Michael Whitmire

  • dancing, friendship, latin culture, rueda, salsa

Published on May 5, 2020
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Andrea Cody:

Hello, and welcome to DanceTalks. Today is May 2nd, 2020. My guest is Michael Whitmire. Michael is the founder and director of Salsa Grande. Michael, thank you for being a part of DanceTalks.

Michael Whitmire:

Pleasure to be here, Andrea. Thank you very much for including me in your series of podcasts here.

Andrea Cody:

For sure. We want to know all about you. When did you start dancing?

Michael Whitmire:

You mean dancing dancing, or the type of dancing that I teach and do now? Just dancing dancing?

Andrea Cody:

Yeah, earliest memory.

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, earliest memory is as a child trying to mimic moves that I saw from Michael Jackson and on Soul Train. I could be Michael Jackson. My sister could be Janet Jackson, and we could just enjoy the music. So just dancing along to things that I would see on TV and trying to imitate them. It made me feel good to watch it and to try to do it. Just felt good to do those types of dance, so those are the earliest memories. Basically, I think six, seven-

Andrea Cody:

When was that?

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, I think-

Andrea Cody:

What year?

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, years. Let’s see. We’re talking late ’70s, something like that. Yeah, yeah, when I was a little child, I think I remember my cousin also, my first cousin chiming in. Yeah, kind of late ’80s. Yeah, around that time. Sorry, late ’70s.

Andrea Cody:

Cool. Then when did you first, I guess, take a dance class or what was the next big step for you?

Michael Whitmire:

Well, the next, let’s say, small step was probably just high school or I think even in elementary school, I remember taking a little square dance class in PE, probably in fourth or fifth grade. As we get into this discussion, square dance really relates a lot to what I do now, but that’s actually some of my first formal memories. I think in high school, we had maybe a semester of PE where we included a dance. 

Then after that, it probably was not until after… I’m a lawyer. I’m the dancing lawyer. That’s also how some people know me. So maybe even after graduating law school, I moved out… I was in Austin for a while. Then I moved back to Houston, and so at some point in Houston, tried a few dance classes. Then off and on for a while just danced with friends and decided I wanted to get better and get more formalized with my training. That’s probably around 2000 is when I really started dance classes seriously, especially in, well, let’s say, in salsa. Again, I teach salsa and a variation of that called rueda. A little bit before I got heavily into the salsa dance lessons, for about a year, I had taken swing dance lessons. That was really my first serious delve into partner dancing, and just what it takes to lead a partner into movements, and follow along with the music, and just improvise on the spot. I did that off and on for a while.

Then I started to get more and more into salsa. There were more opportunities for me to dance salsa, and so that’s where I decided to put more of my focus. Yeah. That’s kind of where I got started with the serious learning is really around the year 2000.

Andrea Cody:

Cool. Well, let’s go back to grade school and when you were square dancing. Can you give us a overview of what square dancing is and what the scene was? Was it in the cafeteria, and did y’all do a show, or was it just a day?

Michael Whitmire:

No, I remember it being more than a day. I don’t remember doing an actual stage show. Again, I think I recall, again, doing a little square dance, yeah, I think probably in the cafeteria where they would teach us. Yeah, no, I remember going back to it on a regular basis to the point where we’d learn some moves, dosey doe or whatever they call that in square dancing, and just having fun, dancing with a lot of the other little girls in the class. Just as a group activity, it seemed fun. That’s, I guess, the main thing I recall is that it was fun, that it was some structured dance activity. Yeah, those were my takeaways from it.

Andrea Cody:

Where did you grow up?

Michael Whitmire:

Mostly in Houston. Yeah, I was born in Michigan, but since I was six years old, I’ve been in Houston. Both of my parents are from Houston, so Houston’s home even though I’m not truly a native, but I’ve been here long enough to where Houston is my home. Yes.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah, I feel you. I moved here when I was five.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay, okay. Yeah, not the same year, but, yeah, the same kind of age range that we were.

Andrea Cody:

Oh, right.

Michael Whitmire:

Right.

Andrea Cody:

We did square dancing in kindergarten. We did get dressed up one day and all the kindergartner classes came together in the cafeteria all in our little groups of eight. We did a show. I know my parents were there because I’ve seen a video of it.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay, great.

Andrea Cody:

It was so fun. Just for our listeners, square dancing is done to this what? Old-timey, Western music.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, like-

Andrea Cody:

There’s a caller that will tell you what moves to do, so kids get taught: bow to your partner and your lady left, and these various moves that just get called out. We know what we’re doing because we know each little piece.

Michael Whitmire:

Right, right, right. Again, as we get into the discussion, that’s some of what I still do now as an adult. Like I said, it relates a lot to that square dancing we learned back then.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. When you started classes in swing and salsa, where did you go?

Michael Whitmire:

Let’s see. Specific studios and things like that? I think-

Andrea Cody:

Yeah.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay. I took, in the mid to late ’90s, a class just for basically about a month or so. I think it was at SSQQ. That’s kind of a prominent dance studio, been around for many years. It’s not really around now just because of what happened with Hurricane Harvey in Houston a few years ago. Yeah, a friend of mine had… I think she had taken the first month or so with her boyfriend, and they broke up, and she wanted to keep going. I said, “Okay. I’ll tag along for this next session of it for the next month.” I did. I think I gained some things out of it, but we both stopped at that time. Another place called Rodriguez Dance Studio that I had taken a class or so from, and then I kind of got away from it. Then around 2000 or so, that’s when I got back into it.

Let’s see. For swing, I know there was, I guess, a group called the Houston Swing Dance Society. I think they’re still around. I think one of the instructors from there was teaching at the Downtown YMCA or at least that’s where she started at. At the time, my business office was basically catty-corner from the Downtown YMCA, and so it was very easy to go over there and take lessons. So I did that. I think eventually, they moved to the Melody Club. For people who have been around Houston for a while, the Melody Club was a place that they would do some lessons and hold socials. That was the place.

Then as it turned out, the salsa instructor was also teaching at the Downtown YMCA. So around the time when I was starting to think about switching from swing to salsa, I started again taking classes over there at the Downtown YMCA. I guess, over time, I realized the little rock step that was in swing was a little bit different from the rock step in salsa. I was getting sometimes confused, and that’s where I decided I really should focus on one or the other. I wound up going into salsa. I had more friends who knew how to dance salsa at the time. There were more opportunities to dance salsa at the time. So that’s where I veered in that direction.

Andrea Cody:

What kind of opportunities do you mean?

