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Celebrating Latino cultures at the Northrop

The Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota, an Arts Midwest Touring Fund grantee, hosted Ballet Hispanico on October 2-5 for a public performance, school workshops, and a student matinee. I had the pleasure of attending a workshop and the student matinee.

On a cold, rainy Tuesday morning in Minneapolis, I walked through a school hallway with a group of chattering fifth graders. As we filed into the gym, I overheard a girl lament to her friend, “I hope they don’t make us dance in front of everyone.”

But that anxiety and the dreary weather were soon forgotten as the dancers of Ballet Hispanico started to interact with these 75 fifth graders from Richfield Dual Language Academy. I was unfamiliar with this school before my visit, but I quickly noticed that the students and teachers were speaking both English and Spanish. Ballet Hispanico’s mission is to “celebrate and explore Latino cultures,” and the dancers “reflect the ever-changing face of our nation,” according to the Ballet Hispanico website. As the dancers started to chat with the students, I heard the occasional, “Do you speak Spanish?” It was such a delight to watch the students’ faces light up as they realized that they shared common ground with the dance company members.

Ballet Hispanico’s mission is to “celebrate and explore Latino cultures,” and the dancers “reflect the ever-changing face of our nation.”

One of the dancers, “Miss Geena,” taught the students some simple dance moves. Although the kids were chatty, it was clearly excited chatter, and voices stopped when the music started and they did their choreography. The dance incorporated elements of flamenco, ballet, and even familiar contemporary dances like the “dougie” and “dabbing,” which were definite crowd favorites. As the workshop came to an end and the kids filed out of the gym, they said goodbye to the dancers with high-fives, fist-bumps, and a chorus of “Gracias! See you on Friday!”

The energy from those 75 fifth graders paled in comparison to the energy in the Northrop the following Friday morning. The auditorium’s 2,692-seat theatre was nearly filled to capacity with students and teachers. I found my seat next to a group of middle schoolers.

The matinee was an abbreviated version of the public performance from the night before, and each dance was introduced by the rehearsal director, Johan Rivera. He gave the students insight into what they were going to see next, a glimpse into the rehearsal process, and a brief education on dance styles. Near the end, he invited the whole audience to stand and learn a quick dance.


Photo courtesy of Ballet Hispanico

The real highlight, though, was the performance itself. Right when the first dance began and the stage filled with bodies and colorful costumes, the girl sitting next to me said, “Whoa! I thought this was going to be boring!” Several of the pieces explored aspects of Mexican- and Latin-American culture, including what it’s like to grow up caught between two cultures. I wondered how those themes landed with the students, as it was difficult for me to read the room, which was consistently abuzz with chatter throughout the program. Could any of these students relate to being immersed in American culture while also trying to honor their Latino culture? If they couldn’t personally relate, were they able to appreciate the messages the dancers were so beautifully expressing? Did they care?


Photo courtesy of Ballet Hispanico

One moment at the end made me hopeful that the messages hit home: After the performance, the dancers took turns introducing themselves. The audience applauded for Chris from South Carolina, Melissa from Florida, and then it was Raúl’s turn: “I’m Raúl Contreras, and I’m from Mexico.” The audience erupted in cheers and a boy behind me yelled, “Me too!”

Ballet Hispanico certainly succeeded in helping the audience “celebrate Latino cultures” by reflecting “the ever-changing face of our nation”…and the faces of an auditorium full of students.

Ballet Hispanico certainly succeeded in helping the audience “celebrate Latino cultures” by reflecting “the ever-changing face of our nation”…and the faces of an auditorium full of students.

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