An Interview with Ron and Karla Montez

Ron Montez is one of the most respected personalities in the Dance business. He was the 7-time undefeated United States Professional Latin Champion. He also placed as high as 4th place in the World's Professional Latin Championship and was a finalist in the prestigious British Championship. He is recognized as coach and choreographer in both American and International Styles including Swing and Mambo. Ron is the Co-Host of the PBS Championships Ballroom Dance Program, which was hosted by Rita Moreno, the late Juliet Prowse, Barbara Eden and now, Sandy Duncan.

Karla Montez has a dance background of Ballet and Jazz. She traveled with a Dance Company for 13 years, capturing the U.S. Open Cabaret Championship. Karla is now teaching kids classes in Jazz, Ballet, Hip Hop, and Gymnastics Cheerleading Skills. Karla brings this rich background of Dance to this exciting partnership.

I am please to introduce to you all Ron and Karla...

JJ: First of all, let me ask you: How did you get started teaching?

RM: Okay, um, let's see . . . I started teaching because my sister and her husband were Arthur Murray dance teachers. They wanted me to get into the business so they encouraged me to do that. And they started teaching me a little on the side . . . They took me along with them when they did demonstrations they called "demos" at various places, like a country club or a private party or something. And I would play their music for them. And so I would be introduced to dancing by watching them dance and playing music for them, and I had a great time doing that; and that's how I started.

JJ: You started with Arthur Murray? Is that right?

RM: . . . Started with Arthur Murray and went through a training class. And in those days a training class was a six-week period of intensive training, all day long, by one teacher. And it was a really kind of regimented thing -- and thorough! You went through your total Bronze; and the teacher, kind of - conveyed to you all of the important things about being a professional. Other than knowing the steps . . . The man's part, women's parts and all of that stuff. About how to conduct yourself. How a man's role is, what a woman's role is; you know, tips on being a professional. And she was a really good example.

JJ: You know, Jennifer McCalla was who got me started; who you know her which is kinda of cool. . . Okay, well - you might have sort of answered this, but did you ever have a mentor that sort of really got you involved with it?

RM: Actually, I kind of separate it into two areas. One is the professionalism of the business: the actual teaching, the actual presentation of what you do for a living. And the other is the dancing. And my training class teacher, Nancy Elliott, she's passed away now; she was the perfect example of being a professional. She taught us how to conduct ourselves, how to dress . . . how to teach!

To be enthusiastic but yet also to be constructively critical; to make your deposits before you make your withdrawals, to encourage people and to get the job done without, you know, being real harsh about it or without being fake, phony, and buttering up all of the time. So, she was a beautiful example; she was an older lady who was a school lteacher. She wore her hair in a low bun, totally white hair; and she wore these very high heels . . . So her feet were
beautiful.. She could control everything she did and she never lost a shoe! And her legs and her feet and her technique were just perfect. So I always remember her as the perfect image of a woman in dancing, and still to this day that's what I carry with me.

JJ: What's the hardest thing to teach a beginner student?

RM: I think the hardest thing to do is to present it in a simple way; to remove yourself from all the knowledge you have and to present it in a simple way that they can grasp it and do it. So in other words, to create pictures in their mind so they are able to do it without being worried by too many details. We can always, as a professional especially being in The Business a lot of years you can provide ump-teen million details. But really, it's not that. It's a simplistic approach.

KM: That's what a lot of the new teachers try to do, they try to teach everything they know instead of being a good teacher teaching at the level where people can walk away and say, "I learned something from that class." And there's SO many comments or we'll be at camps and they'll come up and say, "I love Ron's classes because I learned something; you know, he explains it so well."

JJ: What advice can you give a beginner teacher?

RM: Well, you know, a beginning teacher is normally a little low on the information, a little low on experience; high on enthusiasm. . . And what carries them through most of the time is their enthusiasm. So what they really need is some specific training in regards to How to Handle a Class. Private lessons are different because you can develop a rapport with an individual or a couple and have fun with them and you'll make it through okay a lot of times. But a class takes a special kind of knowledge and there are certain people who are very good at handling classes. They know how to modulate their voice, they know how to use the microphone, they know how not to yell, they know how to get attention from a class, they know how to - when they want the class' attention, to just stop talking until their voices quiet down; how not to over-yell the people. . . To pace it so that the lesson whether it's an hour or an hour and a half, whatever, runs a certain duration, peaks out, and finishes. So you get all you have to do done in a certain amount of time, they feel a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment in a fifty-minute period or whatever. And they're happy, and you're happy, because it's a short capsule of information that's been a success for both teacher and student.

