MAGNIFICENT MAGNA: The Philosopher-Dancer

As we settle down to our Zoom interview, Magna Gopal is her usual energetic, affable, extroverted self, eager to chat. With the kind of easy-going, confident-yet-self-deprecating charm she exudes, it’s easy to see why she is enduringly popular as a teacher, performer and public speaker beyond the international salsa scene that has made her name. Yet underneath, she’s one tough cookie — as well as a deeply philosophical person eager to share her tips for transformational empowerment with the rest of the world.

For those who don’t yet know her, Magna was born in India and moved to Canada as a child. She learned salsa while studying Economics and International Relations at the University of Toronto, and intended to pursue an MA in conflict resolution afterwards, but the demand for her to perform and teach salsa classes professionally in Toronto and abroad grew, so she moved to the New York City metropolitan area to pursue her passion for dance.

A self-taught salsa teacher, her methodology is based on an analysis and deep understanding of body mechanics in dance. Combining her personal philosophies of empowerment and commitment to helping others, she has continuously developed her ‘Mpowered with Magna‘ brand through various channels, including teaching and performing dance around the world, public speaking, mindset coaching and writing.

JC: Your ‘Mpowered with Magna’ brand seems very focused on your personal philosophy of relationships, communication and connection. Why are these important to you?

MG: I believe human beings are essentially communal animals. Even if you are an introvert and your happiness means being on an island all by yourself, you still need someone to take you there and to help you survive, so you still need to be connected to others.  

As communal beings, relationships are important. So, the more we understand them, the easier it becomes for us to have those relationships in a way that not only benefits us — that helps us get closer to our goals — but gives our lives meaning and purpose, which is also about contributing and giving back. Now, how do those relationships function? They function through communication. So, it’s important to get better at communicating. Sometimes we can get very good at speaking, but terrible at listening. As a result, we hear things that upset us, take offence, and end up receiving hurt and pain, which affects our relationships negatively.

Usually when we think of relationships, we think of depth — and we think we need years to develop those relationships. But in dance, you realise you can have deep connections very quickly, even after only a five-minute dance. Granted, I might not know all the background of that person, but sometimes even after just one dance, I just instantly know we are going to be friends.

Magna with ‘Million Moves Man’ Mario Hazarika, a fellow globally successful salsa personality from an Indian background (Credit: Salsaholics)

JC: How does what you’ve learned about communication through dance translate to a non-dance audience?
MG: I’ve actually written quite a lot about the importance of smiling and touch as non-verbal forms of communication. Dance gives us so many opportunities to communicate and share our joy through smiling and touch. Because we share our passion with so many people in dance through smiling, we get more confident at smiling at others and more used to doing it. Then we can go out into the world and meet another stranger and think, “Maybe I can also enjoy five minutes with you?” and go ahead and smile at them. This helps us grow in our ability to connect with other people.

Touch is also important for connection. When you dance with someone, it becomes easier to differentiate between touch that is sexual or has another agenda, and touch that is purely for connection. When you realise you can connect through touch without an agenda — which is what the world usually thinks touch is about — it is liberating.

“As you get more comfortable with giving and receiving touch,
it makes you a better communicator.”

—Magna Gopal

Dance enhances your skills of reading others’ non-verbal cues, which helps you to be better able to read and give off those signals when you encounter others outside the dance scene. If I am giving a speech or talking to non-dancers, I can work out the right amount of contact. I will know whether I can break that barrier and make physical contact with them without them feeling like I’ve invaded their space, or like I have some kind of physical agenda — or like I’m inviting them to exercise one.

Magna teaching a packed class at the Istanbul Dance Festival about how to think about their movements (Credit: SalsaMalsa)

JC: How do you feel about non-smiling dancers?
MG: That reminds me of someone I danced with recently — I can’t remember if it was a salsa or a bachata — he was a very good dancer, but very straight-faced. I said, “How come you don’t smile more?” And he said the lyrics were about losing someone, so he was feeling that emotion. So now I’ve stopped judging him or other dancers who don’t smile, because maybe they are responding to the music in a different way. If I hear John Mayer singing ‘Slow dancing in a burning room’, I’m not going to be smiling. But if I hear ‘London Bridge is falling down’ — not that I want it to fall down! [laughs] — I’ll probably smile. If we hear any type of trigger in the lyrics, we’re going to express the emotions we attach to that song. But I still always try to get a smile out of somebody — at the very least, at the end of the dance!

