Leading the Dance

Chita Espino-Bravo explains how extracurricular activities can help teach Hispanic culture, diversity, tolerance, and respect

Many years ago, I was asked to be the advisor for the Spanish Club at my university, and I accepted with pleasure, since our club is also a departmental club. I came up with fun activities to share with the Spanish Club so we could openly promote Hispanic culture at our university and in our city, one of which was Hispanic Dance Sessions, taught through the Spanish Club and the Department of Modern Languages. This was far from the only activity the club sponsored, but the Hispanic Dance Sessions attracted many participants from the university and also from the community.

The dance sessions we offer are taught by different instructors (professors and students), including myself, who have specific dance knowledge and skills. Instructors give a short presentation on the dance they are teaching, its origin and meaning, and the music, so attendees have the cultural context of the dance they are about to learn that day. It is important to mention that nobody is required to have dance skills to attend any of these sessions. Each instructor teaches the session bearing in mind that attendees may not have any dance skills at all.

The Hispanic Dance Sessions were created with four goals in mind:

  • To teach about a different culture, country, origin of the dance and music, and influences, in order to show attendees that human expression of dance and music are intimately connected. We all express the same feelings and emotions through different dances and different types of music and can relate to this aspect.
  • To teach respect for another culture, another country, and the people from that country by teaching their dances and music.
  • To teach diversity and inclusiveness by teaching a dance and its music that are rare or not mainstream to the people learning about it.
  • To teach tolerance for different cultures and different ways of expressing through dance and music, which, by extension, helps us learn to be more tolerant of diverse ways of living in general. The dance sessions teach about different ways of living life and expressing it through dances and music.

The dance sessions are practical classes where attendees learn new dance moves and steps to music they might never have heard before. As an example, I talk about flamenco, which is hardly known here in the area of Kansas where I live. I am sure my students and the other attendees think it is the strangest music to which they have ever danced. Flamenco is an art or genre which embraces different mediums—the guitarist, the singer, the dancer, or all of them together. Through flamenco, attendees learn about Spain and the south of Spain (Andalucía); Arabic, Indian, and Gypsy influences on the music; and steps and rhythms that relate to the steps and rhythms of some Arabic dances or some dances from India. Attendees also learn about palos, types of flamenco dances and how very hard they are. They are learned by repetition, and the repetition of moves and steps allows them to become more natural. In my opinion and as a student of flamenco, the most challenging aspect of flamenco is arm position, hand movement, and tapping to a specific rhythm (palo). Each move has meaning and expresses an emotion. The whole body dances flamenco; even your face and facial expressions are part of the flamenco move you are learning.

Flamenco dates from the 18th century, and the oldest record of flamenco music dates back to 1774. There’s a mention of it in the book Las Cartas Marruecas by José Cadalso (1789). The origin of flamenco has many hypotheses. Current studies about the genre tells us that it is in fact an interchange of different cultures that coincided in Andalucía. The genre influences can be seen in the dances, singing, music, clothing, instruments from the Romani (known as Gitanos in Spain; they came from India), Gregorian chants from the Catholic Church, oriundos (an Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese noun describing an immigrant of native ancestry, a foreigner), Jewish, Al-Ándalus, and Castellanos; all these influences converged in Spain and created the modern art we know as flamenco. On a curious note, flamenco also evolves and becomes something new with the younger generations, like Rosalía, for instance, who mixes it with hip-hop and reggaeton. Her personal way of mixing all these different types of music and dancing styles has created a new genre for the show business industry.

Every academic year, the Hispanic Dance Sessions Team at FHSU decides what new dances related to Hispanic culture can be incorporated into the schedule to make it more diverse and interesting for students and attendees. We started out with salsa (from different Latino countries), tango (Argentina), and samba (Brazil), and since our first year as a group that teaches Hispanic culture through dances and music, we have added other dances to our schedule, like zambra (a primitive form of flamenco), flamenco, different salsa dances from different Latino countries, ballet exercise for adults, Caribbean dances, and Polynesian dances (traditional and modern hula). All of these are related to Hispanic culture somehow; even basic ballet positions and moves can be related to Danza estilizada or Danza española (Spanish dance), which refers to the set of dances of Spanish origin. These differ according to region and represent the most important cultural events in each location. The concept of Spanish dance or Spanish ballet differs from classical ballet and is usually identified with flamenco dance, although it is not strictly flamenco. Danza española has influences from classical ballet and flamenco.

The students and community members who attend our dance sessions seem to particularly enjoy tango and salsa, more familiar to them, but we have had good interest in the zambra and flamenco sessions, as well as the Caribbean and Polynesian dances. We believe these dance sessions we teach make the attendees learn about a different culture than their own. The dance sessions expose anybody who attends, and Kansans especially, to music and moves they have never seen before, and that is a very valuable experience. Through diversity of music and dances, attendees learn about other cultures, respect for different musical sounds and structures, customs, and ways of living, as dances represent ways of living from different communities of the world. They also teach beauty and art created by humans from another part of the world. My favorite moment is when an attendee explains that they have never heard flamenco music before and that they were impressed with the energy and tapping steps that go with that music.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, our team had to think of an alternative way of teaching these dance sessions for our university and attendees. From March 2020 until August 2020, we had to cancel our live sessions to avoid spreading the coronavirus, but in the fall of 2020, we decided to stream the sessions live on Zoom, with masks on. We had to adjust to speaking with masks on, and we had to adjust to teaching on Zoom. We had to adjust the computers as well and set them up so that our attendees would see our fronts and our backs when we were dancing. We adjusted the pace of the sessions too, making them much slower than the normal sessions on campus.

The four instructors met every Wednesday at our usual time in the dance room reserved for these sessions and streamed them live on Zoom. We did get a good response from students who were confined at home, some community members, and students who took online programs with FHSU. Our dance team found out that streaming the sessions live on Zoom made them more accessible to people who would not be able to attend the sessions on campus. We are planning to dance live next fall, in 2021, with attendees in the dance room and also with attendees on Zoom. We plan to combine both options to make it more accessible and inclusive to everybody who would like to be able to attend.

To finalize, all the dance sessions we teach are good exercise, fun, and culture related. We expose attendees and Kansans to dances they would never see in our area, and we all learn to respect diversity and cultural differences through these dances and music. We learn that dances and music connect all humans as well, as all cultures dance to their music to express emotions, customs, or art.

Chita Espino-Bravo, PhD ([email protected]), is associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages at Fort Hays State University (FHSU), a public university in Hays, Kansas.

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