If it were possible to have a Ph.D in Salsa Philosophy, Magna Gopal would have one. The petite powerhouse is known across the globe for her social dancing—sharp technique, impeccable turns, stunning musicality, and an ever-present bright smile. But where Magna really shines is off the dance floor, when she is lecturing and diving deep into the theories and ideas behind what makes social dancing truly special—interpersonal relationships. .
In January, I attended Magna’s first Mpowered Weekend in Columbia, S.C., presented in conjunction with Oraki Dance Company. What really struck me was the format. She taught two workshops that didn’t have any dancing. No turn patterns, no shines, no balance exercises.
Instead of typical movement-based classes, these seminars were two-hour lectures diving deep into musicality, connection, and the student-teacher relationship. The students sat on the floor or on folding chairs in a dance studio, listening and taking notes. It was fascinating to look around and see people spellbound for hours by someone talking about connection, relationships, and how they apply to dance…without actually dancing themselves.
“The idea was to talk about things that are deeper than just the dance moves so that people have a foundation to build upon in their own dancing. It’s about true connection and how to get to that point of connection with other people,” says Magna.
The weekend was an idea that had been percolating since Magna’s first visit to Columbia in 2015. She and Oraki director Giovanni Medellin asked themselves how they could take the standard fare of a weekend of workshops, performances, and social dancing and make it more empowering. More interesting. More useful.
Magna already used the Mpowered brand for videos, blogs, and talks, but she and Giovannia wanted to expand the brand and apply it to a whole event.
“I can easily offer shines and styling and movement. But I know I have a talent for teaching and connecting with my students. I can take those concepts that might be common sense, but that we don’t think about, and present them in a way that shows meaning,” Magna says.
Magna and I sat down after the workshops and she showed me some of her process for coming up with the content for the workshops. It was impressive.
Her approach to learning and teaching is methodical and analytical—not words one usually associates with Latin dance. To create a seminar, she types dozens of pages of notes, culling material from a variety of sources, including observations; questionnaires; anecdotes; and interviews. She then puts the notes through mind-mapping software to identify and group key concepts and ideas. From there, she organizes the material into a logical sequence, studies it, and practices so she can deliver the lecture with little or no reference to her notes.
It’s a process that can take hours, days, weeks. She was fine-tuning the material right until the moment she presented it, to make sure she delivered the best quality class possible.
Despite pages and pages of content, the workshops didn’t feel like a huge info dump. Magna keeps you engaged. She makes you think and examine yourself during her classes, asking you to question why you dance, why you teach, why you learn, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and other introspective questions that I’ve never had to ask myself during a dance class.
Asking these questions is part of building the foundation she talks about—you have to find these answers before you can move on to more technical aspects.
“It’s about developing a sense of awareness of yourself, taking responsibility, being active in the process, growing as individuals, and contributing,” says Magna.
Her collaborator for the event, Giovanni, knew the weekend would be transformative for attendees.
“Exploring new ideas, new concepts, and hearing from dancers such as Magna gives the dancer a whole new perspective on things. It opens up possibilities for originality and can help a dancer/student develop their own uniqueness instead of simply learning to do a certain move in a specific way because that’s how an instructor does it,” says Medellin.
Matt Mango, a pharmacist and avid dancer, took several ideas away from the weekend—lessons that can be applied across the board in life, not just in dance.
“I learned that in order to be generous in your dance, you have to look after yourself. If you cannot commit to a dance, then don’t. It’s better to kindly decline than to give someone less than your best,” says Matt.
The big takeaway for Matt, and the heart of what Magna and Giovanni convey, is that every person on the dance floor is a human being. A human being with needs, wants, desires, freedom of expression—a human being who deserves respect.
“We act as though social dance is about technique, but it’s not. Social dance is about people. People are the ones that love music. People are the ones that love spins. People are the ones that appreciate your movements. Not the song, not the floor, not the décor,” says Matt.
Magna’s message is ultimately about finding common ground, on the dance floor and beyond.
“Like leading and following—when you have an understanding of the other side— you can perform your role better. We play every role in life at some point or another. Life and learning is about developing an understanding and empathy for the other roles and the ability to take something or someone we initially thought was completely foreign and find ways to relate versus ways to create more distance,” says Magna.