Ana Inés King: Preserving & Sharing Latin American Culture

 Photo: Maya Koehn-Wu

Photo: Maya Koehn-Wu

It’s a long way from her native Bucaramanga, Colombia — more than 2,000 miles, in fact — but Ana Inés King seems’ to be the kind of free spirit who is comfortable anywhere she goes. I met her at her beautiful Victorian home nestled in the trees of Western Hanover, and within minutes we were laughing and crying together like old friends. Over coffee, Ana shared her life story and some of the experiences that are most dear to her, including her work as the founder and artistic director of the highly-acclaimed Latin Ballet of Virginia.

“Preserving authentic culture is the most important thing for me,” she tells me fervently. And they’re not just words. Ana lives out that statement, not only by preserving the history and culture of Latin America, but also by making that culture accessible to anyone who has a desire to learn. “Be proud of who you are and where you come from,” says Ana, demonstrating a vast and impressive knowledge when she speaks, frequently referencing historical figures whose colorful stories she is determined not to let fade. It’s obvious as she speaks that, despite her tiny stature, Ana’s heart and passion are truly larger than life.

Ana speaks fondly of her life growing up in South America. Her family was artistic — her Grandma, a poet; her mother, a dancer; and her father, a surgical oncologist. Her eyes positively sparkle as she speaks proudly of parents who served everyone in their communities no matter an individual’s ability to pay. She later walks me through her home, showing me works of art she’s received as payment for dance classes. “This painting was given to me by a student in exchange for lessons,” she says, showing me a gorgeous portrait of a ballerina over her fireplace. “I just want to make dance accessible to all people.” In fact, over the years, Ana’s philanthropic work includes the Make-A-Wish Foundation, offering dance lessons at reduced rates or scholarships, and volunteering to speak in schools about dance and culture. Her mother, also a dance teacher, taught her flamenco, jazz and modern dance from an early age, and she later attended the Instituto Departmental de Bellas Artes of Colombia, where she studied scenery and costume design and earned a BFA in dance and choreography. She founded and was the artistic director of Santander Jazz Ballet in Colombia for 10 years.

Moving to the United States in 1991 was culture shock for Ana, as it would be for anyone leaving family behind on another continent. But after falling in love with Richmond native William “Billy” King while he was traveling for business in Colombia, she moved to Virginia — which she describes as being “rich in history and pride” — to marry him. Ana still frequently visits her native Colombia, as well as Mexico, Spain and numerous South American countries. She plans to do this even into her retirement years, continuing to learn the newest flamenco techniques and to study Latin productions put on by some of the world’s best choreographers. Billy, her husband of 27 years, is also a lover of travel and Latin culture, and a hands-on supporter of Latin Ballet of Virginia and each one of their productions.


 Photo: Dave Parrish

Photo: Dave Parrish

After moving to the U.S., Ana became a faculty member at the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Dance and Choreography. Then in 1997, she founded the Latin Ballet of Virginia, teaching dance classes, directing the Latin Ballet’s professional company and designing costumes and choreography for their productions. She has received numerous awards for her work at the Latin Ballet. To name a few, in 2017, Ana was a Richmond Times Dispatch Person of the Year honoree for her continued commitment to the artistic community of Richmond, as well as a recipient of Style Weekly’s Women in the Arts Award. In 2015, she received the Entrepreneur Bridge Builder Award, presented by the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for commitment to education and culture, and the YWCA Outstanding Woman of the Year Award for making the arts accessible to low income families, empowering youth and helping to keep Hispanic culture alive and vibrant throughout our community. In 2007 and 2008, Richmond’s Style Weekly named Ana as one of the “25 Most Influential Artists in Arts and Culture.” In Southern Living Magazine’s December 2007 issue, King was recognized as an “Ambassador of Dance and Culture” for her work with the Latin Ballet’s educational programs. In 2002, she receive the Hispanic Woman of the Year Award, presented by AT&T Broadband and CNN en Español for service to the community. She has also won numerous awards for her choreography, and her productions have been featured in a number of TV and award-winning films.

