From Engineer to Professional Salsa Dancer
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Some of us would do the unthinkable to fulfill our dreams. Azucena Perez tells the editor of Austin's magazine "Ahora SÌ" how she did it in this interview...

Azucena's pose She fell in love with dance when she was 6, and at 10 she set foot on stage for her first performance in Reynosa, MÈxico, her city of origin. At 17, college and swimming brought her to Austin, Texas where she graduated with honors in Computer Sciences and in French while swimming at the University of Texas Women’s Swim team. She then worked as a software engineer for 7 years. But her passion for dance finally took over and she quit her engineering job to dance, perform, and teach salsa full-time.

What is your favorite dance?

In the past I’ve danced Flamenco, Ballet FolklÛrico, Modern Jazz, Hip Hop, and belly dancing. But for the past 3 years I’ve been dancing salsa, cha cha cha, and West Coast Swing; I absolutely love dancing salsa, the music is simply contagious!

How did you become a proficient salsa dancer?

In 1999, I used to go out to the salsa clubs in Austin. To be honest with you, I had no clue what salsa was, I thought it was cumbia until 2003 when I started going to a club called Miguel’s; the dancers there were really good, they were more sophisticated salsa dancers than I’d ever seen. I got immediately inspired and in 2004 I dedicated every penny I owned to learn more about salsa dance, the technique, the music, the people. I went to salsa congresses in L.A., New York, San Francisco, and Houston. In November of 2004, my boyfriend Carlos Leon and I became dance partners in earnest and performed for the first time a month later.

What motivated you to leave your software engineering job?

By mid 2005, I was spending over 20 hours a week on rehearsals, classes, salsa travels, and performances. And in May of that year my partner and I won the Texas Salsa Open in the professional category. It was in that moment that I realized I really wanted to dedicate 100% of my time to dance. And good thing I did! Since then we’ve won the Texas Salsa Open 3 more times and we placed 6th at the 2005 World Salsa Championships in Las Vegas in the on2 category. We’ve also performed in Texas, Los Angeles, Acapulco, New York, San Francisco, San Miguel de Allende, and Puerto Rico.

How did you make the decision to finally leave?

I strongly believe we are all here to make a contribution to the world by using our talents. We all have something special to give to others, a special gift that will benefit everyone around us and will enrich our soul. For seven years I worked in a field that didn’t quite allow me to contribute to my fullest as part of society. The stability and income I received didn’t quite bring me this happiness I feel every time I dance or teach dance. This is why I finally decided to do the one thing I really love, dance.

Who inspires you?

Many people have inspired me to follow my dreams, my parents mainly. Celia Cruz was one amazing woman who in spite of poverty, sexism, and in spite of the fact that she wasn’t the most attractive woman (by today’s standards), she achieved the highest level of success in her career. I was also very much inspired by Tama J. Kieves’ book "This Time I Dance! Trusting the Journey of the Creating the Work you Love". She graduated with honors from Harvard Law School and left her practice to pursue a successful writing career.

Who is your dance partner?

Carlos Leon, also a native of Mexico, and I met while working as software engineers in Austin, TX. He has been with me throughout all this transition and has supported me 200% in my decision to leave engineering. He is simply my gift sent from heaven - I’m very lucky to have him in my life and as my dance partner.

Where do you teach dance?

I teach salsa and mambo at a gorgeous dance studio in Austin called Go Dance. If you visit Austin, please do stop by!

Do you think salsa dancers are born or become great over time?

In my opinion, the large majority of the best salsa dancers have some Latin background and their knowledge of salsa music and Afro-Caribbean body movement comes from their culture. However, it is also quite common to see excellent salsa dancers coming from non-Latin backgrounds. Training offers the opportunity to become very skilled in any field. Thank God!

Your favorite salsa bands?

I like the sound of salsa dura with Jazzy undertones. From Puerto Rico bands such as el Gran Combo, Sonora Poncena, and Raphy Levitt. From New York, Spanish Harlem Orquestra, Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente (of course!), and others such as Johnny Colon, Conjunto Imagen, and Tabaco y Ron Orquestra from Los Angeles.

What is the best place to go salsa dancing in Austin?

Copa Bar & Grill on Friday nights, Dallas Club on Sundays, and the Saturday social at the Go Dance studio.

In salsa dance, does one need to be attractive?
Nothing beats talent and a professional attitude to succeed, looks come later.

Describe the ideal female salsa dancer:

For me, the ideal female salsa dancer is able to follow any lead, emanates sensuality, is very musical, spins effortlessly, and transmits rhythm through her body movement. She exhibits great control of her body and is physically in shape and not too tall.


I love doing yoga, swimming, writing in my journal, and reading about personal psychology, self-help, and spirituality. Oh, I also love watching movies with my friends while enjoying a good bottle of red wine!

What is your biggest fear?

If anything I’d fear not living my life to the fullest, not achieving my maximum potential and my biggest dreams.

What is your advice for others who are looking to change careers?

Remember that everything is possible; there are no limits except the ones we impose on ourselves. Look for the things that bring you joy and do them whenever you can. If you focus on polishing your talents, you will go very far; only the sky is the limit. The more you do what you love, the more doors will open for you so you can use that precious talent. As Tama J. Kieves, "If you’re successful doing work you don’t love, what could you do with work you do love?"


Interview by Rachel Lavin, Austin-American's Statement, April 20, 2006

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