Dawn Eng’s (CS’14) first taste of salsa at a dance class left a bad taste in her mouth.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was awful looking. It was like an old person’s dance, something like line dancing, but [with people] holding hands,” quipped the 26-year-old over a video call interview in Mexico, where she is currently based.
It was only after her first salsa dance partner, Douglas Chue, introduced her to “real salsa” videos, that Eng fell in love with it.
Ironically, Eng’s salsa journey started in a hip-hop class in 2013. It was her hip-hop teacher, a salsa aficionado, who gave her the first exposure to the genre.
After eight years of dancing salsa recreationally, Eng wanted more. In 2016, she left her job as a business development manager at a social media firm, to travel abroad and learn from the most renowned practitioners in the salsa community.
Although she originally planned to return to Singapore after one month, she ended up staying overseas for two years. She started off in Barcelona, staying there for a month – before travelling around the world, never settling in a country for more than three months.
Currently, she is based in Mexico, where she is immersing herself in the culture that popularised salsa.
With roots in Cuba, New York and Latin America, salsa has evolved over the years, spawning various styles and sub-genres. Drawing upon the wild music of Latin culture, it has garnered legions of fans for its expressive form.
“The variety of different percussion instruments makes the music very rich, giving salsa a really rhythmic feel. If you dance the right way to it, you definitely feel the rhythm,” shared Eng.
Besides training intensively for competitions, she also conducts salsa workshops around the world. To date, she has taught over 1,000 salsa enthusiasts in countries such as China and Spain.
Even before her global pursuit of salsa began, Eng was already a frequent traveller, participating in international salsa competitions with Chue. The duo were most notably crowned three-time champions in Singapore, Korea and India – clinching first place in the Asia Latin Championships and Asia Salsa Open.
During this period, the advertising major juggled between competing and working as a business development manager at Hashmeta, a social media agency. She also freelanced as a writer, covering a variety of topics ranging from early childhood education to travel articles.
Despite all these successes, her family was initially unsupportive of her salsa journey. “It was weird for my family to understand [my passion for salsa]. They didn’t understand why I would give up my full time job [in pursuit] for salsa. It used to drive a wedge between me and them,” she recalled.
“It was weird for my family to understand [my passion for salsa]. They didn’t understand why I would give up a full time job I had at a social media firm for salsa.”
Dawn Eng (CS'14), professional salsera
Venturing overseas forced her to adapt quickly, with no one to rely on.
But after the initial shock wore off, she realised she could handle roughing it out with few resources.
"It taught me that I could take a lot more than I thought I could back in Singapore," said Eng of her experiences.
Eventually, her parents came around. They became her support system, providing emotional encouragement and financial assistance in times of need.
Today, Eng plans to teach salsa in China with her current dance partner of two years, Jose Aguilar - a renowned Mexican dancer who trained under American salsa legends Eddie Torres and Frankie Martinez. Citing the growing salsa community in Asia as a potential market, she is looking to relocate in a few years to major cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou.
While Eng’s journey thus far has been remarkable, she has her sights set on even greater heights. She hopes to become the first Asian salsera (female salsa dancer) to place for podium position at the top three major salsa championships, namely the World Salsa Summit, World Latin Dance Cup and Euroson World Salsa Championships – something that has never been achieved.
“I don’t want to regret not trying my hardest at my dreams, when I still have my youth with me.”