Archive for August, 2013

Review: San Francisco International Bachata Festival


It’s been a few years since I started Latin dancing, my favourite of which is bachata. When there’s a bachata-themed event, I’m usually there, even if it’s a few thousand miles away in San Francisco.

So last month I waited for some airfare deals and flew down to California with one of my “salsa girlfriends”, and we attended the annual San Francisco International Bachata Festival at the Hyatt Regency from July 19-21. The brainchild of Rodney “Rodchata” Aquino, SFIBF was one of the (if not the) best Latin dance festival/congress I’ve ever been to.

Check in process was pretty straight-forward, and the staff and volunteers were pretty helpful. I purchased a nice pair of super-cute dance flats from one of the vendor booths (just when I thought I had enough shoes), and the festival sponsor Yerba Mate kept everyone hydrated with their energy-filled drinks.

Most of the workshops were great, with my favourites being those led by Troy and Jorjet (kizomba), Bryon and Sammantha (Dominican bachata footwork), and Jo and Kathy (bachata ladies styling) . I learned some really cool movements that I can add to my bachata shines. I also found a new passion for kizomba by taking Troy and Jorjet’s workshop. I just hate dancing closed position dances with sweaty guys, so learning the “community hold” made me appreciate the dance more.

Speaking of Troy and Jorjet, if anyone has seen them on YouTube or taken any of their workshops before, you know how their mannerisms are. Vince and Jo did a hilarious impersonation of them. Best of all, Troy and Jorjet were good sports about it, which just show how great professionals they are.

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Troy also recognized me from the “Bachata Basement” dance video I did with my friend, Renelle last year. Super-nice guy with such a positive personality. The dance DVD’s that he and his wife produce are so easy-to-follow that I had to pick up a couple more so that I can build on my bachata and learn some kizomba.

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The variety of amazing instructors and dancers who were in attendence had me in awe. My favourites (and mainly the sole reason why I wanted to attend) Troy Anthony and Jorjet Alcocer were there,  DJ Vince Torres & Jo Quiñonez had the crowd in stitches with their entertaining MC-ing during the performances, the ever-faboulous Zeke Fabulosa from Chicago, the beautiful Kathy Reyes, the world-renound brother-sister team of Junior and Emily Alabi, and so many more.

My favourite team though by far was the dancers from MG Dance Studio. If you want to see what hard work and dedication look like, while at the same time having fun, being positive and friendly, the young people in this group is the embodiment of it. Their routines are phenominal. I still can’t believe a few of them are only high school seniors.

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The performances and shows were excellent. Not too short and not to long. The dancers all seemed like they rehearsed well, with clean movements and great energy.

Social dancing Friday, Saturday and Sunday night were breaths of fresh air compared to social dancing here in Toronto. Don’t get me wrong, I love my city, but the “salsa scene” here seems to be a bit… cliquey (a post about this coming up soon). It was nice actually getting asked to dance by guys for once. All the dancers in attendance were super friendly, introduced themselves, and always up for a dance.

One guy came up and asked me to dance salsa, but admitted that he dances a little of a “different style”. Honestly, this was music to my ears, because ever since I stopped taking Latin dance classes, I seemed to dance in my own style (which happens to be more Cuban-based) which is not the norm here in the Toronto salsa scene. So when he smiled as he saw how I was following to match his own similar style, it was one of my best salsa dances ever (he also was a great bachata dancer as well)!

I also signed up for the competition that SFIBF was hosting at this year’s event. Although a tad disorganized (call-times were changed and they even forgot to mention my name), it was a great experience for me. Personally, I thought there would be a lot more competitors, but for the two categories I entered–the solo and the Jack & Jill–I was up against some seasoned veterans.

Although I didn’t come home with the big trophy, I was honoured to get the chance to compete with some talented dancers and experienced professionals. I surprised myself by getting up on that stage (probably because it was in a city where no one knew my name), I managed to throw together a routine that garnered a lot of praise from other dancers and even one of the coaches from another team (thank you so much for the kind words Wayne Melton!). I felt so blessed that I got the chance to do this, and I’m going to keep on dancing to improve my skill while having fun doing it.

Will I be back in San Fran for next year’s festival? Based on what I experienced this year, then for sure. Well, unless airfare prices skyrocket… it’s a looooong way to San Francisco from the T Dot!


Review: The O-Course


I can’t recall a time when every muscle in my body has been this sore.

