“It’s really not about what you’re selling, but why you’re selling it … what you are creating is a place for people to come and celebrate diversity, Latin music and Latin culture, and their own culture.”
Bachata power couple, Lee “El Gringuito” Smith and Kat “La Gata” Aguilar dominate the bachata music scene in the Washington area. They’ve traveled the world performing and teaching bachata dance moves, and brought the bachata world to Washington, as well. The influential pair is the force behind the annual D.C. Bachata Congress, one of the largest bachata festivals in the world. Founded in 2008, the Congress attracted more than 6,000 dancers from 40 U.S. states and 29 countries last year.
At its center are Kat and Lee, gliding through intricate turns and dips in color-coordinated outfits that add to the atmosphere and sensuality of their performance. The passion and chemistry is undeniable. Not only are they business and dance partners, they will be married later this month.“Kat & I spend double the time together as most couples,” Lee says. “It’s a blessing to be able to work together and have a relationship. We are truly blessed to have one another. We are both ready to spend the rest of our lives with one another!”
While they come from different backgrounds, Kat and Lee are both natural performers.
Originally from Alexandria, Vir., Kat grew up in a multicultural household with a Peruvian father and Salvadoran mother, and began dancing at a young age.
“From early on, we always had parties at our house. And, as a little girl, I was always the first one to get up and be the one dancing around the table for some reason,” she laughs. “I loved dancing from the get go, and as soon as I could, put my money into dance lessons…My dad was really influenced by the old school salsa…and on my mom’s side, there was a lot of cumbia and bachata…I just kind of fell in love with it.”
By the age of 18, after a year of putting all her money into private lessons, Kat became a dance instructor, working 60 hours a week in addition to another job. At area dance schools, she taught a little bit of everything—salsa, tango, and ballroom. Bachata wasn’t popular like salsa at the time.
“There were not that many turns in bachata. It was the basic one-two-three-touch. It wasn’t that attractive (to me) until I met Lee…he was pretty much the pioneer in bringing bachata into the D,C., Maryland, and Virginia area,” she says. “Now bachata has all these intricate turn patterns, dips, and tricks, there’s even a cabaret style of bachata.”
Before becoming a professional dancer, Lee was a professional magician. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Lee grew up in Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains. An entertainer even as a child, Lee performed magic shows at birthday parties and Poconos resorts.
By the time he started college at George Mason University in Fairfax, Lee had already performed magic hundreds of times and yearned for something new. One night, on a visit to Coco Loco in the Washington D.C.’s Chinatown neighborhood, he was so inspired by the Latin dance performers that he traded in his magician’s hat for dancing shoes.
“Just learn a little salsa basic step” he jokes, “you can be short and bald and dance with any girl you want to. I’m kind of short, but I’m not bald so I figured I had an advantage,” he says. “But nevertheless, I feel in love with Latin dancing, the culture, the music, the ladies…”
On a trip to the Dominican Republic in 2004, Lee saw bachata danced for the first time, inspiring his future career.
“When I ended up going back to D.C.,” he says, “I realized nobody was really promoting bachata, so I started the Bachata Meetup in 2007, which at that time was the first bachata Meetup group in the world. Now we have almost 2,000 members.
“The next year I decided to start the D.C. Bachata Congress, which at that time was only the third ever bachata festival in the United States. In fact, a lot of people in the dance scene laughed at me and said, ‘Oh wow who’s going to go to a bachata festival?’ We started with around 600 people, and now, we get close to 6,000 from 40 states and 29 countries.”
It was through the Bachata Meetup that Lee met Kat in the fall of 2010. “I added myself to this bachata Meetup,” says Kat, “and literally not even 24 hours later Lee’s like, ‘Hey I’m looking for a dance partner.’ So that’s where it all started.”
Between the two of them, Lee and Kat have performed in more than 800 cities worldwide, teaching more than 200,000 people, and producing six instructional bachata DVDs. They’ve started more than 40 Latin nights in the D.C. metro area. Some of their most successful venues included Mango Mikes in Alexandria; Cabanas on the Georgetown waterfront; Station 9 on U street in the District; and E-Cities in Tysons Corner. Currently they’re at Lucky Strike in the Chinatown on Sunday nights for their weekly dance lessons and Latin party.
“Kat and I really work well together” Lee says. “We have different skill sets. I tend to be what I call ‘entrepreneurial ADD,’” he jokes, referring to attention deficient disorder. “I have a lot of ideas and Kat is much more focused and organized. So together we create a power team because we can ultimately take on events and get creative…”
Lee and Kat are also always working on new ways to improve and expand the annual D.C. Bachata Congress, now in its 8th year. Much more than bachata, the congress also showcases salsa and Kizomba, a sensual dance from Angola that’s been gaining popular in the U.S. in the last few years.
This year the festival will take place at the Renaissance Hotel with musical performances by Frankie Ruiz Jr, The Ray Barretto All Stars, K-Rose, Kewin Cosmos, Neander Lima, P-Lowe & many more! Unlike your typical concert, it will be a “multimedia experience,” Lee says.
“We’re really trying to create a Cirque du Soleil type atmosphere,” he says. “So it won’t just be watching a concert.”
Lee and Kat seem to be doing it all, but having such a demanding and hectic schedule does not come without its challenges. Lee says it’s been hard to prioritize, let go of some responsibilities and let other members of their team to help out. Keeping everyone happy at the Bachata Congress, they say, is a challenge they share.
“With 6,000 people, you can’t keep everyone happy, but we try to tackle the majority of them and improve for next year,” Kat says.
It appears, however, that they do a pretty good job; according to the exit survey for last year’s festival, over 90% of those polled said they would recommend the festival and come again.
“It’s really not about what you’re selling, but why you’re selling it,” Lee says. “Sometimes you get so bogged down with trying to make everything perfect, you forget that what you are creating is a place for people to come and celebrate diversity, Latin music and Latin culture, and their own culture.”