A #tbt interview and photo shoot with Joseph Rivera, cofounder of Baila Society NYC dance company, originally published in A&U Magazine
Dancing for a Cause
Joseph Rivera, Cofounder of Baila Society dance company, shows us the move to fight the AIDS epidemic
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
Writers paint with words, photographers with light. Dancers? With rhythm, agrees Joseph Rivera, cofounder of Baila Society, a New York City salsa instruction and performance company, and founder of Bailando Por Una Causa (Dancing for a Cause), an annual benefit event organized by Baila Society to support the Latino Commission on AIDS. Sporting a beard, and wearing a t-shirt and baseball cap, Rivera makes time to meet me in New York City, only a few days prior to his trip to India, where he is traveling with five other Baila Society dancers, for the International Indian Dance Congress.
Founded nine years ago this past August, Baila Society distinguishes itself not only through the professionalism of its instructors and the dance techniques they teach, but also through the experimental ways in which they teach, explore, and try to elevate salsa. “That doesn’t mean that people who came before us were not talented or did not elevate the dance in their own way,” Rivera explains, “but it means that we try to cast it in a different light, [and to] gravitate toward the technique of it, and the discipline that it takes to be a really strong dancer. We built our dance company around that, and people respond to it.”
Salsa started in West Africa, and crossed the ocean with the slave trade. It developed in Cuba, from where it made its way to Puerto Rico, and then to New York. “Salsa, to me,” Rivera says, “is an evolution in music that cannot be claimed by any one people or any one beat or musician. It got here as a result of travel.” Salsa is a social dance that started in the streets, and, while maintaining this important characteristic of salsa, Baila Society also wants to put the dance on the big stage.
While talking about salsa dancing, I have to inquire about a few salsa tips. And Rivera is happy to share a few important ones:
First, he shares, “make sure you get into salsa dancing for the right reasons.
“Do it for the dance itself, not to meet guys or girls (although if it happens to meet someone at a salsa class, that’s ok, too). But, if it’s not about the dance, people will notice, and it becomes unattractive. That’s not the right motivation.”
Second, “in order to become a good dancer, you have to treat salsa as a foreign language you want to learn.
“When you learn a language, you have to immerse yourself in it. In order to become a fluent speaker, you really need to live in the country whose language you want to learn.
“The same rules apply when it comes to learning salsa, or any dance for that matter. In order to become good at it, you need to take classes to learn the steps and techniques, and then you need to go out and dance socially. If you are fortunate enough to live in a place like New York City, there are a lot of places where you can dance socially.
“The biggest deterrent of going out and dancing socially is the fear of making mistakes, but that’s part of the learning process. Admitting your mistakes is easier said than done, because the ego is often involved. One tip to survive your mistakes is to smile them off. When you make a mistake, smile, follow polite protocol—invite your partner to and from the dance floor, for example—and keep on dancing.”
Pondering upon these salsa tips, I realize that they could apply, at least in part, to learning the language of HIV/AIDS prevention. That is, for example, remember the importance of protecting yourself against the virus not only when it’s mentioned during a workshop or in a book or movie, but also on a regular basis, in everyday life.
And speaking of life and life stories, as fascinating as it is to hear about salsa, it’s even more fascinating to hear Rivera’s remarkable life story. Joseph Rivera comes from a Puerto Rican family. His mother died of AIDS-related causes in 1995. His father is living with the virus, himself a testimony of what available medications can do to keep the virus at bay. When I hint at Rivera’s own HIV status, he is not only willing to answer my question, but also explains that it’s easy to answer it. “I’m fortunate that my status is negative,” the thirty-six-year-old says, “but [that’s not] to say that if I didn’t contract [HIV] from birth, I couldn’t have contracted it later.”
Organizing Bailando Por Una Causa has allowed him to talk more openly about HIV and AIDS, but truth is that, even though he was negative, HIV/AIDS was a really difficult topic for him to discuss growing up. “It was difficult for me to really come to grips with it, because of the stigma,” Rivera says. “Stigma can have a very strong effect on people.”
At a young age, Rivera went away to boarding schools, where he was surrounded by a lot of people, usually white, non-Hispanic people with a lot of money, while he was a young Latino scholarship kid who got an opportunity to study at these private boarding schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut. He then went to Georgetown University, graduated at twenty-one, and got a job starting out on the finance side of things at a financial media and research company. However, he began teaching himself graphic and web design, advancing within the company, becoming director of interactive design.