Michael Whitmire:

Well, how I got into salsa at the beginning was shortly after I graduated from law school, I worked for another year in Austin. Then I came back to Houston. One of my college roommates was also… He went to law school, and we got back together in Houston. He’s Mexican American, and he had developed a wide circle of other Hispanic friends, and I would hang out with him, which means I would hang out with them. One time after dinner, a couple ladies said they wanted to go to a salsa club, and I said, “Sure, I’ll tag along.” Couple cute ladies want to do something, I’ll go do it too, and they taught me the very basic steps of it.

From that standpoint, I started to develop friends within that network of friends who were Hispanic background from Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, different countries like that. A big feature of a lot of their gatherings was music and dance. It could be a birthday party. It could be a wedding. It could be some other just house party get-together and at some point or another, some Latin music would get turned on. So my close network of friends was largely Hispanic, and there would be many opportunities just socializing with them to… In their natural, common practice of going out dancing or socializing would include salsa music or reggae, other Latin music. For them to go swing dancing would be taking them out of where they would go.

I kind of had to make different friends just from the swing classes I was taking, which was good. I mean I met some nice people through that, but my wider circle of friends included more Hispanic people and more events where there might be salsa music. There were also more restaurants and clubs in Houston that would play it on a semi-regular basis, so there just were more places, more opportunities when I got together with my friends that I might end up in salsa dancing. So I didn’t have to make too much of an extra effort, where it would actually be slightly an extra effort to get to do swing. That’s kind of where it went in that direction.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. What are your favorite hotspots?

Michael Whitmire:

Well, when everything opens up again, hopefully, one of my favorite places was a club, Tropicana. It’s a great venue. If you drive by from the outside, you wouldn’t necessarily recognize all the great stuff that’s inside. It’s kind of in a little strip center on a street corner, but once you go inside, it’s very nicely decorated, great dance floor. They maintain the dance floor. The manager there used to be a dancer. I guess he’s still a dancer, but I met him when we were just dancers on the same dance team many years ago. I think he knows how to cater to the people who would go there just to grab a drink, and relax, and also the people who go there primarily to dance. So it’s a good environment for, I think, a good mix of people. Yeah, Tropicana’s kind of my go-to on a regular basis.

Andrea Cody:

They have a great band.

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, yeah. Yeah, there are a couple of different bands. The sequence before would be there’d be one band on Fridays and a different band on Saturdays, and they kind of switch back and forth. There have been different points over the last span of years where they might have had a band on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but now, it’s pretty much a Friday, Saturday thing. It’s pretty much a guaranteed good time if I’m going to go there on a Friday or Saturday. I know I’m going to enjoy myself.

Andrea Cody:

For sure. Yeah, I’ve been a couple times. It’s really fun.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay. Yeah, yeah, it’s great atmosphere. Yeah, actually, I think I saw you. Yeah, I’ve been dancing there with you one time. I think it’s been a few-

Andrea Cody:

Heeey!

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, I think it’s been a few years ago. I think we overlapped there.

Andrea Cody:

Well, I remember how everybody I danced with there really knew how to dance.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay. Well, I like to think I know how-

Andrea Cody:

It was fun.

Michael Whitmire:

I’d like to think I know how to dance, yeah.

Andrea Cody:

Well, I mostly know you as a performer. When did you start performing?

Michael Whitmire:

I guess my very first performance was probably in the fall of 2000, again, with one of the dance studios where I was taking lessons at the time. The studio instructor wanted to get some of the students together to just do a little dance routine around Christmas time. I think it was early December. He taught us a little routine, probably about two or three minutes long. Yeah, I think a couple other students in the class said they wanted to do it. I said, “Okay. Yeah, I’ll do it too.” I know one of the other women in the class was very helpful, practicing with me. I think, at that time, it was mostly kind of a footwork routine where there wasn’t as much about the partner work. It was more just about the stepping through the little pattern that the instructor had taught us. I think that was the first time I had danced, yeah, in fall of 2000.

Then I think a couple months later, that same instructor decided he wanted to maybe put together a little show, and so we’d actually do a few different numbers like four or five or I think maybe even six different routines in the same show. Again, I chimed in and said, “Sure, I’d be willing to do that.” One thing led to another, and I started doing more and more performances there. Yeah, that’s how it started, and one thing led to another. I decided to keep on doing it when I had other opportunities.

Andrea Cody:

What kind of performance spaces were you in?

Michael Whitmire:

I think the very first one was a restaurant. Again, this is back in fall of 2000, early 2001. There were not as many clubs that are dedicated to salsa in Houston, and even now, there are not a lot. But it would be common, just like it is now, for a restaurant to say, “Okay, we’re going to have one night a week, and that’s our salsa night.” And so a Friday night or a Thursday or a Saturday or whatever it might be as a way to draw in customers. They’d say, “Okay. Let’s go ahead and have salsa dancers in here.”

As I recall, the place was… Valentino’s is the name of it at the time. I think they did have salsa every once in a while. I don’t know what the arrangements were with the instructor, whether he had hired it out or just had worked out a deal with the restaurant owner to say, “Hey, we’re going to have our students perform in here.” Yeah, I remember it just being a large restaurant that had an open floor where we had the opportunity, where I think they did clear out some of the tables. There was space for several of us to dance our routine, go from there. 

Andrea Cody:

Cool. Well, for our listeners who don’t know Salsa Grande, tell us about your style.

Michael Whitmire:

Let’s see. That’s kind of difficult to pinpoint, but I guess I’ll say what I do generally is I do a mix of private lessons that deal with Latin social dances such as salsa, Merengue, bachata, cha-cha-cha. When couples want to learn that, I’ll teach that or individuals want to do that, I’ll do that. 

In terms of group classes, I teach workshops in a dance form called rueda. In terms of, again, going back to our early part of discussion, rueda developed out of Cuba. Rueda is the Spanish word for wheel, and the easy way to describe it is that it’s the salsa version of square dancing. Basically, we’re dancing. There’s music going on. Couples form a circle, and then one person calls out the moves, and we do them.

A couple of different variations on how that differs from regular square dancing is, one, you don’t have to have just four couples. It’s not a square. It’s a circle. Again, rueda is wheel, so it’s more of a circular format. You can have anywhere from two couples to 1,000 couples. I mean I’ve actually seen videos on the internet where somebody in Colombia had a stadium, and the track around the stadium was filled with dancers. One person in the middle had a microphone over the speaker, called it out, and everybody was doing it. It’s expandable. That’s one of the deals, too. 