Ana’s community affiliations resonate with her dedication to cultural arts, preservation of history and education — The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, as the Director of Arts and Cultural Entertainment; The Community Idea Station, as a member of their advisory board; The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, as the director of their resident dance company, Latin Ballet of Virginia; and The Richmond Center Stage, partnering with their educational programs. “I believe that the arts in education can save lives,” Ana tells me, “especially to minority and at-risk youth.” She hopes to eventually write a bilingual book to document Latin Ballet’s productions. Her hope is that one day this book will be used to provide multicultural education both for traditional and home-schooled students.

“I believe that the arts in education can save lives, especially to minority and at-risk youth.”

Although Ana chatted easily with me both in Spanish and English, we laughed uproariously as she described one of her “Spanglish” moments, which are frequently experienced by people for whom English is their second language. In 2016, she received an invitation to be one of eight women whom the Library of Virginia’s Virginia Women in History program annually celebrates for their accomplishments in all walks of life. She set the invitation aside, thinking that she was invited as a guest. She described through fits of laughter how she did not realize until she arrived at the event that she was actually an honoree, and the first Latina to receive this award! Her eyes filled with tears as she described middle and high school students reading essays written about her and her life work. “I was overwhelmed with how just living my life had such an impact on so many people,” she told me, still seemingly surprised at how many have been touched by her work.

If you’re wondering how you can be involved in the Latin Ballet of Virginia, rest assured that speaking Spanish is not a pre-requisite for supporting and being involved in this richly artistic community. In fact, Ana is inspired by and attracted by all cultures, and what we can learn from the traditions and histories of other people. Her students are a beautiful mixture of cultures, colors and socio-economic status, as diverse as the performances that she’s involved in. In 2019, she’ll direct the annual Día de los Muertos Festival, the yearly production of The Legend of the Poinsettia, Jan. 10, 11 and 13, and La Pasion de Poe, based on the life of Edgar Allen Poe, in March. (See latinballet.com/events for a full schedule of events.) 

The Latin Ballet offers classes at Dominion Energy Center and The Cultural Arts Center of Glen Allen, including: Dance Therapy (for students with special needs), Classical, Latin and Spanish Ballet, Pointe Flamenco, Salsa, Hip Hop, Baton, Contemporary Jazz/Ballet and African-Cuban Dance. (See latinballet.com/classes for a full schedule of classes.)

As Ana regales me with a story of riding a horse with her daredevil granddaughter, it strikes me that even in her story-telling, she uses her body as her voice, demonstrating exactly what happened. And through fits of laughter, I realized that most grandmothers are not running non-profit arts organizations, directing and dancing in professional dance productions, fighting to keep history alive and struggling to support professional dancers on a sometimes very limited budget. But Ana’s youthful face as the glow of one who truly lives her passion. Watching Ana in her recent production of “Victor” at VCU’s Grace Street Theater, she held her own with ease among a company of professional college-aged dancers. To Ana, dance is life. “Community is at the center of everything we do,’’ she said. “Our community is an extension of our family and there is nothing more important than family. If I can make a difference to my shared community, I feel as though I have a reason for being.” Ana truly has created a legacy full of “reasons for being.” Mrs. Ana Inés King is a force to be reckoned with, and she lives out her philosophy, “Vivir cada día como si fuera el último” (live each day as if it were the last) with contagious enthusiasm.

by Kari Smith

November 6, 2018

VICTOR, THE TRUE SPIRIT OF LOVE: Love, Light, and Faith; the Healing Power of Dance

I’ve seen many performances by the Latin Ballet of Virginia (LBV) over the years. Some have been fiction, some fantasy, and others, like, Victor: the True Spirit of Love, are based on fact. But this one was different. This one touched my heart and had me weeping unashamedly in my seat.

Unlike many LBV programs, this one did not have elaborate scenery, although there were larger-than-life projections of photographs from Victor Torres’ life, scenes from the documentary about his life, and background photos of buildings and cars and alleyways representing Brooklyn, NY in the 1960s. These projections were often so well integrated into the live performance that they became part of the choreography.

Rather than a range of choreography representing the Latino music and dance, heritage, and history, there were poignant selections ranging from R&B to Mambo to Christian songs and instrumental music. Some were upbeat, but all seemed carefully chosen to help carry the emotion and narrative of the story, using movement and music and very few words – so when words are used they have the utmost impact.

