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From Zero to Salsa World Champion in 2 Years With Kebira Khattak


Robin: So today I’m here with Kebira Khattak, is that how I say it?

Kebira: *nods*

Robin: Amazing! So, Kebira is from Vancouver, and before I went to Colombia, in like 2017, I think she wasn’t really dancing with Patrick and Scarlet yet. But when I came back, there were these two younger girls in the studio that were killing it, and Kebira was one of them with her friend Avery. So, if you don’t know already, you are in the presence of greatness. There’s a World Champion sitting beside me. And what year was that when you two won the world salsa summit?

Kebira: January of 2020… that’s right.

Robin: So there you go, she’s got a lot of experience in a very short time and works really hard, so I’m really excited to talk to you today. So, thank you for joining.

Kebira: Thank you, thank you for the opportunity.

Robin: Yeah, and we’re just out here on a lovely day and we thought we’d get Vancouver in the background to show all of you who are not from Vancouver what it looks like.

So here we go. I think the thing that surprised me the most when I came back to Vancouver is I had only been gone, I think for 2 years or something, and I came back and I was like, “Holy crap! Like, these two girls are really good.” I was like, “How did they get good so quick?”

So obviously, the Dance Dojo, we have online lessons with Patrick and Scarlet, and she’s practicing with Patrick and Scarlet, and we’ve both been lucky to learn from them. But she got good really fast.

So, I’m curious, how did you start your journey? How did you end up dancing with Patrick and Scarlet, and do you think there’s anything that helped you get to that performance and win that World Championship?

Kebira: How I started is kind of an interesting story, I guess. I didn’t know anything about the world of salsa or anything like that. I was introduced to it by a high school teacher of mine, he was my math teacher, and he really plugged, “Oh, you all come out to the salsa club Tuesdays at lunchtime or whatever it was,” and I thought, “Oh, whatever, salsa, what is that? I don’t care about it.” And then I thought, “Oh, what the heck, why not? I’ll go once.”

Then I remember just falling in love with the music, and then he knew Patrick and Scarlet from a long time ago, and then that’s when he brought them in to do some classes. I think they did like a five-week session or something, and then I met them, and I remember just seeing them and seeing how professional and knowledgeable they were about salsa and what amazing people they are, and I remember seeing a performance of theirs, and I thought, “Okay, this is it. These are the people who I want to be training under. I want to be surrounded by them. They’re amazing at what they do, both on and off stage.” And that was a moment for me where it’s like, “I have to start taking classes from them.”

Robin: I mean, I feel like we’ve both been really lucky to learn from Patrick and Scarlet. I’ve been in Colombia lately, so I haven’t got as much time in the studio with them, but now every time I come back, I try and do their classes as much as I can. So, I also come from a different background, so I guess it sounds like Kebira started with salsa, is that right?

Kebira: Yeah,

Robin: I started breakdancing actually first, and in the breakdance world, you kind of just threw yourself on the floor and tried to figure out everything by yourself, There weren’t very many mentors around. So, I’ve seen the difference when someone actually gets mentored by a good teacher that knows what they’re doing. It can either take you 5 to 10 years to figure something out or one to two, in the case of Kebira.

So, I think you’ve been very lucky to have mentors like Patrick and Scarlet, and I’m curious, like what did you feel? I mean, maybe you haven’t had the other side of having maybe a teacher that’s less experienced, but I mean, you’ve now learned from various teachers I imagine, what do you feel like that’s different about Patrick and Scarlet or the way you learned with them?

Kebira: Mhm, I think for me, the biggest difference that I feel with them, and that I think you also get to feel on Dance Dojo, which is amazing that you have them, is how passionate they are about what they do. And not only about the steps that they’re teaching but their students themselves. They really take the time to connect with you, and I remember we talked about what are my goals and my goals were performing and competing eventually and improving things like my body movement, which I think is what really helped catapult my growth, and they were invested in that. They have this knack, this ability to see potential in people and see room for that growth, and then they’ll take you there. So, I’ve been really lucky to be working with them. This is actually Kebira’s supposedly her first interview, and so I think doing great so far.

