I don’t get to interview folks with my shoes off too often, but sitting in a circle on the polished wood floor of the Latin Ballet of Richmond dance studio in Glen Allen, I get my chance.
The multicultural group – ranging in skin tone and origin stories from around the globe- offers an interesting glimpse into an art scene often overlooked as inaccessible. The term “ballet” conjures up any number of emotions, but mostly tutus, clothe shoes and intense competition. You might catch some elaborate consumes during their performances, but intense competition takes a back seat to love of the craft and the importance of cultural diversity under the tutelage of Latin Ballet of Richmond’s Artistic Director and Founder Ana Ines King.
King was born in Columbia but followed her husband’s work to Montpelier, VA, in the 90s. A lifelong dancer – she says in her beautiful, thick South American accent that she was dancing in the womb – King found work at VCU’s dance department. She had students who were double majoring in Spanish, or just interested in the kind of dance she taught, and they asked her about expanding her work.
Then an event at her daughter’s school, a show and tell day where King performed the Salsa in front of the kids, helped spark the idea of an independent dance company that focused on kinds of dance outside the norm. Public schools also started requiring more international cultural education, giving King and her company a doorway into classrooms around the east coast as touring ambassadors of culture through dance.
She met with the head of the Henrico Cultural Center and before long she was invited to host a program in the newly renovated building. It started with 18 students in salsa classes and 10 in hip hop dancing, with only two ballet, but within seven months it ballooned to 250 students.
Among those early students were some of the teachers who sat in the circle with me.
Jamie LaNeave, a Henrico native, started dancing with the Richmond ballet at a young age. She burned out but never lost that love of dance.
“I was pretty brainwashed by ballet, but I wasn’t happy with it or fulfilled,” she said. But she heard about the Latin Ballet years later and bumped into King and asked if she could get involved.
“I didn’t know how to move my hips,” LaNeave said of those first few lessons. “But I did and I liked it.”
She’s been involved in the program ever since, taking a bit of a hiatus to have a kid, but now both of them are involved in the company together.
She also Teaches ballet, latin jazz, modern and other dance forms while studying Capoeira Brazilian dance fighting, to help teach it in the school.
Sitting to her left was Jay Williams, aka J Static, and his friend Roberto Whitaker, aka Ro-Ro. The two grew up as brothers in South Side RVA, and both got involved in dancing through their church’s hip hop dance program.
“I figured i had it in me somewhere, but I had no dance abilities or rhythm. I couldn’t even clap on beat,” said J Static, who felt bad about his lack of dancing skills even though he’s the son of a gymnast and an 80s battle dancer. He spent a summer watching Michael Jackson videos hoping to brush up on the basics and before long he was dancing in his school and ministry.
“Early on, it was blasphemous, but in Christianity, we fought the battle that David was a dancer, so we used that as a fuel to minister to other kids,” Static said. “We were inner city kids in Richmond, there were lots of other things we could have been doing besides dancing in church.”
Ro-Ro’s story was similar, getting swept up in dance as a youth and finding a healthy outlet for time and effort in dance instead of what the streets had to offer.
Then there’s Ivanna Lo Piccolo an Italian immigrant who’s been in Richmond for only a few years, but has been dancing since she was six. She grew up in the highly competitive dance culture in Italy.
“The kids here, when they go on stage, everything has an energy,” Lo Piccolo said with the help of King translating. She’s take on a teaching role with the Latin Ballet and while she’s brought that classical training with her, she left the elitism back home. “[In Italy] the competition is very strong for the kids, classic [dance] is very strict. Sometimes, its no good for the kids.”
“If you have talent or not, if you are willing to work, I want to teach you,” she said.
These stories from folks of different backgrounds is the key to the Latin Ballet’s success, according to King, who tries to inject the history and culture of each form of dance into what she teaches.
Static pointed it out towards the end of our interview.
“If you look in this small circle… the backgrounds, different ethnicities… the one thing that brings us together is dance,” he said, noting his own multicultural background including Caribbean and Native American ancestry. ”If we’re dancing to hip hop or classical… it’s the melting pot, the thing that brings us all together.”
He’s even invited his street hip hop dancing friends to Latin Ballet shows in the hopes of proving just how interesting that diversity can be.
“When they come, they see a world they’ve never been introduced to, and its because of the different cultures we put on display,” he said.
And as the country moves towards a new President, and Nationalism rears its head, in the face of an ever diversifying world here in Glen Allen, VA, The Latin Ballet hopes to play a role in sharing those diverse stories.
Mary Petrizzi, another instructor I spoke with who hails from Mechanicsville, said each performance gives the company a chance to spread that message. And its times like this, when the country is most divided, that we need to look at dance as a way to communicate those differences.
“[People} one thing or one opinion and instead of trying to hear it and understand it, we’re quick to say ‘I don’t agree with you and I’m mad,’” she said. She noted the time and effort put into choreographing a dance and how that offers a solum outlet for inner and personal thought.
“There’s a process behind why you made it, why that movement is the way it is,” she aid. “And there’s a lot of meaning behind it. And instead of it being a quick attack, it’s a long, thought out understanding of who we are and what we can bring into this moment.”
The Latin Ballet of Richmond just wrapped up their seasonal “Legend of the Poinsettia” performance, and their next show, NuYoRican, opens in March. You can snag tickets now here. And keep up with them on Facebook here.