Albir Rojas (from Panama) is one of the most sought after Kizomba teachers and performers in the world. Kizomba is immensely popular in the African and European Latin dance sphere and is gaining popularity in the Americas. Albir is helping to lead the way. He seamlessly combines the Angolan born dance with hip-hop, ballet, jazz and an assortment of other dance styles to form what Albir calls ‘Kizomba fusion’. Google the term ‘Kizomba’ and you won’t get far before you encounter a Youtube video or webpage link in which he is featured. Dance Planet Daily caught up with Albir at the Austin International Latin Dance Festival in Austin, Texas. He graciously stepped away from the swarm of ladies waiting to dance with him at the Saturday social. UPDATE: (Sara Lopez was Albir’s primary dance partner until September, 2013. As of December 2013, his new dance partner is Carola Tauler. This interview was conducted prior to that date.
You’re from Panama but you have an Indian name. What does your name, Albir, mean and can you tell us the story of how your mother chose your name?
My name in India means ‘brave’. I think I have a little of that (laughs). Everyone tells me that going by myself to Spain at 22 years old (to study cinema directing) took a lot of bravery. I love that my mom chose that name. My aunt lived in New York and my mom asked her about it. There are many, many people from all around the world there. She found it. That’s it!
You were working as a staff accountant in college and decided to leave to pursue a career in dance. What lead you to that decision?
I loved accounting, but being in an office for eight hours was horrible. I love to dance. I was studying, working and dancing. I remember that I started my job and 8 a.m. and I had to wake up early to get to work. I left my job at 5 p.m. Then I went to the university and left there about 10 p.m. Then after that I went to rehearsal.
You were a hard working man!
Yes! It was very hard. I decided I had to leave and stop doing something. I didn’t want to stop my studies so I decided to leave my office job. Everyone was complaining! (laughs). They said, ‘You are going to dance? That’s not a real job.’ They didn’t really support me at the start. They thought that I would like it early, but later that I wouldn’t feel it anymore. But then I started to work in plays, theater and be on television and they realized that I really wanted it. They began to accept it.
You’ve been a dancer and actor in many popular musicals such as Grease ,Fame, and West Side Story…of the musicals you’ve performed in is there a particular role you enjoyed more than the others? Why?
There are two. The first one was Fame. I was playing Tyrone (Jackson).
I remember that. (singing) “Fame…I want to live forever!” (laughs).
Yes. (laughs) In Panama the musicals are not like the ones on Broadway (New York). They are very small, but I love to do the interpretation of the musicals and the acting. It was a very good experience. The other musical was The Fantastics. It was antique or old school theater. I was ‘mudo’. I don’t know how to say it in English. Some people are deaf. Some people are blind. Some people can’t talk. How do you say that?
I think you mean ‘mute’.
Yes. My role was to be mute, so I had to express everything with my body. It was a good job and fun role to play.
That’s interesting. What lessons did you learn from performing as a mute character?
I learned to relax. For people who are mute it is complicated to communicate. You want to say something, but you can’t. You have to make people understand what you want to express. You have to relax and think of the best way to express it with your body. We can talk with our body and there are many ways to communicate. You have to relax and find a good way to interpret what you want to express.
When you first heard Kizomba what did you think of it?
I was a latin dance teacher and one student asked me, “Do you know about Kizomba?’ I said, ‘No. I have no idea about Kizomba’ (laughs). He told me he’d bring me some music and he did. I fell in love with it. I remember the first song he brought to me. (Sings part of the melody). I liked it!
You loved it!
Yes! (laughs). So I began to do some research on Kizomba. I found that in Lisbon there were many, many teachers. So I went to Lisbon.
How did you meet your dance partner Sara Lopez (Spain)?
I was teaching hip-hop and her cousin was in the class. She went to see a show that her cousin was in and the cousin introduced me to Sara. One year later I went to a salsa disco and Sara was there. She was an instructor there and was paid to dance salsa with people. We talked and she told me she knew ballet, modern, etc. So a promoter asked me to do a bachata show with hip-hop fusion and I thought about her. So we did one show, but we still weren’t a dance couple. Then there was an international kizomba competition and we decided try to be in that. After we won second place we were like, ‘Ok. Now we are a dance couple.’ (laughs).
Why do you all dance so well together and have such a great connection?
I think because we love what we do. It’s very hard to be a dancer and break with society. They say that you can’t dance for a living because it’s not a good job. We really fought for this and we dance well together because of that.
You incorporate different styles of dance into your performances…hip-hop, jazz, ballet…How would you describe your dance style when dancing Kizomba?
Fusion! (laughs). I think that’s what we express. Sometimes we mix kizomba with hip-hop. In our last show we mixed it with dub-step. In the future we want to mix it with reggae. It’s all about how we feel about the music and what we can express with the music…and we mix that with kizomba.
What’s your methodology for putting together a performance? We both like to hear and listen to a lot of music. Then we pick a good song to mix with our style. For example, dub step. We both love dub step. It’s getting very popular. There is a Brazilian couple that dances Zouk, Leo and Becky (Neves). They fusioned LambaZouk with dub step. We were like, ‘Wow!’ Tatiana Mollman and Jordan Frisbee are West Coast Swing dancers and they also mixed dub step in their routine. So we said we can do that in kizomba too! (laughs). Kizomba is very nice for social dancing because it is very soft and smooth. But for a performance it’s very boring! (laughs). So we have to incorporate different things to make it a very good show. It’s about how we feel about the music and what we can express with a song.
You and Sara are widely considered the most popular Kizomba dancers/instructors in the world…how has all the attention changed your life?
I’m very lucky to have this opportunity in my life to do what I love. I don’t feel like I’m famous. I’m just a teacher. It’s nice when people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for teaching us this. You are famous!’. I say, ‘No. I’m just giving back what I love’. Sometimes I’m on the dance floor at a disco or at a party and I see someone dancing and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness…what am I doing teaching? That guy is awesome!’ (laughs). I really appreciate the love people are giving to me in the world of kizomba.
Do you have any specific goals related to dance that you’d like to accomplish over the next few years?
I had a dance school and because of the travelling I’ve had to close it. In the future I want to have something for the students. Another is that I want to dance some place in Asia. I have accomplished many of my goals. My first goal was to dance with popular artists and I’ve done that. Second, was to mix kizomba with other dance styles. I also found Sara as a dance partner and she’s very good. I’ve traveled around the world and met people who think I’m a good teacher. I appreciate that. I’m happy.
You’ve performed all over the world, are there any particular places that stand out because of the people or atmosphere?
I love to dance in France! There is a high, high level in France. There are many immigrants from the French Islands, or from Africa…they have a very good culture for Kizomba, Semba and Zouk. They have the dance in their body and its great to see people from Martinique, Guadalupe and Nigeria dance. Sometimes I just stand in the corner of the dance floor and watch them dance. It’s great how they can express the culture while dancing. I am like ‘Wow’. It’s great. But kizomba is growing and there are many great dancers all around the world.
For more information on Albir please visit his Facebook fan page: Albir Rojas Uno.