Written by: Jo Ann L. Breaux
What would seem like a typical interview for CRAFT RVA actually became an instant karmic connection. It is one of the reasons that CRAFT has been on hiatus, but I thought it appropriate to explain myself to my very supportive readers and I thought what a way to get back in the game.
Let me start by saying that dance for me is an art form and craft I've always been affected by. It is probably the only one that can stir emotional expression so deeply and sincerely. Yes, I am that person who thinks Travis Wall and Sonya Tayeh are choreography gods. So, to say the least I sort of love dance and yes I will, with reckless abandon, dance in my living room. I had no idea I would be submersed into its very world by coming to the aid of a computer challenged technicality. I'm proud to say that I hold a title here at Latin Ballet and yes, I know I'm writing a biased piece, I would like to think I am being subjective with my internal experience.
I speak horrible Spanish. I barely know my Panamanian history. I was never really exposed to that side of my culture besides the incoherent Spanish ramblings of my mother's foreign tongue or the occasional traditional Latin meal or story. I never really understood what my mom went through when she came here in the 70s. I didn't understand how disoriented she must have felt going from the lush jungle and mountains to the humid, flat Deep South. I blocked out all the times she was made fun of for her accent or called certain things for her tanned skin. I was angered how men leered at her in the grocery store, but was just a small child and unable to do anything about it. It wasn't well into my teen years I found my ethnic identity and really comprehended why mom never taught me Spanish or anything about my Panamanian background and learned I was never Latina enough, Asian enough, or white enough to be able to figure out the capacity of my genetic makeup. Which is why, this whole connection with Latin Ballet has been some kind of racial cosmic connection.
I can go on and on about Founder and Artistic Director of Latin Ballet of Virginia, Ana Ines King and her credentials and awards. It would take more room than I've got here. I'd rather concentrate on Ana as an artistic role model and as a native of Bucaramanga, Colombia. It is important to note that Ana's mother was a dancer and she was the one who taught her the art of Flamenco. Her sister. Rosana is also an accomplished dancer, Ana being the Queen of the East while her sister resides in the West, both educators and choreographers. To say this little mouse of a woman is passionate is an understatement. This woman who founded Latin Ballet of Virginia with an idea sprung from an experience her daughter, Melody had when coming to America, has worked relentlessly to implement and engage cultural understanding through dance for 20 years!
Ana's story is similar to my mother's. The likeness between them is uncanny, the way they speak, the way they explain things, and mostly the fervor of determination. Ana sees something she wants and then she makes it a reality, through sheer belief. She's fiery, she's enthusiastic, and she's bold. She does not take "no" for an answer and it is through that she knows nothing to be impossible. Ana came to America just as my mom had, simply put, she fell in love with an American, married, and came to the United States. What isn't easy to understand is the assimilation process. I was lucky, I didn't have to partake in that part because I was very young coming here from Panama, where as Melody was almost a teenager when they arrived in Virginia. Now, as I'm writing this, I discovered that when I came to Richmond, I was a pre-teen, I had been raised in Cajun country for most my life. Coming to Richmond was incredibly difficult for me. I was extremely shy and people made fun of my accent and my clothes. I was a fish out of water for sure. So, when Ana was telling the story of her daughter's experience, I was not only recalling my mother's, but also my own. Ana's daughter also lost confidence in herself, she didn't speak and she became quite depressed upon arriving here.
For any American who travels abroad, it is difficult to really delve into the language and culture of some countries you visit. We as Americans travel swiftly, usually taking in 3-5 countries in our two week vacation allowance. There's not really time to learn anything. You take a gondola ride and eat pizza in Napoli, you say "Hola" in Spain while drinking Sangria on the beach, you take some photos in front of the Eiffel Tower while eating some cheese and before you know it, you're back on American soil never having learned the language or spending a good amount of time partaking in the culture.