Yesterday morning I (willingly) participated in what had probably been the most mentally and physically challenging events of my life thus far: Fit Factory’s O Course. Tony Austin, a former U.S. marine drill instructor, and Ivan Ho are co-founders of this military-style obstacle course which is based on marine corps fitness training.

I first heard of Fit Factory Fitness last year from a friend who takes their boot-camp classes. A few months ago I saw a Groupon for The O Course so I decided that since I was on track for my new fitness regimen I purchased one. I don’t think I would’ve gotten the motivation to actually go if another friend hadn’t have told me that they were planning on going this summer. After some schedule adjustments we were set for August 10th.

Usuallly, The O Course takes place at The Docks in Toronto. This past Saturday organizers debuted with their new location: Wild Water Kingdom. I was actually kind of excited when I heard of this location change. I haven’t been to Wild Water Kingdom since I was living in Rexdale as a kid (although I knew I wasn’t going to be sliding down water-slides again until I checked off that Learn-How-To-Swim box on my bucket list) .

We got there just after 9am, plenty of time before the scheduled 10am start. New to the O Course this time around was the Kids O Course where a couple dozens children aged 5 to 14 jumped, climbed, ran and crawled through a similarly-designed obstacle course. The kids went first and the rest of us adults cheered them on as they completed different challenges, so we didn’t get our start until closer to 11am.

The Warm-Up

Whoever calls what we did a warm-up, has got to be some sort of cyborg. Apparently we lucked out: Tony A cut down our warm up to 20 mintutes instead of the usual 40-ish, because our post-warm-up run was longer than norm (10.2K) and we started a bit late (I’m not complaining).

We started off with warm up along the shore of Clairville Reservoire. After getting over the initial shock of how muddy the area was and how long it took me to do my pre-vacation hair earlier this week, I filled in lines with the rest of the “troops”. Megaphone in hand, Tony A led us through our warm-up, drill seargeant-style, with volunteers walking through the lines shouting words of “encouragement”. If people were slacking we were told to go “into the mud” to continue (I almost lost my shoe, because it was so thick and deep). We went though various sets of push-ups, sit-ups, chest-presses and squats, the marjority of which were done with a 4lb block of wood (called a “rifle”) in our hands.

The troops heading for their 10K run right after the warm-up.

The troops heading for their 10K run right after the warm-up. [Image from The O Course]

The Course (So it begins…)

Did I mention we also had to run 10K with this rifle? Well, we did. It actually wasn’t that bad. I managed to carry the rifle through the entire run without having to switch hands or rest it on my shoulders (must be all that practice I do carrying shopping bags on a daily basis). I did notice this one girl running the course rifle-less. When I glanced beside her a guy (most likely her boyfriend) carrying hers as well as his as they were jogging up the trail (talk about a princess… he carried both of them on the way back as well).

My friend was out of my view half-way though the run (even though she thought I’d finish before she did), so I was technically on my own the majority of the course. As long as I wasn’t last, I was okay (though at one point I almost got lost at a fork in the road and waited a few minutes for the runner behind me to ask for directions). The run was challenging, but doable. I did speed-walk instead of jog the majority of the way on the return trip, but I knew I could’ve moved at a faster pace if I put my mind to it.

A concentrated glare of determination: "I will not get my hair messed up... oh, yeah, and finish this obstacle course".

A concentrated glare of determination: “I will not get my hair messed up… oh, yeah, and finish this obstacle course”. [image from The O Course]

After the run, we were instructed to do 50 sit-ups with the rifles on our chest and feet in the water. I did these pretty quickly (compared with most exercises, sit ups are actually somewhat enjoable for me to do). Once complete we had to head back to the reservoir where we started our warm-up. The mud was so thick, getting back there was a struggle. I was tempted to take off my shoes as some participants did, but was afraid of what was lurking under there.

But wait! There’s more!

When we got back, we had to do four separate strength training exercises: carrying a pail of mud/water across the reservoire, a heavy ammo box with a partner, drag a cement cinder-block, and finally crawl through the water with a backpack filled with mud. The last one kind of freaked me out, so I double checked with the volunteer that I would’n’t be submerged above my neck while doing that activity (yes, I made it through with every hair in place). I wasn’t impressed with the fact that the water was filled with creepy, crawly things (I even saw a frog).