The other variation is also the person calling out the moves is one of the dancers. Typically, in square dancing, somebody’s standing outside the square telling those four couples what to do. I am inside the circle telling everybody what to do. Every move has a name. Some moves have hand signals. I can do this. I can do that. I can do that. All that means something different to somebody who’s dancing rueda. Yeah, being in the circle with the dancers makes it a little more dynamic as well.

Again, because it developed out of Cuba, it is very common to use Cuban style salsa when dancing it, although, any type of salsa can be used, and I’ve danced it with many variations of salsa. I’ve also seen it danced with swing dancers. I’ve seen it dances with other types of… and just using that format, but other types of music. Yeah, I guess I focus on rueda, a little bit more of a Cuban style. My dance journey, my learning, like I said, developed with friends from different countries. 

So really, I didn’t think of salsa as, “Okay, Cuban style salsa,” or, “Puerto Rican style,” or, “New York style,” or, “LA style,” or “Columbian style,” which mean different things now. To me, it was all salsa, and so I didn’t try to focus on one thing. I saw what I liked. I tried to learn that move, and I heard some salsa music, and I would do it. I try not to limit myself just to what’s considered Cuban style because, to me, I enjoy all forms of salsa, and I want to be in a situation where if somebody wants to dance it, then I’m there to dance. We can have a good time on the dance floor with whatever type of salsa music it is. At this point, I’ve learned enough about the variations where I think I can adapt to any type of partner.

That’s what I want my students to be able to do, especially… I used to teach weekly group classes. When I decided to create Salsa Grande, I switched to the focus on either these rueda workshops or the private lessons. Especially with my private lessons, I try to make sure that my students understand the slight variations they might hear in the music or that they might see from other dancers and to be able to adapt to that. It shouldn’t be just because I learned salsa from a Cuban instructor, I can’t dance with somebody who learned salsa from a Colombian instructor or Puerto Rican instructor. There’s more similarity than difference, kind of like with people, that really we can make it work if you’re interested in dancing with that person. Just recognizing where the differences are, then go in there, respecting your partner, and trying to figure out how you can make that work for that three minutes or five minutes worth of social dancing.

Andrea Cody:

Would you please tell us more about that and the connection? Maybe some of those words that you actually use when you actually teach your students?

Michael Whitmire:

You mean in terms of the rueda calls or description of salsa?

Andrea Cody:

Let’s start with rueda calls, and then I want to know more about how to vibe with your partner.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay, okay. Well, why, rueda, most of the calls are in Spanish, and so they’re going to be Spanish words. Like I said, developed out of Cuba. We pretty much stick with the Spanish formulation. A basic call is dame, which means give me. That just means you’re giving me the next lady in the circle where one guy will switch. He’s standing with his one partner, then the call is made. If you’re seeing this on a video, I’m doing this as a hand signal. That’s the hand signal for just give me the next lady.

I might put two fingers and bring them together. That’s my dame dos. I’ll move to the second lady in our circle. I can tap my head, and that means sombrero because they move. Once I tap my head, you know to do the move sombrero. Sombrero is the Spanish word for hat. That’s why I’m doing that.

Part of the deal too with having both an oral call and a hand signal is we can be in a club. We can be in a restaurant or at a festival where the music is so loud that I can shout as loud as I can shout, and the person who’s right next to me still can’t hear me, but they can still see me across the circle. That’s where the hand signals come in so that even if you can’t hear me, you can still see me, and we can still make the dance work. Same type of thing. Maybe I’m in the club, and the lights are flashing a lot, and maybe it’s difficult to see my hands. Well, then I’m going to shout a little bit louder so you can hear me. There are ways to try to deal with either one of those situations.

Again, those are some of the calls. There’s also this move called Kentucky based off Kentucky Fried Chicken, but it’s just I think somebody in Cuba heard about Kentucky Fried Chicken. The way the move works is, if you can see my hand signal, it’s my elbow flapping up and down like a chicken wing. There are a couple of points in that move where one partner forms a chicken wing, and the other partner forms a chicken wing. So Kentucky came out of that.

Andrea Cody:

For our listeners, Michael’s just got his hand up by his armpit, and he’s flapping his elbow out there like a wing. We are only going to be recording or sharing this conversation via audio on our podcast.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay, okay.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay, great. All right, great. I’ll try to be as descriptive as I can with my words.

Andrea Cody:

Thank you.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, flapping my elbow up and down is a legitimate call in rueda actually known around the world for flapping your arm up and down. Then everybody does a fun move together. It’s those types of things, and so part of the deal with the dance is it’s very social. That’s part of the fun of rueda is, yes, it’s great to dance with one partner and share the dance with that one person, but also there’s a different level that happens when you’re dancing with a group of people, when it’s a group of friends that want to get together and share this particular dance. From that standpoint, it’s nice to have a different way of enjoying the dance, experiencing the music with a group of people as opposed to just once person. Rueda is great for that. That’s part of what I like so much about it.

Andrea Cody:

Fun.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, very fun, very fun. I like sharing that with other people. As I tell my students, usually, when they come into their first rueda workshop, I ask them, “Why did you come here today? What made you come here?” Maybe they saw an ad on Facebook or maybe they knew a former student who told them to show up or maybe they just saw us out socially, and figured out I’m the one who teaches it, and decided to come. I say, “That’s great.” I tell them, “Well, that’s great that’s why you’re here. I teach it because I can’t do it by myself, and so I want to grow the community of rueda dancers in Houston or wherever I happen to be.” It takes an instructor to do that, but, yeah, it is fun. I like sharing that fun with other people. Yeah, it’s been great to be able to teach that for over a decade now.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. All right. Well, you must know a lot about teaching connections, so lay it on us.

Michael Whitmire:

Well, part of it is about just respecting your partner, understanding your partner, understanding the possibilities of what the move might be, what your partner needs to feel to be able to understand the move, but also just to relate to you as a person. I mean kind of a little bit of eye contact should be happening. You’re not necessarily going to stare your partner down the whole dance, but just making sure you’re acknowledging that it’s another person that’s there. I think sometimes when people get into dance lessons, they think about it as, “Oh, these are some steps of what I need to do with my feet,” or, “What should I be styling with my arms,” or whatever. But at the most basic level, I think any partner dance comes down to two people connecting.

It doesn’t always have to be a mating ritual. It doesn’t have to be that. Again, that’s again part of what I learned when I was dancing with my friends through the ’90s, even before I took formal lessons. Again, it could be a wedding. It could be a birthday party. It could be a mother dancing with the son, a father dancing with the cousin. It’s not about a pick-up scene. Yes, in nightclubs, men and women like to get together and just get together, but it doesn’t always have to be that. At this point, I can know when I go to a club, okay, these are the people. Over time, these are the ones who are here to dance. These are the ones that are here to feel that same connection with the music and the partner that I’m looking for. It’s about us sharing these few minutes of music together. 

