Mumbai's ballroom dancing legend J J Rodriguez passes away

Published: 06 November, 2013 08:07 IST | Hemal Ashar and Fiona Fernandez |

Mumbai's ballroom dancing legend J J Rodriguez passes away, bringing down the curtain on an era redolent of old-world discipline and genteel, refined taste

Joao Joaquim Rodriguez (JJ Rodriguez), Mumbai’s legendary ballroom dancing instructor passed away of a prolonged illness at 6.30 a.m. at his Colaba home on Tuesday (November 5). J J Rodriguez (88) was battling multiple myeloma for the past three years. Multiple myeloma is a type of cancer that is caused by malignant plasma cells that proliferate in the bone marrow.

J J Rodriguez and a student do a tango exit. Pics/Bipin Kokate

His grief stricken daughter Crystal Valladares sought to compose herself as she said yesterday, a few hours after her father’s passing, “He passed away early this morning at home. In fact, I was with him till 1 am. He was suffering from a complex illness multiple myeloma since three years and also had a weak heart.

A recent file photo of J J Rodriguez with wife Dorothy

He was becoming progressively weaker since the past few days. The doctors used to marvel at his spirit and the will to fight this disease. Yesterday, I thought that his breathing was a little more rapid than usual. I also requested people to stop bursting bombs (firecrackers) just below the window in our building. At least, do not burst these past 10.30 pm, I told them. Still they went on and I think he was getting startled with all the noise. Anyhow, maybe the time had come…” she stated sadly.

A picture of JJ Rodriguez dancing with his wife

Crystal recollected her last few moments with him, “I put my arm around him at 11.30 at night on Monday, as he started breathing rapidly telling him: ‘Papa, this is Crystal’, to reassure him. I then gave him milk with Crocin. I was there till 1 am, massaged his back and saw him sleeping. I then left. At 6.30 a.m. when I returned I saw him sleeping peacefully, but noticed that his chest was not moving. He had passed away. I suppose it was a smooth passage.”

An iconic picture of J J Rodriguez

Crystal recollected how her feisty father was teaching complicated dance techniques, “Really advanced techniques just 2.5 years ago. He was teaching my husband Damian and I, and his attention to detail was minute, like always. It was July 2, 2011 in the afternoon. Soon after, he suffered a myocardial infarction. He was rushed to Bombay Hospital, and within three months he was walking with support. Even though he was battling several illnesses, he was particular to be in the Studio, monitoring classes. In fact, I remember we had a Christmas Gala at the dance studio last year, with him handing out gifts to people.”

Renato Rodriguez

Talking about gifts, one maybe amused to see the classy membership card to the J J Rodriguez dance classes at Colaba. The card which is in cream and maroon gives the name of his school: Cours de danse and has embossed on it: ‘Give the gift you would like to receive. A gift coupon for lessons in dancing at J J Rodriguez Cours de danse’. In a world where shouting from the rooftops has become routine marketing strategy and hype often overshadows the real product, the card with its old-fashioned wisdom and instructions speaks volumes about this dance instructor.

Crystal (l) Valladares with her sister Janis Khanduja look at a picture of their father, yesterday

Crystal explains, “My father never believed in group classes. He gave individual attention. It was individuals or a person and their partner. We could have made much more money coaching groups but my father was never into that. What he wanted was pure and simple: to impart the art to people. He was, in fact, very, very particular about what one wears when dancing, how one should conduct oneself, social etiquette… he was a stickler for this and a proud man in his own way.”

Crystal said that though her father could be correctly categorized as old school, he took pains to keep up with the latest in dance. “As a member of some of the most prestigious dance schools in the world, he was always learning about dance, and updated about Championships and new advances in technique. This was his life and he lived for his choreography. I remember him giving dance lessons to a Russian lady here in the studio, some time ago, instructing ‘right foot back’ even with clots in his brain, he was so alert.”

Crystal recalls that it was his discipline and dedication that spilled over from dance studio to other aspects of life. “He was particular about diet all his life, avoiding fatty stuff. He also had a great religious background with faith in Our Lady. For years, he participated in the march of the Blessed Mother Mary from Colaba to Bandra.”

Crystal says the perfection shone through in things like “having a correctly laid table. He was particular about how the cutlery was laid out. He would always have his tea in a teapot, with a doily and milk in the milk jug.” Point noted. No cutting chai for this gentleman. Crystal laughs through her tears.