From there it was a quick sprint towards the final obstacles, the first of which was a giant pyramid of dirt and mud that looked like something that sick triceratops pooped out in Jurassic Park. When the volunteer that was manning the mound told us we had to sniper crawl up it, I thought “no way”. But I did it, even though I had to cheat a little and use my knees a couple of times (it was slippery). But when he said I had to sniper crawl down I nearly thought I was on some sort of hidden camera game show. That hill was steep, but I took a deep breath and went for it. It was kind of fun actually, and I still didn’t mess up my hair!

I couldn’t climb up the tall, wooden pyramid wall with the rope, it was way too slippery with mud, so I did the penalty of 25 burpees (my least favourite workout). At another challenge, two girls and I (who were at the same pace with me) worked together to give each other approved “boosts” over the wooden beams so we could make it through. As high of a jumper I am, this seemed to be a difficult one for the ladies (I thought I ruptured an ovary on my first solo attempt).

The only other obstacle that I though were a disadvantage to women because of height/build was the third-last trial: approximately 10, one-foot long, suspended pieces of rope that we were instructed to manouver ourselves through. With training I could probably do these a lot easier, but I think because the rope was covered in duct tape, and muddy from the dozens of participants who went through the course minutes earlier, it was really difficult to grip on to. Penalty burpees it was.

The monkey bars were pretty high as well, and assume a lot of women and/or shorter-statured men opted-out of this one. I was encouraged by the volunteer that I “look like” I could do it (damn these Serena Williams-esque arms), so I attempted it, but got to about three bars when my left hand slipped and I fell awkwardly on my right hand. I was really worried about re-injuring my wrist since I sprained it in basketball last year. Luckily I didn’t fall on it too bad, and the volunteer who was supervising that challenge gave me the option of just doing 25 sit ups and bowing out of doing the final obstacle: the rings. I was so close to finishing that I wasn’t about to let a little pain slow me down. With some encouragement from my friend who had finished the course 20 minutes earlier (and snapping photos of me while I silently cursed her), I stretched out my wrist and went for the rings. What do you know I made it through all 10 in one shot (grunting with each one, no doubt)!

My final time was 2:19. Obviously, I didn’t make the top 20 females, but I attempted each and every challenge and completed The O Course from start to finish. I am so proud of myself, and being the type of person to always want to challenge myself and try something new, I know that if I run The O Course again I’ll be a bit more mentally and physically prepared to do it even faster.

Some tips for newbies from a newbie on The O Course:

  • Get plenty of sleep the night before: I don’t know why I felt obligated to watch my pre-recorded episode of The Young and the Restless and various Shark Week docks until 3am the night before, but I should’ve hit the hay a lot earlier.
  • Eat a decent breakfast: I thought my banana smoothie and a Power Bar would’ve sufficed, but I was feeling hungry and nauseous minutes after the course. Have something filled with good carbs, and make sure you drink your water.
  • Make sure you’re at least semi-active: Although their official site says that The O Course is for all fitness levels, if you’re a permanent couch potato I reccommend you build your way up to The O Course by doing some regular form of physical activity leading up to it. I’m pretty active: I participate in team sports such as basketball and volleyball once a week, walk regularly, and do my 20-minutes of DVD cardio workouts at least four times a week. Since I got back from vacation a couple weeks ago, I’ve been a bit lazy though, so I was definitely not prepared as I could’ve been.
  • Wear clothes you’ll be willing to part with: You’ll get muddy. Really muddy. And bring a towel and change of clothing. This past Saturday’s O Course was touted as “Toughest and muddiest O Course of all time” by organizers. I’m still wringing out muddy water from the clothes I was wearing.
  • Make sure you take the day off: I had a get-together to attend at a friends house at 3pm that same day. By the time I hosed off after the course, got home, properly showered, rinsed out my muddy clothes, made a salad to bring along to the party it was 5pm. Plus I was utterly exhausted. You definitely need the afternoon to rest after this grueling workout.

The O Course definitely gave me some confidence. Even though my muscles are aching and I wish there was extra coconut water for us stragglers at the end of the race, I’m glad I participated in this event (and that my hair was mud-free).

Here’s a video of  the latest O Course (I’ll replace when the August 10th version is posted to their channel):

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Review: The Package Tour


If anyone knew anything about me, it was that I’ve always been a big boy band fan. Well not big in the sense that I would attend concerts in every city, purchase official merchandise or stalk bands outside their hotels when they made special apepearances, but I would listen to their music and learn the choreography for their hit music videos (Backstreet’s Back… whhaaaattt!).

