Ashwin Raju is featured in this edition of Dance Spotlight! He is a latin dance instructor based in Atlanta and is the owner and founder of Aatma Dance Studio. Ashwin was nominated by Leah Boresow. Leah said, “He is a wonderful example of a dancer who started with no experience, thrived as a student, pushed himself to be a great teacher and choreographer, and now owns his own Latin dance studio! He is very relatable and a great social dancer.” Check out fun and interesting facts about Ashwin including his favorite dance moment and his experience as an Indian owning a latin dance studio in the US.
What (or who) originally inspired you to try Latin dancing? OR What are your first memories of latin dancing?
I had never danced until my mid-20s. I’d just moved out of my hometown to a bigger city (Bangalore) in India, and wanted to check out the Salsa scene there with my friends, but it never did work out at that time. Eventually, I moved to a different city in India (Hyderabad), and was able to find time to start taking beginner lessons. It has always been the social aspect of the dance community that really reels me in. I moved to the US in 2010, and almost immediately started taking lessons in Atlanta, with the expectation of doing it for just 6 months. Sometimes life takes you down paths you least expect. That was 11 years ago.
Describe a moment in your dance life that made you feel proud?
Opening our dance studio has been, by far, the proudest moment to this point. We took a big risk going from being somewhat passive participants to running a small business overnight. The feeling was mixed with a fair amount of stress as well considering how much of a financial risk we were taking,
Social Dance Pet Peeve: (Hygiene, No connection, People who teach while dancing, etc)
I try my best not to have pet peeves since I believe people are different and they do things for different reasons. I do advise our students on the common issues everyone needs to navigate through – hygiene, personal space and comfort level with sensual moves, teaching while dancing, back leading etc. But for the most part, these things have stopped bothering me personally.
You and your wife (Kristen Anne) are Co-Owners/Co-Directors of Aatma Dance Studio. What are your goals for Aatma Dance and what advice would you give to others who wish to run a successful dance studio?
We had been dancing for a long time, and wanted a bigger challenge. We wanted to use our experience from our careers outside of dancing to improve our community. We plan to continue growing our dance family through our studio. We hope to have several dance teams, and make a strongly knit community along the way. One of our main goals is to provide a happy place for people to get away from the daily stress of life.
For others who wish to run a successful dance studio, owning a studio, teaching and dancing are different skillsets. If you are generally good at running things in your regular life, this would be right for you. Not all dancers will be good at teaching, not all good teachers will be good at running a business. If you really enjoy all three skills, and are willing to learn, then you will have no trouble running a dance studio. Be warned; there will be lots of spreadsheets.
You and Kristen participated in the 2015 World Salsa Summit and won first place in the amateur Salsa Cabaret Division. Can you talk about that experience and what is was like to win the competition?
There was very little interest from the community when we competed. There was no support structure for something like this in place so it was challenging. There is a lot more information and resources out there now in most dance communities about how to go about doing this. We went at it the old fashioned way with just a lot of hard work and practice. We were not particularly good at hard cabaret tricks, so we tried our best to be technical and improve our performance quality. We performed our piece at as many venues as possible before the Summit for roughly 6 months. We were very naïve and we went in with a lot of unearned confidence, which worked in our favor.
What has been your experience thus far as an Indian man running a latin dance studio in the US? Latin dance communities can be diverse, but I’m curious if you’ve faced any unusual challenges or if your experience has been fairly common.
I get comments about how unusual my situation is almost daily from people who walk into the studio. People who have been around the dance scene are more used to non-latinos dancing Salsa. I do feel guilty that I never took the effort to learn to speak in Spanish, because we get a lot of phone calls asking if someone speaks Spanish. For the most part though the community is very supportive and the issue barely ever comes up. It also helps that two of the other leaders in the Atlanta salsa community are also Indian (Niya Patel and Salsa Sheila).
What are your current favorite songs to dance to? Top two or three…
I have been having fun dancing to “Buscando la Verdad.” For Bachata, I enjoy dancing to Pinto Picasso, Dani J and Kewin Cosmos.
Favorite dance video you’d like to share?
My favorite salsa video is still this one: