Julio Barrenzuela tells his story with a kinetic energy coursing through his body. At any moment the sweeping narrative is going to lift him off his chair and swing him into dance.
Then he reaches the part about his time in the Navy, stationed in Italy, learning what it truly means to salsa. He stood in a club swinging his hips trying to impress the Italian girl who agreed to a dance.
“I thought I knew how to salsa, but when I got there it was all about partners, which is a whole different beast,” he said.
Now he's up on his feet, recalling how his one cha-cha move carried little weight with the more experienced dancers in the Italian club. The Salsa Ambassador was born, though Barrenzuela, 31, would have to study for years and encounter some missteps before he could believe in the title that would put him front and center of his community in Illinois, and now Burbank.
He learned that salsa — a dance performed throughout the world — was just a common language in which he could communicate. The true meaning of his message would come in his work with the marginalized, with people who have given up, or with those who are surprised to learn a simple dance lesson means so much more.
“As much as I want Burbank to move, I want to change minds and hearts,” Barrenzuela said. “I want people to feel moved through a shared experience.”
A native of Peru, he grew up in Springfield, Ill. After high school, Barrenzuela joined the Navy and became a chaplain's assistant, serving in an office job on larger ships where he learned that to become an officer you needed a college degree and a personality.
Barrenzuela already had one of those, and almost four years into his naval service, he returned home and went to college.
In 2008, he graduated and founded Salsa 29 Productions, a company with a staff of one — Julio Barrenzuela. His company would help people connect to each other through a shared experience of a salsa lesson, but a lesson with a chair would change all that.
He was hired to teach a company's staff a few salsa moves as a team-building exercise. There were a handful of willing participants, but most of the room was reluctant. When he asked them all to loosen up, only a few of them stood up. Barrenzuela instead got on their level.
“I realized I'm here to expand their comfort zone, not disrupt it,” he said.
The lesson continued, with Barrenzuela sitting in a chair like the rest of the room. By the end of the first song, people were moving their arms and shoulders with the music. By song three, everyone was out of their seats. By the end of the lesson, the whole room could say something new about themselves: They knew how to salsa.
“They were excited to learn something new. Unlocking their potential was more powerful than forcing them out of their comfort zone,” he said.
Word spread throughout Springfield of the Salsa Ambassador and the transformative properties of a simple dance lesson. By 2010, more people were hiring Barrenzuela just for the dance moves, and he felt himself drifting farther from his goal of opening communication for people and helping them connect.
An agent even told him to keep his mission to himself, and get out to festivals and just teach people to dance.
“I was ashamed to call myself the Salsa Ambassador,” he said. “No one was speaking my language. I dug myself in a hole and no one was helping me out of it.”
Once again Barrenzuela found himself charting his own path. He focused more on senior homes, on jails and on schools. He brought his ministry of movement to the people in his community who had given up or gave up too easily.
He put the mission first and regained his confidence, but something was still off. He wanted to bring salsa to a bigger audience — in the United States, Barrenzuela says, salsa is at a third-grade level.
In 2012, he moved to Burbank. He taught salsa at the Burbank Adult School, and is talking to the city and school district to take his program community-wide. Through his website, www.salsa29.com, he's hoping to connect to senior homes and community programs in Burbank this year.
Barrenzuela carries a binder full of mayoral commendations and letters of recommendation from community leaders throughout his hometown. If it can take hold in a small Midwestern town, Barrenzuela believes salsa will provide a common language to Burbank's diverse cultures.
It's worked elsewhere in the world, after all.
“No matter what country I went to … Russia, Italy … all I had to say to a cab driver was ‘salsa club' and boom! I didn't have to talk. I just had to dance.”