Edwin Rivera (Photo/jeff e photo)

LA Salsa Congress: From gang member to international salsa star

Dressed in his gang colors and his jeans hanging low, Edwin Rivera was 15 when he says his mom chased him with a broom to Starlight Dance Studio in the Bronx, New York. His mom had reached her limit with his delinquent behavior and gave him the ultimatum of either going to dance school to live her own dream of becoming a dancer, or joining the military. He chose dance.

It was at Starlight Dance Studio where Rivera met his first mentor, David Melendez – the man who ordered him to come back through the door and properly introduce himself with a handshake. Shortly after, he was raising money for Rivera to go to his first Los Angeles Salsa Congress – an annual 4-night event featuring more than 3,000 beginner and expert salsa dancers each night from all over the world.

“I threw the gun in the garbage, and it was history after that,” says Rivera, now 28.

He says he didn’t know what the Los Angeles Congress was or how big it was, but he does know that once he arrived to LA and took that first step onto the stage, his life changed completely. The opportunities started pouring down on him. He got to teach Ben Stiller the cha-cha for the movie “Along Came Polly” and play his idol, Roberto Roena, in “El Cantante” with Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez.

He says it was performing at the LA Salsa Congress that made him realize he wanted to be an entertainer for life.

“It gave me a specific purpose,” says Rivera. “I knew I wanted to inspire.”

Before that trip, the only airplane Rivera had gotten on was to visit family in Puerto Rico and at 15 he was going to Japan for the first time to dance. It was there where he got close to Albert Torres, the founder of the annual Salsa Congress.

“When I got to Japan, as soon as I got on stage he came up to me,” says Rivera. “He said, ‘You especially are amazing…There’s a rumor that you want to move to LA and be an entertainer…Let’s try and make it happen in this lifetime.”

Rivera, who had been on the verge of dropping out of high school only a few months before, says Torres continued to tell him that if he graduated with honors, he would bring him to LA.

“When he told me that, I got straight A’s my junior year and senior year,” says Rivera like he still can’t believe it. “When I got to LA, my life changed. I got my first movie – ‘Along Came Polly.’”

Nothing was handed to him though. Torres only bought him a plane ticket and helped find him a place, but Rivera says he made sure to teach him how to stand on his own and also discover himself as an artist.

“I told Albert I want to be different,” says Rivera. “I want the world to watch me perform and touch their heart.”

Step by step, Torres started taking the young Bronx boy all over the world. Rivera says he’s now danced on every continent except Africa and there’s been a whirlwind of job opportunities for him, including a commercial for Nikon, producing music for MTV and having his own reality show in Chile for three years. He’s now studying acting and is an after-school teacher in the LA elementary public school system – making sure low-income schools get arts programs.

“All my new work debuts at the LA Salsa Congress,” says Rivera. “That event is more than just an event for me. That event changed my life. Every year I try to change at least one person’s life the way mine was changed.”

This year, he’s taking his kids from the school he just started last year in Los Angeles – aptly named Starlight Dance Studio – to perform for their first time at the 14th Annual LA Salsa Congress starting tomorrow night.

“I’m fusing tap dancing with salsa,” says Rivera who is excited to debut them. “I’m also debuting my new single from my second album. My new single is a fusion of salsa, Latin house and techno.”

Rivera will be performing Saturday night with his kids and Sunday night with other fellow salsa greats like Grammy nominee Sexteto New Swing and Alfredo de la Fé.

“I take my mom across the world now,” says Rivera happily, and gratefully. “Living is the best experience right now.”


  1. […] RELATED: LA Salsa Congress: From gang member to international salsa star […]

%d bloggers like this: