Walk by the Belltown Dance Studio on Sunday night and you’ll hear the distinct Latin beat of salsa music. But look inside and you won’t see a Latino instructor, you’ll see Jim Chow, a Chinese immigrant, leading the crowd.
It’s been fifteen years since Chow entered his first ballroom, but he still remembers it well.
“A friend told me that Century Ballroom offers an intro lesson of salsa,” he said. “Just out of curiosity, I went over there and checked it out. And it was love at first sight, you know?”
He was hooked. Chow began working at the Century Ballroom as a bouncer and taking classes there. He even took lessons multiple times a day, jumping from studio to studio. He couldn’t get enough, and within just a couple years, he was a teacher himself.
But salsa wasn’t Chow’s original career path—he came from San Francisco to work as an illustrator in Seattle. He quickly dropped all other jobs and interests, including bodybuilding, and began pursuing salsa full time.
By then the dance had become all-consuming, but of course, Chow has faced challenges along the way. Teaching a Latin dance but not being Latino himself has caused tension for Chow.
“I could be wrong, but not being Latin, or nowhere near, and teaching salsa is kind of not very appreciated,” he said. “I find the Latin culture don’t really like an Asian guy teaching salsa. It’s always been that way…I’m not going to let that stop me from what I want to do, or what makes me happy.”
Jim’s dance partner Christy Nowicki said that there are not many Central and South American students that take classes from them. But, she says, that’s probably more a result of his technical approach to teaching than of Chow’s ethnicity. But his presence is often seen as unusual.
Recently a Colombian man came to the studio and was surprised to learn that Nowicki, an American from Chicago, taught salsa, and even more surprised to find out that Chow is the studio’s owner.
“It was surprised reaction,” said Nowicki. “And then at the end of the night he took a [class] schedule and we talked about him taking classes throughout the night, and I saw him chatting with Jim … So for him personally he didn’t seem to be turned off by it.”
Dakshina T. Maratt is a current salsa student, and said that Chow’s ethnicity didn’t play a role in deciding to take his classes.
“It doesn’t matter. And when he dances, I don’t think any nationality [matters], he’s dancing true to the style of salsa,” she said. “I don’t think being an Asian or otherwise matters because it looks like he knows what he’s doing.”
Chow hasn’t been to Latin America, but he doesn’t feel that is an important detail to his dancing, especially as salsa is a fusion from different cultures. His passion and dedication are apparent, and he thinks more connection among the studios would positively contribute to the salsa community than anything else.
“I wish the salsa scene was a lot more, in Seattle anyway, more welcoming or more cohesive among the studios and working together. It’s very competitive,” he said “Over here it’s a security thing.”
He does what he loves, and unlike most teachers, gets outside his studio for social dancing.
“It’s not like it’s the same 20 moves or 30 moves, it’s endless to me,” he said. “I also love [social] dancing. You see a lot of instructors they don’t go out there and dance. They’d be happy to stay in their studio and do their thing. They see me out [and say] ‘Jim, you’re out all the time, what the heck? Why don’t you take a break?’ and I say ‘no, I love it.’”
He’s 15 years in, but doesn’t show signs of stopping. In fact, he’s taken up another dance—Argentine tango. From a teaching lessons in church gyms to having his own studio, Chow has become a major face of salsa in Seattle, even if he doesn’t look like it. He is optimistic about his future, and the dancing keeps him going.
“Passion will do things to you,” he said. “But I enjoy every day coming to work—it’s very rewarding seeing new students learn and smiles on their face.”
Where to Salsa in Seattle:
Valentine’s Day—SalsaNSeattle; 8:30-11:30. $35 per couple for pre-dance class and social. Register online »
Tuesdays 7:30–11; $7; Century Ballroom
Thursdays 9pm intro lesson; 9:30–1:15am dance; $8; Century Ballroom (21+)
Fridays 10:15–3am; $5; Salsa con Todo
Fridays 8:30 intro lesson; 9:30–12:30 dance; intro lesson and dance $15; dance only $10
Saturdays 9pm; $10; ladies free before 10:30; China Harbor (21+)
Saturdays 8:30 intro lesson; 9:30–1:30am dance; intro lesson and dance $15; dance only $10
More weekly sala events: http://www.salsacontodo.com/seattle.php