Maybe it could be romantic if you want it to be. It doesn’t have to be. It could be your connection with the music, and that can be the enjoyment you get out of it. Whatever joy I get out of hearing this music and wanting to express that with my body, if a partner wants to express that too, then I want us to be able to do that together. I want to recognize when there are moments that I should let my partner express that. 

From that standpoint, I try to teach the leaders (in most cases, it’s men, but there are female leaders as well, in the lead/follow dance) that I want to make sure that they’re respectful of the fact that these women want to express the music, too. Your follower wants to express the music too, so just grabbing them by both hands and twisting them through moves for four minutes in a row doesn’t let your partner enjoy the music. And so, let her go every once in a while or do something that allows your partner to enjoy the music.

Same type of thing if I’m teaching the women. Yes, I want you to understand your styling and sticking your arm out or flipping your hair, swinging out your hip, or whatever you might do, but still do that in a way that’s interactive with your partner, that is still not about just showing off. I mean, yeah, it’s nice to look good on the dance floor, but it starts off with enjoying the dance with your partner. I found just from my personal experience, if I’m watching two couples on the dance floor, one is connected with each other, maybe even doing simpler moves, but they’re connected with each other and connected with the music, I enjoy watching that a lot.

Versus a couple could be standing next to them, doing all kinds of fancy moves that, yes, they’re intricate and complicated, but if they’re not truly connecting with each other, and they’re not connecting with the music, it’s less enjoyable to watch at a certain point. Yes, it’s great to see the athleticism. Maybe they’re doing spins or whatever it might be, but I can only enjoy watching that for so long versus just, “Okay, I can enjoy this experience of, just, there’s these two people on the dance floor.” Maybe they’re a romantic couple. Maybe they’re not. But I can feel that they’re connecting with each other, connecting with the music, whatever the complexity of moves they’re doing, and that’s enjoyable to me. That’s what I like to do when I’m dancing. That’s what I think is best for my students.

So I think, again, students who would come to me and stay with me are probably the ones who believe that also. If you’re the type of student who only wants a fancy move and patterns all the time, well, you’re going to get that from me for a little while, but you might go on somewhere else. The ones who truly are seeking that connection… And I try to let them know how good that can feel if you’re doing it right, that maybe what you thought you knew about dance or what you thought a dance should be about, it can be something different and just to kind of expose them to that idea of, okay, there’s this other way of approaching it that I think is good for you in the long term in terms of how you’re approaching dance.

Andrea Cody:

Cool. Thank you. 

Michael Whitmire:

Okay.

Andrea Cody:

Where can people find you and connect with you online?

Michael Whitmire:

Well, I have a website called salsagrande.net. That’s the word salsa and the word grande, G-R-A-N-D-E, dot-net. I also have a webpage, Salsa Grande. Those are the two main places for that. The website has a number of our performance videos on it. We’ve been on TV several times, and so there are several clips. I compile our television performancess as well as performances at different festivals. We traveled to California a couple times, and so I’m kind of proud of a couple of our performances out there. Yeah, just several so that you can see what we do. You can see what rueda’s about even if you’ve never heard about it. 

It is a type of dance where you should know salsa, at least the basics of salsa partner dancing before  you do the rueda format. That’s the level I do want people to be. At least early intermediate or higher is preferred for getting into rueda, but for people who just want to learn the dance from scratch, in my private lessons, I can do that for anybody. Yeah, salsagrande.net or just the Facebook page for Salsa Grande are the two main places to find what I do.

Andrea Cody:

Great. Are you giving online classes?

Michael Whitmire:

No, not now. Again because of the nature of the group dance for rueda, it’s difficult to simulate that. I do not have a consistent partner who lives with me or that I would want to have to deal with all the social distancing issues and take her out of her comfort zone. Yeah, I would not teach rueda online. In terms of just private lessons, I guess that’s a possibility. I have not gotten into that. I think there are other instructors who do solo dancing. Just for my particular style of instruction, it is more helpful for me to be a little bit more hands-on, interactive with a couple or a person when I’m with them. Yes, I can visually tell them what they’re doing right or wrong and explain it, and I think I’m pretty good at that, but it does help to actually feel how a person would be touching, feeling their partner, and so I’d be missing that from the online instruction. So, no, I haven’t done that. 

I suppose, again, if somebody wanted to contact me about at least explaining some of this to them, I could do that. In terms of just trying to put myself out there, I don’t put myself out there because that’s not… it wouldn’t be a comfortable necessarily way for me to teach. I don’t think I’d be as effective at that. There are plenty of other instructors who are doing footwork classes, and solo classes, and styling classes. I don’t know that I’m that much better than they are to try to force myself into that. Fortunately, teaching dance is not the way that I necessarily put food on the table. 

I have my other day job, and so I don’t feel compelled to do that either through online paid classes or donated classes, whatever, which is great for other people to do. I just haven’t felt compelled enough to do that. I think there’s enough presence out there of other instructors to where I don’t feel I have to force myself into that.

Andrea Cody:

I understand.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah.

Andrea Cody:

When did rueda develop?

Michael Whitmire:

There are different theories on that, but again I’ve tried to educate myself as much as possible. My best understanding is it basically started in the 1950s in Cuba. Again, back to maybe even the swing dancing tie, what I’ve been told and heard even by my… I have a YouTube page that contains an interview with one of the earliest dancers of rueda because a woman from the Boston area who was very good at both Spanish and English interviewed him. It’s basically about a hour-long interview where she’s able to translate what he’s saying. It’s very helpful. Also, I’ve taken a seminar with her. I kind of know her personally now.

Anyway, this discussion focused on the fact that in late 1950s, there was more interchange culturally between the United States and Cuba, and so some of the young Cubans, maybe teenagers see some movies and see American swing dancing in movies. That’s what they call rock and roll dancing. A lot of people in the Latin, Spanish-speaking countries refer to what we call swing dancing rock and roll dancing. They saw some of that, and so the fundamental movement of rueda is called guapea. It looks a little bit like a swing-out in swing dancing and kind of a open and close movement. I think some of those Cuban teens saw that. They tried to figure out a way that they could do that in a group, and so I guess some of the music at the time that was available was traditional Cuban rhythms, salsa, mambo. Son is really what the traditional Cuban sound is called. They could use some of that music to dance, and they just developed their own calls and names. 