While in school for eleven years, away from home and from his people, all he wanted to do was fit in. “The last thing I wanted was be a charity kid,” Rivera says. “I didn’t need them judging me or my family. I had to be hard on myself.”
But while away at school, he drifted away from his culture. Then one day, five years after graduating college, one of his friends invited Rivera to a salsa club. “I thought I knew what I was doing, because I was Puerto Rican, and all Puerto Ricans know how to dance,” Rivera recalls, “but I didn’t know how to dance, and I embarrassed myself. And it was at that moment that I told myself ‘I am going to learn how to dance salsa.’” Taking dance classes and listening to the music brought him back to his childhood.
He cofounded Baila Society in 2006, together with that friend, Daniel Enskat, and Ahtoy WonPat-Borja. In December of 2014, Rivera quit his job as director of interactive design, in order to pursue his passions, and focus on Baila Society and Bailando Por Una Causa.
Some six years ago Rivera was working on the benefits committee of the Latino Commission on AIDS, “a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Latino community,” and decided to organize an event to benefit the commission. Since October is Hispanic Heritage Month, and the National Latino HIV/AIDS Awareness Day falls on October 15, it felt only natural for the new benefit event, Bailando Por Una Causa, to take place during the same month. This year, on October 24, Bailando Por Una Causa will again benefit not only the Latino Commission on AIDS, but also emerging dance companies. The ninety-minute-long event includes twelve to fifteen different dance performances, from salsa and samba to tango and other modern and traditional dances. Now in its sixth year, the event and the after-party are hosted at the El Museo del Barrio, which represents Latino art and is located on Museum Mile in Manhattan.
But even more valuable than raising money for nonprofits is using Bailando Por Una Causa to bring out into the open the fact that HIV/AIDS is still prevalent in the Latino community. “I think stigma is an issue. It’s why we don’t hear about HIV/AIDS as we did in the past,” Rivera explains. He also adds that, with today’s medications, the public awareness and the urgency that surrounded the epidemic during the eighties don’t exist anymore. Yet, HIV/AIDS can still be a serious problem today, if people do not protect their health.
In the Latino community there is a disproportionately higher rate of HIV infection than among whites, in part because of poverty, lower annual incomes, and, to some extent, a lack of education. “If you don’t have the resources, you are not going to go to the doctor. The more money you have, the more likely you are to get annual checkups,” he points out.
Staying protected is the key. In this day and age, there is really no reason for people not to know how to protect themselves from HIV, for youth not to understand that with sex comes responsibility. For a moment, Rivera puts himself in the shoes of a parent. He explains that if he had children, he’d love them to be abstinent until they are married, but he wouldn’t expect it. What he would expect is for them to make the right decisions, when it comes the right time to become sexually active; to protect themselves, and not take it as a joke or consider someone who does practice safer sex as weak, because it’s actually the other way around.
In order to stay protected, one has to get tested on a regular basis. “I can tell you from personal experience,” Rivera confesses, “going back to your earlier question about my [HIV] status, there was one point in time that I was scared to death that I was positive, not because of my parents, because I knew at a young age that I was negative. [But] things did happen in my life [when I was younger], and I remember getting tested and I said, you know what, how am I going to be able to look at myself, knowing that I have parents who’re infected by this disease, and I got out and got infected myself? I remember that fear of me getting tested, and I never want to have that fear again in my life. So, to me, the message is simple: Know your status, get tested, be aware, and be responsible. If people get in the habit of getting tested, that fear is a good thing, because if they are doing the right thing, when [it comes time to get] tested, it’s a breeze, there’s no problem.”
HIV education and awareness are vital in keeping oneself safe from the virus. “That’s what we’re trying to do through Bailando Por Una Causa,” Rivera says, raise HIV awareness and also educate about HIV/AIDS through dance. “That’s all we can do right now,” he comments. “Whether it’s salsa, tango or rumba, dance, in general, is such an important part of the Latino culture, of our identity. Dance is the honey to attract the bees, the language to connect with people. That’s why we feel that Bailando Por Una Causa is such a big platform to create [HIV] awareness.”