Editor’s Note: This story was written by Katelyn Keller and was originally published in HCO’s October Newsletter.
Ballet Hispánico’s four-day residency in Winona included an adaptive dance workshop for Home and Community Options’ clients and support staff on Oct. 2 in the Blackbox of Saint Mary’s University Page Theatre.
Eduardo Vilaro, the artistic director of the company and former dancer himself, led the session with overflowing enthusiasm from the center of the room. He spoke with an upbeat voice that filled the black-walled space with evident passion. The session began with warm-ups, then simple movements such as lifting the left hand up, then “hiding” it, then the right, and “hiding.” This progressed to combining the movements of the hands, then to standing up and learning more moves such as the shimmy. Combinations of these movements led to dances such as the cha-cha.
Applause was abundant throughout, while learning a new movement, during combinations, and at the end of a dance. At one point, when everyone else had stopped, one lady was still going. Everyone was clapping for her as Vilaro noted her enthusiasm. This lady became Vilaro’s partner for demonstrations later on, and he often asked to more applause, “Isn’t she great!” The other dancers of the company also paired up with certain clients or danced with a group, interspersed throughout the room, with evident joy. A couple of the dancers interviewed after, Gabrielle Sprauve and Omar Rivera, both expressed their love for these sorts of interactions. Rivera shared that one of the highlights of the touring experience is “going into communities and teaching and sharing the art of dance and especially Latin dance. It’s fun; they get to move their hips. They get to shimmy and just feel good. So it’s always good to make people feel good.”
Sprauve also expressed enthusiasm about such workshops. She described this one as a “treat,” and said that the company “appreciate[s] being able to do classes like this, and they’re so much fun.” She repeated, “They’re so much fun. Everyone that came had a blast and had an amazing partner. It was just a great time.” She thinks that one of the best parts of being in the company is the community outreach work, bringing people “some excitement, something different.”
A diverse age range participated, younger kids of middle-school age, as well as middle-aged and older people, some of whom were able to participate while seated in chairs, as well as a couple of others in wheelchairs. HCO staff pushed a young gentleman in a wheelchair so that he could fully participate in the spin. Other staff were guiding people through the movements. A total of at least thirty individuals supported by HCO attended, along with a number of HCO staff. There was a refreshing lack of self-consciousness and awkwardness. As Rivera said, the experience was “really enthusiastic and [it was] fulfilling to see the community come together and just dance and enjoy the energy from each other.”
Mikayla Jonsgaard, one of the younger participants, said that she would do this again and that she had come because it’s fun. She likes dancing at home with music, having a preference for the pop genre. A current favorite of hers is “Panini” by Lil Nas X. Her favorite part of the class was learning the dance moves, and her favorite move is the shimmy, which she demonstrated.
One of the older middle-aged participants, William Arrick, also expressed his excitement about the session. He described the workshop as “the perfect dance” and mentioned that his favorite part of the class was the cha-cha. He then launched into a discussion about Elvis with various demonstrations. He regularly attends HCO’s Monday Adaptive Dance sessions.
In answer to the question of whether this class was much different from what his company usually does, Vilaro emphasized with enthusiasm, “No, no. No, we are,” and he gave a slight pause, then emphasized with further passion, “we are blessed to have the ability to do community work.”
Vilaro went on to give a brief background about the foundation of the company. During the ‘70s, Tina Ramirez had started the company for kids in the inner city of New York who wanted to avoid drugs and gang life. Ramirez trained these young people to become professional dancers. And so, Vilaro said, “we are always focused on community and community interactions. So we do everything from this type of class to, you know, training dancers. It’s a wide, diverse amount of community service work.”
There is an immense cultural significance to the company as well, being deeply rooted in the Latino culture. The company’s purpose involves bringing individuals and communities together to celebrate and explore Latino culture through dance. The company aims to be a role model in and for the Latino community, inspiring creativity and social awareness. Vilaro said that everything he taught during this class had to do with the Latino culture.
Sprauve and Rivera made it clear how this heritage played a significant role in what drew them to the company. Sprauve said that she saw the company perform at the Joyce Theater and “fell in love,” and then auditioned in her senior year. She explained that she “really wanted to join the company just because for years [she had] been trying to find a place where [she] could connect with [her] culture but also could dance.” And, she concludes, “the best place was Ballet Hispánico.”
Rivera shared a similar story. He “fell in love with the company when [he] first heard of them.” A number of his friends who were students in New York City had seen the company perform at the Joyce and the Apollo. They told Rivera to look into the company. And so, Rivera dug for information about the company and “fell in love with the overall theme and aesthetic.”
The cultural aspect plays a major role in this class’ connection to Saint Mary’s. Theresa Remick, Managing Director of Saint Mary’s Performance Center, describes Saint Mary’s Page Series as something “really here to be able to connect the community, which we consider to be Winona and Saint Mary’s, to cultural experiences that aren’t here otherwise…. We’ve looked for things you wouldn’t otherwise see…. And frequently, that takes the lens of a company or artist who works in a cultural specific way.” She said that the department “really look[s] for ways to help Winonans and Saint Mary’s students have experiences that will expose them to other cultures, other lifestyles, as well as just really high-quality art.”
Remick met Vilaro many years ago when she was working for National Arts Strategies when Vilaro was in the chief executive program. She “remembered how wonderful [his company’s] work was and that was a lot of the reason why [Saint Mary’s] decided to bring [his company Ballet Hispánico] in.”
HCO has already partnered a number of times with Saint Mary’s, and Remick thought that Ballet Hispánico would be another good opportunity to do so. Remick said that ever since she’s been at Saint Mary’s (four and a half years, to date), she’s been working with HCO’s Events Coordinator, Lynette Johnson, and Communication Coordinator, Ashly Bissen, to develop additional ways to partner.
For this experience with Ballet Hispánico, Christine Martin, Saint Mary’s Dance Residency Coordinator, had contacted Johnson at the end of June about Ballet Hispánico coming to Saint Mary’s. Martin had asked if such a workshop would be something of interest to HCO. And this idea became a room overflowing with positive energy and community connecting through dance, which, Arrick said, “can change the whole world.”