So I actually attenended my first ‘boy band’ concert on July 28th at the Air Canada Centre. It was the second Toronto visit for The Package Tour which featured headliners New Kids On The Block, R&B sensations Boyz II Men, and crooners 98 Degrees. After missing out on a Groupon deal, I got a friend to score some tickets.

Not surprisingly the venue was filled with thousands of 30-something fans, hoping to reminis the musical era that brought them good-looking men who had them swooning at the sound of their love ballads. Thankfully the show started on time and they were right on schedule with all their acts (some artists can learn from this *cough*LaurynHill*cough*).

First to the stage was Philadelphia natives Boyz II Men (comprised of Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris and Shawn Stockman). I have loved this group since they were an original quartet (Michael McCary left the group years ago due to health reasons) . Clad in white suits they had virtually the same vocal ability as they did when they entered the scene with Cooleyhighharmony in ’91. They all had great energy, interacted with the fans near the stage, and even Wanya even broke down in some running-man dance moves. They sung hits including “I’ll Make Love To You”, “End of the Road” and closed their set with an enthusiastic “Motownphilly” (I almost had to school some girl in the row behind me when she was asking was ABC and BBD stood for and she had to data to look it up on her smart phone). Loved it!

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Boyz II Men hand out a few long-stemmed roses to some swooning ladies in the front row.

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Boyz II Men break it down during their energetic performance during The Package Tour.

Next up was 98 Degrees. They were on my ‘Top 5’ boy band list back in the late 90s (well, maybe because of Jeff Timmon’s muscles… dammit, I wish I caught the suspenders he threw in the audience). Nick and Drew Lachey, Justin Jeffre, and Jeff Timmons belted out their tracks “I Do”, “Because of You” and my personal fav, “The Hardest Thing”. They even serenaded a few girls after they brought them on stage.

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98 Degrees makes their entrance at The Package Tour.

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98 Degrees singing to some lucky females at The Package Tour concert.

Last, but certainly not least, was New Kids On The Block. I admit that I was more of a MC Hammer fan when these boys came out, but to my surprise I was actually singing along with all of their songs as they were performing them. After a short intro informing the crowd that the next two hours would be a performance to remember, NKOTB graced the stage to a loud chorus of screaming women (an probably some men as well).


The New Kids on the Block debut during the July 28 Package Tour concert at the Air Canada Centre.

Now I knew I ain’t no spring chicken, but when NKOTB kept repeating that “it’s been 25 years”, I felt damn old! Brothers Jordan and Jonathan Knight, Joey McIntyre, Donnie Wahlberg, and Danny Wood had their first real hit in 1986 with “Please Don’t Go, Girl”.

When NKOTB originally formed in the 80s I was a Jordan fan. But after Sunday’s concert, Donnie is my new favourite member (as man-whorish as he may seem after yet another concert lip-lock with a female fan). The body on him is ridiculous! I still can’t believe these men are in the 40s and singing and dancing like they were decades ago!


Donnie Wahlberg takes it off on stage (those are some nice abs).

NKOTB definitely made my night: Jordan’s high notes, Donnie frequently getting partially nekkid, even Danny’s break-dancing was fun to watch. Jordan and Donnie taking the cameras and filming the audience from their POV was great. All five of them even wandered into the crowd to be more accessible to their fans. The stage set up was done well: from the rotating stage to the rising hydraulic platforms (Joey’s got some good balance, I’ll tell you that much), to the pyrotechnics, smoke and lights. I even liked the cover they did of George Michael’s “Faith”. NKOTB ended their concert with a tribute to their hometown of Boston by wearing Bruins jerseys and belting out “Hangin’ Tough”.


The men looking good in their suits.


New Kids belt it out with yet another wardrobe change.

I can honestly say that The Package Tour was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to (all 3.5 hours of it). Singing tracks from their latest album 10, to stuff from back in the day like “Step by Step” and “The Right Stuff”, they were flawless in their performance. Full of energy from both the artists and the crowd, with hits that sparked the nostalgia that was my youth. It was like strolling down memory lane (minus the screaming female fans). Thank goodness I brought my DSLR and zoom lens to take some of these awesome photos!


The band has a great set of pipes.

Now if only I can finally see a Backstreet Boys concert (yeah, tickets for next Wednesday’s show are sold out :( ).