Sometimes people ask me why I dance, and my response is always the same: It is home. When I am happy, I dance. When I am sad, I dance. Anything to do with emotions makes we want to dance.
I was born in Manila in the Philippines, and I come from a poor family. When I was dancing at school, my parents could not afford to pay for the costumes so I couldn’t do the shows. I made a deal with one of the teachers to clean their house and run errands so they would pay for my costumes and I could be part of the dance program.
There was a dance show on TV that was my inspiration. I liked John Travolta and Fred Astaire, but Gene Kelly was my favourite -“ I thought he could do anything and he was a masculine dancer. He was also very good looking in his day.
I would dress up to look older so I could get into the gay bars and dance clubs. That was on the weekends, but during the week, I was very serious about study, as I’d promised my parents I would get through and I was determined.
After I finished high school, I went to college to become a teacher, but the main reason I chose the college was because it had a dance program. It was a folkloric company and it travelled around the world, representing the arts at the time of the Marcos regime.
My mum used to ask why I was doing dance as it would never make me rich but in the end, my parents saw that I was doing the right thing. As a gay man coming out, they saw I was independent and had a direction. They thought of gays as third-class people, and I was determined to prove that I had something they could be proud of.
When I finished my degree and began teaching, I thought I needed to expand myself more. I had toured with the dance company, and I didn’t see myself being a teacher forever.
And then I met someone.
I met my first and only-ever boyfriend Don. I was with the Barranggay Dance Troupe and we were touring Australia and he was with the Australian Dance Theatre. They came to see our show, and then Don came to Manila twice to visit me. He then told me about the Dances of Asia company in Australia which was looking for dancers, and I thought that was the only way I could see if this relationship would work.
Twelve months later, my visa expired and I was rejected from staying in Australia. We approached the Gay and Lesbian Immigration Task Force, and we were the first couple granted a visa as a gay couple. This was 1984 and ’85 and it took about three years all up for me to get my residency.
I was also working as a kitchenhand at the old Rockefellers in Oxford Street, as well as doing talent quests and teaching dance classes. I was a go-go dancer at the old Jamieson Street nightclub, as well as FJs on the northern beaches.
Then opportunity really came knocking in 1989 when I got into my first big show, Dancin’ Man with David Atkins. I was working alongside all these dancers like Todd McKenney, Kelley Abbey, Sheree da Costa and William Forsythe.
Then Chess came along, as well as the tour of The King and I, and Dancin’ Dynamite. In 1992, I choreographed my first big event when I did the Summer Party with Ashley Swift and Maude Boate. A year later, when Madonna was on tour, I choreographed a function for her brother’s birthday. I watched her watching the drag show -“ and all she did was smile. I also met her, in between two burly bodyguards.
As a dancer, my first ever Mardi Gras was with Kylie Minogue in 1994. We rehearsed all day with Kylie and then did the show that night. Wherever you looked around the RHI, there were people hanging off the walls -“ it was amazing. The next year, I did Love is in the Air with John Paul Young. I had rehearsed all that day, then stood up to watch the parade, then gone to the party and then did the show. At 4am, I crawled on to Don’s back and let him carry me home -“ I had had enough!
In 2000, I worked as the field choreographer for the Paralympics Opening Ceremony. That was eight months of travelling the length of Sydney from school to school. I had the kids painting those boards on the field, and I loved the concept as it was original and clever, but the weather was not with us and it rained.
The Diva Awards over the past few years have been very important to me and I have choreographed a number of them. Divas is always one of my favourite events and I like the way the shows are lavish, but it is pulled together with such a little amount of money -“ and that everyone does it for love.
I like being on TV and I like being on the ABC’s Strictly Dancing. I like the dressing up and being official as one of the judges. Seeing the guest dancers in action is wonderful and it is amazing to see the different styles they can do.
At the Sydney Dance Company, I take six dance classes a week, but I also help with administration. I love dealing with the general public, and you just never know who will walk through those doors. I love the fact these people come to classes because they want to be here. What is wonderful is when people come up after a class and say they have never done anything like that before, and feel it is life-changing. Dance gives people confidence, and that is so powerful to watch.
Interview by John Burfitt