I don’t know how much they also got influenced by any square dancing they may have seen in movies, things like that, but I know there’s been a definite discussion that square dancing was a little bit of that focus in the 1950s in Cuba. Then early 1960s with the embargo and political relations becoming more strained between the US and Cuba, there was less of a connection directly between Cuba and the United States, but with some of those Cubans going to Miami, then Miami became the focus of a lot of rueda development. Then Miami became the source of how rueda was built and spread.

Now, it’s really spread all over the world. Of course, there are other countries that did not have as much political trouble with Cuba, so Cubans could go to France or Spain or Italy or wherever and spread the dance. Also, the people from Miami could spread it around the United States. So really, it’s developed around the world. Wherever there’s salsa, there’s somebody doing or teaching rueda. Yeah, so it really started in the late 1950s, developed a little bit more in the 1960s. It kind of faded away a little bit, I think, through the ’80s. Yeah, it’s kind of come back very strongly in the 21st century.

Andrea Cody:

Oh, yeah. Salsa’s just gotten so popular.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, yeah. And with salsa becoming more popular, then rueda became more popular because, again, there are certain… Obviously, people like the partner dancing one-on-one. Oh, then there’s a certain subset of people who see, “Oh, we can do this in a group. I can do this in a way that challenges my salsa skills in a slightly different way.” Then they go off into the rueda direction. Yeah, with salsa’s development, rueda development kind of followed along with that.

Andrea Cody:

What do you think salsa and rueda collectively or separately say about our culture?

Michael Whitmire:

Well, just kind of a need to connect with another person. Again, to the extent that we’re talking about it, salsa is a partner dance just one-on-one, just that need to connect, just that need to express something when you’re hearing great energy in the music. I think there’s that. I think rueda particularly expresses that need to connect with a lot of people. It’s not just about one person, but it’s like we enjoy being in a community of people who like the same things that we do, who are feeling the same things that we’re doing at the same time. 

I’m also kind of a season ticket holder with the Astros, the Houston Astros baseball team, and a partial season ticket holder with the Houston Rockets. Again, those are sports, the Houston Rockets basketball. Those are sports that I can watch on TV, but there’s a certain level of excitement that comes from just being in the stadium with a lot of other sports fans cheering for the team at the same time, feeling the same energy. Rueda kind of simulates that type of feeling of that energy. Oh, we’re all in this together. We’re all experiencing the music together. Just that kind of basic human need to express the music, but also connect with other people, whether it’s one-on-one through basic salsa, traditional one-on-one salsa dancing, or in the rueda group format where it’s, “Hey, I’d like to do this, and I’d like to share it with other people around me at the same time.”

Andrea Cody:

If we can go back just a minute, who was in the video that you said? What was the woman from… Did you say Boston or Brooklyn?

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, oh, Boston. Yeah, and our-

Andrea Cody:

Boston. So-

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, yeah, her name was Anara Frank. Yeah, I think she may have been born in New York. I wouldn’t commit to that. She lives in the Boston area now. Actually, I just saw her last year, I think it was, when I went to the Boston area. She’s still living there. Yeah, she has a big interest in trips between the United States and Cuba.

Andrea Cody:

And who was the guy?

Michael Whitmire:

I can’t remember his name, but he was-

Andrea Cody:

We can look it up and put it-

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, yeah, you can-

Andrea Cody:

… in the notes, but where’s the video again?

Michael Whitmire:

It’s on YouTube. Let’s see. I’ll have to send you the information, but basically, you probably see something like the founders of rueda, that type of thing. Again, rueda for people who aren’t familiar, it’s spelled R-U-E-D-A. Yeah, if you look up Anara Frank rueda interview with one of the founders, something like that. I can’t remember all the words I put in the description, but that should help it pop up. It’s basically about an hour-long interview that talks about how it developed with the youngsters in Cuba at the time, spread across the island of Cuba when some of them were moving around, and go from there. 

Yeah, Anara Frank, she teaches dance. She also organizes, or at least she did before all this happened, trips between the United States and Cuba. So she has a strong interest in connecting people with Cuban dance and just information about it, feeling more comfortable that, okay, yes, it’s in a different language than the main language, English, here in the United States, but we can still feel it. Even if you aren’t fully in tune with understanding the language, there’s still the element of feeling the energy, feeling the connection that you can get from a dance regardless of the language that you speak.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah, and you can learn what sombrero means.

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, yeah. Definitely, definitely. Yeah, there’s lots of stuff that can be learned and connected with. I took Spanish in high school, but I wouldn’t call myself fluent, and I’ve picked up a little bit more over the years, but still not fluent. Yeah, in the ’90s even when I wasn’t understanding the music, but I could join my friends in this experience that we could all enjoy and connect with. 

Yeah, I take it as a compliment when sometimes I might be at Tropicana or some other club, and somebody comes up to me and just starts speaking to me in Spanish because they just assume that I must know Spanish. If I dance that way, I must be Cuban or Colombian or somewhere else that there might be more dark-skinned dancers. Again, for people who are just listening, I am African American, and I don’t look Latino or your traditional view of that, and so I don’t necessarily look like a salsa dancer if you just saw me standing up there. But once I start dancing, and people have seen me dance, then I hope I connect in a way that’s authentic that somebody can feel or if they’ve come from a Latin country, and they just know salsa dancing in that country, that they connect with me here. 

So I take that as a compliment when people do that because, at some level, they think I’m one of them. I’m one of the people who connects to the music the way they do or they say, “Okay, where are you from?” I’m like, “Oh, I’m from Houston.” “Oh, where are you really from?” “Well, Michigan.” I think they’re trying to get at me that I must have some level of Latin blood in me. No, I don’t, but I do have that same connection to the music that you do. Yeah, so it didn’t matter that, yes, I’m from Michigan and Houston, but I feel the music as a human being and that we all can do that. 

That’s part of the reason why I teach as well. I think some people might be intimidated about any type of dance, particularly something where… because there’s a dance going on and a language is being spoken that they don’t know. I’m here to say, “Yes, you can connect with it. I’ll help you bridge that gap the best way I can, the way I had to. I try to help you along the lines to make it there.” 

Andrea Cody:

That’s really nice.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, yeah. I think that’s important. To whatever my personal viewpoint of people connecting, I think that can be translated to dance. I am happy to have a wide variety of people who take my classes. I think when I started dancing, again with my friends back in the ’90s, yes, I’d go to clubs, and most of the people would be from Latin countries, of Latin heritage, and I would kind of stand out. I think these days, I don’t stand out as much as a tall African American. Again, if you’re even watching this on a video or hearing this on a podcast, I’m 6’2″, over 200 pounds. Again, I’m not the traditional thought of what you would think of as a dancer, so I kind of stand out in that way, but I can still relate.

