It's National Hispanic Heritage Month, a period observed from September 15 to October 15 that recognizes the contributions of Latinx and Hispanic communities to American culture. The dance world has been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of those contributions, with Latinx dance artists leaving legacies that have helped move it to a more inclusive place.
At Dance Spirit, we're celebrating the month by highlighting four Latinx dancers whose groundbreaking work is opening doors for the next generation.
Abdiel Figueroa Reyes (Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Reyes)
Abdiel Figueroa Reyes<p>The concert contemporary world—where companies, including Nederlands Dans Theater, the Hofesh Shechter Company and the Batsheva Dance Company, create out-of-the-box works that make bold, artistic statements—can sometimes be intimidating to aspiring professional dancers. But this wasn't the case for <a href="https://www.instagram.com/abdiel522fr" target="_blank">Abdiel Figueroa Reyes</a>, who'd been preparing for a career in this exclusive world most of his life. That hard work paid off and landed him a job with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2019.</p><p>Reyes' contract with the company came after years of training at the Rock Center for Dance and Contemporary West Dance Theater, both in Las Vegas, NV, and after joining the inaugural program of Hubbard Street's Professional Program and apprenticing with the company, where he is the only Latinx dancer. "It can feel very isolating to be the only Latinx dancer in the room, but I have been fortunate enough to work in an environment where it has never been a dominating factor, and where my true self is authentically supported," the 22-year-old says. "It was not until the past couple of years that I realized the weight that my brown body carries, inside and outside of the studio."</p><p>His body also carries this capacity to move in creative, near-alien ways. He is captivating, the way his improvisation vocabulary can move from sultry to rigid to utterly vulnerable. He attributes his movement aesthetic, in part, to his Puerto Rican heritage, which he says gives him "incentive and a more innate reason to keep pushing for more out of my career while proudly being Boricua."</p>
Carlos Gonzalez (Benjamin Majors, courtesy Gonzalez)
Carlos Gonzalez<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/cargo5" target="_blank">Carlos Gonzalez</a> is a dancer with American Ballet Theatre, whose gorgeous feet, dreamy extensions and effortless ballon make him a standout in the company.</p><p>Gonzalez also happens to be one of only a few Latinx dancers in the company. "It's difficult," he says. "But I think the best way to handle the pressure is by trying to do your best every day, bringing your own personality into your work, and believing in yourself and the artist that you want to become."</p><p>Born in Madrid, Spain, Gonzalez trained at El Conservatorio Profesional de Danza Fortea and El Real Conservatorio Profesional de Danza Mariemma before joining the ABT Studio Company in 2015. He was quickly noticed, gaining an apprenticeship with the main company in 2016 and joining the corps de ballet in 2017. He says he's grateful for the opportunity to represent the Latinx community at ABT, which is largely underrepresented in the Western ballet world. "There aren't that many of us in the company, which makes my experiences very special—but hard at times," he says.</p><p>The challenging moments in his career haven't stopped him, though. He says he loves connecting with audiences too much to let anything get in the way of his success. "I probably feel the proudest as an artist when I receive messages of gratitude for doing what I do, for transporting the people that come to see me or ABT to a parallel world where, for a while, all the problems of the real world disappear," Gonzalez says. </p>
Monica Douglas performing with singer Becky G (Vivian Phann, courtesy Douglas)
Monica Douglas<p><a href="https://www.instagram.com/monicagiavanna" target="_blank">Monica Douglas</a> grew up dancing as a classic comp kid, winning regional and national titles at some of the biggest events in the circuit. After attending Penn State University, Douglas moved to L.A., and almost immediately began booking jobs with major artists.</p><p>Among her favorite memories is performing at the 2014 Essence Festival in New Orleans, LA, with rock/pop legend Prince. "It was definitely one of my first big milestones within my first year of living in Los Angeles that told me 'You can do this!' " Douglas says. "To me, it meant that no matter what I look like—my skin color, height, weight, anything—I could be successful in this industry."</p><p>That drive and determination have served her well. She's since worked with tons more iconic musicians, including some of the top Latinx artists in the world, like Daddy Yankee, Jennifer Lopez, Bad Bunny, Pitbull, J Balvin, Becky G and Camila Cabello.</p><p>"Working with these artists is empowering as a Latina dancer because we really get to celebrate our culture to the fullest extent," Douglas says, who identifies as part Panamanian. "There's nothing like performing to Latin music in front of thousands of screaming fans."</p>
Jon Rua (Susan Stripling, courtesy Rua)
