Paula Daal-Doño: Argentine flare, St. Maarten heart

POSTED: 09/14/14 11:41 PM

St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – She is lively, and her eyes gleam with pure optimism, yet they bear the inexplicable glaze of one who has travelled much in life, and of one who is still continuing on the journey. Dancer and entrepreneur Paula Daal-Doño sits down to talk about her passion for the art, her travels throughout the world, and how she made a life in St. Maarten, eventually marrying a local man and raising a family here. She is the founder of Voodoo Dancers, her dance group.

Daal-Doño recently got back from being a judge in the largest Salsa competition in the world held annually in Puerto Rico, the World Salsa Open, which airs on ESPN. It is the pinnacle for those passionate about the art form, something of which she is exceedingly proud.

Our conversation takes her back to the land of her birth, the South American country of Argentina, thousands of miles away from this small and relatively obscure Caribbean island. “I’m from Argentina,” she says proudly. “I started dancing when I was 4 or 5 years old. My parents love music.” It was they, in fact, who introduced their young daughter to the world of sound and rhythm. Their tastes were wide ranging and eclectic, with a heavy dose of Rock n Roll, she recalls fondly.

From her grandfather she got a taste of the classical. “My grandfather used to listen to opera and classical. And I loved it!” she says enthusiastically. It made him happy, she said, that she liked the old stuff. He used to play it for her on an old gramophone player, the kind that no longer exists save for antique shops.

She grew up outside the capital city of Buenos Aires. When everyone saw that she wouldn’t stop dancing, they started looking for dance school to enroll her in. They eventually placed her in a ballet school.

Daal-Doño is a formally trained classical ballet dancer, with a background in the history of art, make up, props, in a word, all that there is to know about music and dance production. She recalls those exhausting days of her youth, waking up at 4:30 in the morning to take a train into the city. And then back.

She would dance and study from 7 am to 5 pm. One of the treats of her day was to watch the orchestra rehearse in one of the biggest opera houses in all of Latin America. “I would sometimes stay to watch them rehearse; you’re dead tired,” she recalls, at times with just an apple for dinner.

But like most who grow up with a passion for the arts, her parents had doubts about it as a career. “Are you sure?” her parents would ask. “Now, when are you going to get serious?” She would plead that she loved dancing. It was her passion. “I understand, but you’re not going to eat with it,” was the hard response.

So she stopped dancing and went to university where she pursued a degree in food engineering, studying for 3 years in a career choice that required at least 7 years of some sort of schooling in the field.

But her parents were not wealthy people. So she had to pay for books, and earned money the only way she knew how, by dancing. She found a job as a salsa dancer 400 km away from the city. She would often sleep on the bus. “They paid me good, enough to survive.” But the dancing awoke her passion for it. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life in a lab, spend the rest of my life in a factory,” she said to herself. So she quit university and followed her bliss.

“That was a scandal,” she recalls vividly, once her parents found out. But she never asked them for a penny again. She was offered a chance to go to “one of the most important ballets in the world” in France through a scholarship, but couldn’t afford the plane ticket then, which cost as much as purchasing a small car as it was to fly from Buenos Aires to Paris. “Then I said ballet is finished. Ballet is for the elite, and I’m not elite.”

Through her work as a salsa dancer she met many other dancers, some from Venezuela, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. “That’s where the Caribbean comes in,” she says. “I started becoming their choreographer.” They eventually invited her to go the World Salsa Congress in Puerto Rico and she went there for the first time in 1999. “It was a whole new world,” she says happily.

Then disaster struck. Argentina fell into a terrible financial crisis. “I either sink with the crisis, or go,” she resolved. And packed her bags for the excitement of famous party island Ibiza, off the shores of southern Spain.

It was there where Daal-Doño learned English, spending two and a half years, sometimes struggling to make ends meet. “Art is survival, if you live out your art,” she says. She remembers taking risks. She would dress up in full costume and walk around the streets of Ibiza until she and her fellow dancers got a gig at a big club. “You have to look the part,” she advises would-be dancers. “I opened another door. I wanted to grow. It’s about not saying no. That’s what it is, wanting to learn.”

A remarkable turn in her life came when she got the opportunity to travel to Japan, where its people eagerly gobble up music what is exotic for them, like Salsa. She had to be approved for their famous artist’s visa, the same one that even top celebrities like Mick Jagger and Beyonce have to get too.

For Daal-Doño, the confrontation with the Far East was as much as a culture shock for her as it was for the Japanese whom she taught Salsa dancing. Her first encounter with chopsticks was daunting, she laughs. “I’m a master now. I can even catch flies,” she jokes.

She solemnly recalls visiting the haunting streets of Nagasaki, one of the cities hit by an American atomic bomb during World War II. “It’s a city with no noise. Nobody makes noises. There are water fountains everywhere,” she says. They are there symbolically, because when the bomb went off, the surface of the earth became hotter than the sun, and everything burned and people’s skin melted off. Every resident of the city must visit the museum so that no one ever forgets the horrors of war.

Remarkably, she had a friend in Ibiza on her return there who had been to St. Maarten. She chose a group of dancers, including Daal-Doño to come here for a spell. “I never left. I love it,” she says with a sigh. “I love the weather, the music. I ended up here and having two kids. Made in paradise,” she laughs.

But she wonders “why there are no local dancers here?” at least not as much as you would think, given its climate and the character of Caribbean music.

Daal-Doño operates her own dance troupe, the Voodoo Dancers, and also gives Salsa workshops. But she says things need to change for local dancers on St. Maarten, and would like to see some sort of union or association created that protects them from being exploited. “If it’s not proper conditions I don’t accept the job. I want them to respect the dancers.”

Her proudest moment came when she was selected recently as judge in the finals of World Salsa Open in Puerto Rico. She studied to become a Salsa judge and was amazed to find herself in the company of dance superstars. “There were some superstars behind me. I can’t believe this! It’s big achievement,” she says. She was selected to be among the best judges in the world, and was interviewed by ESPN. “Me? I was crying. When you least expect it of the hard work, it comes. You must work hard. I believe in hard work.”

From dreams of being dancer as a young girl in Argentina, Daal-Doño has come a long way in her journey through life. And now she loves her adopted home, hoping to assist any way she can in developing home grown talent. “I want to bring St. Maarten to the world.”

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