There are also times people aren’t smiling as a result of fear or insecurity, or an uncertainty, and in those cases, you can usually tell. Sometimes it’s the other end of the spectrum, when it’s a kind of cockiness or arrogance – like “it’s not cool to smile!” Whenever it’s one of those moments, I try to influence those situations. If it’s insecurity, I’ll make jokes. Or I’ll screw up on purpose and apologise. If it’s arrogance, I’ll try to make fun of that. If they’re not even making eye contact, then I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I can dance like this too [tosses her head nonchalantly].” If they ask, “What are you doing?” I’ll say, “You’re so cool! I’m trying to copy you so I can be cool too!” Usually they end up laughing, and then boom! we’ve broken the ice and can be human with each other.

JC: What key moments contributed to your philosophy, both as a dancer and as a person?

“My entire life is the source of my philosophy. Dance is just an extension of the way I communicate generally — I wouldn’t box myself in as I’m a dancer; I’m everything. That’s how I look at myself: I’m whoever I want to be in that moment.”

—Magna Gopal

I was lucky I found dance, because it appeals to so many facets of my personality, like being an extrovert, being very social, being physically active, moving, developing an awareness of my body, connecting with people, travel, experiencing new cultures and food, and all that stuff. Dance is very much aligned with who I am.

But the mindset I approach everything with — like relationships and communication — I’ve had since childhood. I remember at 16 cutting off all my friends who were drinking and going to parties, and weren’t on the path to further education, because I really wanted to focus on getting into university. For a while I was shunned — I went from being super-popular to being a loner. But it enabled me to push forward and succeed. So, I realised I didn’t need other people’s acceptance if they weren’t aligned to my goals — support, yes; acceptance, no.

When I got into dance, it was a similar experience. I got a lot of criticism for how I dance and how I act — why am I hyper and always joking around? But I just kept pushing forward, and that’s what’s allowed me to succeed. So, my mindset is about understanding you don’t need others’ acceptance if they don’t align with your goals.

Magna social dancing at the Valentine Zagreb Salsa Festival (Credit: Mayer Miklos)

The other thing that’s important is always growing and learning, and adapting to what is happening around you — which involves embracing change, embracing discomfort and the unknown.

As a child I was really curious to experiment — I would go to the park and climb trees, and I would see a bug and be like, “Oh, what kind of bug is that?” And when I got into dance, it was the same thing, because I would say, “Oh this is new!” or “I’ve never tried that! I’ve never danced with this person, so let me try this.” Or I travel somewhere new and I see all this food, and I think, “Oh, I’ve never had this, let me try it!”

Embracing those new experiences has impacted my dancing, because it allows me to truly flow with another human being. I don’t approach a dance with an idea of what it’s going to be like — even though they might have an idea, it almost never goes the way you think it will.

“When you’re comfortable with discomfort, when you can adapt
and be resilient, every situation becomes a positive outcome,
because you acknowledge your influence on it. You don’t feel
like a victim, but a contributor.”

—Magna Gopal

Even if it was negative, you can say, “I did something that allowed this to happen — what can I take out of it?” It’s always integral to your learning experience because that’s part of the process. You are not a victim because you’re participating in the process, which is about how you are learning and developing as a person.

So that allows me to be comfortable with change — to realise every situation can be a positive because I am always learning from it. Even if it is a negative, it’s still part of my growth and development.

JC: Where are you now in your journey? Have you achieved your goals?
MG:
Well, I’ll never feel like I’ve ‘made it’ per se — there are so many other levels, I have chosen not to go there! [Laughs.] But one of my goals in dance was to disrupt this community and enhance it, and I feel I have done that — just by changing things up, by changing the role of a follower, by changing the idea of what it means to be a woman and a solo female artist in a male-dominated industry. I feel I’ve contributed to this dance in a way that enables more people to find their voice and expression, and not feel boxed in by definitions from 20 years ago.

But the lessons I’ve learned in dance aren’t just dance lessons — they are life lessons that can be 100% successfully applied to improve people’s relationships, happiness and fulfilment, their profession, their vocation, their passion — all those things. I feel what I was able to take from dance was a gift, and I want to be able to give it back. I like the idea of balance in life — I don’t want to hoard what’s been given to me; I want to find a way to give it back, so that in this life I have taken, but I have given more. And right now, I don’t feel like I’ve given enough — but I don’t feel like I’ll ever get there.

“My next goal is to find ways to take these lessons and convey them to a non-dance audience. My TED talk was one step in that direction, and I’m continuing with my Mpowered videos on my YouTube channel, which takes some of those titbits from dance to find out how we can apply them to our lives.”

