Spending a quiet evening at Aroma Bakery & Cafe in Encino, I had the pleasure of spending some quality time with Mike Ticas and Christina Haggerty as they were returning from another exhaustive rehearsal. Eagerly awaiting our food, the dynamic duo also known in the dance community as Mike & Christina chit chatted a bit about the upcoming Los Angeles Salsa Congress, one of the biggest and originally the first salsa conventions in the country. They regularly attend the event every year performing and teaching the workshops that normally accompany the convention. Thousands attend and many look forward to their particular classes. Previous students have often commented on their genuinely friendly demeanor and outgoing personalities which often invites guests to return. In fact, the couple at one point was nominated and won a Golden Salsa Award for Favorite Salsa Instructors in 2011. For nearly a decade, the happily married couple have dominated the salsa scene in the San Fernando Valley holding workshops, coordinating salsa cruises and special events, participating in community-oriented events like the recently held 4th Annual Dancing with The Foster Care Stars benefit, competing in dance competitions, and managing a performance team while running not only 1 but 2 dance clubs in the City of Burbank—Olivia’s Restaurant on Thursday nights (which also received a Golden Salsa Award in 2012 for Favorite Salsa/Bachata Club) and Gaucho Grill on Saturday nights. They hold private classes and performed on stage as well as on TV and film. Their influence on the LA Salsa scene is undisputed with friends, promoters, and live bands from all over looking forward to work and party with them. Despite their growing success and endless creative acumen, they remain humble and grounded always looking for the next party to host or the next adventure to engage.
Having met on the performance team, Salsa in the Mix, and spent a couple of years working together in the professional entertainment company, Sunflower Dancers, the two fell in love and married soon thereafter starting not only a beautiful life together but also establishing a successful career in dance as a professional dance duo. Incorporating a blend of jazz, tango, Cuban-style salsa, belly dance, ballroom, and a hip hop flavor to their salsa, bachata, and cha cha cha steps, the duo have created a style emblematic of their engaging personalities and eclectic repertoire. Music has been a part of their lives since childhood with large families exposing them to a myriad of classics and modern genres. The range of musical influences span from the classics in Latin music to the more modern styles in R&B, hip hop, funk and classic rock. No formal training had yet started for the duo when they were growing up. It was only the love and joy of the music that kept them dancing.
“I grew up with all different types of music, because I grew up with the music that my parents loved. And then, I have 3 siblings, and they’re all older than me. Each of them had their generation, so to speak, of music. So, I grew up with a lot of different types of music. My family just loved dancing. We didn’t take any classes. We didn’t train in anything, but we really enjoyed dancing. For most every holiday, that would be the one thing we would always do. When it was Christmas or Easter, it doesn’t matter, when we were done with all the festivities, we would always turn the music on and dance in our living room.
“In every Latin household, there was always music going on. There was a lot of salsa back in the day when I was a little kid. I might’ve stopped for a bit, but I started it up again when I came [to the US]. I just started going out [dancing] as a hobby at first, then it turned into a more serious career. Everything started just having fun and stuff. It’s still a lot of fun.”—Mike Ticas.
The fun and enjoyment continued undoubtedly as their passion matured and their seemingly individual paths began to intertwine as each took to the professional circuit joining prestigious dance troupes like Salsabor y Cache, Salsa in the Mix, and Sunflower Dancers where each dance routine became an entire stage production in of themselves. Routines lasted up to 5 minutes requiring 4-6 hour rehearsals for 3-4 days a week. Elaborate themes usually accompanied the dances which ranged from zoot suit to Cuban and even a Vogue-inspired theme. Christina remembered a production from another dance troupe of the same era, Tropical Gem, that had performed a Martian theme which really impressed her. “They actually took you on a journey. It was pretty cool. You felt like you actually saw them flying and landing and they came out as Martians. It was pretty good.” Overall, it was an era of creative exploration which they incorporated in their own performances highlighting the quality of their shows and virtuosity. It is that caliber of showmanship that resonates with audiences which has kept their names at the forefront of the LA Salsa scene for nearly a decade and the momentum has not slowed down for this power couple as the year continues to unfold. It is the love and passion for the music that keeps them going which has bound them together. It is love and salsa.
Mike & Christina
James Daza: How long have you been dancing?