Robin: It’s also my first interview. So, if you’re expecting some Joe Rogan or Tim Ferriss level material here, it might not happen.

Kebira: Really? I didn’t know it’s your first time either.

Robin: Yeah, yeah. I don’t think I’ve interviewed someone, really.

On YouTube I usually just talk with myself, and I guess some people listen. So, it’s great.

So okay, a lot of the viewers, you guys watching, are probably new to salsa, or you’re either just super salsa nerds, and you’re all on your own journeys. So, I think one of the interesting things is when you’re speaking with someone who’s kind of got past a lot of those hurdles that we’re probably all experiencing in our own way, is asking like, what was that journey like for you? Like, what were those challenges or those roadblocks or those plateaus that you’ve hit so far in your journey? Obviously, it’s not over, and how did you kind of approach them?

Kebira: I would say, for me, the biggest plateaus, especially coming from say, the followers’ perspective, is for us, thankfully, we’re not thinking about the combos per se, or what moves have to come next and how to lead your partner through that. It’s more the responding, which is also a task in and of itself, which means that it’s a lot focused on your technique, which of course for the leaders too, but in the sense that there’s not as many moves that we have or different things or compartments that we have to focus on, so what we do have is pretty standardized.

For example, the cross body lead. We do that probably 100 million times a night. So, if you’re not super comfy in your cross body lead, it’s going to come across in other variations the leader does. Really drilling down on the technique of it sometimes, I remember getting stuck with my, what was it? Oh, double turns is a big one.

Double turns, that multiple turn technique, and hitting that plateau and going, “Okay, what is how am I like how do I get past this?” And what helped for me was focusing on less things, I would say, because we’re kind of inundated with all this information about all these different techniques and tips and everything, which is super important because they all help us to get that final product, but what are one or two things that I can focus on?

See, if you try and focus on 10 different techniques at the same time or 10 tips, no matter how amazing they are, how valuable they are, is just too much for us to take in at times. So focus on one or two, spend time working with that technique, feeling what it’s like in your body, and then when you’re ready or if that’s not working, try taking something else. And also have patience with yourself because I, I wanted to get things right away.

I mean, I still do. I’m like, “Why is it taking me so long to get this step or whatever it is?” But sometimes you just got to get that seed planted in your head even forget about it and then come back to it and then you’ll go, “Oh wow, I got it just like that.”

Robin: Absolutely, that’s such valuable advice, especially for those who are starting out or feeling frustrated with their progress. And you’ve mentioned something really important about focus and patience, and I think those are qualities that really define your journey and probably contributed to your success. So, thank you so much for sharing that insight.

Kebira: Of course. Happy to share.

Robin: So, a lot of people these days, you hit on something, is like we all want things quick and especially with all the apps, social media, we’re just used to getting whatever we want right away. Because, for example, I remember when I first started breakdancing, there was like a website, there was no images, there was no videos, we had to read like paragraphs and be like this is the name of the move and there’s just long paragraph figuring, and I imagine everybody would have interpreted that differently and tried something different.

And so we’ve come a long way in being able to get the information we want right away or seeing the world’s coolest this or that on Instagram in a second, and so we want everything quick and we expect that we can just learn things that fast and it doesn’t really happen that way.

So, if you can put the instant gratification aside and put in the work, you’ll get the results, because a lot of people aren’t willing to do that anymore.

And a question that I had for you is how much were you practicing solo versus like in a class? Like, how important is it to just take that time for you to get everything in your body to push forward?

Kebira: Um, super important I would say because again, group classes are where you’re kind of, you’re getting all that information, that technique, but depending on how slow or how fast you are at intaking that information and feeling it in your body, what works for you, it’s going to, that’s different for everyone. So, setting aside that time to integrate what you’ve learned in those group classes and even if that’s just in front of the bathroom mirror, right? Um, doing your rotations for your body movement or practicing spotting, whatever it may be, um, super duper important.