Victor tells the story of Victor Torres, a former gang member and drug addict and current pastor of the New Life for Youth Ministries and New Life Outreach Church, right here in Richmond, VA. But more than that, Victor is a story of redemption, of hope, of people helping people. It is a story of victory. It is about finding God, but it is not about religion. It is about faith, but it does not preach. It is about the power of a mother’s love.

It’s not so much the choreography, which is sometimes powerful but mostly quite simple. It is not so much the dancers’ technique, which is sometimes quite stunning, but sometimes uneven – involving, as it always does, both professional and pre-professional dancers and children. But the collaboration of all the elements, culminating in the surprising appearance of three graduates of Pastor Torres’ program as their recorded images and voices give testimony of their dark past and hopeful present – and shines light on their future. This is dance with a purpose that is more than just entertainment. It tells a story. It offers the possibility of healing.

Pastor Torres came onstage after Saturday evening’s performance to take questions, and to offer congratulations to the performers. Roberto Whitaker danced the role of the young Torres – bringing the man himself to tears, by his own admission. Whitaker, who I have watched grow from a promising young hip hop dancer to a versatile professional, led the company, appearing in nearly all of the twelve scenes, from a hip hop and capoeira infused fight (“The Roman Lords”) to a 1960s style jitterbug (“Rock & Roll with My Mama”) to acted and pantomimed scenes of overdosing and recovery and a lyrical dance duet of faith with his savior. Artistic director Ana Ines King danced the role of Victor’s mother, Layla, and with her usual enthusiasm moved from mambo (“It is Mambo Time!”) through ballet, modern, and lyrical (“The Power of Mother’s Love” and “La Esperanza/Our Only Hope”), with an extra dose of drama (going into her prayer closet, and running to the rooftop to save her beloved son from being tossed off by gang members).

Teri Buschman and Marisol Cristina Betancourt Sotolongo made beautiful angels, while DeShon Rollins wore white as the spirit of hope and the saving grace of love. The scenes featuring four of the company’s men were powerful and beautiful, whether they were fighting or creating a smoke-filled, surrealistic scene of drug-fueled gang activity. This production would be a valuable contribution to the programs of churches, community centers, and youth agencies. I’ll just close with the words of the final selection, “Si Dios ama a un rebelde como yo, todo es possible/if God can love a rebel like me, anything is possible.”

Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.

Dance Studio Life feature Pep In Their Steps

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Pep In Their Steps

January 22, 2018

Latin Ballet Of Virginia Boosts Student Confidence With Be Proud Of Yourself Program

By Lea Marshall

When Ana Ines King moved from Colombia to Richmond, Virginia, in 1994, her daughter was just 11 years old. The transition was hard for them both—neither spoke English when they arrived—but King’s daughter found it particularly difficult. The only time King remembers seeing her happy was in school, when students who were originally from other countries were invited to teach their classmates about parts of their culture.

“My daughter chose salsa,” says King, “and I videotaped her teaching Colombian salsa at the school. She was really proud and happy. She felt important. That was so special, for a kid who comes from another country to feel important.”

In 1997, King founded Latin Ballet of Virginia, a professional dance company that presents five productions annually and a dance school with an enrollment of 400. She was so inspired by her daughter’s experience that in 2000, she went on to create the Be Proud of Yourself educational program, which promotes arts education through 8- to 15-week school residencies in the Richmond metro area and throughout central Virginia. The program reaches about 20,000 children through lecture-demonstrations and workshops, and is run by LBV staff. Be Proud of Yourself activities range from interactive workshops in Latin American and Spanish dance and culture to classes modeled on dance and music therapy that serve children with autism, ADHD, and other learning or developmental challenges. LBV also produces EveryBody Reads! a creative arts-integrated literacy initiative funded last summer by the National Endowment for the Arts. Residencies that guide public school students to re-create stories through dance, and company performances of productions steeped in Latin culture, are just some of the activities that the program offers.

Customization

Each Be Proud of Yourself residency is tailored to the needs and population of the school it serves. Public and private schools partner with LBV staff and teachers to design experiences for students typically ranging from 11 to 16 years old. In every instance, the program seeks to enhance students’ confidence and self-esteem. Most residencies culminate in some type of performance, whether by the students themselves, or by LBV’s professional company.

