Ballet Hispánico A Cultural Legacy

Arts and Media June 2021 PREMIUM
Written by Kiri Avelar, Deputy School Director, Ballet Hispánico and Michelle Manzanales, Director School of Dance, Ballet Hispánico

Over a decade ago, we discovered Ballet Hispánico through our own dance journeys, which began in the Texas/Mexico borderlands. As dedicated educators, dance became both of our life paths at an early age. We now lead the organization’s School of Dance, located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City.

 Ballet Hispánico has been a cultural legacy institution since its inception in 1970. Founder Tina Ramirez, a Puerto Rican/Mexican American dancer and choreographer, saw a need for a training home where dancers of her community could receive excellent instruction and express themselves through a performative outlet. This very foundation remains true in 2021 and has built a solid 50-year history. Today, the dance organization carries on the vision with a school that serves over 1,000 students annually, a Company that tours the world, and engagement programs that enrich the lives of thousands of students each year with public school residencies, performances, and other community activities.

 We reflect on our journeys, growing up in the field, and see that dance has taught us countless life lessons and a source of joy and growth. As part of the Latinx diaspora, we can often find ourselves consciously or unconsciously checking our cultures, our multi-identities, and our sabor at the door. We shape, shift, and adapt, assessing the norms of the room and work to fit in. However, at Ballet Hispánico we step into a space where we are central to the experience. Our pedagogies, our identities, our cultural ties serve as a learning platform that moves the work, and ultimately the mission, pa’lante

ballet hispanico

Community as Oasis 

In so many spaces, the dance world included, the Latinx community may be seen as “exotic” or “foreign,” often othered. Ballet Hispánico has created a space where our culture is the catalyst for creativity, the point of departure for exploration, the norm, not the tale.  As choreographers, dancers, students, teachers, and administrators, we are in a community of freedom and encouraged to connect, uncover, challenge, and celebrate our cultures, express our identities, and learn from our heritage. One feels this emanated through the music, the dance, and the people when walking through the Ballet Hispánico hallways into classrooms, rehearsal studios, and office spaces. 

The organization serves as a meaningful networking hub, a central meeting point for families, artists, teachers, and dance enthusiasts alike who find a sense of solidarity in this community. What is the force that drives everyone together? Dance. And not just dance as a large umbrella term, but dance that is connected to our roots and centers our identities. Ballet Hispánico is an oasis for our intersecting communities to build allyship and support not only at home but throughout the dance world. 

ballet latino

A Culturally Responsive School  

 Originating with Spanish Dance instruction as its base, the School of Dance has continued to broaden its curriculum over the years while building upon Latinx diasporic dance forms as a centrifugal force. Today, students can dive into one of three year-round studies: Los Pasitos Early Childhood Program for students ages 2-5, where creative movement and cultural dance is explored through a Latinx lens; Encuentros Open Program for students ages 6-18, where one can study flamenco, salsa, Latin rhythms, hip-hop, jazz, ballet, and/or tap; La Academia, a pre-professional training program with focused studies on three curricular areas: ballet, Spanish Dance, and modern dance styles. Paired with these studio training programs is an enrichment series, which expands upon learning in the classroom and bridges students to the outside dance world. Through in-house master classes, field trips to performances across the city, and professional development forums, students find 360-degree connections to dance and the field at large.   

Ballet Hispánico’s culturally responsive curriculum continues to evolve as the needs of the students shift and the field of dance progresses. Ballet Hispánico sees this as key to learning and unlearning more about the art of teaching, boasting a faculty committed to building equitable learning spaces in their classrooms, and engaging an inclusive pedagogy. We know that every dance student isn’t necessarily bound for a professional performing career (although many continue on this path). Dance education gives students more than this one life path, nurturing future leaders of the world, critical thinkers, problem solvers, communicators, visionaries, and change-makers. We know that in addition to artistic excellence in dance, our students will leave our programs with life skills to access joy, own their individual voices, tackle decision-making, work as a team, and truly understand hard work and its rewards.

latino ballet school

A bailar! Access Points  

The School provides multiple performance opportunities for student throughout the year, including an annual block party, community shows, winter showcases, collaborations during the Company’s season, and year-end celebrations. Students get to put their studies into practice through the choreographies, many times a fusion based on the students’ training in various genres. The experience of sharing one’s artform in front of an audience goes way beyond the lights and costumes, the importance lies deeper within, development of self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment. A reciprocal relationship blooms through these outlets - our communities are seen through our performances, and the performance becomes accessible to our communities. This keeps the organization grounded in core values of accessibility and representation.  

 For Ballet Hispánico, working to ensure that finances are not a barrier to studying dance has been a critical part of providing access to dance training for children and their families. Awarding $200,000 in both needs-based and merit scholarships annually has proved pivotal in the School of Dance’s trajectory, ensuring that dance is within the community’s reach. Students across New York City’s five boroughs and New Jersey attend classes weekly, also feeding into the School of Dance from the organization’s community branch, the Community Arts Partnerships. Working in schools through various residencies year-round, this pipeline has further diversified the student body by introducing young students to the possibility for continued training outside of their school day experience. The scholarship program is a palpable way the organization has backed up what it set out to do: bring communities together to celebrate and explore Latino cultures through innovative transformative dance training. This leveling of the playing field in dance education is an investment the organization is committed to upholding, remaining true to its grassroots origins.  

Pa’ donde vamos? 

 Looking to the past informs the future. As the School of Dance forwards its momentum to the next 50 years, our mission beams brighter than ever, steering our way as we seek to further strengthen accessibility to our dance programs that serve the community for dancers of all ages. Vamos a bailar juntos! 

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