Christina Haggerty: I’ve been dancing…I would say most of my life but I didn’t actually start any classes or training until I was in college. Grade school and high school, I danced hip hop for fun, then I joined a hip hop team and started performing and quickly dancing professionally. It was then in college when I took my first of many classes.in jazz and ballet, AND salsa as well. Then, I came to LA, in 2000, salsa took over.
Mike Ticas: I’ve been dancing salsa for a while. I think for a little over 20 years, and everything started here in LA. I didn’t have a background in dance, but I started dancing salsa here.
JD: How did you two meet?
CH: We met in Salsa in the Mix in the year 2000 a group created by Kirsten Miller with some friends. So, we danced together for a number of years in that and later, in Sunflower Dancers, the professional entertainment company as well. The relationship started after 3 years of friendship.
JD: What was it like performing in Salsa in the Mix?
MT: It was like dancing (chuckles). It was fun. We just started meeting up learning choreographies, and start performing. Then we started traveling. So, everything kind of kept moving on from there. The practices there were about between 4 and 6 hours. That’s when the LA dance teams really practice a lot, a lot, a lot. Some of the teams still do, but it just takes a lot you know to get a routine together and all the details that go in to make the routine look good.
CH: The routines were 5 minutes long back then. They had themes and a lot more thought process went into each one. It wasn’t just dancing. It was a whole, almost a 5-minute production.
JD: How did Olivia’s come about?
MT: Olivia’s came from one of our friends that knew the owner of the place. They wanted to start a night for salsa dancing. So, they asked us to go and teach at Olivia’s. From there on, it just…we were able to actually switch from one owner to the other one and continue the night.
JD: Was Olivia’s under a different name when you started?
MT: Yes. It was Cafe Silhouette back in ’07, ’06, …something like that. And then when the new owner came, they changed it to Olivia’s. So, we just named the night Olivia’s…Olivia’s (chuckles).
JD: When you first started, it was under Silhouette’s. If I remember correctly, you already had a following, but when it changed management, did you have to start over?
CH: Yeah. We had it under Cafe Silhouette’s for 3-4, maybe 5 years. And they completely shut down. When they shut down, they sold it to a new owner, and we thought our night was done. It was like, “Ok. It’s over.” Then, when the new owner opened up, one of our students who lived in Burbank, passed by the place. He reached out to us and said, “Hey. By the way, they reopened again. Maybe, you should go talk to them and see. The place is empty. Maybe they wouldn’t mind a salsa night to bring patrons into their restaurant. And that’s exactly what we did. We contacted the new owner. We had a meeting and we started a night there again. It’s interesting. It was like starting over. It was only 6 months that the night had closed but you know all dancers go in all different ways and they find new places.
JD: Now, Olivia’s has become a reliable Thursday night spot in the San Fernando Valley over the years. Despite new venues opening up in the surrounding area, Olivia’s still remains strong. How would you explain Olivia’s longevity? What made it a success for so long?
MT: We cannot actually release this information. (Everyone laughs). It’s a secret. Nah! It’s just…I don’t know. People like us. I guess. (chuckles). Well, it’s hard work to keep up something for so many years. It’s just that not many venues have continued for so long, but I guess we like to entertain people and people that like to be entertained come to us (chuckles).
CH: When we started the night, (I feel) we had thought about it when we met with the owner and we decided that we wanted to start a night where people could really enjoy themselves. ANYBODY could come and enjoy themselves and dance whether they’re beginning, intermediate, or an advanced dancer. Girls sometimes dance with girls, or guys dance with guys. It’s kind of an “anything goes” atmosphere where people feel comfortable to be themselves and enjoy themselves. I believe we really reached that goal, and I’m pretty proud of that. I do think that’s been a staying power that created that sense of community. People always come back.
JD: Would you say that sense of community identifies the ambiance of Olivia’s? Would that be the one defining characteristic of Olivia’s that would distinguish it from other clubs?
CH: Yes. I’ve had patrons, guests come and maybe it’s their first or second night ever going there. They’ve told me it’s one of the friendliest places that they’ve been to. So, we’re really happy about that. I’m also really proud of the fact that we’ve not only created a nice community there, but we’re actually keeping the music alive in Los Angeles because we’ve been able to grow the night and support hiring live musicians and guest DJs and sometimes guest instructors along with dance performances and our staff. It’s really been rewarding in that sense as well.
JD: How would you describe your working relationship regarding choreography, teaching, and performing?