JC: Speaking of that, how was your TED talk? Was it as nerve-wracking for you as public speaking is for most people?
MG:
I’ve done plenty of two-and-a-half-hour seminars at salsa congresses with people just sitting the entire time. At the end of the session, they’re like, “Aw, is it done already? Can we just carry on?” so I felt comfortable with that part. But the TED talk was nerve-wracking because it was a different audience, and the challenge was “Will I be able to communicate this very important lesson to a non-dance audience by giving dance examples?” I was also thinking, “What do I wear?” because I didn’t want to come in a business outfit because that’s not me. So, in the end I just wore jeans and a nice shirt and some heels, which felt right.

Magna on stage giving her TED talk (Credit: ThisLearning.com)

When we were all backstage, the first thing they told us was the order of the speakers. And they said, “Magna, you’ll be opening.” And I was like, “Maybe they think I suck?” But they said, “We think you’re our strongest speaker, so we want you to open.” So, then there was the added pressure of going first. When I looked at the very old rickety stage with pieces of wood missing from the floor, all I could think was, “My God Magna, you’re going to walk out and your heels are going to get stuck in that floor, and before you even say a word to this audience you’re going to fall flat on your face!”

Fortunately, I got past that, but then we were in this tiny little box so we could be within a frame for their cameras, and I felt like a lion in a cage because the space was so tiny and I couldn’t move. When I got into my speech, I really wasn’t sure I would be able to communicate my message well or look comfortable, but once I started speaking and realised the importance of what I was talking about, it started to feel better.

I would actually love to do more TED talks, or more talks like that in general. There’s just so much people don’t know that if they only knew – even just a small hint of it – it would totally change their life. Even a simple thing like my talk on rejection, which means instead of sitting this song out, you could be happily sharing your passion on the dance floor. Or how being able to smile with someone can make their day. Or how much more connected giving a hug instead of a handshake could be. So yes — there are so many more lessons from dance I would like to give — I’m determined to put those out there.

Magna delivering one of her Mpowered Musicality and Connection seminars to seated students at the Vilnius Salsa Festival

JC: If the Covid-19 restrictions continue, how will you go forward as a dance teacher?MG: I like Bruce Lee’s concept of ‘Be like water’ — learn to flow. I believe we have to adapt — so if next year means knowing I can’t travel abroad and teach dance, then I have to go with the flow. If I was stuck at home with no social dancing and no congresses, I can do online classes, and I can teach people how to become better communicators.

Actually, lately I’ve been doing fitness sessions online for private groups. It’s something I’m good at, and I can get better. Now I know how to create workout programmes and add all these variations, target different muscles and package that all together in a way that challenges people — and although I never ever thought of doing that, because of this situation, I found a way.

I like Bruce Lee’s concept of ‘Be like water’ — learn to flow. I believe we have to adapt — so if next year means knowing I can’t travel abroad and teach dance, then I have to go with the flow.

—Magna Gopal

I’m also coaching one of my students who is a university teacher, helping her find out how to build and engage with an online community. Many teachers haven’t grown up with this technology, so they need to learn how to adapt.

There are plenty of other opportunities, and I believe in the ability to rise above this — I don’t ever doubt I can do something if I want to. Going back to embracing discomfort, I don’t have to be a victim — I’m a participant. I can sit there and say, “Why is this happening to me?” or say, “This is happening, and this is what I’m going to do with it and how I’m going to add to it.” This is just another situation for me to apply my philosophy, to advance myself and stick with my purpose — which is to help other people.

As a teacher and as a social dancer, Magna always seeks to find and bring out the joy in every moment

JC: What do you think makes you successful as a teacher, and how do you adapt your teaching for different people?
MG: There’s a great sense of satisfaction in seeing others improve — that’s the quality of a good leader or teacher. With some people, once they get to a level of authority, their focus turns inward. They forget that the reason they got to that level of authority is because they were busy helping other people. But when I am teaching, it’s always about my student, about the person in front of me. When I am with you, nobody else matters — it’s about giving you as much as I can. And if there’s gratitude, fantastic. But if I don’t receive the gratitude, but I can see you grew, then I feel I’ve done something right.

The base for my teaching is ‘Mpowered with Magna’ — so whether I’m teaching dance, fitness, or whatever, it’s always about getting my students to feel more empowered. I adapt my teaching on the information I receive, which goes back to the dance analogy of leaders and followers. There’s not a clear leader and a clear follower — they are fluid roles. Being a good leader or teacher requires the ability to be a good follower, or learner. Similarly, a good speaker needs to know how to listen. The only way I can lead my group is to listen, and to pay attention — whether they’re speaking or not, I need to observe how and what they’re saying, including their body language. I take all that information and figure out what will best resonate with them to help them get better.

