San Diego is known around the world for its proud military roots and involvement with our nation’s troops. What you may not know, though, is that San Diego is also the birth place of a unique organization that serves the military in a very unique way through dancing. Soldiers Who Salsa provides an alternative physical therapy approach incorporating therapeutic social dancing to address patients facing everything from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to Traumatic Brain Injury. Guided by Jennifer Ables, Executive Director of Soldiers Who Salsa, the organization is growing and reaching even more of our nation’s military who are benefiting from this type of program. I had a great time talking with Jennifer about the organization and her own experiences with the organization. I hope you enjoy and learn about a very special program that started right here in San Diego.
Special thanks to Roman Castro Photography for providing the fine photos you see throughout the interview of Jennifer Ables.
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Ritmo Bello: Jennifer, thanks for taking the time to address the Ritmo Bello dance community. Let’s begin. What would you say is the main mission of Soldiers Who Salsa?
Jennifer Ables: Thank you for the opportunity! The quick answer to that is also our tagline: “Healing Our Heroes, One Dance Step At A Time”. Officially, our mission is to enhance and enrich the lives of active and retired members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families through a unique program incorporating therapeutic social dancing with a variety of music and professional instruction.
It’s important to note that in the military community, the term “soldier” refers specifically to the Army. To the rest of the public – mostly because of television news – the terms “soldier” and “troops” are typically thrown out as one and the same. We want to be clear that we serve all branches of the military. Coming up with a catchy marketable name was a challenge. We wanted to convey what we do and who we serve in a short easy-to-remember yet unique name – which wasn’t easy!
Ritmo Bello: What are the origins of the Soldiers Who Salsa organization?
Jennifer Ables: At the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, one of the therapists working with mainly amputees, Mike Podlenski, was holding “lunchtime lessons” in the PT clinic. Mike himself is a great salsa dancer, and he wanted others to experience the joy of dancing, especially as these patients try to adjust to life with their new prosthetics. Having been a dancer for so long but never a teacher, he asked his friend and former dance teacher, Mary Murphy (from Fox’s “So You Think You Can Dance”) if there was someone at her studio here in San Diego who might be willing to come out for a 6 week session.
Ritmo Bello: How did you get personally involved initially with Soldiers Who Salsa?
Jennifer Ables: In January of 2010, I had recently moved to San Diego from the East Coast where I had been teaching and competing in ballroom and latin dancing since 1998. One night I walked into Mary Murphy’s Champion Ballroom Academy just to dance. I met Mary, we set up an interview, and she hired me the next day. During the interview she mentioned she had been looking for someone to go out to the Naval Medical Center to teach a 6 week class and if would I be interested. Being both a daughter and grand-daughter of Air Force Colonels, I have always been a huge supporter of the military, so I told her it would be an honor. It took a while to get everything approved, but my first official class there was in April of 2010.
Ritmo Bello: So far what has been the biggest challenge to your work with Soldiers Who Salsa?
Jennifer Ables: You know, it’s funny…the challenges are the same no matter what the students’ background –helping people overcome their fear of dancing. Somewhere along the line, somebody has told someone that they can’t dance, and that’s what they believe. No one wants to make a fool of themselves. Getting them to take that first step of just coming to class is the biggest hurdle. Once they try it and see that if taught correctly, it really isn’t as hard as they thought, and they’ll come back for more.
Ritmo Bello: What has been your greatest success since beginning work with the organization?
Jennifer Ables: Our growth! Working together with the two main therapists at NMCSD, Mike Podlenski and the Recreational Therapist, Marla Knox, we continued to think about just how many patients could benefit from our classes. What started as a 6 week class for amputees has grown into weekly classes that can at any point involve amputees, patients with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), patients with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and their families. We have also done classes with different patient populations now at Pt. Loma Naval Base and Camp Pendleton. We will be starting classes in the Washington DC area at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. We took an idea and expanded it into a non-profit organization in barely more than a year since the first class began. We have an amazing Board of Directors, and are honored by all the support we have received thus far.
Ritmo Bello: How has this work changed your perspective on dancing and the impact it has on people?
Jennifer Ables: I’ve always known how powerful dance has been in my own life and in the lives of my students – it’s the fire that ignites my passion for teaching. I didn’t think it was possible to have any greater appreciation for the power of dance, but I do. Seeing the joy on a wife’s face when she is dancing with her husband for the first time since their wedding and after sometimes multiple deployments… That just melts my heart. I’m such a softie…I cry with joy about things like that nearly every week! I would get so excited to share the events of class with my friends and family, that I started posting to Facebook a weekly “TGM: Today’s Great Moment” – my #1 take-away from that day’s class. Whether it’s been working with a wedding couple, watching a father and daughter dance together, or each week seeing a participant become more and more confident, there is always something that qualifies for a TGM post!
Ritmo Bello: What has been something that you’ve learned about yourself from your working with the soldiers in the program?