MT: Regarding teaching, we just have to adapt to what the people need. Choreography is something different. Depending on what the idea is, we try to keep it all the way through with the same routine in regards to the music, choreography, and all the styling. We just sometimes throw ideas out there, but sometimes they’re not that good, and it’s sometimes hard to take it in. So, it’s a rollercoaster (chuckles).
CH: We do work together and just as any collaboration. There are things we agree upon and things we don’t. It can be tough at times, but what I do really appreciate from Mike, my husband, is that he rises to the occasion time and time again whether it’s teaching himself different things he needs to know for like the sound for Olivia’s, or a performance that’s coming up, and he has to learn the new choreography or something really quick, or if he has to dance with the star on a set. He gets picked out of a crowd or dancing in front or center with one of the top dancers in LA for an all-star show like last year. He always rises to that occasion no matter what it is.
JD: Could you please describe your creative process when developing a routine?
CH: It’s changed. We try different things, and I have a little recipe that I like to do, but this year Mike just started a new, little recipe that we did. I tend to listen to the song. I break it down on paper. I pick out the highlight in the moments, and I choreograph those first. As things come to me, I add in an entrance; then, fill in the gaps. But he (Mike) actually likes his recipe, which was start from the beginning and go. It’s actually worked really well.
MT: Everything starts from an idea or a song you like or a song you think might be good for a routine. From there on, it’s just a matter of taking it on putting together the first moves to start the routine. Then just continue.
JD: You also have a performance team, Salsa y Mas. What was it like setting up your own team?
CH: I did have a ladies team where I worked with other ladies teams—Ladies in Red and Salsa Fina. When we decided to do a team together, we called it Salsa y Mas. Most of the time (I think), it just kind of naturally occurred. We had some students asking us; they were requesting that they wanted to do partnering. I believe that was how it started. Our students requested it of us, and we just rolled from there. Our team has been performing at the LA (Salsa) Congress for a number of years now. This year we have a special thing going on as well—a special, surprise thing coming up.
JD: If anyone was interested in joining a performance team, what would you tell them what to expect? What are the benefits of joining the team compared to taking a class?
MT: Joining a team, for anyone who wants to learn a little more on just the dancing part of it. Expect more emphasis on the details, the technique. There’s a lot more to performing on an event. Some of the people who have the teams have different ways to teach their students, but we have our own way too. We do teach a little bit more than just the dancing part because we want people to know why they’re actually doing the moves or moving a certain way in the choreography.
CH: I feel that the biggest part a lot of times is dancers see performances and if it’s a good performance, the performers make it look easy. And they often times come into a rehearsal and they don’t realize the actual work involved to each step and detail. There’s a hand movement, an arm movement, a head movement to each beat, to every beat of every song. Often times, we do feel people come in thinking it’ll be easier than it is, and they come in and don’t realize the actual work involved even in a 2 minute routine. So, That’s what I would say to expect. To expect to work hard and put some time in learning the actual technique of getting a good base, and that way from there they can go anywhere and do a lot more.
JD: You’ve also competed in many competitions over the course of your careers. Just recently this year, you had competed at the LA’s Top Social Dancer competition at the Granada where you placed in the top 5 and at the High Desert Dance Classic where you also placed 3rd. What were the competitions like when you started competing compared to today’s competitions?
CH: There used to be a competition at the Mayan and the Sportsman Lodge too. Those were 2 really big competitions- definitely worth to look forward to every year by all the dancers. The Mayan would videotape it and put it online every year. The energy was just insane. They would sell out—maximum capacity—definitely for the finals. There were at least 1200 spectators back then. Now, we’ve been working a little bit more towards competing since we kind of fell out of the competition circuit for a bit. We’ve actually been jumping back into it just these last couple of years.
JD: What kind of advice would you give new dancers who want to start competing but haven’t yet?
CH: I would say take some ballet classes or ballroom classes which would help them with a strong foundation for their feet and legs, because I did the opposite. I competed when I danced salsa, and then later I got reviewed by some of the judges and that was one thing I needed to work on the most since I came from a hip hop background. Had I taken some ballroom technique I think I would’ve done probably a little better in that respect. My advice is to compete at your level because there are competitions out there for novice/beginning…different levels. Just find them. You can message us and we’ll let you know of the ones we know of where you can compete as beginners and stay a beginner until you have mastered that process to go on to the next level.