KM: . . . And just to add on that, the not yelling during the class. I mean, we have some beginning teachers that are just screaming at the class, and it's just like, "The students are not deaf; okay"

RM: Ah, but I find myself doing that too sometimes because maybe it's a bad environment, maybe the acoustics aren't good, maybe the class is a little wild, you know? And so you end up raising
your voice but actually you have to keep elevating it higher and higher and pretty soon you're going to lose because the surroundings will defeat you. So, you know. . . There's a teacher that taught a HUGE class once at Brigham Young University and she didn't have a microphone, but everyone was so quiet and hanging on her every word because she whispered. And this was Sheila Sloane, and she was going like, "and now ladies, you must be very careful. . . " And they're like, leaning over, their ears are like way stretched out because they didn't want to miss a word because she's whispering, and I was so impressed. And then in the other room there's some other teacher yelling and yelling and screaming and the people are like, in frenzy! So; you can only do that for so long. . .

JJ: That's good advice. I will keep that one in mind. That was a good one! Okay. . . How do you create a good student? And what I mean by that is, I've been told that when someone gets a student and you want to be able to maintain them, you want them to stay interested; so what is it that teachers can do or should do to create someone who's a student that will learn well and get them to stay consistent? Are there any tricks or certain things that we should know?

RM: To keep them participating, to keep them interested? I think from the beginning you can create in the student's mind what is good dancing, and you can do that by telling them that there's a balance in dancing between knowledge of step patterns and knowledge of the role as a man or a woman, leader or follower. . . A knowledge as to the style of the dance, the character of the dance and kind of a blend of them all. . . And create for them a picture, an ideal picture all the time of a perfect man or a perfect woman and what they're trying to attain. But not like, get too involved in throwing steps at them because you're going to run out of steps and they're going to get saturated with step patterns. Going too involved in the technique and hammering them to death where they get really bored and they get disgusted at themselves because they get frustrated. So I think it's kind of like the teacher has to be in tune with the person's progression and insert certain little changes, or diversions as the lesson progresses to see and make it work for that particular person. Now some people come in, see for instance: an engineer. He will love the technique and he will want specific alignments and amounts of turn and he will thrive on it and he'll have a notebook and you can work on technique forever. For instance now, a lady; some lady who could care less about names of patterns, counts and timings. . . She wants to know the flow of the step, how it feels, how it goes to the music. So you know, I think it takes a lot of skill to kind of appeal to the people at their level and make it work. It takes experience, I think; a little bit.

JJ: Do you believe that a really good dancer doesn't necessarily make for a really good teacher?

RM: Yes. I think a person can be quite a good dancer, I mean, we know of amateur couples in Europe, etc. that do the International Style or whatever that become really, really fantastic dancers. Amateurs at various sports can become World Champions but they can't really convey their art. Teaching is a special thing. It helps to have excelled at what you've done; that helps. But you can also be quite a good teacher and not have been a champion before because you have a special knack for analysation and for presentation. So. . . It does not require you to be a great dancer to be quite a good teacher. In fact, most of the teachers out there have not been necessarily great dancers. A couple of them have. . . But a couple, a few others were quite basic teachers.

KM: And then there are a lot of good dancers that
are terrible teachers that revert back to trying to teach and throw out everything
they know they can do it but that doesn't mean their student can.

JJ: How important do you think it is to count?

RM: Count? I think counting is of varying importance to different people. Some people, they'll say, "Can you tell me the count?" Actually, I'll be teaching a class and I'll say the step: forward, back, side-together, side-together, side; forward, back, side-together, side-together, side. Boom, boom, tick-tick-tick! I'll use five different ways of presenting it. And then some guy will say to me, "Can you count that?" And I?ll go, ?What do you mean, like 1-2-3 and 4?? I?ll go, ?Okay,? because, that?s the normal way. And I would think, ?Okay, this guy wants to know the counts. Fair enough, I?ll do it.? 1-2-3 and 4, 1-2-3 and 4; but I will kind of keep going back and forth between impulses, sounds, real counts (when it relates to the music like, beat-value, you know, stuff like that), and noises that convey the rhythm of the pattern. So counting is important, yeah, but I think that eventually they have to know the beat-value and the bit about counts.

JJ: Here?s a good one. There are ? I get a lot of questions, people write to me all of the time and I?ve had several of this particular question from other teachers; and they basically have said, ?Jami, I love teaching my advanced students, I have such a great time and I?m really comfortable with it, but then I get someone who?s a really slow beginner, and I have a tough time teaching them. What can I do to make it better?? Because it?s like, they find themselves either getting frustrated themselves or whatever. So are there any tips that you may have or things that --?

KM: If you?re too big to do the little job, then you?re too little to do the big job. . .

RM: Well, that?s a good thing. Also, another thing is if you know your art well you should be able to explain it in the simplest of terms. And that takes a little practice, but ? Getting back to your question; there are some advanced people who will learn something from anybody. In fact, they?re professional students.