Nowadays, like I said, there are so many different types of people. I think there was a wave when Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez got people interested in Latin culture in a different way. Over the years, there have been other opportunities that might start to feel like they want to see what this is about, especially in a city like Houston with our very diverse community of different ethnicities and countries of where people are from. Yeah, you find people who are a little more open-minded trying something different. I’m glad that there are people willing to try something different. I try to, like I said, be the bridge between what they did before, what they can know now, and go from there.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah, you’re just really bringing me back to going to Tropicana and knowing that I mean it as a compliment to you, to your culture, all Latin history that this is so great. It’s so fun. You guys are awesome for keeping it up and for coming out tonight. I just really enjoy that experience, and I couldn’t say that in Spanish, but I can go out on the dance floor, and I move just like everybody else. So there is that common heart, that we all have that heartbeat, and we all have the same, I guess, just connection with the music. I love the way that you verbalize that, and it just makes me remember very, very fondly those fun times that we had.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, and I think that relates to maybe a couple points I make too is when I talked about enjoying being with my friends, and that’s part of the… In the ’90s, that was part of the deal about Latin culture that I started becoming more impressed with. My parents love me, but it was not a very touchy, feely household when I grew up, but then hanging around my friends in these kind of Latin environment, and everybody’s kissing on the hug, and hugging, and greeting. So I think I like that warmth that came from Latin culture and that openness. Just being around that was very helpful to me and probably another incentive to stick around. Hey, I like being in this environment. People in this environment like to dance, and I like to dance. What can I do to stay here and enjoy it the same that they do? Yeah, that warmth comes through. That connection comes through.

It also reminds me of a friend… He was living here. I think he was from Colombia. I think for work, he was living in Houston for just a couple years. Then a few years later, he had to move away, and we had a farewell party for him. One of the things that he said to me during the farewell party was, “Hey, I’m really glad I met you here. When I came, I didn’t think there’d be anybody in the United States who would feel this music the way I do, who relates to it the way I do, but that there was somebody here.” There are more people now, but I was a connection to him back to what he felt at home. It made him feel better that somebody else respected that. 

That’s what I ultimately try to do. Again, I like to teach it, but I don’t… There’s, I think, a term, culture vulture, where somebody comes in. They’re not necessarily from that culture. They’re trying to appropriate it and do things with it. I don’t want to be seen that way. I want to be seen as, no, I’m not Hispanic. I don’t have any of that in my background, but I respect it, and I want to treat it with respect. I want to share it in a way that’s respectful without trying to claim that I have any other connection there. 

There is a root in salsa that’s really a mix of African culture, African musics, drums, percussion, congas, bongos, that type of thing that’s mixed with some of the European and Spanish influences in Cuba. And so at some level, yes, there’s some of my Afro-American heritage, some of my jazz heritage can come through. But at some level, I’m not Hispanic. I’m not Latin. I’m not trying to say I am, but I do respect it, and I think we can feel this together the same way. It’s very heartwarming to me when people connect to me in that way who are from Latin heritage and backgrounds, and they feel the music the same way I do. We can share our time on the dance floor, enjoy ourselves. Yeah, it feels good when things like that happen, people say things like that to me.

Andrea Cody:

Have you danced in Cuba?

Michael Whitmire:

No, I haven’t. That’s one of the things I’d really like to do. There was a Cuban trip that got postponed last year partly because of the political reasons. I think the Trump administration cut off some of the abilities of American, US citizens, to travel as freely to Cuba, so no. But that’s one of the things I’d like to do. I have not danced in Cuba. I have been lucky. Again, there are a number of Cubans who live in Houston. Again, I’ve met a lot of them. That’s where some of my dance development has happened, from dancing with them, from talking with them, interacting with them. Also, taking classes from Cuban instructors who’ve been through the Houston area. 

It wouldn’t strike most people, but there’s also a good-sized community of people in the San Francisco, Oakland area who love Cuban music. Again, I’ve been out to several festivals out there and taken instruction from Cuban instructors out there, and so I get some direct, in the sense that it’s from Cuban instructors, but not necessarily being in Cuba at the time. Again, I feel like I’m getting a little more exposure to it. Obviously, I watch a lot of videos on YouTube and things like that or whatever might pop up on Facebook of dancers who are in Cuba or from Cuba, and that helps my ability to connect with it and learn it, share it with other people as an instructor, that type of thing. Yeah, the short answer is, no, I haven’t been to Cuba, but, yes, I’ve had a lot of contacts with ways that I think have given me a good opportunity to understand what the music’s about, to share it in that way. I’d like to go.

Andrea Cody:

Miami?

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, I have been to Miami. This could probably spark a long story, but one of my formative salsa experiences was winning a salsa dance contest in Miami back in 2002. I had been there, and there was a little conference. Well, basically, one of my good friends, again part of the circle of friends I had, Hispanic friends, he’s Cuban American. His company had sponsored him to go to a conference in Miami. I said I’d go at the same time. He goes, do his conference during the day, and then we could together at night and hang at all the clubs and whatever in Miami. Well, it turned out his conference, which was basically for Hispanics, professionals around the United States, was having a little dance contest each day. I think it was a two or three-day contest, and they had a two or three-day conference. They would have a dance contest each day. 

He told me about it, that, oh, they’d had it one day. I said, “Okay. I’ll show up the next day and see what it’s about,” not necessarily intending to join the contest, but just seeing what was happening. But then they invited people to participate. I went up there and said, “I’d like to dance. I don’t necessarily have a partner.” Some person came out of the crowd. I would say woman, but she wound up being 16 as we discovered later. At the time, I was probably about twice her age, but she was an excellent dancer.

It was a contest where they weeded us out through a couple rounds. I think maybe it started out with 10 to 12 couples, and there wound up being two. The winner was picked by audience vote, and they cheered for us. Again, that’s really the most experience in my life, not just my salsa life, but it was great to be in that environment. Many Hispanic, Latin people around me. They don’t know me at all. I’m here in Miami from Houston and just found a random partner in this dance contest, and you cheered for us that you thought we should win this contest, that you thought we were reflecting the dance in a way that I respected the way that you understand the dance. So just hearing that cheer from random people, winning the contest. It’s not necessarily about the win, but about the approval from that particular audience made it very meaningful to me. Yeah, so when you say Miami and dancing, that’s really one of the best experiences of my life actually.

Andrea Cody:

Awesome. 

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, it-

Andrea Cody:

Congratulations.