MT: Just like what Christina said, there’s a lot of technique, a lot of energy. It’s pretty much a very big challenge to start competing depending what kind of competitions you want to go for. Though, I think in any competition, it’s just completely different than just going out there and dancing at a night club.
JD: I notice you guys travel a lot. What countries have you visited while you were working on your shows and how has traveling contributed to your success?
MT: We’ve been in many countries in Asia, Australia, Europe, Mexico, Canada, and a few others.
JD: Could you describe a trip that really excited you? Which one was the most memorable?
MT: I think all the trips have their own excitement. Most memorable? I think one time we got stuck in Thailand. We got stuck. There were some political rallies going on. They shut down the airport for a number of days. We had to stay there and “sacrifice”; we went to an island (chuckles). And just continue the vacation.
CH: Yeah. That was definitely the most memorable because it actually forced us to take a mini-vacation. So, the airport got shut down, and at first it was a little scary because we had to get online and we spent a couple days to just getting online to take care of business making sure that our classes were covered. Making sure that our jobs knew we weren’t going to show up and letting our families know that we were fine. Then, there happened to be a wedding for a couple salsa dancers so we got to experience that – it was Chinese and Thai. That was wonderful. So, we traveled for that to a beautiful part of Thailand. Then, we knew that it was not going to be settled for a couple of days; so, we jumped on a bus and we actually went to Koh Samet—one of the nearby islands, we just had a wonderful time. What was so memorable about it was that it was not expected. It was not planned, but we definitely made the best of it….. Our second one I would say would be Boracay. It was again, after all our responsibilities were done, we were in the Philippines and went to the island of Boracay. Again, we had a beautiful time there. Other dancers came over, and we just enjoyed it.
JD: These next couple of questions refers to when you guys first started to dance in the scene. What was the scene like when you were learning to dance seriously in LA?
CH: The scene was so vibrant that that was what attracted me to move here. I moved from Seattle. I recall my sister had already lived in Los Angeles, and I came to visit her for a number of times–each time with a different friend. One time we went, and I checked out the hip hop scene. Another time (with another friend), we checked out another scene. It was maybe the third or fourth visit that I was visiting my sister, that I came with my salsa friends. We went to Hollywood Park Casino. There was actually a competition going on. I saw some of the competitors there and I was like, “I’m going to do that. That’s what I’m going to do.” That’s when I made up my mind that I was going to move to LA. It was specifically to dance salsa. To teach. To perform. To compete. It wasn’t just the dancers that inspired me. It wasn’t just the ones that were competing. It was the vibrancy of the entire salsa scene. The energy was indescribable. When I did move out here, the dancers (whether they had full-time jobs or not)…I didn’t. I just moved here…We were going out 5-6 nights a week and maintaining work and jobs and all that. So, every night would end with, “Where are we going tomorrow?” We end making plans for the next night and the next night. It was pretty unique, one of a kind I would say.
MT: Yeah. The scene was…since you know….There weren’t as many clubs as today. People would see each other a good 3-4 times a week. So, once you start seeing each other, you start saying, “Hey! What’s up?” You know. You start meeting people. Then they start moving spreading the word where is the next place to go like what Christina was saying. It was different. It was smaller but more tight.
JD: Could you describe your first experience social dancing in the salsa scene? What was it like?
MT: I would if I remembered. (Everyone laughs)
CH: My first experience dancing salsa was actually in Seattle. I had taken some classes at the University of Washington. I had a couple of girlfriends, One was Puerto Rican and the other one wanted to go out dancing salsa. I went out with them. It was very, very interesting. I felt like going into an entire different reality. It felt like something I’ve never done before. I think what I liked the most was the vibrancy of the music. The music was definitely multi-faceted. In Seattle, I liked that the scene was very mixed culturally. I mean the salsa scene there was not that big enough to have a separate Cuban scene, a separate ballroom scene, a separate Puerto Rican scene, a separate Colombian scene kind of like LA. They all had to be in the same clubs. So, it was definitely very multicultural as well. All the different styles were in one. Even the ballroom dancers came to the same spot. It was pretty fun. It was interesting. I have to say though. I wasn’t hooked right away with the Seattle scene. It took me awhile until I became a little bit better that I actually started enjoying it more.
JD: What are your thoughts on the scene now? What has changed? What would you like to see now in the scene?
