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


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.


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.


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.”


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...

Style Weekly Spotlights on NuYoRican

Style Weekly features  Latin Ballet's March 2017 re-staging of "NuYoRican".

Storytelling at its best transcends time. Tales about the past can illuminate our lives and change how people understand themselves and each other.

With “NuYoRiCan,” the Latin Ballet tells the stories of Puerto Ricans living in New York who are descended from those who left the island during...