Jennifer Ables: Perspective. No matter how rough my day might seem to me, it’s nothing compared to what some of these folks have gone through and the challenges they will continue to tackle. It really helps to put things in focus. Also, that none of us should ever miss the opportunity to make a difference in someone else’s life.
Ritmo Bello: What groups benefit most from the Soldiers Who Salsa classes?
Jennifer Ables: Each participant benefits in a different way. From a physical standpoint, they gain balance, control, and increased coordination. From a personal standpoint, they gain self-confidence, a much needed stress release, and perhaps an outlet where they feel comfortable expressing themselves. One of the most important pieces is that sense of connection to others that dance inherently creates. It’s also important to point out the potential benefit to someone’s significant other or a family member – as one wife said to me, she was always driving her husband to appointments and then sitting and waiting for him. With our classes, she gets to be a part of the therapy process – it’s something they can do together in a fun and romantic way that they may not get from other activities. I believe that we may never know the full impact we are having – music and dance are more powerful to the human psyche than I think any of us give them credit for.
Ritmo Bello: I understand that you are always accepting volunteers to help run the organization. What type of volunteers are you seeking and what types of skills are you looking for in those volunteers?
Jennifer Ables: We can use help in a variety of ways. In classes, we are often short on female partners – but in order to participate in the classes held on base (as all of them currently are), the volunteer would have to have military ID to get on base. Since we are a very new organization, we are also looking for help from grant writers who may be interested enough in our cause to help us get funding to expand our current offerings and also to expand to other military medical facilities across the US. I also know there are people out there who are great at organizing and planning events and fundraisers – I’d love to talk to them all.
Ritmo Bello: What type of feedback have you received from the salsa dance community here in San Diego?
Jennifer Ables: Everyone has been extremely supportive. I would especially like to thank the Miami Grille in UTC. When we’ve organized outside events, our “Salsa Night Out/Noche de Salsa” we have gone several times to the Miami Grille. It’s just the right mix of music, available space, and the service has always been spectacular. We also recently had a great time at Café Sevilla, and are looking forward to returning there as well as venturing out to other spots around San Diego.
Ritmo Bello: Have you had an opportunity to help anyone connected to the attacks of 9/11?
Jennifer Ables: Well, if you are from the school of thought that we might not have entered wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan had 9/11 not happened, then nearly everyone I have worked with is connected to those attacks in some way or another. One of the most important parts of doing this kind of work is respecting the patient’s privacy. I do not ask anyone’s medical condition or their background – they all deserve to be treated equally regardless of how they came to be in my class.
Ritmo Bello: What advice can you give to military service members and veterans who want to take advantage of what your organization offers?
Jennifer Ables: Try it! If you risk nothing, you gain nothing! If you are afraid or think that you can’t dance, you are not alone. I always tell people, “if you already knew how to dance, you wouldn’t need me and I’d be out of a job!” If there isn’t already a class near you, email me, and I’ll get to work to get one there! And if you don’t like salsa, stick around, as I’ve been known to throw in a little Bachata, Merengue, Country Western, and even Foxtrot!
Ritmo Bello: What’s next for Soldiers Who Salsa?
Jennifer Ables: We are currently working on getting classes started in the Washington, D.C. area at the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and we’d like to be able to offer classes at other military medical facilities throughout the U.S. and eventually abroad. We will definitely be looking to interview interested teachers, so if you know of someone who might be a good fit, please let us know. On a personal note, I’d like to see if we can get J.R. Martinez (from “Dancing With The Stars”) as a spokesperson!
Ritmo Bello: Is there anything else you’d like to share here that I haven’t covered so far?
Jennifer Ables: I get requests all the time for pictures and videos, and out of respect for the patient’s privacy, we will likely not have many forms of media in that way. Its one thing to go out dancing at a club, but a patient may not want to advertise that he or she has a medical condition for which they are seeking treatment by being in pictures. The last time the word got out that there might be a photographer present, less than half the class showed up regardless of the fact that they have the right to not sign a waiver allowing their image to be used. Also, each base has very strict policies and procedures involving images at military bases .
Ritmo Bello: Do you have contact information in case anyone from the Ritmo Bello dance community wants to contact you?
Jennifer Ables: Absolutely! My personal email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and I can always be reached at (301) 529-9431. Our website is soldierswhosalsa.org and you can also “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @soldierswsalsa.
Ritmo Bello: Jennifer, thank you so much for your time and good luck with your mission for the troops.
Jennifer Ables: Thank you! This has been the most rewarding work of my entire career and it is an honor to give back to the military community, who give so much of themselves but have to struggle so often when they return. We appreciate the opportunity to share with you what we do, and look forward to meeting many more members of the Ritmo Bello dance community!
About Jennifer Ables:
Jennifer relocated to San Diego from the Washington, D.C. area in January of 2010. When not teaching salsa classes, Jennifer helps guys who hate to shop look good as a Style Advisor with J. Hilburn (jenniferables.jhilburn.com), enjoys playing ball with her dog Ella, and grabbing some great Vegan fare at any one of San Diego’s fine eateries.