For Ana, if was her husband's family who gave her the hugs she needed, the warmth that comes from being Latin, to feel comfortable and accepted. For Melody, starting in a new school wasn't so easy. There are no open windows in the schools here in the States, but in places like Panama, Colombia and Costa Rica, the schools are open to nature, you can hear the birds sing, a monkey or two pass by and the sun shining it's beams inside while you are learning. It was a very different "institutional" environment here for her and for someone coming from such topographically beautiful lands, it can be a hard place to adjust. It is quite difficult to feel like you belong or that you are connected to anyone when you've been plopped into a whole different culture. Ana, although hard, was willing to let her go back to her native Colombia and finish out the rest of her school, but it was a simple demonstrative assignment of teaching her classmates Salsa and cumbias that would not only bring Melody out of her shell, but would also spark the conception for Latin Ballet. Ana would soon realize that dance could help these kids identify and feel proud of where they come from. She could teach them English through dance and help them become more confident in speaking and interacting with their American peers and so Ana, would find her mission.
Despite being 20 years established, a lot of people have different notions of what Latin Ballet does. LBV is made of three solid branches on a very colorful tree. Ana not only has implemented successful award-winning educational programming and residencies including the "Be Proud of Yourself" program and the Arts in Education Summer Camps in our Richmond, VA community, but LBV is also made up of a Professional and Junior Company which perform throughout the year, sometimes touring outside the state. If that's not enough, LBV teaches students in Flamenco, Salsa, Ballet, Hip Hop and Contemporary dance techniques four days a week for 16 week semesters. What's beautiful about what LBV does, is it creates an environment where children from different backgrounds and countries can feel confident and safe, yet also gives exposure to those kids who are not always in a gentrified group. In other words, White children are learning about Spanish and Latin language, history, culture, and folklore and they are learning it directly from the source as well as helping these students who don't know English very well, language skills they need in their new home. When you walk into an LBV studio, you see a medley of children from all different races and backgrounds. When they are dancing together, they are one. Ana is a big believer in everyone feeling good and confident about who they are. She embraces all her "children", including her adult instructors and dancers, some of whom have been with her since they were as young as 3 years old. The programs she has brought to many low-income schools and communities has brought exposure to the arts to children otherwise oblivious to this world. Sponsors of Latin Ballet contribute to scholarships given to a lot of high-risk/low-income children, giving them the ability to learn to dance and perform.
Ana and her Professional Company of dancers perform at many charitable events and it is no secret that Ana does it out of pure love. If she wasn't dancing, I think she'd be six feet in and even then, I think the soil would kick up around her. Most of LBV's productions are folklore and myth based. She takes a lot of stories from Hispanic and Latin culture and tells these stories through passionate dance theater performances. Often times, they will showcase many dance forms and she has been known to bring guest artists from Spain and elsewhere to share the stage with them. LBV has quite a spectrum of ethnic backgrounds within the Professional Company itself including Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Italian, all from different dance backgrounds and lifestyles. I think it gives the entire feel a zest not found in most dance companies. When people see an LBV show they leave invigorated and spirited. There's a lot of heart on and off stage.
When foreigners come to this country it is to seek a better life, a better opportunity. It is not only to contribute to their families who don't have the monetary means, but it is also to give to American society. Without Hispanic culture in this country, Texas may not have won their independence, more than half of the street names in America would not exist, you wouldn't know what a taco was, and a lot of white people would not be dancing Salsa at the club. What makes Latin Ballet of Virginia so special is that it is inclusive. It brings something unique to the stage and it gives back to our community by providing education through dance. I've been to Henderson High School. I have seen what dance has done for these kids. It put a huge smile on my face when they proudly showed me what they've learned through our residency and yes, they were good, one teen actually choreographed her own routine. It is this type of learning that influences kids to become better people.
This weekend LBV is re-staging the production of "Nuyorican" which tells the stories of real experiences of Puerto Ricans who migrated to New York after WWII and the shaping of a culture in a foreign land where they faced discrimination and oppression. It also touches on the challenges of their offspring, born American, but caught between a cultural war of identity. It's a relevant piece, significantly in current times. Strangers in a strange land. I'm very proud to be a part of LBV. Not only do I get to be around dance, but I also get to understand where I come from more and it has become my little family, my hands flying, fast talking, Spanish speaking, vibrant familia.
For all those interested in learning dance from Latin Ballet (yes, even you adults) visit their website.