Robin: And have you always practiced like steadily or do you kind of have like a spirit of practice and you kind of chill? Like, do you have a cycle or you just kind of like going full steam all the time?

Kebira: Full steam all the way. Well, I guess when it comes to if we have a competition or something coming up, then that’s maybe more practice in a more concentrated practice, but other than that, no, just being consistent. Consistency is the key here, like keyword in bold, consistency. You heard it right here.

Robin: Even if it’s just a few minutes a day, right? Something’s as simple as a few minutes a day doing whatever drill it may be. If you’re doing that, you know, a week, that turns into two weeks, that turns into a month, a year, whatever it may be, that’s where you’re going to see the exponential growth.

There’s a lot of people that come up with excuses, especially when they’re emailing in to me about the course and asking questions about it. They’re like “I don’t have much time,” or “I don’t have a partner.”

What would you say to those people that kind of are using that as either a limiting belief or an excuse at this moment?

Kebira: Ooh, that’s a good one. Um, to that, I think it comes down to your why. Why are you wanting to learn salsa?

And it doesn’t have to be a super deep or profound reason. It can just be, “Oh, I want to connect with other people.” It can be because I want to have fun. And if that reason is strong enough for you, then you’re going to prioritize your practice and then things such as, “Oh, I don’t have a partner,” are going to fall away and it’s going to become non-existent because yes, partner work is a huge component of salsa but it’s not the entire thing, right? There’s a lot of solo work that you can do that is in Dance Dojo as well, so take advantage of it.

Robin: I didn’t tell her to do that, but yeah,  you can work on your Basics, you can work on your shines which is your solo footwork, you can work on your body movement, you can work on your turn technique and whether you’re a leader or follow, you can work on all of those things as well.

So, there’s always something to work on and it’s way easier to work on that stuff when you don’t have a partner beside you because you’re not worrying about the partner and you’re just worrying about yourself and then once you worry about yourself then when you do have a partner it’s going to be so much easier.

Kebira: Yeah, and if I just chime in on that, I would say the biggest, I think I mentioned it earlier, but the biggest sort of component that helped me with my growth or kind of sped that up would be that solo work, those body movements, those shines because in shines you’re learning about your weight transfers and your placement of your foot in different positions and to do it with speed. And especially for leaders and follows as well but, leaders, you know, getting used to stepping in different directions, um, that is, it seems so minor but it really helps you when it comes down to partner work and body movement for both leads and follows. Right? Your leader, your arm technique is coming from your body movement so if you understand that when you’re alone it becomes so much easier to integrate that with a partner and it makes your partner work a lot easier and you kind of grow a lot faster in that regard too for both leads and follows.

Robin: So, let’s take an intermission from all the serious salsa talk for a second. Kebira recently had a birthday, how old are you now?

Kebira: I’m 21.

Robin: So, there you go, 21 years old also won a World Championship already and I also think you had a medical emergency, can you tell us more about that?

Kebira: Okay, so here I am, fresh 21-year-old, okay? I’m trying to adult here and I go, “Okay, I think I got to go put some laundry away.” So, I’m going, I’m walking across and I guess I’m not paying attention but all of a sudden the closet door is a lot closer to me than I thought and boom, there I go, I hit the closet door, it shakes a bit, there’s a brief moment of silence and then I go, “Wow, that really hurt,” but in different words. And, uh, I just had to kind of stand in the pain for a couple moments, ended up having to crawl across the room because I had to get going after that, laundry was left there by the way, and then it turns out I fractured my pinky toe. So, there you go, yeah, 21-year-old trying to learn how to do laundry doesn’t quite get the laundry into the closet and the laundry just went on the floor.

Robin: What happened next?

Kebira: Well, yeah, the laundry got left, I had to leave. I also had to get on the floor, so the laundry and I became one in that sense, and then I left and then I had to go get to practice.

Robin: How did that go?

