All Jose Figueroa ever wanted to do was dance. This year, he also decided to make a documentary about it.
The 49-year-old native Houstonian, who during the day teaches life skills to special-needs students at Channelview High School, has become a fixture in the smaller corners of the local music scene. He likes places like Sambuca, the Big Easy, Shakespeare Pub and Birraporretti's, rooms that favor jazz, blues and swing, but Beetle at the Continental is a favorite too. Figueroa calls himself a "social dancer," and says he's been doing it for 15 years.
Figueroa's friends would tell him live music was better in Austin or other parts of the state, but he has been regularly dancing to live music in Houston long enough to not give their words much weight; about 15 years, by his reckoning.
"I knew better," says Figueroa, who was there when Herbie Hancock came to play the opening of Sambuca. "I wanted to prove [them] wrong."
He came up with a plan he believed would show everyone just how rich Houston's music scene really is, how deep the talent pool of musicians is even when those early-weeknight crowds are pretty light. Figueroa decided to go out and dance to live music for a solid year, 365 nights at venues from downtown to CityCentre to Memorial to Upper Kirby, sometimes three or four venues in an evening.
"For the bands, it means a lot to have people at our shows -- people out dancing, having a great time, and Jose is really a cheerleader for the whole scene," says Allen Oldies band front man Allen Hill, who says he's been seeing Figueroa dancing in the crowd for at least a decade, and who was onstage when the teacher's year-long odyssey began at the stroke of New Year's Day at the Continental Club.
"He'll go anywhere to see a band, and get out on the dance floor," Hill adds. "That energizes the musicians, and it energizes everybody in the crowd."
Figueroa admits some folks might think his mission is a little quixotic, but says it's been an "amazing endeavor" and a "wonderful experience."
It hasn't come easy, though. Figueroa was in a serious accident on Memorial Day, rolling his car on I-10. He figures he might have been killed if the traffic had been heavier. He watched one bandleader fire his drummer as Figueroa was dancing. Recently the woman he had been dating, who had been his dance partner for much of the year, broke up with him and then he spotted her on the dance floor with her ex-boyfriend at Beetle one Thursday. But he's still dancing.
"I didn't expect any of this stuff to happen," Figueroa says. "I was just trying to dance and show how friends how much fun it is to dance in this city, every day of the week."
Figueroa has also been documenting his dancing diary on Facebook, and was almost exactly two-thirds of the way through his goal when he met a colleague at a Panera near their workplace one Friday evening last month. While they were in the restaurant, someone broke into Figueroa's car and stole everything he had been using to make his documentary -- his MacBook, GoPro camera and, in what he admits was a no-no, the hard drive he had been using to back up his progress. All gone.
"Don't leave your backup drive in with your first drive," Figueroa says. "I know. It's painful."
Best he can figure out, all his stuff happened to be in his car at the exact same time through a strange "confluence of events or whatever." Unfortunately, Figueroa says thus far both the police and his insurance company have been unsympathetic. But all he wants is his stuff back, no questions asked.
"I would not press charges," Figueroa swears. "All I want is my hard drive back and backup hard drive so I can finish my documentary. There's a lot of stories to be told about the Houston music scene."
A task like this sounds like it would be an incredible grind. It took a while to sink in as Rocks Off was talking to him last week, but eventually we had to ask: Figueroa really hasn't taken a single night off since this started?
"No, buddy. I'm sleepy."
"I'm 49 years old. I have a lot of energy," Figueroa says. "I'm a very enthusiastic guy. I'm actually a very sane guy, but I do have a lot of energy. I do pretty well with very little sleep, but lately I've had less sleep since my stuff was stolen, because I would like it back."
Story continues on the next page.
Even after his stuff was stolen, though, Figueroa was back out on the dance floor that same night. He's been using his iPhone to take video of his dancing, and kept updating his Facebook page. The way he talks about the scene, his tireless support of Houston's local musicians they comprise sounds a lot like a crusade.
"It's vibrant, and there's a lot of people who believe in it," says Figueroa, the son of well-known Houston trumpeter Willy Figueroa who remembers his mother bringing him to see his dad play the old Coco Loco club on Hillcroft after his parents divorced. "The dedication that somebody like John Egan has, to play every Monday night at the Big Easy to the bartenders and maybe two or three people who are friends of his sometimes...you know?"
Still, his work on the documentary has taken a big hit, and Figueroa knows it.
"There's a lot of photos and additional material that would have been in the documentary," he sighs. "I don't have any interviews on any of that stuff. I have a little less than 100 days left. I'm going to document the next 100 days the best way I can."
This week Figueroa has been trying to set up a Kickstarter page to help raise money for some new equipment, but was having trouble getting the required introductory video edited and completed using only that iPhone. As much as he's been through at this point, though, it seems like a foregone conclusion that he'll find some way to get it done.
"I would have probably danced 200 times this year anyways," Figueroa says. "So I added 165 days to it; big deal. I'm only tired today because it's been a rough week. I'm going to take a nap, then I'm going to go to Discovery Green and dance, then I'm going to go to Continental Club, and then I'm going to go the Big Easy."
That's exactly what he did, too.
"It's kind of crazy -- people dancing to a band," chimes in Allen Hill. "That's kind of how it's supposed to be. Too often you see people, and they're talking with the band in the background, or eating dinner and whatnot, and [dancing] is a great visual reminder to people: hey, you should listen to the band. It's fun."
ROCKS OFF'S GREATEST HITS
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.