Rhoda Castro fell in love with Armando “Jojo” Caliwara while watching him dance.
Their story started when they were college students in Pangasinan. Rhoda was watching a school event when this one particular guy onstage caught her eye. Jojo was performing a jazz piece, unaware that there was this girl in the audience, completely mesmerized.
“Daw,” Ken inserted after sharing the story of how his parents met. “I’m not sure if it’s true, but that’s how my mom says it happened.”
Ken Caliwara’s own history with dancing wasn’t exactly as love-at-first-sight as his parents’ meet-cute.
His mom signed him up for all types of classes: singing, acting, basketball clinics — she was eager to find his son’s passion. Ken was only eight or nine when he stepped foot in his first summer dance class. “I wasn’t that good at dancing,” he recalled. “I had the groove, but I would rather sing.”
The turning point came when Ken was in grade seven. Their church had a big event wherein people from different countries would come to Manila for a conference, and they needed dancers.
“Uy, Ken! Audition for this,” his mom said. Despite claiming that he wasn’t a dancer, at his mom’s (and her friends’) insistence, Ken agreed to try.
“It was the worst audition anyone could make, or do, or have,” he laughs, now recalling the tryout where he danced to T-pain’s 2008 song Freeze. “For some reason, I still got in.”
Then came six months of professional training with mentors whose styles ranged from jazz all the way to hip-hop. By the time the conference came, Ken was starting to think that this was something he wanted to do. He thought, “My dad is a dancer, so I think I have it in me.”
Instead of T-pain, Jojo Caliwara’s muse was disco. As a dancer and former DJ, Jojo was an ’80s music connoisseur. Sybil’s Make It Easy On Me, Swing Out Sister’s Breakout — put any of those songs on and Ken’s dad would dance it out. “He had all of these CDs that he would give me,” Ken remembered. “He would compile all the songs he loved and burn them onto one CD so I could listen to them in the Philippines.”
Music became how they bonded, even when Jojo was living on the other side of the world. Figuring out how to best provide for his wife and son, Jojo moved to the States in 2004 and worked for the entire family. Once he became a citizen, the plan was for Ken and his mom to follow.
In describing how it felt, seeing his dad out there, Ken said: ‘Just seeing how he was smiling after I performed — that was a defining moment in my life.’
Although they would talk almost every day through Yahoo Messenger, their conversations never revolved around dance. “He never pressured me or made me feel that he was better,” Ken said. Instead of saying, “Dance this or dance that,” Jojo would simply tell his son, “You’re dancing now? Good.”
Yet in 2010, just when the family was about to migrate, Jojo’s plan fell apart.
“I was in school and it was Family Day when I found out about my dad’s diagnosis,” Ken remembered. After feeling a sudden pain, Jojo was brought to the hospital and was diagnosed with terminal cancer that had already metastasized to his entire body. The doctor told him he had two weeks to a month to live. “We encouraged him to fly home so we could still spend time with him.”
Jojo’s coming home coincidentally aligned with Ken’s grade school graduation, where Ken was also scheduled to perform. “He was in his wheelchair and he watched me dance in person for the very first time.” Once his dance ended, Ken approached his dad and his kabarkada, who teased him that Jojo was the better dancer. Jojo waved off his friend and told Ken, “So good, so good. So proud of you.”
In describing how it felt, seeing his dad out there, Ken immediately answered: “Just seeing how he was smiling after I performed — that was a defining moment in my life.”
Having been surrounded by dance his whole life, Ken doubts if there’ll ever be a time when he isn’t defined by it. When he meets people for the first time, it’s always, ‘Oh, you’re the dancer!’
Eleven years later, Ken’s thoughts often drift to his late father. “When he was alive, I wasn’t always thinking of him since he was away,” he shared. “Now, in almost everything I do, I dedicate it to my dad, especially when I’m dancing.”
While Ken’s parents immersed their son in music, they never thought it would be a job. “Although my parents are supportive of everything I do, they see passion as a hobby.” With his own DJ-ing, Jojo never saw it as a career with the notion na walang pera diyan. But for Ken, the goal was to turn his passion into his profession.
As a dancer for the award-winning crew A-team and fitness instructor for 808 Studio, Manila’s first boutique dance fitness studio, Ken turned his dream into a reality. Rather than seeing dance as a hobby, Ken believes that his motivation to keep on going is always rooted in passion.
“Artists are here because they stand for something,” Ken pointed out. “Why are songs there? To help you work out? Get through a breakup? Relax? People may think that it’s an expensive hobby with little financial gain, but we’re talking about people’s feelings and health.” In a time of limited face-to-face interaction, Ken still sees the reach and impact of someone’s art, especially his own.
Since his 808 classes transitioned online last March, Ken has been teaching dance fitness workouts to people all over the country through a Zoom screen.
“One reason why I love teaching is that I get to interact with my students in and out of the class,” he shared. Some would drop comments saying how his class was the perfect pick-me-up that turned around their bad day. One person even thanked Ken because she noticed she was getting stronger and more confident. “These messages make me realize that maybe, I’m doing something right.”
Having been surrounded by dance his whole life, Ken doubts if there’ll ever be a time when he isn’t defined by it. When he meets people for the first time, it’s always, “Oh, you’re the dancer!”
When I asked if he ever minds this, he shook his head. “I am a dancer and I am my father’s kid,” he said with a smile. “I spent a lot of time training and just dancing in general. It’s a title I’ll always proudly carry.”
It wasn’t love at first sight, but I guess for Ken Caliwara, dancing is his love for life.