Jon Rua<p>If you've ever seen Lin-Manuel Miranda's <em>Hamilton</em>, then you know <a href="https://www.instagram.com/jonrua1" target="_blank">Jon Rua</a>'s work. He's been collaborating with Miranda since the Off-Broadway rendition and his Broadway debut in Miranda's first Tony Award–winning musical, <em>In the Heights</em>, at the Richard Rogers Theatre. Later, Rua would become a member of the original Broadway cast of the founding-fathers musical we've all come to love, contributing his own voice and choreography to the show.</p><p>As a member of both casts, Rua has had a unique opportunity to work with a diverse group of theater artists, which is something he says he appreciates. "It was a wonderful way to build some semblance of family in this country," he says. And while that diversity isn't represented in all corners of the musical theater world, Rua believes that can change "once America, the entertainment industry and the musical theater industry recognize Latinx stories are just as American as any other American story."</p><p>His story began in New Jersey, as the son of two Colombian-born parents. He didn't grow up building the "traditional" Western dance foundation, but instead used what made him unique—in particular, his connection to his Colombian heritage—to power forward, and he encourages young Latinx dancers to do the same: "Embrace the passion and the rawness of your love and your journey," Rua says. "Do not succumb to the expectations the entertainment world sets for Latinx dancers. You are American. When you see so few faces that represent you, it is upon you then to represent yourself and Latinx artists, and take a stand for what the future can be."</p>
In the face of today's racial crisis, many Americans are now reckoning with their own complicity in the oppression of marginalized groups, and asking, "What can I do?" For college dance programs, which help mold the minds of the next generation of dance artists, this is an especially important question. For decades, most departments have centered on white, Western styles—ballet, modern, contemporary—rather than dedicating resources to the world's myriad other dance forms.
Fortunately, some college dance programs have pledged to diversify their course offerings, and to dismantle the layers of white supremacy that still pervade our art on a larger scale. And while many colleges are now beginning this work, a few have made
it a central part of their mission for years. Here are four schools with longstanding commitments to a more equitable dance education.
Alabama State University student Lauren Erwin (Devin Rickett, courtesy Alabama State University)
Alabama State University<p>ASU BFA majors are exposed to two non-Western tracks twice a year, offered in four levels: African dance and hip hop, or jazz and tap. Both tracks have deep roots in Black American culture and the African diaspora, and have been a part of the program since its inception. As one of the nation's remaining historically Black colleges and universities, ASU has long prioritized a dance curriculum that reflects its student body.</p><p>The result has been beneficial not just for the students but also for the school. "By offering these courses," BFA program director James Atkinson says, "we have been able to increase the interest of students from other departments, students who may not have previously considered dance as a major or minor." In addition to the dance program's set curriculum, ASU offers students master classes in a range of non-Western forms, to further broaden their understanding of dance and dance history. </p><p>Jazmun McCoy, a sophomore BFA dance major at the school, says learning non-Western styles has instilled a sense of confidence in her college training. "There is never a moment when I have to question if I am learning about myself," she says, "because my personal history is rooted in the non-Western dance training available to me at ASU." </p>
Efeya M. Ifadayo Sampson (front) leading class at Sarah Lawrence (Ian Douglas, courtesy Sarah Lawrence College)
Sarah Lawrence College<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Sarah Lawrence's dance department puts a </span><span style="background-color: initial;">special focus on exposing the layers of implicit bias in dance history. John Jasperse, the director of Sarah Lawrence's dance program and a noted NYC-based choreographer, believes that dancers must "reckon with our history to reveal connections that have often been obscured in the </span><span style="background-color: initial;">past in order to begin to heal ourselves as a society. In the past, the United States has euphemistically been referred to as a cultural 'melting pot,' but to do so is to erase the differential</span> power structures that were historically at play in creating our hybridity." This coming semester, the dance history course will be called Hip Hop: Dancing Diaspora from the Local to the Global, examining other forms of street dance, including voguing and house. The school will also offer a course about using dance as a lens for cultural critique.</p><p>But explorations of implicit bias go beyond dance history courses, too. "The analytic seminars all support a historical and theoretical understanding that is in dialogue with what we do in practice-based studio classes," Jasperse says. Those classes range from West African dance to hula to hip hop to Butoh.</p>
Goucher College<p>At Goucher—located in Baltimore, MD, where 62 percent of the population is Black—offering non-Western dance training has been a way to tackle issues of social injustice. Rick Southerland, a dance professor at the college, says dance programs in higher education tend to whitewash what dance is and should be. "Dance exists everywhere and is experienced in a myriad of ways and for a variety of reasons within different cultures and societies," Southerland says. "The study of non-Western dance sheds light on other histories and philosophies."</p><p>The program offers a BA in dance that requires students to be technically proficient in West African diasporic dance, modern, and ballet. Students can also take theory courses that address body politics. Nicole Blades, a senior in the program, says she's loved being able to train in non-Western dance techniques: "My professors have been encouraging and informative in not only teaching non-Western styles, but also educating us in the history and origins of the movement we are learning."</p><p>The department is also committed to engaging the greater Baltimore area. "We employ expert drummers and dancers from the community," Southerland says. "Even students who have never taken a West African dance class are deeply engaged and excited about their dance-study experience."</p>