Melissa Pérez-Obregón serves as LBV’s director of educational programs, and teaches as well. “The goal is to have our students be happy at the end of class, be a little more familiar and comfortable with who they are,” she says. “And then, by the end of the program, to be confident enough to be in front of an audience, even if it’s 30 seconds or two minutes.”

Students who don’t feel comfortable performing are not forced to, says Pérez-Obregón; the emphasis is on building confidence. She stresses the program’s versatility. LBV’s instructors are given a framework, and can design their own activities within it, based on the needs of the students in front of them. “The important thing is to get to know your students. What works at one school may not work at another school,” she says.

Some schools want workshops in ESL through dance. Some want instruction in Spanish language through dance. EveryBody Reads! is adaptable for Spanish, English, and French language classes. One iteration focuses on discussion and analysis of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince in one of the three languages, culminating in a performance of LBV’s dance theater version of the story by the professional company, followed by a post-performance question-and-answer session with students.

Study guides available online at LBV’s website describe each component of Be Proud of Yourself, including themes, methodology, and learning objectives such as building confidence, and making connections between dance and other fields of study. Guides also list the Virginia Standards of Learning met by each Be Proud of Yourself program component. For example, the Spanish and Latin American dance theme meets state education standards in the Family Life, Spanish Language, and Physical Education categories. Since schools generally seek grant funding to support the program, tying arts education directly to curriculum and standardized testing helps administrators build a strong case for support. So do the program’s success stories.

Transformation

When Pérez-Obregón meets a new group of students, she says, “I like to ask them, ‘Who has been in front of an audience before?’ Most of them never have. And we take it from there. The emphasis is on building their confidence, showing them different ways to communicate, different ways to voice something through dance.”

Rebecca Smith, an assistant principal at Fluvanna Middle School, describes seeing a Hispanic student perform for the first time at the culmination of a Be Proud of Yourself residency. Fluvanna County has a small Hispanic population, and the residency had focused on Spanish and Latin American culture, including learning flamenco. The student had struggled in school, but in performance, Smith says, “I saw a different young man. He took great pride in his culture. He was up there dancing. It was such a transformational moment for him. He felt known and valued.”

Richmond resident Brooke Bell’s daughters got to know LBV through workshops when they were preschoolers, and have participated in school residencies as well as regular dance classes. In all it does, says Bell, LBV has “a real attitude of acceptance, and the children can be anything that they want to be. My daughters were always encouraged. My oldest was very shy and withdrawn, and there were teachers who were able to teach to her personality. I was always amazed at how they were able to bring her out of her shell.”

Communicating with parents provides a way for LBV instructors to track students’ development during Be Proud of Yourself residencies. Pérez-Obregón says instructors are encouraged to develop relationships with parents by letting them know about proud moments. “If they did the smallest thing that you’re so proud of, calling the parents before the students get home to let them know is a huge tool.” Parents can in turn help instructors by letting them know of positive changes they see in their children as they progress through the program.

Mutual Acceptance

The premise of Be Proud of Yourself rests on the transformative power of dance, says King. When students start dancing, she says, “they feel proud. They breathe better, they feel prouder, they feel that they can talk, look people in the eyes.” If all of us loved ourselves, she continues, we would treat each other better too, and “the world would be a way better place to live.”

Pérez-Obregón recounts a recent success story from a Be Proud of Yourself residency, of a student with autism and his peers’ journey toward acceptance. She says he is a hard worker, but would get “stuck” and angry if he didn’t understand something during class, fearing that everyone was judging him. She paired him with other students for certain exercises, and “by the end of that 10-week session, I saw a huge change,” she says. “He was so happy, he wasn’t angry,” and the other children encouraged him. At one point, she says, “He was working on this little hip-hop move with a partner, and they were always arguing. I remember in the first four weeks, they would not even look at each other. Now I have these photos of them working together. They worked so hard on this one simple move, and he was like, ‘We did it, we did it! Come see!’ It was really exciting.”

 

Lea Marshall is a writer and associate chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Dance and Choreography.

NEA Art Blog Feature: Finding Love, Passion & Pride with the Latin Ballet of Virginia

 Photo by:  Sin Phrakhansa

Photo by:  Sin Phrakhansa

We were fortunate for National Endowment of the Arts: Art Works Blog to feature how Latin Ballet is able to change children's lives through our ESL through dance in the local schools.