At a time when people make tall and hollow claims, J J Rodriguez stood out. “Earlier, he would get angry at claims by so called experts posing in the press in ridiculous ways, claiming it was a tango pose or something. He never believed in silly posed shots. It was always action shots for him. He would shoot off letters to editors pointing out mistakes and false achievements by charlatans. Later on, he simply laughed all this off replacing anger with amused resignation, but he was disappointed in the ways of the changing world.”

Crystal though stresses that his stern demeanour was tempered with gentleness. “Sunday was family day for him. When we, my brother Renato Rodriguez, who lives in New Jersey (US) now, and sister Janis (Meher) Khanduja were children, we, along with my mother Dorothy would go for a drive with him after Mass. Then it was off to the La Patisserie of the Taj and breakfast together. It is little things like this that will stay with me forever and what I will miss.”

While the family is still trying to process the loss, Crystal says that her mother Dorothy, she and her husband Damian will continue the J J Rodriguez legacy and keep the dance studio going. Right now though, it is a time for memories and mourning, of the passing of not just a man, a father or a dance instructor. It is the passing of a way of life. It is people like these who bring alive clichés like: ‘They just don’t make men like J J Rodriguez any more.’

Funeral Service Mass: Wednesday November 6, 9.30 am. Holy Name Cathedral, behind Sahakari Bhandar, Colaba.

Dance With Me
Ballroom: Ballroom dance is a set of partner dances, which are enjoyed both socially and competitively around the world. The term ‘ballroom dancing’ is derived from the word ball, which in turn originates from the Latin word ballare which means ‘to dance’.

Waltz: The waltz is a smooth, progressive ballroom performed primarily in closed position. In California the waltz was banned by Mission fathers until after 1834 because of the “closed” dance position.

Foxtrot: The foxtrot or fox trot is a smooth, progressive dance characterized by long, continuous flowing movements across the dance floor. It is danced to big band (usually vocal) music, and the feeling is one of elegance and sophistication.

Jive: Jive is a dance style that originated in the United States from African-Americans in the early 1930s. It is a lively and uninhibited variation of the Jitterbug, a form of Swing dance.

Shiamak Davar
Pioneering a movement

Celebrity dancer and choreographer Shiamak Davar says, “This is very sad news. He was an institution in himself. I remember, every time I would go for a film, his ads would play in the theatre. It is very sad when someone who pioneered a movement and furthered performing arts, passes away.” 

A student remembers...

The death knell had been sounded. Being chosen to stand bridesmaid for a cousin’s wedding, meant yours truly would have to brush up on the mandatory ballroom dances at the reception - the big-ticket draw at every Catholic wedding. The hushed-up truth that I wasn’t exactly Ms.

The membership card for J J Rodriguez’ pupils

Smooth Moves on the dance floor was met with sighs from the family. After all, how many Catholic girls worth their patent leather shoes and slinky black numbers couldn’t do the classic Waltz, or Jive with panache? Falling into this minority, one had no choice but to sign up for J J Rodriguez’s Cours de Danse, with the hope of being able to negotiate this event with minimum embarrassment, and in record time too (we had a month before D-Day).

Back in 2008, I signed up for the ten-session Waltz and Jive course that cost Rs 2,000. Noticing my flat, bikini sandals when I had dropped by for a dekko, the instructor threw in a polite reminder, “When you join, please remember to wear closed, heeled footwear.” In a week’s time, we were ready to ape Gene Kelly and Co - well, sort of.

The minimalist, glass-panelled dance studio wall off Colaba Causeway spelt business. Worse, I was without a dancing partner. Soon, a six-foot something banker walked in, equally unsure of how this “dance class” would turn out. This five-foot nothing, with two left feet, was paired with Mr Long Legs.

Our dance instructor was a school principal-like figure in her late 50s; she didn’t mince words. Amazingly nimble-footed despite her heavy frame, she plugged in the music, and thus began one of my most memorable learning experiences. In fact, in the first 10 minutes, I realised that this was a stark contrast to what ensued at several newer dance workshops; it was serious stuff - you lived and breathed dance for 60 minutes. There was complete emphasis on the foundations in dance routines. Grace was under fire, but it was worth every minute.

On the rare occasion, the great J J Rodriguez would drop by, sharing a valued gem or two about footwork and keeping time to the beats of a tune. We would soak in every word, and be relieved to have been spared a dance routine in front of the legend. A month later, D-Day on the dance floor went off minus any missteps, and with an accolade or two, even. R.I.P. to the icon who taught Mumbai to dance.  

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