Michael Whitmire:

Okay. Thanks, thanks. Yeah, 18 years later, but I’ll accept it, but, yeah, it was great. It really was formative for a lot of things that had happened afterwards. It gave me the confidence. Yes, I’m doing this right. I’m doing this in a way that people can respect and understand. Okay, this big crowd thought that I was the type of person who could dance this dance the way it should be danced. That gave me a certain boost of confidence to be able to say, “Okay, yeah, maybe I could teach this to somebody else. Maybe I do have skills to put this on a stage, and other people watch me, or put myself on television and not think I’m going to embarrass myself because I have the confidence, yes, I can do this in a way that’s pleasurable to watch.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah, you got a stamp of approval.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, yeah. No, it’s definitely good to have that. I guess I’m not necessarily always out there dancing just to have somebody validate it. To me, it still always goes back to I’m enjoying this music. I want to express it. I think maybe early in the interview after you talked about maybe my particular style. I guess if I’d say anything about my dances, I try to be musical with it. I try to have musicality. I try to reflect the ups and downs, the change in the tempo, and the accents that are going on in the music. I do try to dance in a way that’s expressing whatever the composer of the music was thinking and expressing as opposed to stepping one, two, three, five, six, seven. Okay, the music is a metronome for me to step to. I want to express the changes, the ebbs and flows, and different emotions that are conveyed in different parts of the song and different types of songs in different ways. That’s what it really comes back down to. 

Yeah, like I said, yeah, it’s definitely nice to have the validation. Like I said, if somebody comes up to me to… speaks in Spanish, and feels that I’m expressing it or winning a contest or getting invited to perform somewhere because, okay, somebody saw me dancing, and they want me to bring a partner or to bring my group to dance somewhere and share that with other people, that they can also find the same joy in it that we enjoy.

Andrea Cody:

Cool. You stepped up out of the blue and into the limelight, and you brought her with you. She got to win, and she was 16. What a huge thing for her. I’m assuming she wasn’t a champion dancer by that point. Maybe she was, but good for you to bring her to that and give her that experience, too, because she needed a lead.

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, yeah, yeah. It definitely was great for both of us. Yeah, I got the impression she probably had some dancing training, but not like she was teaching other people or anything like that. She was Cuban. She was of Cuban background. Again, she was, I think, with her mother and her sister. Maybe they pushed her out there. I don’t know exactly how she got out there with me, but I could tell from the first couple moves that she was a good dancer. I think I connected with her through Facebook. I know she’s out there still dancing, not necessarily performing. Yeah, she was an excellent dancer. I was lucky to have her.

It goes back to the point about if I have this great dancer with me, I want to allow her to express herself too. I think part of what helped us win was if it was just me, again that was still a few years into my dance training, I probably would not have won. I think I knew enough, when to step out of the way and let this other great dancer shine. I think the way that we played off of each other was something that the audience picked up on. Yes, I had a certain level of skill, but they also could feel that connection. They also could feel, okay, yes, there’s another great dancer that I’m dancing with. All that played together in winning that particular contest. Yeah. No, I’m glad in whatever way that played any role in her life as well.

Andrea Cody:

It’s fun to watch perfect strangers get out there and try to figure out how to dance to that song together. It’s-

Michael Whitmire:

Oh-

Andrea Cody:

… so spontaneous. It’s a surprise. You don’t know what they’re doing, and they don’t even know what they’re doing.

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, yeah, yeah. That happens a lot, of course, in the social dance setting or in a nightclub setting. Even just a few months ago, again, I was back at that same festival in San Francisco where they focus on Cuban music. I remember I danced a song with a woman I didn’t know. Then I came off the dance floor, and a couple minutes later, a woman walks up to me and said, “Oh, how long you guys been dancing together?” I said, “Oh, I just met her.” Again, I think she was kind of new to that setting. I don’t know if she came there with a friend or whatever, but she was shocked that we could dance that well together, spontaneously improvise. 

We just heard this random song. We met for that minute. We walked away from each other, but somebody else could recognize there was a connection there, even from strangers. It felt like a real connection between people even though they happened to be strangers, but they connected because the music. I had a certain skill level. My partner had a certain skill level, and somebody outside recognized that. I do like when somebody can see that and pick up on that from afar. Even if they don’t know as much about the dance, that we can still make that happen as dancers. 

Andrea Cody:

It sounds like you went from being a little boy in front of the TV to dancing across the country, and out on the town all the time, and on stages and TV. Now, you’re back in front of the screen again. Here we are. What’s-

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah, how are you doing? Are you seeing your friends? Y’all doing a little solo dance Zoom or whatever?

Michael Whitmire:

No. No, like I said, yeah, I don’t really do much in terms of instruction-wise. I have actually taken a couple of online dance classes on Zoom during this whole big pandemic, quarantine thing. Yeah, I have taken a couple of those classes. It’s still not quite the same. Again, they tend to be footwork classes. There’s not quite the same connection, but you still get that feeling of the movement that comes from expressing the dance, that emotion that comes from just moving your body when there’s music going on.

There’s that, but then otherwise, it’s more along the lines of exchanging some emails, messages, “Hey, how are you doing? Let me know what you’ve been up.” I’ve been lucky that over the span of teaching, and I think maybe the method or the way I teach, it’s conducive to actually making friends with the people who learn from me or who have been on dance teams that I’ve choreographed. And so I’ve developed friendships out of that. Also, part of going out to the nightclub and dancing was about just seeing my friends. It was not just only about the dance, but seeing, connecting with my friends. From that level, I still try to connect. 

Any friends who haven’t gotten an email from me yet, you probably will get one soon because I just try to touch base with different people at different times, say, “Hey, how are you doing? What have you been up to? How have you been dealing with this? This is how I’ve been dealing with it.” Just to let them know it wasn’t just a superficial dance connection. I thought we were friends. I think we are friends. We should stay connected through this. Let’s get connected after all this is over. There should be some kind of continuation through the process. Even if we can’t physically be in the same room dancing with each other, let’s still stay connected. I’m grateful for the friends I’ve met through dance over the years. That’s been great for me. 

As I mentioned, I’m a lawyer in my day job. Yes, it’s nice to hang out with some lawyers, but not all the time. So I’ve really been glad that dance has introduced me to teachers, and engineers, and maintenance workers, and other just wide variety of professions. Whoever decides they like this dance, we can share that experience together. I’ve gotten to meet so many people that I know I would not have met in my typical lawyering. That’s been a great part of my life as well, that I’ve been able to not just share the dance, but make friends in a wide variety of backgrounds. 

That what I like as well is I like knowing people who didn’t grow up the same way I did. I like understanding things and learning things about different cultures and different experiences. From that standpoint, it’s been good to know people who can expose me to things I would not have been exposed to before basically because of our mutual love for dance.