Finding Love, Passion & Pride with the Latin Ballet of Virginia

September 26, 2017
By Rebecca Sutton

When Ana Ines King was a young girl growing up in Colombia, she found herself easily distracted in the classroom. “Our school had beautiful, huge windows,” she remembered. “I looked at the sky, at the trees—even a butterfly made me distracted. It was hard for me to concentrate on the subjects I was learning.”

To help her focus, King’s mother, who was a professional dancer, began creating dances about her daughter’s school lessons, from history to geography to novels she was assigned. “That’s the way she helped me get good grades,” said King.

King went on to serve as the artistic director of the Santander Ballet in Colombia, and later served as faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University’s department of dance and choreography. But the lessons of her mother were never far from her mind. She drew from her childhood experience when she founded the Latin Ballet of Virginia in Richmond in 1997, a professional dance company whose performances are rooted in Latin American traditions. Educational programs are a central part of the company’s mission, many of which target low-income children and their families, who otherwise might not have an opportunity to experience dance.

The Latin Ballet has received six NEA grants over the years, a number of which have supported youth programming, including the organization’s main educational initiative, Be Proud of Yourself. The program has several components, including Everybody Reads!, which connects children with reading through book-inspired dance performances, as well as English as a Second Language (ESL) through Dance, which enables children new to the U.S. to quite literally move more comfortably through their new environments.

King saw the need for the ESL program when her own daughter began struggling in school following her move to Virginia. “My daughter was only 11 when she came to the United States,” said King. “It was really, really hard for her to adapt to the new environment and culture. She became very shy.” But during her school’s cultural appreciation day, when students were asked to present on their heritage, King saw her daughter transform. She performed the salsa, honoring one of Colombia’s most popular styles of dance. Her daughter’s eyes brightened, as did those of her classmates, as they each took turns proudly sharing their family’s traditions.
 

“When I go to schools for the ESL program, I go dressed up in a costume from Latin America,” said King. “A lot of kids from Latin America come and touch my dress. ‘Oh you talk like my mom!’ or ‘My sister has a dress similar to yours!’ The teachers say that before, these kids wouldn't even say one word.” The students, said King, are inspired to see a fellow immigrant “working in this country, wanting to succeed, leading the Latin Ballet…and still talking [with an accent]. I automatically see the eyes of the kids so bright and happy and proud.”

The first lesson King teaches in the ESL program is the posture practiced by flamenco dancers, which involves rolling the shoulders back. Standing up straight, and learning to look people in the eye when speaking, is part of the program’s mission to reshape the experience of children who may feel lost or alienated in their new homes. “If they love themselves, and feel confident and proud, then they can succeed, and they can love and help the others,” said King. “So that's one part of our lesson—how important it is to be proud.”

The Latin Ballet’s most recent grant will support Everybody Reads!, which will bring three separate performances to schools across the country. The first production, POEMAS, is based on the poems of Edgar Allan Poe, Alfonsina Storni, Pablo Neruda, and Federico Garcia Lorca; the second is NuYoRican, which tells the stories of Puerto Ricans who came to the United States following World War II; and the third is Momo, which is based on the eponymous 1973 fantasy novel by Michael Ende.

The program is a way to help bring material alive, and make literature more accessible. “Even if they're little kids, they're fascinated with the poetry,” said King. “It's easier to understand it when they see it in motion.”

For certain school performances, King brings along authors themselves when available. During the Latin Ballet’s upcoming school residency in a heavily Puerto Rican area of Queens, New York, for example, journalist and author Julia Torres Barden will hold discussions with students after performances of NuYoRican. Barden’s book, NewyoricanGirl...Surviving my Spanglish Life, served as the inspiration for the Latin Ballet’s NuYoRicanproduction.

“[Barden] will talk about the book, why she wrote it, how she felt in the country when she was a little girl, and how important it is to remember your roots,” said King. “It's just so beautiful that the same girl from the book comes and talks with them, and then we go and represent what she's saying [through dance].”

