Valentino, S.2 dropout now scaling dance heights all the way to the BBC

Richard Kabenge, commonly known as Valentino, is a Latin and ballroom dancer and actor. From appearing in local music videos to being a judge at dance competitions in London, the 28-year-old is going places with his dance moves. Quick Talk caught up with him for a chat.

Briefly tell Quick Talk about yourself!

My name is Valentino Richard Kabenge. I am a Latin and ballroom dancer, an actor, creative director and I am a God-fearing guy.

Where did you grow up, Valentino?

I was born in Kyebando, Gayaza road, but grew up in Kawuku along Entebbe road where I lived until my S.2, when I dropped out of school.

Oh! What happened?

Lack of school fees. In Kawuku, I was staying with my cousin and it was her husband who was paying my school fees, but unfortunately he died and she couldn’t afford by herself.  My mother passed on when I was very young; I actually didn’t get to see her and my dad is alive but he just didn’t have the money.

What did you do after dropping out so early?

Dropping out at the early stage was very disappointing and there were very many attempts I made to try to get back in school but failed. So, I left Kawuku and returned to Kyebando and started looking after cows at my uncle’s home. I got tired of that and realized I needed to go after something that I felt within me but was not paying attention to, and that was acting. Growing up, I was a big fan of Nigerian movies and I could see myself doing the same.

So, you went into acting

Kind of. I would go to National theatre and try auditioning for movie roles but I wasn’t cast. Then I joined Mariam Ndagire for trainings in acting but still no roles were coming my way.

How did you end up dancing instead?

While at Mariam Ndagire’s, a friend invited me to go with him to a certain place where they used to do Latin and ballroom social dancing. It was like a club where they would just dance for fun. But I didn’t go there at first because dancing was not something I could see myself doing. I finally agreed to go there and when I saw people dance to Latin music, I really felt loved and I enjoyed it. I continued going there and started learning.

What made you pursue it as a career?

There is one evening at National theatre during a social dancing session where a Rumba song was played, but because people were so much used to the Salsa beats, everyone left the dancefloor.

I stayed there with the girl I was dancing with and we started to move.  We danced to the song and when we finished, everyone applauded us. I got very good compliments and that is when I realized that through dance, I can tell stories and I started taking it seriously.

Latin and ballroom dancing are not that common in Uganda; for you to become a pro…

I was fortunate that I got my breakthrough before I attended any professional dance school. I would just watch some videos on the internet and create my routines. But after gaining exposure from appearing in some music videos, I saw the need to better my work because by then I was on ‘fake it till you make it’.

I started searching where I could get professional Latin and ballroom dance lessons but unfortunately I couldn’t find any in Uganda; so, I had to travel to South Africa where I paid for 60 private classes for four months.  After that, towards the end of 2021, I got another opportunity to go to London to the Oti Mabuse [she of the Strictly Come Dancing fame] dance studio, where I trained further.

Tell me about the London Dance Night, which you were recently a part of.

It was a very spectacular event where I watched the crème de la crème of Latin and ballroom dancing. I was just invited to represent Uganda, though not as a dancer but as an official through the Uganda Dance Sport Federation. However, when I reached London, I received a call that I had been chosen to be one of the judges for the London Open 2022 Dance Competitions!

Wow! How did that feel?

It was nerve-wracking, because all the other judges were very experienced dancers who had been in the game for a long time. I also allowed myself to learn from them. But that was a day for me to remember.

Am I right to say that this has been your big break?

[Sighs] It is one of them; the best is yet to come [ah, this man dreams big!]. Right after being part of the judges of those dance competitions, I received an invite from BBC and I have been interviewed about Latin and ballroom dancing in Uganda. The interview is going to air during the Christmas season.
Do you think your craft is picking up in Uganda?

At the moment, people are intrigued and there is a lot of growing interest. Right now we are focusing on teaching young children this type of dance because they have all the time to learn and are flexible. For the adults, most of them just come to simply have fun and relax, or fulfill their desire of learning something new.

What is your favourite music video that you have appeared in?

The music videos that showcased me are two; Touch My Body by Rema Namakula and Jangu by Winnie Nwagi and I love them both equally because each of them contributed hugely to my success. Touch My Body introduced me to Ugandans but then Jangu showcased my abilities because it was just me and Winnie Nwagi in it.

Have you given up on your acting dream?

[Promptly] No. I have just been so busy with my dancing, though I have been receiving some requests to act. After starring in Power of Legacy [drama series that aired on NTV], I now need a role that is better, which I have not yet found from all the scripts that have been presented to me thus far.

What happened to your TV show, Dance With Valentino?

Dance With Valentino is a very beautiful concept that I will never give up on. However, after the first season, we realized that there were a lot of things to put in place, starting with the dancing which needed to get better.

During the first season, I was almost doing everything myself; so, it hugely exhausted me. It has a lot of potential because we have tested it with different people, even the BBC, and they appreciated it; so, anytime it will come back bigger and better.

What is the most challenging part about being a dancer?

In Uganda, dancing is an industry that has not been recognized. But I am glad that people are starting to understand that this is a profession. People have now started respecting what we do and know that it has to be paid for.

But is dancing really paying?

It should be paying. I can proudly say that I am a dancer and it is paying for my everything. Most dancers just need to take the time to learn the business part of dancing.  Dancers should just understand their craft and master it, know why they are being paid and how they should be paid.  What has helped me is that I am always curious, asking questions and looking out for people who are better than me and that way, I get to learn a lot.

What did you want to be, growing up?

My dream was to become a lawyer. I would always see myself in court speaking luzungu [English] and that is why I really loved English and literature.

Have you considered going back to school?

Ahhhhh…… If I am to go back to school, I would go to learn dance, acting and hosting, because those are the things that are relevant to me right now.

Any upcoming projects you are working on?

Yes, I have a lot of plans for the coming year and having had these opportunities like the London Dance Nights, it has opened my brand to a whole new audience. We are planning to do a musical film production next year and more ballroom events that bring people to dance.

Source: The Observer

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