Magna with her pal Munchkin

I do have a kind of motherly, care-taking, parental quality — I don’t have kids, and don’t even have pets, but I do have plants, which are finally starting to survive. When people ask me “Do you have any kids?”, I’ll say, “I’m working on my plants!” If they say, “That’s not what I asked you!” I reply, “But didn’t I answer your question?” My plants were struggling, but they’re doing pretty good now, so maybe I’m ready for a pet! [Laughs.]

As an example of this quality, I have a friend I call ‘Munchkin’. He is not a kid as he’s 26 years old, but I always feel I want to take care of him. And if someone’s in my class, I want them to know that with me, they’re safe. If they fall, I’ll help them up. If they are struggling, I’ll show them the skills and help them find the strength to get through. If they are nervous, I’ll show them there’s nothing to fear. If they need to go into battle, I’ll be right there beside them. That’s how I am with my friends and my students. I want them to know I’m there to protect them and help them to enhance their abilities so they can face this world and maximise everything they can from it.

JC: Who or what challenges you or has ever challenged you? Have you ever felt
you were wrongly judged by anyone?
MG: Well, it depends on the way the challenge is delivered. If somebody challenges me in a fun way, cool. Then, even if it’s a competition, we’re both winners.

But if it is a situation where there are people who are cocky and arrogant, or who are maybe coming from a very insecure or malicious place, and if they challenge me in a way that attacks or has the intention to hurt, my response would be different. I would brush them off, saying, “You’re hurting, but I don’t need to take that, and I don’t need to contribute to that pain.”

“Growing up alone most of my life — having to fend for myself, be
my own cheerleader, be my own person in the corner of the
ring supporting me and training me to fight — allows me to step
up to those kinds of challenges.”

Magna Gopal

If they come at me with words, I can find my wit when I need it, so I usually snap back at them. And most of the time, those people speak not to be spoken back to; they speak to silence [you]. They’re not really trying to fight, so as soon as you put up your fists and say, “Okay, let’s go!”, they back off.

The fact I’ve travelled a lot and seen people in many cultures has helped me to not take a certain delivery or action or set of words as something personal. I can just say, “Maybe that’s just how you grew up. And if I grew up with you, we would be speaking exactly the same. But I didn’t, so I accept you came from a different background.”

(Credit: Steve Martin)

I always say I don’t want to assume the worst of people because I have no idea what they’ve gone through. And if I’m not going to take the time to find out why, I’m not going to take the time to judge. Back in the days of survival, you had to make quick judgements about whether something was going to attack you. And whether you’re being judged or judging, you have to decide where you want to go with it. If you see someone’s action triggers things you don’t want to deal with, you can decide not to associate with that person — but if you see them do one small action out of context and decide to tell the world about it, that’s another story.

Judging is as actually natural as breathing. Everyone’s breathing all the time, so you can’t say, “Oh, he exhaled in my face!” because he was just breathing.

JC: How do you help people cope with rejection? If one of your students was going to their first congress, or had just broken up with their girlfriend, what do you tell them?
MG:
Coping with the rejection — and then going to a salsa congress to have more rejection! [Laughs.]

I tell them, “Some of the most beautiful things you have experienced in your life are because of the chances you’ve taken. Maybe you feel that heartbreak and that pain now, but you did feel joy at one point. And the reason you felt all of that joy was because you took a chance. You gave it a shot. So instead of focusing on this pain you can’t control, why not go out there and aim for that joy again? You have to move past that fear of rejection and try things in order to experience more beautiful things.”

In my opinion, every relationship has its expiration date. Everything ends. Whether it ends because you part ways, you start thinking differently, you move away from each other, you find new friends or a new hobby or a new love or a new job, or you die — one way or another, every relationship comes to an end. And sour milk really does not taste good. So, it’s better to enjoy it while it lasts, then let it go and move on.

“If I can feel this much in only a five-minute dance, why can’t I have that level of intensity off the dance floor?”

—Magna Gopal

JC: If you had one message to give to dancers and/or non-dancers, what would it be?MG: Going back to that dance analogy of having a very intense connection with someone within five minutes, I wish people would look at that dance as an entire lifetime — sometimes it does feel like that. You’re being introduced, you’re sharing, you’re touching, you’re moving in sync to the music — things some people can take years to do outside the dance floor!

