Over the past several years I’ve spoken with and interviewed numerous instructors who literally spend every weekend on the road teaching dance in a location other than their home locale. Popular dancers with extensive travel schedules (pre-COVID) such as Carlos Cinta, Albir Rojas, Terry Taliaut, Charles Ogar, and Edie “The Salsa Freak”, among many others. As I became more involved in the “latin dance media” (so to speak), I began to wonder what their lives were really like. I discovered that although all instructors have different and unique experiences, there do seem to be common challenges and rewards of being a traveling latin dance instructor.
1. Hard to maintain relationships
I’ve heard it numerous times, so I will start this challenge. Being in a committed relationship or even starting one is hard for many traveling professionals, but particularly for dance instructors. First, your source of income is often dependent upon traveling to different events and they’re usually in a different location every weekend. Most (if not all) relationships need personal quality time in order develop a connection, and weekends for many couples are an opportunity to catch up Not for traveling dance instructors as that’s when it’s time to work. Weekend nights for them are spent at events dancing, not going to movies or hanging out at home. Promoters and organizers aren’t going to pay for significant others to travel (unless they’re the primary dance partner), so most weekends are spent away from their partners. If you’re single, you can meet someone great in one city, and be 3,000 miles away from them for several months. Technology helps keep the lines of communication open, but nothing beats together time to grow a relationship. It’s a tough part of the job.
2. Unhealthy Eating
Another common struggle of being a traveling dance instructor is diet. If they’re fortunate and working with a great organizer then meals are provided, but it’s common that these meals won’t be the most calorie friendly.
Fast food and snacks are common sources of energy while traveling as home cooked meals aren’t readily available. Dealing with changing time zones, weather, and sleep deprivation can be tough and sometimes all an instructor wants to do is eat, sit in their room and “veg out”. Some dancers can get away with this lifestyle because (a) they’re young and (b) the job inherently consists of basic exercise and movement which helps maintain a certain level of fitness.
The vast majority of organizers aren’t getting rich off events and workshops…and neither are instructors. I think most non-professionals know that dance organizers do it “for the love of the game” and not to be wealthy. The advent of the latin dance congress (the first was the Puerto Rico Salsa Congress in 1997) has allowed many dancers to extend their careers or find work that simply wasn’t available pre-2000. Today’s traveling latin dance professionals are definitely benefiting from there being over 400-500 Congress style events each year (and countless workshops), but it doesn’t mean the money is falling from the sky. There are instances where a dancer doesn’t get paid for their services, and the latin dance elite aren’t immune to occasions where they don’t get compensated. There are also ambitious instructors who want to travel to teach and some are willing to work for free at events. This ‘teach for exposure’ exchange is looked down upon by some and is definitely a source of contention among instructors who feel all should be paid for their work. Instructors who choose not to get paid for their work drive down the market price for those who do and an influx of dancers who may not be qualified are allowed to flood the market. See photography, writing or any other artistic market for examples. The instructors I’ve spoken with realize the job is fun, but you have to be a competent business person to make it over the long haul.
If you want to become a traveling dance instructor then you’d better be hot, because you’re not going to get much beauty sleep. Just kidding on the attractive trait, but not on the sleep. Instructors learn how to catch naps in airports, planes, trains, couches, the back seat of cars, and in their hotel rooms between group classes and private lessons. If you’re working a weekend event then be prepared to be up early to teach classes even after you’ve danced until 4am at the socials. Discipline is a common trait in most successful traveling instructors.
Edie “The Salsa Freak” Williams – “I learned to sleep on airplanes, trains, ships, boats, and automobiles, not as a choice, but as a necessary requirement.”
There is a certain element of fame that comes with being a popular instructor, or at least one who is frequently contracted for several events around the globe. Social media and YouTube play a role in an instructors status and it can be very gratifying to be viewed as an elite dancer among peers and patrons, alike. The opportunity to develop friendships with people from across the globe is an exciting proposition for those I’ve talked with. Perhaps most instructors don’t immediately recall meeting half of the dancers on their social media connections lists, but it does speak to the huge amount of people that they come into contact with during their careers. Most instructors get work via word of mouth, networking, and social media so it definitely helps to be a people person and a social butterfly.
Pro dance instructors are niche superstars (unless you’re Jorge “Ataca” Burgos and you’ve starred in a movie) and its something that most instructors I’ve spoken with consider a nice perk. Some dancers attend events just because their favorite instructor is the headliner and they hope for the opportunity to dance with them.
Most traveling instructors have achieved a certain level of success, and, therefore are more subject to public scrutiny than most of their peers. This is often both a huge positive and equally large negative. It’s a positive because the exposure that leads directly to continued work. The negative is fairly obvious: Haters and critics.
Charles Ogar – “Inspiring new people in different places almost every week is amazing. It’s humbling to have people look up to you and invest their time and energy in you.”
Travel may be the most rewarding aspect of being a traveling instructor, and getting paid teach and experience new places and cultures is a highlight for most professionals. It’s particularly exciting for those who are in their early to mid 20s because they often haven’t entered life stages in which relationships, kids, or financial obligations to others are a big part of their lives. Most plan their schedules about six months in advance so there generally aren’t any surprise trips. Freedom has its rewards.
Carlos Cinta – “The separation is in the preparation.”
3. Living their dream
Most traveling instructors I’ve spoken with love their jobs. Some don’t. But most do. Despite some negatives, most wouldn’t trade their nomadic work life for a desk job in a cubicle any day of the week. If dancing wasn’t a passion then they wouldn’t have succeeded because the job can be difficult. The dance world is competitive and all instructors know there is someone waiting in the wings to replace them if they don’t take their job seriously. But most instructors are teachers at heart (and not just dancers) and seeing their students succeed/improve is what most instructors I’ve interviewed find the most rewarding.