at the time ?
There were concerts at the Bataclan, at La Villette, I remember seeing Celia Cruz there, there was hotel at Montparnasse that sometimes had good salsa concerts, there was a lot more live music than there is now. One of the last concerts that was a great was Puerto Rican Power. I had Josie Neglia and Alvaro Cornell here to do a stage, and we went to see the concert and they performed, a little impromptu dance. I just saw the pictures yesterday, we went backstage with the musicians, they’re great, I love that orchestra. That was at Barbès. Look at Pariscope now, look at Zurban, look under World, there’s a very tiny rubrique now.
One of the other evolutions seems to be the development of a melomane population who is very interested in latin jazz, so we see more concerts at New Morning, but it’s not necessarily a group of dancers.
There aren’t a lot of people that like to dance to latin jazz. It’s a wonderful art form. I love it, I’ve forced it on my students.
It also seems to go back to your initial training : you worked with Bill Heiden, who worked with Jack Cole, and from what I’ve read he was very fundamental in the inclusion new rhythms in American dance history.
He worked with Denis Shawn, they took him in and had this third-world thing going, more Indian I think ; it was very good. He was also a very good choreographer. But I didn’t worked with him, I worked with Bill Heiden. I guess the legacy of Jack Cole that I received from my teacher was working with isolations i.e. isolating one group of muscles and using them independently or in opposition to other muscle groups. It really improves coordination and makes you pay attention to each detail and line of the body.
What do you consider your role in salsa in Paris to be ?
I don’t know, I’m a teacher here at the school, I’ve taught since 1992, I’ve never thought about what my role is. As they say, I just tap on my own nail. I just keep tapping, I don’t really have a plan.
You mentioned that you made the transition from being a dancer to a teacher…
It was so easy.
Dancing is a way of describing things with your body, maybe it helps in learning how to teach ?
A thought about students. Most students start salsa classes for three main reasons, not necessarily in order of importance. One : they like the music ; Two : they want to meet others ; Three : they want to learn enough to be able to go out and dance in the clubs. In my teaching I stress the connection, the hold, the lead and the follow in open and closed positions. When they understand these concepts, and their application to choreography, or figures, the students can begin to bring the steps to life on a dancefloor. All this makes for a good dancer. What makes an exceptional dancer ? A good prof, a good base, good coaching, certainly, but after all is said and done it comes down to talent and work...
For learning to teach, I had all the training as a dancer, all the experience, which certainly helps when I created choreographies, in knowing the things that will work on stage, the lights, the musicality…
Define musicality ?
It’s probably someone’s rappor with the music, how they express what they hear in the music. Some people are very attuned to it, you can see them dancing and hitting instruments, you say, how did they do that ? They’re just finely attuned. And then there are some dancers who treat music like it’s décor. Go figure. You can explain solfège, you can explain the clave, and the breaks, but I don’t think you can really teach it (musicality), just like you can’t really ’make’ a dancer. It’s just the little extra something that’s there. You can trust it, you can guide it, you can give it everything that you have and nurture it, but really good dancers just like really good painters or actors there’s always that little something that escapes definition, that they themselves have.
That they almost can’t define themselves.
Nope, they just do it.
In your work with Ron Arciaga, he would bring in instruments and muscians, do you do the same in your teaching ?
Sometimes I bring in a clave.
From your experience with the music scene in Paris, do you have any ideas for why there is less live now ?
I think it’s probably money. I feel that dancers and musicians and actors and artists should be paid well. I feel that musicians should be paid well. But I think it’s just a question of money.
So it’s not that the public has evolved ?
Evolved ? I would hope that if we’re evolving we’re evolving towards live music, and not away from it. (laughs). I think that if it’s not there, it’s probably financial, it’s probably the cost.
Describe the salsa scene today, what do you see happening today compared to when you first came ?
I’m in the clubs less now than when I first came so I really don’t know. I would go to concerts, but usually there was a place where you could dance. I saw Buena Vista Social Club at l’Olympia, but there was no place to dance it was so crowded. You’d go to the concert and you’d dance if you wanted to, you could sit and listen if you wanted to.
Where else have you taught around the world ?
In Washington, DC for the Salsaweb congress, I taught in Barcelona, I taught in Oslo, and in Holland.
Have you ever gone back to the states to teach other than Washington DC ?
When I go back to LA, I’m just there for vacation and to be with family.
Have you noticed in your teaching, that there are different ways that French people learn, compared to people of other nationalities, have you noticed that musicality or learning styles are cultural ?
No, I don’t think it’s cultural. The only thing I can do is take a piece of music and ask them if they hear the clave, if they hear the accents. Latin jazz is quite complicated but salsa is dead simple, it’s baroque, four/four time. I just have them listen to everything together, they don’t have to separate to learn what a conga rhythm is ; you lose them. They’re not there to learn in 10 minutes the 10 years of solfege that a musician has to go through.
Have you studied the solfege ?
Yes, I played the violin and the piano and classical guitar. I played in high school but it got to be too much with the dance lessons, and going to school. But I decided that by dancing, I had my music too.
To paraphrase Eddie Torres, the dancer can become another instrument.
You can look at yourself that way, if you have a lot of musicality ; it’s like harmony, in a way. You have to listen to the accents. But here again you have to listen to the music, I try to work with songs that they hear in a discotheque.
What music do you work with ?
She brings out her CD case, revealing among others :
A tropical tribute to the Beatles
Puerto Rican power
Orchesta la Palabra
Milvio (el Astro) Rodriguez - he’s a singer, a really good singer and he used to be a DJ in Paris.
Ricardo Lemvo y Maquina loca
A compilation ’indirectly from SuperMario’
After having danced in different places around the world, can you think of anything that characterizes Parisian dancers or Parisian style ?
I don’t know if there is a Parisian style, you can see Parisians doing LA style, NY style, Colombian style, bresilian, Cuban, but I don’t think that Paris has created its own form of salsa. LA has a style, New York has a style, Cubans have despelote, in Cali they have their way of dancing.
Josie Neglia told me that she was dancing with Alvaro in a club in New York where everyone dances on 2, and they were dancing LA style on one, and someone came up to her and said, "Excuse me miss, but you’re off the music !"
I think it’s great that you can find everything here, and no one’s going to give you a PV and say, you’re off the music - maybe Parisian style is its diversity, you can find everything if you know where to look for it.
How do you talk about music to your students ?
I have them listen, I try to train their ears so that they can listen. First of all they have to know when to enter, so I try to get them to hear the one, because I want them to start on the one. It takes repetition, it takes ear training. Now, if they want to go between the beat, or express, or double it, that’s another thing, I call it musicality or advanced musicality.
What is the particularity of your students ?
They’re a mixed group, I try not to impose too much on them, I’m not in the business of creating little Susans, that’s not what I want to do. I want them to be able to express something if they indeed have something they want to express. I make little suggestions, I don’t impose.
How many people do you teach to ?
A class of about 20 students, sometimes 30.
How many levels of salsa ?
Débutant, débutant moyen, moyen, and moyen avancé.
Since you’ve begun, you’ve added levels, but the number of students in your class has remained consistent over the fourteen years that you’ve been teaching ?
Yes. Must be doing something right. (laughs).
What will be happening in ten years ?
I just hope it keeps going, we’ll see where it goes. There are congresses in Cannes, Nice, Marseille and in other towns around France, it always starts like that, in the capital and then moving out. It’s not a fad, everyone was always waiting for it to go away, wondering what was going to be the next fad, but it’s not going to go away.
I’m interested in your perspective as an American in France teaching salsa, looking back over the years it seems like there is a history of people who are not native to France bringing salsa in.
I don’t know, I’ve never thought of it that way. I didn’t think about it at the time.
How do you identify yourself now ?
You dress French ! (laughs)
My French is heavily accented when I speak.
Why is salsa, a music that is not native to France, able to make so much headway here ?
It lets people dream, it’s fun music, it gets you right up off the chair. People love the music, it’s participatory, it’s wonderful.
Who are the salseros who have inspired you ?
Laura Canelias, I think she’s an excellent teacher and a lovely dancer, and of course Edie, she’s just wonderful. Alex da Silva, I think he’s a wonderful dancer. And of course there’s all of New York, there are wonderful dancers in New York, Nelson Flores, Eddie Torres. And Colombian is great too, there was a man who used to come to La Coupole who used to do all the jeux de jambes, and Cuban is great too - I love it all.
I get enormous pleasure from watching my kids, when they break through, when I see someone who’s been having a lot of trouble break through, I get my pleasure through seeing them succeed.
You’ve worked with choreography, where do your ideas come from ?
I listen to the music. I spend hours with the music, and then I go from there. I also know who my lead dancers will be, I know their strengths and weaknesses and then I go from there.
You don’t choreograph yourself ?
No, I choreograph when I give a show with my company, Dance Sparks. We do shows at the Mogador, at the Casino de Paris, at the Coupole. We still work off and on.
Do you speak Spanish ?
A little. But I don’t choreograph to the words, I don’t choreograph to music with words, because I feel that sometimes you’re competing. I pick a song because it gets to me, and I file it away. I did "Men in Black" at the Mogador, an instrumental.
What do you listen to, in terms of music ?
I have a lot of cds. One of my students came over for a private and said Oh my God, it’s FNAC ! I have a library of salsa, and other things too. I listen to music at home, I don’t walk around with an IPod…
What do you think of the modern salsa music ?
Some of the music is a bit mediocre. It’s a lot of remakes, like the film industry. But there are some hot bands in Los Angeles, there is good music coming out of LA. I don’t have any fears for the music. I don’t know how it will morph, how it will progress, but I know that we dancers will be right there, following. (laughs).
- Suzy Qs in the jardin public, with a kid and some pigeons on April 29, 2006.