Dancing is a feeling, a non-verbal language, an emotion, an experience, a connection, a conversation, a whisper, a scream, where you can have all the freedom or the constraint you want. We tell stories when we dance, and it’s up to us what type of story we tell.
My name is Cristina Pujol Jensen and I am currently a Leadership Coach, Speaker, Author, and Dance Instructor, and I used to be a full-time Software Engineer. After working with the mind for many years, and then with the body for another number of years, I decided to integrate all my experience and knowledge to remind people of their own strengths and inner power, and help them through my coaching, training, dancing, and events to bring out their best version of themselves and create the life they want.
I was born in Malaga, Spain, to a Spanish father and Danish mother, and I lived there until I was 18. I decided to study Computer Science – at the time, only 3 places in Spain had an engineering degree, so I moved to Barcelona to study at the UPC (Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña). When I finished my degree, I was offered an assistant professor and research position, so I decided to stay working at the university for 3 years until I moved to the USA, where I lived for 15 years.
I first moved to Boulder in Colorado – even though I was offered the opportunity to do a PHD, I wanted to get outside of the University bubble into the “real” world and was very fortunate to end up being hired as a Software Engineer by an amazing company called Qualcomm. There I stayed for 3 years until I moved to Boston. In Boston, I continued to work as an Engineer for 6 more years, then I focused for a while only on Dancing. I then went back to both with a position in a project at the MIT University, until I moved back to Spain 10 years ago.
Outside of my job, I love dancing. I became interested in Dancing while in university – my first 2 years at the university were completely devoted to studying; in my third year, I decided I needed some activity aside from computers. As a kid, I did some years of ballet; in our school, we had some dance classes related to our cultural traditions. So, a big group of us at university (around 30 students) decided to sign up for fun, informal ballroom lessons, and we had a blast. So, I decided (with a group of 6) to take it more seriously and take Ballroom classes. We had fun, I competed with my dance partner, and we won first position for our level, but it was way too restrictive to my taste. I discovered, at the same time, Latino dancing and felt in love with it. So I spend my free time researching Latino dances (at the time, there was not much in Barcelona, where I lived). After 9 years in Barcelona, where I had finished my degree and had worked for 3 years, I moved to Boulder, Colorado (USA), and made the commitment to learn from any Latino/Latina that I would encounter. It happened that as soon as I arrived in Boulder, I met this wonderful Guatemalan woman, Carmen Nelson, who was a Latino Dance Instructor. We became friends and I joined all her classes and her performance group.
As I am from the South of Spain, I dance something called Sevillanas – I still can’t understand how Carmen persuaded me to teach that dance. At the time, my identity was tied to BEING an engineer, so to be asked to teach dancing was not in my goals or aspirations. But she was quite persuasive and managed to get me to rent a space, make a flyer, and start advertising Sevillanas classes (while I was working full-time in a very demanding Software Engineer position at Qualcomm). I started with one class, then two, then three, then kids during lunchtime, performing with the Latino group and creating a performance group with adults and another one with kids.
I really enjoyed seeing students progress, evolve as human beings, children grow and overcome challenges, adults overcome even childhood traumas. It was a beautiful experience and I learned a lot from it. After 3 years of this, I decided that I knew lots of Latino dance steps, but nothing about the culture, so I decided to move for a short time (6 months) to Latino America to understand more about the culture and how dance was an integral part of their daily life. I lived for 5 months in Costa Rica, as I knew many dancers there, and 5 weeks in Cuba, where their music and dance are extremely rich. Those where two amazing life experiences, where I met famous and talented musicians and dancers, and, by chance, landed in a documentary (the little sister of Buena Vista Social Club – here is a small sample of that documentary from 1998: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mgn-FcHla0I).
Even though I started teaching Sevillanas in Boulder, Colorado (and created a whole culture in that little town), I focused on Latino Dances after that: Salsa, Bachata, Bolero, Cumbia, Bolero Son, and Merengue. More recently, I started teaching Kizomba and Semba, originally from the PALOP countries in Africa. With my partner, Seemore Johnson, we have also created our own version of some dances (like Rueda de Bachata), and we have been very fortunate to have been hired to teach and perform in more than 23 countries all over the world.
I love to teach dancing because it is an amazing tool for personal growth and self-expression – there are things you can’t express with words the same way you can with dancing, and it is amazing for connecting with other human beings. It is a language that speaks with no spoken words, but with the body, the movements, the intention, the created or the missing connection, the energy that both carry, and the sharing of it all. What I admire the most as the teacher is when a dancer really interprets the music and composes with his/her body.
My favorite dance is Bolero, which comes from Costa Rica. The best way to perform Bolero is when it is improvised. I perform for an audience, but at the same time, as a follower, I immerse myself and become one with my partner – for 4 minutes, I forget about the whole world. It is a dance where I feel like I’m floating, flying over the dance floor, and being one with my partner.
