One day, he was watching Youtube videos; and the next, he was a professional Latin dancer, dancing his way into people’s hearts and winning awards all around the world.
Well, if only it was that easy.
Kuala Lumpur-born Kelvin Ong has just turned 27 and he knows precisely how much hard work is behind these achievements.
Just in the last few weeks, together with his Ukrainian dance partner Masha Kozobrod of two years, they won the first place in both the Asian Dance Tour Taiwan (Professional Asia Latin) and in the Brilliante International DanceSport Championship 2019 in Singapore (Professional Asia Pacific Latin).
He was also the first Malaysian finalist at the Dutch Open Championship (Professional Rising Star Latin) last year.
And to think that it was merely a decade ago that he was that wide-eyed teenager at a friend’s dance performance. He knew practically nothing about Latin Dance then, and that Cha Cha performance blew him away.
“That first time watching a Latin Dance captivated me completely. I will never forget how much fun, life and energy I felt as I watched the intricate foot movement, strong hip movements and quick spins that went so well with the upbeat music of Tito Puente,” he enthuses.
So taken was he with that experience that he wanted to learn how to dance, but quickly realised that it was a hobby that was too costly for a 16-year-old.
“So I turned to watching YouTube videos of professional dancers worldwide. Eventually, I managed to save up, with part-time jobs, to take classes at a neighbourhood dance studio,” he shares.
Whether Ong knew it or not, this was to be the start of his Latin Dance journey.
Incidentally, throughout his days at university, where he was an economics student, he found himself spending all his free time dancing.
“I knew deep down that I have a strong passion for it. With the support of my family and close friends, I decided to take a leap of faith and move to Bangkok after my studies, to learn and practise under the famed coach Uapan Snidvongs,” he says.
It was not a stab in the dark: Ong had met Uapan before, during one of his casual performances in his final year at university. Uapan has mentored many greats in the region, and Ong clearly has a lot of respect and admiration for his first formal professional mentor and coach.
“He is truly a legend in the world of ballroom dancing and taught me what real Latin Dance is all about. For instance, it is not about moving perfectly in a technical sense on our own; it is about how my partner and I dance harmoniously together with the help of music, to express ourselves and connect with the audience.
“Masha and I would never be able to thank him enough for the development and achievements in our dance careers. He inspires hope in all of us,” says Ong.
Did he imagine that he would come this far when he first started with dance? It has been said that dancing is best started when one is young, and 16 is certainly not young by any stretch of the imagination where dance is concerned.
Is there really such a thing as “too late”?
Ong confides that he worried about this as well when he started, but he realised that it is never too late to do something you love and be good at it.
“One would get a headstart if he or she receives the right training at a young age, but I truly believe that without passion and dedication for the craft, it will be hard to sustain and excel at it.
“Latin Dance requires a lot of time, physical fitness, as well as an understanding of your dance partner, in order to succeed. Learning about renowned dancers such as German professional Latin dancer Carmen Vincelj, who is a nine-time champion at the WDC World Latin Dance Championships, despite starting dance at the age of 17, was also inspiring and encouraging to me,” he shares.
Ong is currently based in Bangkok. There, he teaches at The Dance Academy Bangkok, which is Uapan’s dance studio, as well as WE Fitness Society, one of Thailand’s biggest gyms.
The cost to participate in competitions, travel, as well as dance lessons, all add up, he notes. Unfortunately, passion doesn’t pay the bills – at least, not directly.
But he is still living the dream, in more ways than one.
“To me, Latin Dance awakens the dreamer within. I feel fulfilled when my dance partner and I successfully illuminate what we imagine, and there is a connection with the audience. Masha and I only turned professional half a year ago, so a realistic goal for this year would be to make it to the finals at the British Open Championship within the Professional Rising Star Category,” he says.
Ong also aspires to be the first Malaysian to win the Professional Rising Star and Professional Open Category, and he hopes that he can inspire more young Malaysians to believe in their passion.
He has come a long way from those early days, but he recalls his first-ever dance competition with fondness. It was the 15th Penang International Ballroom Dancing Championships at the end of 2008, when he clinched the first prize in the Beginner’s Category, an achievement which he describes as “very encouraging”.
Last year, 10 years after this milestone, he returned to the same competition and emerged the winner in the Professional Category.
“It felt surreal to recall how 10 years ago, I was watching the competition’s professional dancers in utmost astonishment and admiration. It was definitely a moment that made me pause and remind myself of all the reasons I chose this path, and why it is all worth it in the end,” he says.
A decade since his first brush with Latin Dance, it seems Ong has come full circle. But for him, a new journey is only just beginning.
For more pictures of Ong and Kozobrod, look them up on Instagram: @KelvinMasha_Dance.