He's the Filipino Canadian who danced his way into Madonna's kingdom. Jojo Zolina — in Mumbai to conduct dance workshops — was amongst the 100 who auditioned last year to be a dance instructor at Hard Candy, the pop icon's fitness centre in Toronto. Only 10 were picked and he was one of them. And then, after a month of intense six-hour training sessions every day, he was finally dancing alongside his idol at the grand opening of the centre.
"Madonna is amazing to work with. Her spirit, talent, energy, intelligence, business sense and sheer class is inspiring. She's organised and knows what she wants. Her team knows what to expect of her and she knows what to expect from them. Madonna connects with each of the dancers and doesn't even need to speak. She just has to look at them and she knows if they need help or if they have nailed the routine," says Jojo, whose training sessions at Mumbai's Temperance India were presented by the Kundu House Project.
An instructor for the 'heels class' and 'addicted to sweat', Jojo teaches people who want to lose weight, be active, de-stress as well as those "who just want to dance to Madonna music".
Madonna and Nicole Winhoffer, her personal trainer for 10 years, select the DJ for the sessions, but Jojo makes a mix of the diva's songs so people are inspired, feel energised and can sing along while working out.
So how often does Jojo interact with Madonna? It all depends on what she is doing at that point in time. If she is working on an album and is busy in the studio, he may not see much of her. After an album is released, she tours with pre-selected dancers. But she still remains very involved with the fitness centre, as she and Nicole create the content and programmes for Hard Candy Fitness gyms worldwide. Though Madonna lives in New York, she stays connected with her team on an online video forum. "They fly down to teach us new choreography. She is open to change as long as the choreography is the same around the world," says the dancer, dressed in shorts, a black tank top, a sleeveless jacket and sporting a bowler hat.
A dance alchemist, Jojo boldly blends elements of Ethnic Folk Dance, Hip-Hop, Funk, Vogueing, Waacking, House, Reggaeton, Dancehall, Contemporary and Salsa. He also loves Kathak, he says. "For 10 years, starting when I was 13, I participated in a folk dance competition organised by the government. Almost every year, I battled with an Indian girl. She did Kathak and I, Filipino folk dances."
His love for folk rhythms has led him to learn Flamenco, Thai dancing, African folk dances and more. While east African rhythms involve greater foot movement, in west Africa it's the arms and in the northern part of the continent, it's the head that does the talking, he says, demonstrating with deft dance moves.
Jojo has choreographed music videos for Cory Lee and Brock Zanrosso, performed with Michael Buble, K-OS and Nelly Furtado and also in the films Pacific Rim, Dr Doolittle 3 and Catwoman. He would also like to work with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. He did audition once, for Janet Jackson's Super Bowl. "There were 300 guys auditioning and she was only looking for 15 guys. I made it to the top 50, killing the freestyle and choreography sections, but lost out on technique. That's when I realised I needed dance classes."
In the next five years, he plans to travel and do more productions. Or he might take a trip down under, not to dance, but to snowboard, surf and explore the mountains.