CH: I mean one of the biggest changes…I mean we saw a lot of changes…In the time that I’ve been here, what was really wonderful was watching people that we knew that were our friends rise to stardom so to speak. Even ourselves at a certain level. You know being able to travel, teach, and achieve some dreams. That’s been a wonderful thing to see here, and we still continue to see it. On another level, bachata has been around forever and ever, but it has definitely grown to say the least. One of the biggest changes (however), I think, is the rehearsal and preparation time for performance teams. The teams that used to perform back in 2000…I was in 2 different teams, and we would practice at least 4 hours for maybe 3-4 days a week. I know on the weekends, I would go from one practice for 4 hours to the next practice for another 4 hours. So I would dance 8 hours in rehearsal, and then I would go out dancing at night. It was pretty insane. The amount of dancing that we would do at that time. I think that is definitely the biggest change because…I know for sure if we required our team to practice for 4 hours 3-4 days a week, there would only be 1 person that would go for it, and her initials are….Lupita (laughing).
JD: Who were your inspirations in terms of dancing?
CH: Aside from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? I had many influences growing up but the Iconic ones are Michael Jackson, RIP, Janet Jackson, Prince and Madonna. In the salsa scene, it would be a big list going back. I was inspired by Rogelio Moreno of Salsabor y Cache. He was one of my main instructors when I first moved to Los Angeles for 3 years. Kirsten Miller. She started Salsa in the Mix. There’s probably a big long list of instructors and dancers who have…you know…I just watch them create a life for themselves. Alyra Lennox moved to Italy and did very well with Tropical Gem. It’s one of the top dance teams in the world. And all the dancers from…I have to say from Salsa Brava, Los Rumberos, Salsabor y Cache, Salsa in the Mix, and Rock with You Tour. All those dancers now…you look at them now, and most of them, a lot of them have dance teams. Some of them have families and retired and moved on in their lives, but a lot of them have done really well in all areas of life.
JD: What other projects do you guys have in the works right now?
MT: We just started a new venue, GGs or Gaucho Grill in Burbank. That’s another project that’s taking a lot of our time, but we enjoy what we do. It’s funny; it’s very close to Olivia’s. Literally, it’s a block away. We got the LA Congress, Catalina Island, and Cuba. The Cuba trip is this dance trip for 10 days.
CH: Yeah, we like to do new things all the time. For the first time ever at the LA Congress, there’s going to be a surprise performance going on. We’re bringing the instructors and students together to perform in a Flash Mob. We can’t talk too much about it cause it’s still a little under wraps, but it’s definitely going to happen at the LA Congress.
JD: What motivates you now in terms of dance? What keeps you going?
MT: Right now, for what we have…I enjoy seeing people laugh and dance. I love the music. I think that’s what keeps me going. It’s the music—the love for the music and the whole enjoyment of the people.
JD: In terms of music, is there a particular group, bands, singer that you really enjoy listening to—classics or modern? Artists?
CH: There are a lot of musicians that have inspired us from Eddie Palmeri, El Gran Combo to El Canario—people who I have actually seen and been in a room with. Of course, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, FANIA All-Stars are the biggies. You could just go on and on about musically what has inspired us.
MT: It’s a long list for the artists and the music. I don’t have a favorite. I might have one or two that I like more but in general each of the artists has their own style. It depends on how you’re feeling. That’s what’s going to make you feel better. So, you can play a song. It might not be the one you like, but you can play different artists, and you feel more connected depending on how you’re feeling.
Feeling the music and connecting to the rhythms of the orchestras encompasses the overarching dance philosophy of Mike and Christina. They could take a song and break it down to their individual beats knowing when the breaks will hit and how the beats will change. It’s an uncanny gift that they readily share with their students and friends whenever possible. The joy of the music can always be seen on their faces when the sounds of the congas or the trance-like state generated from the beating of the clave sticks echo throughout the room. Their chemistry together both as a couple and a professional dance team invites all around them to join in the festivities and feel care-free as the infectious beats of the music takes them for an exciting, enjoyable adventure. It is an adventure that they happily welcome anyone to embark whether sitting at a desk or lounging on a park-side bench because life is too short to not take the time to enjoy it even for a bit. If you would like to contact them, they can be reached on Facebook and at www.salsaymas.net . Look them up at Olivia’s Restaurant on Thursday nights at 245 E. Olive Ave, Burbank, CA. 91502 or at Gaucho Grill on Saturday nights at 269 E. Palm Ave, Burbank, CA. 91502.