Kebira: It was more… I worked on my imagery, my imagery skills and my visualization, I would say. A lot.

Robin: And then I also heard there was another member of the team that went down. What happened there?

Kebira: Um, I heard it was a shower injury. Yeah, I’m not sure what’s going on here. I don’t know what’s going on, there must be something in the air, but yeah, apparently they were just trying to get ready for practice, it was an early morning practice, they jumped in the shower, something happened, I don’t know what happened there, but they came out with a rolled ankle.

Robin: All right, well, wishing you the best on your recovery because Kebira’s getting ready for Toronto Salsa Congress and has like seven, five choreographies, but she’s doing them seven times there, seven categories that she’s going to compete in, is that right?

Kebira: That’s right, yeah, busy girl, gotta do what you gotta do.

Robin: So, with a toe hairline fracture, she’s going to survive a little bit of pain but she’s not practicing right now and it’s 3 weeks away so best of luck, thank you, I’m going to need it.

Robin: All right, going back to like your own journey and the challenges you’ve had along the way, you said I guess body movement was one of them, double turns was another, do you have any advice for people that are working on body movement or double turns? Like if you were doing it all over again, what would you focus on?

Kebira: Make it fun because often we get super focused on wanting to achieve this certain skill set and again back to instant gratification, get it right away, it’s easy to get frustrated and impatient with yourself.

Robin: Absolutely, yeah. I think that’s really important advice because salsa is supposed to be fun, right? It’s not just about getting the moves perfect, it’s about enjoying the music, enjoying the movement, enjoying the connection with your partner.

Kebira: Absolutely.

Robin: And so, with your journey and everything, is there anything else that you want to share with people who are maybe just starting out in their salsa journey or who are maybe hitting a plateau and feeling a little frustrated?

Kebira: Yeah, I think one thing I would say is really take advantage of the resources that you have. I mean, obviously, there’s online resources like the Dance Dojo, which I think is a fantastic platform for learning, especially if you don’t have access to a studio or a teacher in your area. But also, don’t be afraid to reach out to the community, reach out to other dancers, ask for help, ask for advice. I think the salsa community, in general, is really supportive and people are always willing to help each other grow and improve.

Robin: Absolutely, yeah. I think that’s really important to remember that you’re not alone in this journey, right? There’s a whole community out there that’s there to support you and help you along the way.

Kebira: Yeah, exactly. And I think just staying positive and staying patient with yourself is really key. It’s easy to get frustrated when things don’t come as quickly as you’d like them to, but just remember that it’s all part of the process and every dancer goes through it.

um not saying I’m better at that yet but I’m working on it um so make it fun like if you’re working on body movement play some fun music something as simple as that um and once you’re you know you spend your time focusing on that technique LET IT GO.

Even just jam out to the music and let your body move move without necessarily picking on yourself or judging yourself for how you think you should be moving and just see what what naturally happens.  Then you might find that the more times you do that practice that hey I’m I’m actually making some solid Improvement and you’re doing it in a fun way instead of stressing out about it because when you stress about it mentally that turns into physical stress and then it gets a lot hard lot harder to to gain what you want to achieve.

Robin: What about double turns, any tricks there with the double turns?

Kebira: um yeah, don’t do them so much that you get dizzy and fall over because I have done that many times (laughs).

Robin: I thought you were gonna say just don’t do them. (laughs)

Kebira: no, no, do them, do them. um you want technical tips or like how to how to approach it?

Robin: Is there anything that just kind of clicked for you? Like what or was it, just repetition?

Kebira: to be honest it was repetition repetition and repetition focusing on one, uh, I don’t want to say trick, but one tip at a time right.

Whether that be for the next couple of practice sessions I’m going to focus on spotting, just spotting. Get the hang of that, get a feel for that then focus on the next thing. Maybe it’s the stability of your body. Just bite off a piece at a time.

Robin: Yeah I think that’s a good advice if you try and do everything perfect you’re just going to be unhappy and you’re not going to feel like you’re getting the result you want. So just take it one step at a time.

