Feet stomping and drums playing to the Latin beats ringing out of the speakers as colorful skirts drift across the floor are common sights and sounds to the students who have become an integral part of Borinquen Dance Theatre as they prepare for performances during Hispanic Heritage Month.
Over the last month -- National Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 through October 15 -- cultural organizations in Rochester have set out to educate and explore varied Hispanic and Latinx experiences. Borinquen Dance Theatre is one of these organizations, although its reach in the local Latinx community goes far beyond the limits of a month.
Dancers have represented the company in performances all over Rochester as well as other locations in Western New York during Hispanic Heritage Month, with two shows still coming. Borinquen Dance Theatre will perform at Monroe High School on Thursday, October 13, at 6 p.m., and at the School of the Arts on Wednesday, October 19, from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Throughout the company -- from its performances to its name, "Borinquen" -- there are history lessons coming through. "Borinquen" stems from the original name of the Puerto Rican island -- it's the reason many Puerto Ricans refer to themselves as "boricua."
Founder and artistic director Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez works to make sure students understand the culture of not only the Puerto Rican people but of all peoples of color, along with knowing the roots of the Puerto Rican island. Each dance program is influenced by Taino, African, and Spanish heritage, and dancers never finish a class without learning the complexity of the heritage intertwined in the movements and their music. Whether it is by integrating the three layers of ancestry into three layers of costume skirts, or including young members in choreography to symbolize the fresh, birth of the scene on stage, symbolism carries a heavy weight in their performances.
Padilla-Rodriguez started the company as a way to address the issue of high dropout rates of Latinx students in schools, but it has since developed beyond teaching just the company's dancers.
"Borinquen is another way to educate the community about who we are as a people and not be threatened by it, but embrace the fact that diversity is what makes America rich," Padilla-Rodriguez says. "The more we embrace these different cultures, I think the healthier we are as a people."
In recent performances, particularly a Taino creation story -- choreographed by students Ethan Beckwith-Cohen and Neyda Colon-DiMaria -- the routines depicted a story that many may not have known. The backgrounds of these tales are important to the execution of the dances, and it gives the dancers and the pieces a sense of identity with the culture.
This newfound connection is particularly important when students may not have a strong connection to their heritage because of the negativity that surrounds it in modern society, Padilla-Rodriguez says.
"We need people to understand who we are and why we have a very rich culture between the language, the music, the food, and the history of our people" Padilla-Rodriguez says. "It's not as negative as what the younger generations are being exposed to."
Colon-DiMaria, a 16-year-old Latina, says she found it difficult to identify with her culture until she followed in her mother's footsteps and joined Borinquen.
"I've been dancing here for about four years, and my mother danced for the company almost 20 years ago, so it's tradition," she says. "It's helping me find my Puerto Rican roots. It's not just about being around Hispanics all the time, or going to the festivals, or doing native dances. After every dance [Padilla-Rodriguez] teaches, she asks, 'Do you know why you're doing this?' You get this history lesson but you also get this part of yourself, being a Latina."
Dancers -- the company includes members from elementary school-aged to college adults -- see they have a responsibility as role models in their communities and are taking Padilla-Rodriguez's lessons and putting them to work. Dancer and 2016 Miss Puerto Rico of Rochester Cassandra Lopez is using her new title to do just that.
"Teaching people is what inspires me to dance," Lopez says. "As the queen, the princess and I, we are going to do a bunch of events like galas and Hispanic heritage celebrations. I want to go to middle schools and celebrate -- little kids look up and see the crown and I say, 'Yes, but there's a reason behind the crown.' That's why I do it ... I want to be the role model they might not have."
Hispanic-Americans, with roots in 20 different countries, have become almost a fifth of the United States population -- and about 40,000 Hispanic-Americans live in Rochester. From the sounds of the güira (a metal percussion instrument used in the Dominican Republic) to lessons about diversity in schools in the 1940's, events of all kinds highlight a culture fast-growing in America. Here are some we found:
Vive el Folklore Dance Program
Community program for children and youths, Mondays from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., at the Gantt R-Center, 500 North Street. Free, but registration is required. gcler.org
Art Link Gallery
Unique art by local artists inspired by Hispanic Heritage Month. Now through October 24, at City Hall, 30 Church Street.
Rise Up Latinos! "Strengthening Relationships"
Guest speakers and informational booths. Saturday, October 15, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at Port of Rochester, 1000 North River Street.
Hispanic Heritage Month Gala
The annual gala event of the Hispanic Heritage Rochester organization will take place in the Rochester Riverside Convention Center, 123 East Main Street, on Monday, October 17, at 6 p.m.
Youth Gala and Cultural Expression
A formal dinner for local Latinx youth to gather and celebrate one another. Edgerton Center, Stardust Ballroom, 41 Backus Street, on Friday, October 21, at 6 p.m.
Noche de Orgullo Latino
Celebrating the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, attendees will enjoy dinner and dancing with a live Latin band at the Radisson Riverside Hotel, 120 E. Main Street on Saturday, October 29, from 5:30 to 11 p.m.