San Francisco - Interviews

FIONA CHEUNG - Mambo Dancer Interview

- Photo courtesy of Mendy Mendoza -

- Interview by Julian of

Full name, city of residence (and other details about your life you care to mention)?

Fiona Civa Cheung, currently living in South San Francisco, CA. When I moved back from New York in January 2001, I lived in Berkeley for about 6 months. I plan eventually to settle in the East Bay. Even now I consider the East Bay my home. Other details? I'm sure you don't really wanna know.

You're well known for that awesome intro in "El Principe" (the latest Mambo Romero choreography)? What was the inspiration? From what I can tell, it seems to be a fusion of dance styles.

Yes, it's a great intro - even as an intro for the whole dance, it's a complete piece in itself. There is the moment the hat is placed on the stage, which creates a feeling of anticipation on the part of the audience. To me, the hat is a magical object - it gives me the power to tell the story of the dance and dancers that are to follow. I pick up the hat and proceed, using the words of the music, to narrate the story. In less than 30 seconds the story draws to a close and I pass the magic over to the other dancers. Then they take over. It's complete.

That is all my little interpretation of it as the dancer of the piece. Really, the inspiration comes from Gabriel [Romero], who choreographed the piece. As far as what the inspiration is - that is something only the choreographer knows. Gabriel always choreographs directly from the music.

Technically, you could say that he translates the music into dance. He has built his own vocabulary of salsa dance that is complemented by his study of Afro-Cuban, jazz, and Horton technique. In this section of the music he envisioned a solo piece that used the strength and limitless shapes of modern dance, the precision and musicality of jazz, and the grace and classic quality of Fred Astaire. What resulted is balanced fusion of these styles.

You were almost brand new to Salsa before joining Mambo Romero. How much dance experience in other dance forms did you bring to the troupe? Did you study dance formally?
I've studied dance since I was 3 years old - ballet, tap, jazz, etc. My training was poor, but it lasted for many years and consequently gave me a lot of familiarity with the format of dance classes and the learning of new choreography. I quit dancing ballet in high school to play sports. When I went to UC Berkeley, I danced with Danceworx and Theater Rice (jazz, hip-hop, and modern).

However, my real dance training started with the Dance Department at UC Berkeley, where I studied Martha Graham technique with Marni Wood and Christopher Dolder. During that period I actually began to identify as a dancer for life. I learned dance etiquette and mental and physical discipline. I learned to respect dance as a higher art form. I fell in love with dance. I did a summer intensive and a school semester at the Alvin Ailey academy in New York and I was a finalist for a Coca-Cola scholarship at the Graham school. Eventually, however, I realized I did not like doing only modern dancing all the time and I dropped out.

Afterward, I began seriously studying yoga. To this day I think it is the single best thing I have ever discovered and I encourage others to study it seriously (can I plug Tim Thompson's Monkey Yoga Shala in Oakland and Rodney Yee in Piedmont?). My study of yoga has been a study in strength, maturity, and lightness that has really improved my dancing.

Our troupe now incorporates a lot of yoga, jazz, modern, and ballet technique into our rehearsal warmups. Some of our troupe members practice yoga. Our group is just incredibly hard-working and open-minded to new ways of moving because each person in the group wants to be the best dancer they can be. I am happy to contribute my knowledge to the group - they are the best people I have ever spent time with.

What strikes you most about the Salsa scene in San Francisco, generally? How does it compare to New York City, where you have lived before?

Well, I can't really speak about the whole San Francisco or New York scene. For instance, I know that there is a lot more to the whole San Francisco scene that I don't routinely see, like people who are dancing rueda or more Cuban-style salsa.

In my experience, though, I would say that there are just a lot more Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in the New York scene where I was first exposed to mambo. Because of that, and because of the intensely urban environment in New York City, New Yorkers dance with a harder energy and a lot more street flavor and Latin flavor than people in San Francisco. The partnering also is usually a little smaller and tighter.

Also, New York City definitely has the advantage over San Francisco in terms of resources: The best salsa bands and established salsa dance companies have been regular fixtures for a long time in New York. The scene is a lot larger and probably more competitive.

I would describe the Bay Area salsa scene as very quality and perhaps more contemporary than the New York scene. Some reasons: In the Bay Area salsa scene, I see a lot of racial diversity - I also see a lot of salsa dancers who have other interests and careers. I think it comes from the Bay Area environment, which is defined by the coexistence and constant development of modern subcultures (hippie culture, yuppie culture, Pacific Rim culture, technology culture, etc.). The Bay Area scene is constantly growing and changing with this modern flavor, and the changing, as opposed to the competition, is what makes the San Francisco style. Being relative newcomers on the international salsa scene, San Francisco dancers can also be more experimental and creative in their dancing and choreography. I think that Mambo Romero - its dancers and its choreography - for example, is very Bay Area.

Any impressions on the emergence of "On2" Mambo in the Bay Area?
All I can say is that it's fantastic because I love dancing mambo. The more people learning it, the better. There are certainly a lot more people learning, and a lot more instructors teaching, than when I moved back to the Bay Area in February 2001. Before I moved back to the Bay, I emailed a bunch of salsa instructors and heard back from Ava [Apple] that Gabriel was the only person teaching "On2" classes (this is back in February 2001). I remember later that month I went to Cafe Cocomo for the first time - the only "On2" dancers I saw were Gabriel and Pantea in a little corner.

Now Ava, Gil & Naomi, and other instructors teach "On2" - it's really great. I see members of all the different dance troupes dancing "On2". New York instructors are coming more often to impart their "On2" knowledge. "On2" dancing is in the choreography of the dance troupes. I'm really happy to see that people appreciate it.

The growth of the "On2" community has also come with a lot of controversy created over what is said to be a divide between "On2" dancers and other dancers. In my opinion, no animosity exists among the dancers over different dancing styles. If you get to know the dancers, you'd find that we all dance with one another, we respect one another, and we are friendly and supportive to one another. I feel that it's important for people to know that the San Francisco salsa scene is really very friendly and exciting, and that the bogus gossip is simply part and parcel of the scene's constant growth and change.

I was sad to learn that you were leaving San Francisco (and Mambo Romero). Where are you going and what are you going to pursue?

I'll be moving to Philadelphia to be a first-year law student at the University of Pennsylvania. I have no idea what kind of lawyer I'm going to be but I have interests in city planning and entertainment law. I hope to keep dancing, though! More education in ballroom dancing, maybe.

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