Is there anything else along your journey that you felt like this was a major roadblock for you? Or, if you want to answer it in a different way, you do more teaching now than you did when you first started, she’s assisting a lot in the studio and, so, through that process of helping others learn, what what are the roadblocks that you typically see follows go through? How would you encourage people to kind of get through them?

Kebira: For the follows, some things are to recognize the importance and the activeness of your role, because sometimes us follows think ‘oh it’s the leaders who are doing everything and we’re just kind of meandering along,’ but no, it’s that we have an active role in in the dance as well—whether that be your technique of keeping your arms mobile or light or being active with your footwork and active with your dancing as well.

It can be easy when you’re in class to go, ‘okay well this is just the same kind of combo over and over again what am I getting out of this as a follow?’ But there’s so much like focus on incorporating your body movement into your dancing and that’s going to make your partner work a lot easier as well on you for you as a follow um what else maybe it’s connecting with your leader more um but yeah find ways to to still to engage yourself and there’s there’s like tons of ways.

Maybe the next thing is a little bit of styling, so find different ways to still be active in your dancing I would say.

Robin: Super good tips. And you social dance, you perform, you compet. Do you have a favorite between social dancing, performing, and competing? Also, from the performance and competition side, what has that helped you on the social dance side?

Kebira: I don’t actually have a favorite but I will say that they all complement each other really well. When it comes to the performing and the competing of course you’re working that same routine over and over again because you need to execute it really technically well and that can be pretty stressing at times.

With social dancing, it’s nice to be able to do that as well um and just to kind of let go in that sense. It’s not about executing this this song perfectly it’s just about connecting with your partner, letting go, having fun. Having the balance of both makes me feel complete in a way, right? Where I have that focus with the performing and competing but also just the having fun, cuz that’s how I got into it, was just to have fun, was to connect with people. I love the balance.

Robin: one thing I noticed…. I haven’t been on a performance team at all for a very long time, but when I first started with Patrick and Scarlet, I think it was like 2012, 2013, I was in it for like a year or so and one thing that I really noticed was that you have this expectation of  ‘I really got to get this down,’ so you more pressure on yourself, which I think can be good you know cuz it’s a healthy stress level. It’s not like something that’s so far out of your comfort zone you can’t achieve it. It’s like, hey you know we’ve got this competition coming up we’ve got this performance coming up so we got to do a good job, and so you’re really really dialing it in and trying to get every technique looking good sharp.

The other part that I think is really helpful with the performance stuff or the competition is that you’re really learning how to present and so you’re going to get rid of like the sloppy Mr Burns posture from The Simpsons and you start filming yourself to get that feedback more actively, which a lot of people when they’re learning don’t like to do. They’re not filming themselves so they’re not creating that feedback loop that’s going to help them really move forward.

As soon as you add that pressure on yourself to compete or perform you really start filming yourself and checking yourself out and that really helps you move forward. And so if I was to go back to starting over again I would really start start filming myself sooner, think about like my posture and how am I presenting myself because even if I’m social dancing I want to make sure I look good. I feel like if you’re looking good you’re probably feeling good.

The other side to that is when you’re starting this is a big challenge for a lot of people big challenge for me and, you might have experienced it too, is you feel really good when you’re doing something and then you film it and then you look at the you look at the recording and it’s a disaster.

There’s so many people, and I know cuz the’ve all emailed me and said “I don’t want to film myself. I don’t film myself because I’m afraid of what it’s going to look like.” The thing is, the sooner you just look at yourself in the mirror, look at yourself on camera, you’re really you’re going to get over that uncomfortableness really quick. It hurts, like it it stabs you in the heart really hard at first, but then it really helps you take the next step forward. So I think that was one thing that helped me in terms of the performance stuff.

So if you’re starting from the beginning, get the feedback loop going with the filming yourself.

Was there anything else from competing or performing that kind of like helped you to improve quicker?