Seeing the pride and confidence children gain from participating in Latin Ballet programs, or the new understanding they possess of literature and language, serves as a continual reminder for King of the belief that lies at the core of the company she founded 20 years ago. “Dance can save the lives of kids,” she said. “It can change the lives of entire families. That's the vision of the Ballet: helping—through love and passion and pride.”

 

2017 RTD Person of the Year honoree: Ana Ines King

 Photo: Julia Rendleman

Photo: Julia Rendleman

For someone involved in dance for most of her life, Ana Ines King still speaks with the enthusiasm and wonder of a child seeing her first performance.

“We talk with our bodies,” she said – and she has done a lot of talking.

In 2017, King marks the 20th anniversary of the Latin Ballet of Virginia, which she founded in Glen Allen and still leads as artistic director. On stage, her vision has incorporated local and Latin influences into expansive story ballets, and on the road, her frequent travels have connected Richmond and the world.

In late August, King was concluding a week of workshops and performances near Mexico City and the resort of Acapulco. As part of a cultural exchange with the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, King was teaching contemporary dance and sharing her recent work, “La Pasion de Poe,” based on the life and poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. In turn, the Mexican folkloric company was sharing its traditional dances – work that will flavor the eclectic and elaborate dance dramas conceived by King and produced by the Latin Ballet.

“I [initially] called it the Latin Ballet because people [in Richmond] didn’t understand what folkloric dance was,” King, speaking from Mexico, recalled of her early days. She first began offering free classes at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen in 1997, and after much urging, she incorporated her company as a nonprofit in 2000.

With a background in dance and design, she knew little or nothing about business. So with the help of husband William A. King, who owned Rountree’s Luggage Co., she exchanged upscale suitcases for legal work.

In her native Colombia, King studied dance and choreography – and she still proudly wears her mother’s red bata de cola flamenco dress. She founded the Santander Jazz Ballet before moving to Richmond with her husband in the mid-1990s.

Monte Jones, also known as Alfumega Meoleaeke A. Enock, fondly remembers the early days studying with King at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she taught dance. "I was young, and she had just gotten to America and she didn’t speak too much English,” said Jones, who ultimately spent more than 20 years with King.

“She tried to build people up with a special kind of motivation that she has," Jones said. "Even in her mistakes she was teaching you. She would wow you off your heels. ... We were a family in the beginning” – a family in which a number of children left King's nest to launch careers as dance teachers and artistic directors. 

The "wow" factor even attracts veterans. Teri Miller Buschman, who joined the Latin Ballet in 2016, had danced professionally in New York for 10 years and thought she'd retire from dancing here.

But King "got me up there, and it brought back my whole love of dancing,” Buschman said incredulously. "She’s the biggest visionary.”

With $30,000 in grant money secured over the summer from Altria and CultureWorks, King is looking forward to extending the Latin Ballet's footprint – through residencies and workshops for the company’s Be Proud of Yourself educational outreach program to central Virginia schools, and through improved web development and social media.

And then there's the busy performance season itself, which included a New York City tour in November. So her youthful radiance and enthusiasm will be fully on display, which she hopes will touch children especially.

“I strongly believe that arts can change the lives of children,” King said. Recalling the shyness and low self-esteem she encountered in children in some communities she visited, she is committed to teaching them self-respect through dance.

“When you’re proud of yourself, it’s all you need," King said. "The beauty. No shame.”

***

IN HER WORDS: ANA INES KING

founder, Latin Ballet of Virginia

Hometown: Bucaramanga, Colombia

Family: husband William, four children, four grandchildren

***

Tell us about a setback or disappointment and what you learned from it.

It was not a disappointment but the biggest challenge of my life: the cultural shock of moving to the U.S. in 1991. Holiday celebrations, especially Christmas, were so different. I missed my family and the food, the celebrations, the traditions, the mountains. Oh my! And the precious colonial towns with their stone streets; cathedrals all filled with gold, silver and emeralds; and La Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, one of the highest mountain ranges in the world at sea level.

I love to go back to my country and visit Spain and South America because I miss everything I left. But I also love to live in the U.S., because I was lucky to find through my husband an amazing family in Richmond in an amazing place – Virginia – filled with history and pride.

