Review: the DC Bachata Congress 2016

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Last weekend I attended my third DC Bachata Congress, the 8th incarnation of the event organized by Lee Smith and Kat Aguilar. I attended as a dancer in 2012, as a kizomba teacher in 2014, and this year as press, representing LatinDanceCommunity.com. This event is truly a standout for the Latin dance scene, with the tagline “Empowering Lives by Celebrating the Global Latin Experience.”

The Scope

The first thing to understand about the DC Bachata Congress is that it is a truly massive event. Over and over I heard from attendees: “I just can’t get over how big it is!” and “I’ve never seen so many dancers in one place!” and “There’s so many options! How can I decide what to do?!”

090216 sunsetpartiesThe first Latin dance event I ever attended that called itself a “Congress” had a few hundred people. There were two or three workshops happening concurrently at any given time and two dance floors in the evening. My second was the DC Bachata Congress, which operates on a completely different scale. More than 5,000 of us attended this year. There were over 125 workshops given by top national and international teachers; countless performances by amateurs and professionals; live music concerts for Salsa Romantica, Old School Salsa, Bachata Sensual, and Kizomba; sunset rooftop “Skychata” parties; and four nights of dancing until 6 or even 8am with 7 ballrooms to enjoy: “The World’s Largest Bachata Ballroom,” Authentic Bachata, Salsa, Kizomba, Zouk, International Ballroom, and a “Mystery Ballroom.”

090216 flavorfestThis year was special because the Congress expanded beyond the typical scope of a dance festival to include a Latin film festival; the DCBX Flavor Fest, a Latin food street festival; and educational workshops in finance, well-being, and business development. The Congress also found its new home at the Renaissance Hotel Downtown, where it will continue to be held the last weekend of August through 2019.

The Venue and Organization

090216 ballroommap-1I’ve always appreciated that the DC Bachata Congress holds the event at one big venue so that everything is accessible. The Renaissance was a truly wonderful venue: the Congress took over the vast conference space at the basement level. There were 64,000 square feet of dance floor, and yet none of the rooms was too very distant from the rest. I certainly did less hiking than I did moving between rooms in 2015. All the dance floors I used at DCBX were well constructed and held together for the duration of the event – which is unfortunately not the standard when it comes to international festivals! There were two large desks where festival staff were available around the clock. Check-in was wonderfully streamlined, and even when it came to people buying single night entry, the queue never became excessive. There were also quite a number of vendors: I believe there were four vendors selling shoes as well as tables for DCBX official t-shirts, braided t-shirts, leggings, other dance wear, and hair and makeup products.

090216 airconAnother amazing feature of the Renaissance Hotel’s conference space was the killer air-conditioning. I don’t know if Lee and Kat had to pay extra for them to crank it so high, but it was truly wonderful to be able to enter a completely packed ballroom and not feel like I was going to die from the humidity. I danced comfortably all night every night without once feeling the need to change my shirt or dress. Unfortunately that powerful AC proved a liability during the daytime classes of kizomba and zouk that were held in the Renaissance East and West rooms. For some reason the AC was particularly potent there, and since attendees weren’t moving at the tempo of the salsa and bachata classes happening nearby, it was at times positively frigid!

090216 filtered scheduleAn extremely impressive feature of this year’s festival was the color-coded interactive schedule, available both on the website and the mobile app. I loved the filter feature, which allowed you to display only classes for a certain dance style or for a particular level.
This was super helpful, especially given that there were workshops Thursday from 5 to 9pm as well as Friday through Sunday from 10am to 5 or 6pm with up to 6 happening concurrently.

It is almost impossible to organize such a large-scale, complex event without some scheduling flubs occurring. One teacher bemoaned her fundamentals class occurring late on Sunday, by which time most beginners had already taken several higher level classes. 090216 schedule filtersSeveral changes occurred to the schedule over the course of the event, which for the most part were easy to follow thanks to the schedule online changing dynamically and updates to the hotel conference screens. Unfortunately, I completely missed the kizomba show by P-Lowe because I was expecting it to be in the Kizomba room, as it is still listed even now. Some changes also resulted in rooms being double booked; I attended a musicality class by David Campos & Guida Rei which they decided to hold out in the hallway for lack of a room. Finally, the interactive schedule and app were also not necessarily as intuitive as I personally found them. As late as Saturday afternoon I was showing the filter function to one of the Congress’s teachers.

Stories from Attendees

I was interested, as I wandered around wearing my PRESS badge for LDC, in hearing some stories perspectives from the other attendees. I know for me personally this event has been significant as I have taken on more roles within the dance scene. It’s also the first place I ever saw Brazilian zouk being danced: I watched entranced for long stretches at a time in 2012 as Shani Meyer glided, folded, and twirled on tiptoe. In addition, it was after the 2012 DC Bachata Congress that Americans seemed to finally gain some awareness of kizomba. Prior to that event, when I told people I danced kizomba, I was greeted with either a blank expression or some question related to Zumba. Afterward people were more likely to nod and say, “I’ve heard of that,” or “I did a taster class recently.”