Kebira: I would say the the mentality of it because yes it’s it’s very physical performing and competing as you know but it’s also mentally tax thing as well because you’re under that pressure like you mentioned and uh you got a lot of pressures going on at once you have okay I’m performing in front of people what are they going to think of me? what are the judges going to think? how are they going to judge me? so you’re putting yourself in a pretty, I’d say, uncomfortable position for most people and so how how mentally strong are you? That is something that I struggled with and, thankfully, I had Patrick and Scarlet and they really coached me through.

Overcoming those fears of judgment and how can we work through this cuz it is a part of competing not just in dance but in any other domain, so developing that mental fortitude and growing in that aspect uh really translated to my confidence dancing.

Outside of those those spots, um so social dancing or even just taking a class like I felt more more yeah more confident more mentally strong if you will. I could look at myself in the mirror or take a video of myself practicing and being be able to do that with less discomfort and then from there.

Robin:  You can grow a lot faster because you can notice okay what am I what can I be fixing here um so it definitely helps me get over that uncomfortableness of videoing myself cuz I had to do in front of people whether I liked it or not. so there’s always that good extra added pressure. Again as long as you can handle it you always want to kind of be like working just outside your comfort zone you don’t want to push it too far cuz then you get overly stressed and maybe just like beat yourself up so just push the comfort zone but not too too much at any given time.

What’s next for you? Do you have any big goals? No pressure. Where do you see yourself going for the next while in salsa?

Kebira: well I’m really enjoying teaching so love to continue doing that. More travel as well, get to meet some different scenes, that’d be awesome, meet some different people.

And just grow grow my skills as a dancer, like I’m so excited for what’s to come, I can’t wait.

Robin: Are there any other dances that you’ve explored or are curious to explore?

Kebira: Well I did tap for a while before salsa. Yeah I did that for like 6 years, so I would say that helped with the footwork.

Robin: I can imagine.

Kebira: other dances… you know what I want to get into? Cumbia. I love the music. Hustle as well. Hustle is fun and maybe some hip-hop, yeah, I don’t know. Anything and everything. I’m open. I’m ready. Yeah.

Robin: That’s awesome. I think it’s really great to be open to other dances cuz like one thing like when I was break dancing was I had a crew member that always said “no, you should only break dance. you should only learn this. you shouldn’t focus on the other things.” But honestly after going through that experience and dancing more I think the more things you’re exposed to, the different styles, the different classes, you take it all in and it adds up, and you can take those different things and put it into your own style and develop your own style, develop your own character.

Last question. So thinking back to where you were at when you were first starting, or to anyone who’s watching who’s a new dancer, is there any words of advice, any final message, that you would like to send them?

Kebira: That’s a lot of pressure. Just one thing? Doesn’t have to be five? Just one thing….

Robin: If you were speaking to Kebira five years ago what would you tell her?

Kebira: I would say have patience. Have patience. but I’m going to… I’m probably going to say five things. Have patience but stay hungry. Keep that fire burning. When that fire dies out then then your growth kind of stops. Be patient but keep working hard and surround yourself with people who you look up to and who inspire you because whether that be your local teams or maybe it’s teachers or maybe it’s international figures, whatever, whoever it may be. If you’re being surrounded by those people and and their success it makes you hungry to do better yourself, and now you have that fire. Now you have that drive, that push and that’s where you’re going to start growing, cuz you’re going to want it.  And when you want it bad enough you’re going to prioritize it. You’re going to make time for it and then you’re going to grow.

Robin: really good advice. So if anybody around the world who’s watching this would like to connect with you how can they do that?

Kebira: um I’m on Instagram @kebirakhattak. Wait, can you put it on the screen right there? right here? I’ve always wanted to do that. I also teach under Patrick and Scarlet at Dance Vancouver Studio @dancevancouver – can that be right here?

Robin: I’ll make it happen. You’re asking a lot. This is more editing work for me.

Kebira: You’re welcome.

Robin: Well thank you for the interview. Thank you, really appreciate it.

Kebira: My pleasure