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Come As You Are, The Welcoming Face of Salsa

An Interview with Grace Badillo by Mary White

Every Salsa school has a personality that drives how it welcomes and integrates new dance students. The DWG Newsletter staff met with Grace in late December to hear about her approach.

DWGN: Grace, in a nutshell, what is your philosophy about new students?

GRACE: I believe Salsa dancing/Latin dance is for everyone, and I welcome everybody who wants to take my classes. No one is turned away for any reason. If a person can walk, they can dance Salsa. My instructors and I do our very best to make any person's first or 100th Salsa class a great experience - we want that person to really absorb the fundamentals and feel good about the dance. Our goal is to insure that they'll be comfortable and continue to dance for the rest of their lives.

What I'm talking about here is including everybody - younger and older, large and skinny, outgoing or shy, tall or short, and everyone from every culture and nationality. We aren't trying to encourage any one group or discourage any other from coming to our classes. We don't want students to dance, look, act, and dress the same.

DWGN: That makes perfect sense. So doesn't everybody do it that way?

GRACE: I know of some Salsa programs where not everyone is welcomed. There are some that encourage any new student to either join a clique right away or find some other place to learn Salsa. At some schools, if you don't look like their concept of a Salsa dancer you just aren't encouraged to keep going. To me this encourages pride and vanity which seems to be very popular in dance these days. Salsa isn't about fitting the mold; it's more fun to break the mold! I have had many students who have had very bad experiences with other programs and when they find their way to my school, I do everything I can to make sure that person knows they are accepted and appreciated.

Take a look at my instructors - not all them fit the stereotype that some schools hold out for what a Salsa professional should look like. Each of my instructors has their strengths as a dancer but is also someone who is committed to respecting all people and helping all people. In my view both factors are equally important, and both are supremely important to me. I want my instructors to be the welcoming face of Salsa. They are giving what they know to everyone, they care that every student has a good time learning the steps; they have confidence in the students' willingness to give it a try.

If you take a look at my students you'll see right away they're diverse. This tells me we're doing a good job of opening the door to diversity in age, race, and shapes!

DWGN: It's hard to imagine Salsa being used to shut people out.

GRACE: Yes it is, and I could never imagine it for my company. Salsa is such a positive thing, it is so much such fun to do and people feel so good when they do it regularly. My greatest hope is that we will touch the lives of every one of our students in some positive way. There have been times that students have come to me crying thanking me saying, "You don't know what you have done to change my life; salsa has changed my life. I feel whole again." To hear this come from a student warms my heart and I feel that I know what I was meant to do in life.

DWGN: Tell me more about how you got your inclusive vision of Salsa.

GRACE: When I was growing up in New York, I had a large extended family that lived nearby. Every Friday or Saturday night there would be a big party for everyone in the family to come to. The party was usually at one of my aunts houses but it was always the same: everyone was there, cousins, aunts, brothers, and uncles. If there was a reason for a party we had one. Sometimes people would bring their friends and those people were welcome. The main point was to give the whole family a gathering place where every one fit in. My family had people of every shape and size, and they all came to these parties. The 5 year olds had just as good a time as the adults; I know this because I remember dancing in the middle of the floor by myself to "Another One Bites The Dust" ha ha! They played everything from Donna Summer to Salsa. Each person was literally surrounded by music, dancing, dominos, food and family members, you got to know them all and they got to know you. You could keep in touch with everybody. Even when life was hard we all had those parties to look forward to and even though this lasted for a short time, as most of my family moved back to Puerto Rico, I will always remember the closeness we had and how much "life" there was there; so its no surprise to me now that I have a business where its my job to entertain and help others learn to have fun themselves.

So now we're coming to the answer to your original question. My philosophy is that a Salsa class is an open gathering of people who come from different places but most have the same goal: to have fun, learn to dance, practicing it with the others in the group, and be a more outgoing and social person.

As to why gathering for Salsa is a positive purpose, in my life as a dance professional I've seen so much good come from Salsa dancing. The music is joyful and uplifting. The steps are easy for people to learn. The dancing itself is good exercise. Salsa keeps the body and mind young-who doesn't want that? It brings people together who might not have met any other way. Salsa tends to create a unifying energy among people, which is why it makes sense to me to include everybody who's interested. Salsa brings out the best in a group and the world needs that.

DWGN: This brings up something I know you're working on right now - getting Salsa into the middle schools of Baltimore. Why is this so important to you?

GRACE: Any time is a good time to start learning to dance. For me and many others growing up is hard to do. I say life becomes about getting over your youth and once you do that, you can "be" what you were always meant to "be". Some people never get over what happened to them as children. Dance for me was like a little flame that needed kindling. When I was a child at the age of 5 my mother put me in ballet classes. I was quite terrible actually! My teacher wasn't very nice and hit the students with a horse whip so needless to say I never put my best foot forward because I was told I didn't have a best foot! Later on as a teenager I saw a ballet and missed dance. I knew I loved it but didn't know what kind of dance so I tried ballet again (bad idea).. My recital was a mess. Although I had a very good teacher she failed to talk to me about what can happen on the dance floor and how to recover. The music started late and was so low I couldn't hear it so I started late and so did several others. I also had the jitters; yet again I felt like a mess but through it all I still loved dance. I knew it was for me but I just didn't know which dance. Even through all of that I never gave up liking dance because it made me feel free and when I was alone I would dance and no matter how bad the day was I would dance my worries and fears away. The more I thought about my past in dance the more I knew I needed to help children. I knew I needed to be the teacher that I never had as a child so in mid-December I conducted tryouts at Chinquapin Middle School for the first middle school Salsa Team in Maryland. Many students showed up for what turned into a two and one-half hour dance session. This school is known for having children with severe behavior problems, but the kids in my tryout group conducted themselves like true adults. They danced well and paid close attention despite an overheated room with lighting problems. In their written applications these students listed the positive qualities they hoped to gain from being part of the Salsa Team. Some even wrote that they wanted to be on the team because it was their dream to be a dance teacher. To me, if they can hope and dream for things - a career, self control, a good attitude and a joyful outlook, doing something new, being part of a team - then all I have to do is water that seed and wait for it to blossom. It's just a question of giving these kids the chance to come out of their shells in an environment that is safe and accepting. Some of these children have mean shells, shy shells, loud shells, violent shells, and/or disrespectful shells, but dance will help them find themselves and be comfortable in their own skin again. That's going to happen pretty naturally in a dance team setting where the goal is to have fun, learn choreography, show the skills you have learned and be encouraged by tender teachers who expect hard work and dedication. It doesn't matter whether kids are rich or poor, black or white, quiet or popular, whatever - this type of program offers something precious to every student who gives it a try.

I have great respect for the kids at Chinquapin who had the courage to try out for the Salsa Team. I know the team members are going to do great work on their Salsa choreography. Whatever these young people gain from Salsa, I hope this program will change the way teachers and parents at Chinquapin, and eventually many other schools, perceive the potential these children truly have. Certainly this program will demonstrate what I know in my heart to be true: that Salsa has a welcoming face; all inclusive, NOT EXCLUSIVE!

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