University of Colorado, Boulder, students studying African dance with professor Nii Armah (Daniel Beahm, courtesy University of Colorado, Boulder)
University of Colorado, Boulder<p><span style="background-color: initial;">CU Boulder started working to address racism in dance nearly 18 years ago. "We first began dismantling the ideas of level and 'technique,' offering instead a variety of styles that include hip hop, house, jazz, and transnational fusion," says Erika Randall, chair of </span><span style="background-color: initial;">the department of theatre and dance. "Classes that have, in the past or in other programs, been relegated to elective status are absolutely required here—not required because of their 'diversity,' but because they are essential to training. We want to support the education of dancers who are going to become the problem-solvers of our global experience."</span></p><p>Randall, who grew up dancing in a competition dance studio, understands the challenge of changing a dancer's long-held perceptions of which dance forms are important. "When a dancer comes in with three pirouettes and a high leg kick, and that doesn't hold the same currency of accomplishment in a house class, they can feel frustrated at first," she says. "But they learn a new virtuosity, a new relationship to speed and rhythm. What was once prioritized as 'petit allégro' in their bodies is now achieved through 'footwork.' They find gravity and groundedness and a new connection to the earth that they had perhaps spent their entire lifetime trying to defy."</p>
You may know what it means to earn a silver, gold, or platinum award for your performance—but probably not an A, B, or C grade. Often, dancers don't encounter the idea of grading in dance until they enter collegiate dance programs. When you're evaluating an inherently subjective art form, what distinguishes an A student from a B student?
The answer: It's complicated. "There's a lot that goes into creating a well-rounded, successful student, which hopefully produces a well-rounded, successful professional," says Angelina Sansone, a ballet instructor at University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
In college programs, set movement phrases, repertory selections, or audition-style classes often serve as graded midterms or final exams. Written components such as self-assessments, audition research projects, and dance history tests might count as well. But the largest contributing factor to your grade is usually how you approach the work, day in and day out.
Dance Spirit talked to faculty across the country to discover what it takes to be a top student—and why dance grades matter.
What makes an A student?<p>A common misconception when it comes to grading in dance is that dancers with natural facility are automatically at an advantage. But banana feet, easy exten-sion, or a slender physique won't earn you straight A's.</p><p>"You don't have to be the most naturally gifted dancer to get the highest grades," says Michelle Loucadoux-Fraser, Hussian College, Los Angeles' associate dean of undergraduate studies and dance instructor. Butler University dance professor Susan McGuire agrees. "We don't grade facility," she says. "It's what you do with the facility you're given that makes the difference." An A student shows up prepared for class, and stays present and engaged throughout its entirety. An A student is professional and approaches any and all work with the same level of vigor. An A student thinks critically, behaves positively, and performs reliably, striving for growth each day as an artist and as a technician.</p><p>University of Arizona's dance professor Tamara Dyke-Compton says grading has everything to do with effort, dedication, progress, and discipline. "Those are the things that, for me, changed when I earned my A's at Juilliard," Dyke-Compton admits. "It wasn't how much better my feet were. It was about what was deep in my soul."</p>
University of Arizona's Tamara Dyke-Compton (front) teaching class (Ed Flores, courtesy University of Arizona)
What's the point?<p>Why bother grading dance, besides the fact that many colleges require letter grades? Grades are a benchmark, a way of assessing your progress. When grades are inflated, dancers get the wrong idea of where they are in their training. "It gives the student the false impression that they don't have a lot more to do," McGuire explains.</p><p>Don't be surprised if your highest grades come in your later years at school. Dance faculty determine grading criteria based on what will best prepare dancers for a professional career. As you meet those expectations, your grades will rise, and you'll be better prepared to enter the real world—a process designed to progress each semester. "In the first year, I tend to give very few A's," McGuire says. "For me a B is good; an A is excellent. You're doing good work. It's just going to take a while. We have to up the ante." </p><p>Loucadoux-Fraser says there's no point to being in college if you're getting all A's all the time, anyway. "Along with that not-perfect grade comes an impetus to improve," Loucadoux-Fraser says. "I don't think the right thing for students to do is to fixate on grades. I think the right thing to do is to focus on improving, and then the grades will come."<span></span></p>
University of North Carolina School of the Arts students in class (Pete S. Mueller, courtesy UNCSA)