Describe a small moment in your life that has had a lasting impact on you 

When I first came to Richmond, I went to a fundraising event at the Carpenter Theatre. I absolutely fell in love with the choreography of Chris Burnside, former director of VCU's department of dance and choreography. I was so impressed by the quality of dancing in Richmond! Soon, with my limited English, I decided to call Chris to thank him, introduce myself and tell him how important for me it would be to learn from him. 

I brought my portfolio with videos of recent works in Colombia, based on the literature of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Chris told me his sister was a fan of Garcia Marquez and that he would see her the next weekend, so he took all that I brought to him. His sister fell in love with my work, and a few months later, I ended being part of the VCU faculty.

The same day I met Chris, I also met Frances Wessells – the pioneer of dance in Virginia, a founder of VCU's department of dance and Chris' teacher. The next day, I received a call saying that Frances left for me her mother's castanets and a book about how to play them. What a privilege, ending up with her mother’s castanets! Frances is now 98 and collaborated with the Latin Ballet and me for 16 years, playing the grandmother in many of our productions. In South America, a grandma is the most important and respected part of the family!

What is something about yourself that might come as a surprise to others?

My love is to dance, but I also studied scenery and costume design. In Colombia, I used to work as a designer from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and direct my mother’s dance company from 5 to 10 p.m. every day. I designed costumes for dance and theater in Colombia and Venezuela, and I still design most of the costumes for the Latin Ballet. I also designed clothes and accessories for children and women in Colombia, and I designed leather goods such as handbags, belts, wallets, briefcases and suitcases for manufacturers around the world.

I met my husband, who was the owner of Rountree's Luggage Co., while he was traveling to Colombia to buy leather designs. He was representing 400 stores from the U.S. and chose my designs to be sold in the U.S. and his stores in Virginia. Two years after we met, we married in Richmond.

Who are your role models?

Manuelita Saenz was a legendary and remarkable woman in Latino American history – she was recognized as the “Colonel” by Simon Bolivar, the liberator of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. She dressed in a military uniform to the disagreement of all politicians. She positioned herself at Bolivar’s right side, becoming his main confidante. And Policarpa Salavarrieta is considered the greatest heroine of the Colombian struggle for independence. She was captured by Spanish Royalists and unjustly executed.

I grew up listening to my father tell many inspirational stories about these extraordinary historical women, which he repeated every night before I fell asleep. He would always say: “I want you to remember these women who represent our history. You need to be as strong, persistent and amazing as they were. Be the best you can, and fight for your ideals!”

What is your favorite book?

"One Hundred Years of Solitude." Garcia Marquez’s magical realism cannot be reproduced. He is the only one!

What is something you haven’t done that you’d really like to do?

My project when I finally have some free time: Write a book about the productions I have created in English and Spanish, with amazing photographs.

In the meantime: Swim with the whales, see the pink dolphins of the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, and help save baby turtles in Cozumel, Mexico, by helping them reach the ocean before dying inside the sand.

If you could deliver a message to a large audience, what would it be?

Family, love, pride and strength are the most important things in life. Be proud of who you are and where you come from.

If you could spend a day with a historical or fictional character, who would it be?

To learn from their strength, ideals, beliefs and inspirations, I would mention three: Simon Bolivar was the liberator of five countries in South America. Antonio Gades was the pioneer of flamenco theater production – he contributed more than any other artist to having flamenco declared a World Heritage art form. And Isadora Duncan was the American pioneer known as the “mother of modern dance.”

What is your greatest strength and your greatest weakness?

When facing problems or obstacles, I am able to come up with a solution fast. My imagination, inspiration and creativity for a new production come to me easier than expected, using no more than the budget and artists we have at the moment. But it is extremely hard for me to say no – or take no for an answer.

If you had to pick a different profession or course of study, what would you choose?

I cannot picture my life without dancing. My life is always around dance, culture, traditions and history. However, I can see myself traveling around the world, learning the dance, history and culture of every region I visit – and writing a book about what I have learned.

What is your favorite thing about the Richmond region?

Richmond and Virginia are the history of the United States of America!

by Julinda Lewis

Latin Ballet Featured in HFX Magazine

We were honored to be featured in HFX Magazine in their review of "Nuyorican"! Thanks HFX!

This past weekend, the Latin Ballet of Virginia presented NuYoRican. A story that follows the true story of Puerto Rican immigrants as they dealt with numerous hardships and discrimination living in New York City...