My enterprise Hips On Fire was founded by me and my partner in dance and in life, Seemore Johnson, with the commitment to share, teach, preserve Real Latino dances, and also incorporating African partner dancing. We wanted to keep the essence of what street dancing really is and make it fun and accessible for everyone, as well as showing the diversity and richness of the Latino and African dances.
We teach 12 different Latino Rhythms (Salsa, Bachata, Bolero, Bolero Son, Cumbia, Son, Samba, Merengue, Soca, Regueaton, Bolero Pirateado, etc.), plus Kizomba, Semba, and some Afro Urban dances. Besides teaching regularly to groups, we provide private classes, events, prepare for the wedding dances, teach and perform at Dance Congresses all over the world, and teach other instructors on how to teach. In our coaching and events, we also use dancing as a tool to explore, connect, heal, and potentiate different aspects of each person.
To be a good dance instructor and to be a good dancer are 2 different skills. Because dancing is so visual, people confuse seeing a good dancer with that same person being a good teacher, but they are different skills that need to be developed separately. To be a good dance instructor, there are several qualities you need:
- Knowing the dance that you want to share: the history of it and the culture behind it, which I think is as important as knowing the steps. If a dance was born in a culture, knowing about that culture, its people and history, will make you understand it better and teach it better.
- Understanding how to create the moves with the quality of that particular dance. If you dance different dances with the same quality of movement, it’s all going to look the same, and it’s all just going to be a bunch of steps.
- Being able to deconstruct the dance to be able to teach it.
- Understanding the different ways that people learn: there are no bad students or students with 2 left feet; there are only bad instructors – that’s my belief. As an instructor, you need to work on the craft of teaching, and always look for a different way of teaching for those students that you think “aren’t getting it” or have 2 left feet. They just learn differently, and it’s the job of an instructor to find a way for that student to learn. The student’s job is to practice, not to deconstruct what the teacher is doing.
I do see similarities between my time as a Dance Instructor and my previous experience as a software engineer. I went from an environment predominantly with men to one with mostly women – from a more rational, logical type of work, to a more emotional type of environment. There was a huge shift in learning for me, especially at the human level, but I brought along the problem-solving skills developed at my Computer Engineer career. Everything is a process, everything has a beginning, everything has a learning curve to be experienced, everything can be learned; the time and energy may vary, but it can be learned. That is my belief: everything can be improved and changed. Keeping the growth mindset in dancing and engineering is something I have always strived for.
There is an exchange of skills between my dancing and engineering careers. During my years of studying Computer Science, the growth mindset was implanted in me. We tackled problems with tools that we didn’t even know, languages that were being developed, hardware that was completely new, and concepts that were created as we worked. The notion was always on how to solve this? How to chunk it down, how to make it easier? I transferred this mindset to the Dancing world and to my life in general. And some of the social skills that you learn in dancing, I transferred to help some shy and introverted colleagues in the engineering world.
Funnily enough, when I first moved to Boston, I taught dancing before working again as a Software Engineer. I got hired there by one of my dancing students. The interview was quite weird for both of us, as my introverted and shy student happened to be one of the leaders at a software company; when we met to have an interview, we were both laughing at the situation. And even though I wasn’t really looking for a job, I got the job and had a blast with this company, as a bunch of them were my students too! This person ended up being my boss during day time, and I was his boss in the dance classes at night.
My advice to anyone interested in being a dance instructor is that this is a privileged position that carries great responsibility. It is important to learn the dance you want to teach, with all the history and culture behind it, but also to learn the craft of teaching. Having people follow you doing the steps that you know how to do well is not teaching. Bringing the best out of everyone in your class, making them fall in love with the dance (or at least like it for those partners that are dragged to a dance class), helping them achieve their goal of moving their body with grace, finding ways to explain and correct movements, making the students discover that they can do more than they ever thought possible. THAT is how to teach dancing.
There is always more than tech. I find that we link the word “creativity” too often to arts, music, dance, painting, etc., yet creativity is needed in any type of engineering. The more you can bring all the parts of your brain (your analytical mind and your creative mind) to anything that you do, the more you can open your world and produce amazing results. So experiencing different worlds will open your mind and soul in anything that you do.
On another note, our cultures shape a lot of our thinking, so we have to put conscious effort into deciding which part of those cultural learnings we want to keep, and which ones we want to ditch. Many people find themselves chasing a dream, just to discover later that it was not their dream. By sharing these stories of Engineers with other passions, it can help to open the minds of many people that didn’t think that some of these combinations where possible, that following just one path is not the only way – it can bring to light the amazing hidden gifts that some engineers and techies have.
All photos are owned by respective copyright holders. Below are some link if you wish to read more about Cristina or join Hips on Fire:
Cristina’s website: www.tuytumente.com
Cristina’s Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.com/author/cristinapujol
Hips On Fire Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/HipsOnFireDance/
Cristina Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/cpujoljensen
Cristina LinkedIn Page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cpujoljensen/