For instance, say a professional dance couple ? they?re pretty good ? they could learn something from practically every teacher. . . Because they?re keen on picking up knowledge that will make them a better couple. That?s not true of beginners. Beginners need to be ? it takes a special kind of skill ? you have to make word-pictures and you have to present a simple idea in maybe five or six different ways until it actually gets through, so it takes tons more patience, tons more patience, and tons more of being fulfilled in small increments. Small like, ?They got that. Yes, that?s it!? And it could be a heel-lead; you know? It could be like, they got a tap position right. You got to be satisfied with small things. A couple ? now, a fantastic couple, they might do a step, a very complicated kind of variation, and you could work on one tiny little aspect of it for hours and they?re happy. You could change it back and forth, you can vary it, try it this way and try it that way. . . They?ll go back to the original way! Now you tell me what you think. And you can work back and forth and it?s almost a sharing of information, it?s almost a working together. It?s not like a complete, authoritarian teacher-student relationship.

KM: And that?s what probably comes back down to being a good teacher. Because if you can teach at any level, not just like, ?Oh, I?ll teach them because they?re advanced, they already know what they?re doing. . . That doesn?t mean you?re a good teacher. You have to be able to adapt to every level to be good at it.

RM: Actually, you know, in my career, I look around and I admire class teachers at beginning levels; if they?re good. I admire them because it takes a special patience and a special skill. I look around me and a lot of my colleagues teach great couples; and that?s fine. . . And I think it?s a great calling. But if you?re able to do somehow do both, I think you?ve somehow stretched yourself to a level that maybe a lot of teachers are not able to do.

JJ: I know mainly from the ballroom world and I don?t know how much you?ve gotten into the salsa world, but one of the big things that are happening ? and as I mentioned before there is a lot of dancers that are really good that have decided to teach, and one of the things that we are considering doing for SalsaWeb is putting together a certification for teachers and create something similar to an NDCA where if someone like Albert Torres is going to hire people to come and teach classes they only know of who they know but if they wanted to hire someone that they don?t know. . .If they have that little certification button or recognition it would help give him the sense of hiring someone who knows how to teach people. So this is something that is sort of new that we?re going to try and get involved in and I was wondering if you might have any advice for me as to how I might go about that.

RM: I think it?s a worthwhile project. Setting it up as being the accepted standard for teachers will be hard. It might take some time, but the idea is a good one because all the teachers make the same mistakes. Basically, they do. The wealth of knowledge from people who are experienced teachers can be tapped. You can have conferences where you would have a teacher who has had a long history of successful class-teaching. ?What are the secrets of your success?? And he will outline them. Bring in another one. ?What are the secrets of your success?? Bring another one in. ?What are the secrets ?? And first of all get a feeling for what things work as a standard, write that standard down and use it as a standard for the teachers. Of course, some things are simple. I mean, teaching a class. I learned the techniques from a Cotillion teacher. She only taught three steps; maybe four in a dance. To kids. Most of them could care less and, you know, she had to make it interesting, she had to control the class, and she had to be like a Policeman. But I learned most of the class techniques from her. Not from real elevated, well-known teachers. She only taught two or three steps, so ? her name was (Jane Evanders). So if we brought Jane in and said, ?Jane, what do you consider the most important things in a good class teacher?? She could give tons of information! From her own wealth of experience. And I think congresses and meetings and maybe the process of a certification-taking place after that would be really good.

JJ: Well, when that starts to evolve, I?ll be calling you Ron, for your secrets of success! It?s something that?s been a very big controversy and I think that it?s something that would be nice for the Salsa community. I think they need it. You know, we have it in the works already and like the ISTD and all of the franchises, which has been great, and it helped me tremendously in my training; I?m very thankful.

Is there any saying or motto that you use that people would say, ?Oh! That?s a Ron Montez saying!? Anything in particular?

KM: Are there any problems? Beside your partner?

RM: Oh, that?s just a joke that they say because all of the problems are between themselves. But I think that you kind of have two stages in your career, and sometimes they overlap. One is, The Dancer; fulfilling yourself and you?re doing something for yourself and it?s wonderful. It?s a great feeling! And then there?s The Teacher where you?re really doing things for other people. Although you do get some fulfillment but it?s not as great, though. It?s not quite the same level. But as a dancer, your performance fades in time. In maybe a year or two, only a few people will remember. As a teacher, you?re effective and you can effect eternity. What you create in a student or a professional they will take with them and it will go on forever. It might go from generation to generation. For instance, like (Enio Cordoba) this weekend, and I trained young (Enio) from the beginning. He keeps referring to me as his first teacher and I forgot that experience totally. And he keeps coming back to me, telling me, ?Remember when you said this? Or that? And I don?t remember. But it affected him and it?s quite nice, you know what I mean? So as a teacher you can have a great effect on your profession simply by the knowledge you convey.

KM: And we hear that a lot, ?Oh I took a workshop from you ten years ago and you said this one thing, and it helped me ...You know, so ?

RM: So as a teacher, you don?t really know what effect you?re having. It could be quite great. Where as a dancer, I think its a little bit more self-gratification . . .