Maybe we can take that five minutes and apply it elsewhere as well? Ask yourself, “If I can create such an intense connection in five minutes, shouldn’t I be doing more? Sharing more? Experiencing more? How many five minutes have I had in a 10-year relationship?” It should challenge you to revisit your relationships, and to realise that any relationship can have that same intensity of give and take if you look at it in the same way as a five-minute dance.

JC: So, what’s next for Magna?
MG:
I’m actually doing a lot more writing. I write a lot, really — in general, I just put a lot of my thoughts down, and I have tonnes of stuff I’ve written, but I don’t really publish anything. So now I’m focusing more on publishing, because I have a lot of content and I need to get it out there. So, thanks for inspiring me to add to my blog!

Apart from that, I want to focus on developing my ‘Mpowered with Magna’ YouTube channel, to put these messages out there and see where it goes in terms of coaching and public speaking and helping people. Even aside from communication and building healthier relationships, it’s also about creating community.

I’m also debating whether to do my own podcast. I have one with Leon already, the ‘Naked and Counting’ podcast, which we’ve been doing for a while — I think it is probably the longest-running podcast ever in the dance community, and we’ve done it religiously every bi-weekly Wednesday, with just a few exceptions.

So many times, when I’m talking with friends and we’re just shooting the shit, there are so many important messages that come up, and I just wish I had a quicker way to share them that didn’t require me to shower and get dressed up for it! [Laughs] … I could just speak into it and record something anywhere, and then put it out there instead of this whole production number of having to look decent so people are not like, “Ah! What’s that on the screen? I can’t watch that!” [Laughs.]

I also want to get more into mindset coaching, because I realise that throughout my entire life, my mindset has been the only way I’ve been able to get through all the hardships — and there have been plenty: the negative push against me as an Indian female and a solo female performer in a male-dominated Latin culture; I don’t have family here in the US as my family’s in Canada; most of my best friends live in other countries, so it’s not easy to see them; my entire year of gigs gone just like that. And how did I cope with these things? It’s my mindset.

“It’s the way I think about things that has helped me succeed, so I want to share that, because I think a lot of people are struggling now with uncertainty, and they need to feel empowered.”

—Magna Gopal

As an empath, when I see someone in pain, I want to help them move past that. I try to find ways to relate to people so they don’t hate the world or are resentful — so they can still feel loved, still feel there are opportunities and possibilities, and that there’s still hope. Life is not bad, people are not bad, relationships are not bad, break-ups are not bad —  they are just experiences that you’ve had and have gone through. [In relation to relationship coaching] there’s no point in saying, “Yeah, everybody sucks” — because maybe they don’t, maybe they were actually pretty good to you, maybe it’s just that the timing is wrong or your goals don’t align. This person wants to go flying, and you want to go swimming — how are you going to align? If you need that aquatic connection, maybe you should look for a turtle? Then you might make it on land! [Laughs.]

Magna in royal-blue Indian garb, looking simultaneously sassy, mystic–serious and regal (or is that seriously regal? Or regally sassy?) (Credit: Urban Avenue)

I don’t think people should push pain or negative experiences away, because when you compare joy to that, you realise if you didn’t have pain, how would you even know what joy is? How would you experience the richness of your happiness without those contrasts? Compared to negative moments of pain and discomfort, joy really feels amazing. So, developing that empowered mindset further is where I want to go, because it allows people to overcome whatever difficulties they have in their personal lives — whether it’s through dance or personal relationships, or leadership, or work, or whatever.

JC: You mentioned earlier you were writing a book. I’m sure your fans will want to know something about the backstory behind your positive messages!
MG: There are so many times I think about it and then I’m like, “But who the hell wants to know about my life?” But actually yes, there’s a book I am working on now, which is about an experience that happened to me a while back. I’ve already written about 13 pages with 10,000 words in sort of chapters, so I guess it’s a book. I have a whole bunch of things I want to tell about that in detail, because I think it would help other people to understand the way I was thinking and processing things as they happened. There were two people who were involved that struggle, and as far as I’m concerned, I won!

On that tantalising note, we conclude our discussion about the possibilities of that book project. From what I have already learned about Magna, I’m convinced it will be, like her, a winner. Watch this space!

2 thoughts on “MAGNIFICENT MAGNA: The Philosopher-Dancer

  1. A great read! So much to relate to – I worked in conflict resolution and love hearing the stories of international dancers with interests in that area. So true about smiling! Very inspiring to read about a dancer who does so much, and the story is so well told, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great interview, Jane – and great interviewee! You gave her the right questions and she ran with them! Really impressive blog. And just recently I have been noticing how smiles with strangers are catching on.

    Like

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