090216 district zoukI spoke to Ashley and Jamiel of District Zouk. Last year they helped organize the zouk room and taught a taster lesson. This year they taught a few hour-long workshops in addition to running a 3-hour beginner bootcamp. I asked them: “What’s it like teaching a workshop full of so many different dancers as compared with teaching a regular drop-in class?”
They told me: “Well, we have to assume that people are going to come in with different ideas and backgrounds. For this class (the Friday 11am Zouk Patterns and Partnerwork) we had planned a lot more moves using zouk fundamentals but when we saw who we had, we adjusted.”
Indeed, the level had to be pitched much lower than they had expected. I really enjoyed having that extra time to think about breathing in partnership and connecting through simple upper body movement. I also really respected how they jumped in and taught another whole hour right afterward when the scheduled teachers did not turn up, apparently having gotten confused about their class time.

I spoke to a dancer named Lionel who told me he was primarily a dancer of West Coast Swing. I asked him why he had been attracted to this Latin dance event. “Two reasons,” he told me. “West Coast Swing is mostly danced in open hold, and I wanted to get more comfort and experience with closed position. And I get that with bachata and kizomba. The second reason is to expand my social circle. Plus- I actually like bachata!”

Some dancers brought their own circles with them – not just fellow dancers, but family members, including children! It’s so lovely that the Congress provided a welcoming atmosphere for everyone involved. I grabbed a couple of snapshots with kizomba teacher Elyse Inzinga’s husband Mike with baby Lily and the famous KizBaby Mellie with Guida Rei.

090216 family

A student of mine named Greg actually wrote me a lengthy response about his experience at the Congress. You can read it in its entirety on KizombaCommunity.com, but I wanted to share some of the comments he made about dealing with dancers of different levels. “The great thing about the Bachata Congress was that on the same night I could be the beginner level dancer in one room and then the experienced dancer in other rooms. That perspective allowed me to adopt two different mindsets: In one room, I would remind myself to not lead more than my partner could follow; in another room I would tell myself to stick to what I know since more than likely my partner would have more experience. […] “I would rather dance 20 times during a party and 18 of them be with women below my skill level than to only “dance up” and have to wait for women who are in high demand–assuming that they say yes to my requests. That philosophy has paid dividends for me. There are many advanced level salsa dancers who probably only dance with me because I did not think I was too good for them when they were beginners. There is nothing more enjoyable than seeing a beginner-level student’s face light up when I’ve led her through some patterns that she negotiated well. I was very appreciative of all the women I danced with in the kizomba room who made my experience enjoyable. Even when I was turned down, it was done in a respectable fashion that did not discourage me from asking them to dance in the future.”

By far my favorite story came from Michelle, who shows just how much an event like DCBX can impact someone. “I had just raised $2000 by riding 60 miles for the National MS Society since that was the disease that took my mom away. I felt so good helping out charities that I asked friend if they knew of any charity fundraisers that may need volunteers stuffing bags or working registration. My friend suggested helping with DC Bachata even though it wasn’t a fundraiser, but I still thought it was a medical conference for a disease that didn’t get much press, like MS isn’t as well known as diabetes. But I ended up helping out because at the volunteer meeting Lee and Kat were so wonderful and I agreed with their vision.

090216 logo“When I got there my job was to register all of the instructors and artists. All of them were super nice and when they asked how long I had been dancing I responded ‘I’m not a dancer I’m just helping out.’ The instructors insisted I try some classes and just do my best; some of them even gave me a mini-dance lesson at the registration table. Several of them saw me later in the socials and asked me to dance. They didn’t care that I was a beginner; they just wanted me to have a good time. So I stayed and I danced really badly. The funny thing was I noticed it was one of the first weekends since my mom’s passing that I wasn’t impaired by grief. I went from a grief-stricken zombie doing the bare minimum to make it through the day to a social person dancing, meeting new people and living a little. So this dance wasn’t a disease – it was actually the cure!”

In Conclusion

I’m sure every organizer dreams of having such an amazing impact on an attendee. If you are at all into attending large Latin dance congresses, I highly recommend the DC Bachata Congress. Who knows what positive impact you’ll experience on your dancing or even your life in general? DCBX aims to achieve an attendance of 100,000 by 2020 – will you be a part of it?

5 Comments

  • Andre says:

    The congress was amazing, yes. I agree with almost all of your account. However there were a few issues that can be used as opportunities to make next year even better. The floor constructs werent sturdy. they came part from thr first night which was thursday. They came apart in the north ballroom, Renaissance west (my friend almost fell hard in that room), and congressonal c didnt even have a hard floor. We danced on the carpet. By saturday they were using electrical tape to hold the floor together. I think these are definitely fixable items and next year will be 100%!

  • David Sander says:

    What was needed was maybe a few packages of sturdy mailing tape, stuck to one of the tiles and then stretched across several tiles to hold them together. If placed on the bottom of the floor sections, people will press them into the carpet. Obviously this has to be done before the dance floor sections are put down.

  • Hey Rachel. Thanks for the review. Clara and I also had a great time at DCBX. I’ve done a number of Salsa congresses, but this was actually my first Bachata congress. Pulling off these big events is not easy but Lee and Kat do a great job.

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