Andrea Cody:

Good. 

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, yeah, it’s been great for me.

Andrea Cody:

What’s on your horizon?

Michael Whitmire:

Well, I want to keep dancing. I want to keep choreographing. I want to keep teaching. Because of business reasons and other stuff going on, I had not taught as many of the workshops that I normally would have taught during 2019, and I had made a personal commitment that 2020 was going to be the year that I would teach more workshops. I had done that. Through January and February, I taught more workshops than I had in January and February last year. That was my personal commitment to myself. I’m going to try to ramp this up again in a way that I let slide by a little bit last year, and so I want to keep that up. I think still watching videos, things like that has kept my interest in dance alive. Being at that festival back in February, that always rejuvenates me. I’ve been thinking about different choreographies, things of that nature.

Actually, I guess it was two years ago, we had done a routine, performed it out in San Francisco. That was shortly after Hurricane Harvey had happened, and so part of the theme of the routine was about coming through hardships and then coming out of it dancing still. Okay, we made it through. Now, let’s enjoy our lives again. And so I’d kind of like to take that same approach. I probably wouldn’t do a similar type of choreography this time just because I’ve done it before, but I do want to have a joyful choreography when we come out of this to just reflect, hey, we made it. Let’s enjoy our company together. Let’s live. Let’s continue.

Andrea Cody:

Awesome. Well, in the meantime, being at home and watching out for your safety. I guess we don’t really know when it will happen that you’re going to want to go back to Tropicana.

Michael Whitmire:

Right.

Andrea Cody:

So in an imaginary world if you didn’t think that was going to happen again, what would you start doing?

Michael Whitmire:

Ooh. Well, that’s a deep question. Well, because I guess it kind of goes away from one of my philosophies about dance, which is there’s always going to be another dance. If I couldn’t do everything and use up every move I learned and all that, I don’t have to do that for the sake of this one song and try to show off. I can do whatever I want to do another time. There’s going to be another night I can do that. 

If there was no other night, well, I probably would try to make greater efforts to connect through Zoom or through whatever video platforms there are. Again, maybe part of the reason I’ve kind of held back a little bit is there have been other people occupying that space, but there will be a point where maybe I need to occupy the space. I haven’t felt the need to do that so far. Maybe there will become a time when, hey, we need to connect in a way where we’re sharing this dance together through whatever technology allows us to do that. 

Yeah, I don’t envision the rest of my life without dancing. There would have to be some way for me to make that happen, but I remain hopeful, optimistic. I’m expecting us to dance together in the future. Yeah, as a last resort, I guess we have to resort to technology or the memories of how we danced before, but I’m hoping it’s not just about memories. It’s about what we can do in the future, what we can create in the future together, in person. That’s what I’m still expecting, what I’m still optimistic about.

Andrea Cody:

Yeah. So you’re just kind of taking a break for now?

Michael Whitmire:

Let’s see. Your connection broke up for me a little bit. Can you say that again?

Andrea Cody:

Oh. Well, it’s interesting to me that you were always going out dancing just with your friends and with whoever showed up. So in this sense, you always had a partner, but you somehow still lost your partner.

Michael Whitmire:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that’s the correct way of looking at it. It’s like, yeah, like I said, there would always be another dance. There would always be another person that asked to danced. Over time, especially in the Houston area, I get to know who are the other people who like to dance. And so, yeah, I can just show up by myself and expect there’s going to be somebody there I’ll know at the very baseline that I could ask to dance or even if I have to ask strangers, I can do that, but, yeah, with no partner at all. That takes away a big element of what I do and what I teach. Like I said, rueda is about connecting with other people physically in the same space. 

Now, the way that COVID-19 is being understood, it comes from being in the same space with other people, touching other people. In the space of a rueda song, I might be touching four or five, eight other women where a couple seconds through one move, I switch to the next partner. Few more seconds, switch to the next partner, that type of thing. It really is about connecting with somebody, touching another person, executing this move together. We just can’t do that now. In some ways, that might make it one of the last forms of dance that comes about just because we can’t connect in the same way that a solo dancer could or even the one-on-one partners could. In a group, just the way viruses transmits, whatever, that just makes it more dangerous at some level. So until we have a handle on it, that makes rueda one of the last things that might come back. That’s another reason to be optimistic and hopeful for whatever ways we can connect as a community together, that many people can be in the same space touching each other and dancing with each other.

Again, I like dancing one-on-one salsa with a partner, but I definitely would be losing one of the main things that Salsa Grande does, which is show you how to dance with a group of people and have fun doing that. I guess you can watch our videos and enjoy some of that, but I really would prefer to do that in person. That’s what I tell people too when they come to the classes, “Yes, I’m glad you enjoyed watching it, but now, I’m hoping to show you a way to do it. It’s maybe not as complicated as you thought it might be when you saw it visually. Now, you can be in the middle of the circle with us doing these same moves. Let’s do it.” I want to be in a position where I can teach that again, but also put other people in that environment again where they can share that dance with other people in the same space.

Andrea Cody:

What do you think about herd immunity?

Michael Whitmire:

Well, it’s difficult. I can get into a long discussion about that, and I have gotten into a few Facebook discussions about that, too. It’s difficult because of the fact that some people are… We’re going to be interacting with non-dancers, and so to the extent that, okay, well, maybe I pick up the virus from somebody, and I’m healthy enough to overcome it. Well, my mother lives in the same household with me, and she’s in the age range that’s more vulnerable. So I have to be extra careful about that, and other people are coming into it from their situations. I don’t know who they live with, who they interact with, and so I don’t want to be the person, even if I’m healthy enough, even if a group of us are healthy enough, to put that other person in danger. 

So herd immunity involves a certain amount of sacrifice that some people are going to get sicker than other people just for the sake of the rest of us. It’s difficult for me to be in that position. I understand the arguments for it, but again, I’m not a medical health professional, so I can’t get fully into it. That’s what I’d be conscious of. Again, as an instructor of rueda, as an instructor of a group dance, I do feel a certain amount of responsibility for the safety, the health of the people in my class, people I’m dancing with. So I’m going to be a little bit more cautious about putting them into that situation even if I felt like, oh, myself, I could survive, and I could get through it, but I’m very conscious of putting other people into that situation. Maybe that’s the lawyer in me also. Yeah, I’m conscious about that.

Andrea Cody:

My guest today is Michael Whitmire. Michael, thank you for being a part of DanceTalks.

Michael Whitmire:

Oh, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed answering the questions, and hopefully, somebody gets something out of this interview.

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