Arts and Culture

Dancing and Celebrating Latino Culture

At the University of Connecticut, students have created a group where all are welcome and diversity and cultural history is celebrated

By Annika Darling/CTLatinoNews.com

Dance is tightly woven into culture. It carries tradition and the movements of our ancestors. One student group at the University of Connecticut is using dance to inform the community about, and connect people to, Latino culture. Their mission is in their name: Bring Awareness Into Latino Ethnicities. They are more commonly known by their acronym: B.A.I.L.E.

Meg Garcia, B.A.I.L.E. president, says the group was established in 2003 as a way for students at UConn to educate the community on the various Latino ethnicities and cultural backgrounds in order to improve the “status/skepticism” of Latino people. “Additionally,” she says, “we wanted to create and facilitate a haven for students to feel comfortable playing Spanish music aloud and for others to enjoy without having the worry of passersbys judging or giving unwanted attention to Latinx students.”

As a freshman Garcia didn’t feel comfortable in her skin and needed a place where she could be accepted. “Surprisingly enough I hated dancing growing up! Coming in as a freshman I was very shy … My friends forced me to go to the B.A.I.L.E. meetings every week and eventually I found myself wanting to dance. For me, B.A.I.L.E. brought awareness to my own Latinx individuality and showed me what it meant to pride yourself in where you’re from.”

Jessica Delagdo was also very shy when she started at UConn and had a similar need to feel more comfortable in her surroundings. Delgado attended a dinner at the Puerto Rican Latin American Cultural Center (PRLACC) where she met Garcia who was promoting B.A.I.L.E. Delgado was nervous but students from the group encouraged her to sit with them, telling her all about B.A.I.L.E. Delgado was at their next gathering. She is now co-event coordinator for the group.

“B.A.I.L.E. is one of the most comforting and calming organizations I have been apart of,” says Delagado. “Dancing has always been something that I felt was not for me. I have always felt awkward and uncomfortable doing it but B.A.I.L.E offered me a place where I could express a love for dance that I did not have before. Even if I didn’t enjoy dancing myself, I found pleasure in just watching everyone else do it and be happy about it. The environment is something beautiful. It always has been.”

Another event coordinator, Marissa Naclerio, says she certainly looks forward to these B.A.I.L.E. Thursdays because it is where her friends are and it gives her a break from the daily stressors of college life. “It’s an opportunity to listen to our favorite music,” she explains, “practice our dance skills, and encourage our other friends to learn the dances. I love being part of B.A.I.L.E. because helping performances come to fruition is extremely rewarding. It is so satisfying to watch our dancers’ faces light up with joy and pleasure as they step out onto a stage or hear the audience’s applause.”

Naclerio is referring to B.A.I.L.E.’s dance team, a new component of the organization and one that everyone seems to truly enjoy. B.A.I.L.E.’s dance instructor, Brian Palma, says the performances are one of his favorite aspects of the group as well. “I take pride in the fact that others enjoy watching and or learning what I do,” he says. “Especially after every event, to hear the applause, to know that the people loved the choreography I made and the performance me and the dancers put on is an indescribable feeling.”

Palma has loved dance as long as he can remember and at the age of 13 it became a significant part of his life. He says that dance is an important part of culture, explaining: “Some dances are more traditional than others. For example, in the Dominican Republic dance is heavily based on bachata and merengue. In Mexico, there is more cumbia, banda, and durangense. In Puerto Rico there is more salsa and so on and so forth. People can learn about culture through dance by understanding if they ever plan to travel, they would know where certain dances come from and the kinds of musicians that make that type of music. They may even come to dig deeper and learn more than just dance and music, but food, religion, rituals, and more.”

While B.A.I.L.E. has a dance team that performs a higher level of choreography and performs at events around campus, Thursday night dances are for beginners. Palma says, “[On Thursdays] we teach from the very basics to a certain point were everyone can follow along so that even people who have never danced a day in their life could have the chance to learn like everyone else. I want people to feel welcome, have fun and hopefully end up loving dancing as as much as I do. … My favorite part of being the B.A.I.L.E. dance Instructor is not only doing what I love, which is dancing, but also teaching others who love it just as much as I do or are eager to learn.”

As Delagado and Garica both describe, they were never into dance prior to joining B.A.I.L.E. but the group provided a non-judgmental environment where they good grow to love it as they never were able to before. Not only have they discovered their passion for dance, but they’ve learned more about themselves, become more in touch with with their cultural history, and have overall become more aware of ethical issues.

Garcia says that before she arrived at UConn she wasn’t fully aware of the societal, political, and educational dilemmas many Latino ethnicities face. “It was not until I started college that my eyes were opened to the oppression Latinx individuals face on a day to day basis,” says Garcia. “By educating myself and hearing the stories of my fellow classmates, I felt it was an obligation in the new generation to break boundaries and educate people on what happens outside our doors and do what we can to make a change. B.A.I.L.E. has genuinely influenced my time here at UConn and I cannot express enough how much this club has helped other individuals become confident in their own skin.”

Naclerio says B.A.I.L.E. has been an important part of her college experience as well, saying, “Dance has always served two main purposes for me: stress relief and self-expression. Stepping out onto a dancefloor makes me forget about any stress I face. It is also my outlet for my emotions, whether I’m celebrating an accomplishment, mourning a loss, or challenging myself to overcome roadblocks through my choreography. I have always found that Latin dance is a way for me to easily connect to others. I feel like we all dance as a celebration of our culture and each other. The opportunities to dance bachata, salsa, or merengue (to name a few) have led me to meet some of my lifelong friends.”  

Palma says he sees how B.A.I.L.E. has not only been a powerful experience for himself and the other members, but it impacts the whole community by allowing all to recognize, appreciate and embrace Latino roots.

Since the beginning, B.A.I.L.E. has been primarily a dance organization, however, Garcia is hoping to bring world issue education into the program, both through speaking about it on Thursday nights and via their social media platforms. She explains, “We have begun giving small histories on the dances we teach and are currently working on our social media platform to begin world updates for our followers to read.”

Naclerio is excited about implementing more education into the group, as she says that “the appreciation of diversity in America has long been an issue, and it is necessary to continue educating others on its beauty and its value.” Continuing, she says, “It is especially pressing in this political climate, which has had a polarizing effect on communities. Bringing awareness into Latino ethnicities is one of the efforts Latinx people use to increase cultural competency. By shining a light on the richness of Latinx culture, we can dispel mistruths and negative stereotypes commonly reinforced in the media. B.A.I.L.E. uses the art of dance and music to embrace one of the many positive aspects of the Latinx culture.”

Delgado is just as passionate as the other event coordinators on this topic. “It is important to bring awareness into Latino ethnicities because we live in a country rooted in racism and prejudice,” she explains. “Our country currently has a president who is unwilling to open our borders to Mexico, a country filled with people who would benefit here, who would bring another beautiful culture into our country that is already filled with a variety of unique and amazing cultures. Bringing awareness into Latino ethnicities brings awareness to our struggle, to our background, to our history, to our beauty. … Latino ethnicities are beautiful and the entire world deserves to know that.”

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