In a mixed-level class at Peridance Capezio Center, Ahtoy WonPat-Borja gets her beginner salsa dancers moving with a marching rhythm as she counts, “One, two three,” pause, “Five, six, seven,” pause. In two lines, leaders (traditionally men) face followers (traditionally women) and students step in place to the quick-quick-slow rhythm before moving into the familiar six-step rock of the salsa basic. She continues the forward and backward walk of the feet while she talks technical points and cracks jokes with her large group of mostly pedestrian dancers. At just under five feet tall, her diminutive frame belies her authoritative presence.
As founders of Baila Society—a dance empire composed of 35 teachers worldwide, online tutorials and a 20-member professional dance company—WonPat-Borja and her partner Daniel Enskat are frequently invited to perform and judge on the international ballroom circuit, and they lead popular open-level salsa partnering classes at Peridance and the Ailey Extension in Manhattan. As teachers, the pair have developed a method to translate their performance quality to dancers of all levels and backgrounds. In their classes, even beginners come away with a sophisticated experience of salsa—along with a five- to eight-bar combination they can try out at a salsa club.
Raised in Guam, WonPat-Borja trained in ballet as a child and went on to study with Houston Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. After an injury, she transitioned to ballroom as a student at Columbia University and found her way to salsa. (She also went on to pursue a PhD in epidemiology.) Enskat grew up in Germany in a theater family. After getting into ballroom as a teenager, he spent a decade dancing in Europe before moving to New York City, where he met WonPat-Borja.
Enskat is the chattier of the two, eager to bond with anyone over a shared love of dance and skilled at ferreting out new performance and teaching opportunities. Together, their magnetic personalities, attractive looks and outsized ambition make them a striking pair that has found success both artistically and commercially. They have won several Rising Star championships in ballroom and receive more invitations to salsa congresses and festivals than they can attend. They also judge national and international salsa competitions and worldwide finals, including the World Salsa Summit and the World Salsa Championships.
Explaining the origin of the company name, WonPat-Borja says “baila” means dance. “In the Spanish-speaking world, ‘bailarina’ usually means salsa dancer, not ballet dancer,” she says. She was initially drawn to the improvisational nature of salsa. “Ballet and ballroom are highly standardized,” she says. “But when you think of salsa, you think of dancing with someone at a party. While there is a structure to learning salsa, people develop their own styles. The culture celebrates individual flair, so no two people dance alike.” However, both she and Enskat also insist the style has a technique.
In salsa, they explain, the body is divided into several centers of movement, each constantly moving in a zigzag, from the foot to the knee to the hips on up through the ribs and shoulders. This requires dancers to free up the joints—knees, hips and shoulders, in particular—so they can swing, shimmy and shake in counterpoint to each other. “The goal is to represent all the rhythms in the music,” says Enskat. “Your body is interpreting what you hear into movement.” Instead of introducing the full-body movement all at once, he and WonPat-Borja use a progression. They begin with the basic footwork and purest versions of spatial interactions with a partner. On top of these building blocks, the contra-body movements of ribs and hips (meaning left hip moves in opposition to the right side of the torso), as well as the embellishments of the arms, can be layered and—as in the case of WonPat-Borja and Enskat’s virtuosic onstage partnership—lead to complex spins and daring overhead lifts.
At Peridance, the instructors divide the busy room into thirds by level, each under the direction of a Baila Society instructor. Beginners are the largest group, stage left with WonPat-Borja; intermediate students in the center; and a smaller set of advanced students practice complicated spins and signature Baila Society moves with Enskat stage right. “Relax your knees, my bailarinas,” he chides them with a sense of no-nonsense fun, when he is not admonishing them for losing eye contact.
An hour into the 90-minute session, each level practices its own choreographed combination, experimenting with how different songs—some up-tempo, some romantic ballads—affect the movement. There is space for improvisation during musical breaks. At the end of class, each level performs for the other groups. “It allows for that mix of fear and happiness,” says Enskat, “and gives beginners a chance to see where the work is going.”
WonPat-Borja draws her beginners in close for a preshow huddle, reminding them to have fun. The group takes the floor in shy clusters as the intermediate and advanced students sit in front to watch. By the time the advanced students take their turn, hair and hips are flying, phones are out of pockets and video is rolling. Everyone wants to take a piece of this Baila Society party with them when they go out tonight. DT
Candice Thompson danced with the Milwaukee Ballet Company and is a writing fellow at Columbia University.
Photography by Kyle Froman