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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the May 12, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Celebrating 20 Years of Grassroots Dance

In this Spanish dance class, women wearing long black skirts chatter

away in rhythm with their castanets as Alma Concepcion watches and

listens. Some students can easily reel off a "roll" (five fast clicks,

like drumming fingers on a table) but others stumble. Concepcion asks

each to try it alone and offers suggestions. She has the discerning

eyes of the born teacher.

For two decades Concepcion has taught Spanish dance at the Princeton

Ballet School in Princeton and New Brunswick, and she has also taught

at Rutgers and in Manhattan. Some of her advanced students have turned

professional, and she also directs a group called Danza Espanola de

Princeton. Her most recent project is in New Brunswick, where she

visits public schools to teach third graders in Princeton Ballet

School’s Dance Power.

But every week for 20 years she has donated her services to Taller de

Danza, a project that combines her love for children, her expertise in

dance, and her commitment to her Hispanic heritage. Taller de Danza

will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a program and a dinner at

Hedgepeth Williams School in Trenton on Friday, May 14, at 6 p.m.

Dancers from years past and children ages 6 to 16 from the present

program will dance, share memories, and celebrate. The children will

present creative drama stories and a Puerto Rican dance, accompanied

by the bomba, a Caribbean drum. Three alumnae of the program will

perform a Spanish dance, Sevillanas. Concepcion’s daughter, Alicia

Diaz, a New York-based professional dancer, will present an

improvisation with Sebastian Guerrero, a musician playing the "box

cajon." Danza Espanola de Princeton will also perform.

Though born in New York, Concepcion grew up in Puerto Rico, where her

father was a lawyer and politician and her mother taught on the

university level. During and after college she studied Spanish dance

and mime with Gilda Navarra and danced with the company of Antonio in

Madrid. Her husband, Arcadio Diaz, teaches Latin American literature

at Princeton University. Their son, Alfonso, works in television and

video in San Juan, and daughter Alicia has a small modern dance

company in New York.

The children’s contribution to this program will be nothing like a

recital, because for Concepcion the process takes precedence over the

final product. Unlike standard dance classes, her workshops emphasize

creativity rather than technique. The children get to make up their

own stories and do their own choreography.

This year they created a story called "Mischievous Child." Seven of

them play the same child at different stages, and they surround the

mother (who is asleep and dreaming about the mischievous child) and

wake her up.

"Our goal is to expose them to different ways of moving," she says,

"and we find that we move with more ease when we are creating these

story dances. In the creative range, they find more vocabulary to

express themselves. We try to find stories that have a metaphor, that

have a broader meaning."

On this evening Concepcion is reviving "Different and Tiny," a story

from years ago by Carmen Martinez, with costumes by one of the

mothers, Martina Rodriguez. "The story is about a forest, where all

the trees have the same color flowers. One tree has different flowers

and the others do not like him. A new tree is born that likes him.

Because this new tree likes him, the other trees do, also," says

Concepcion.

Ages range from 5 to 16, but Concepcion looks on this as an

opportunity. "A 16 year old may get bored waiting for the 5 year old

to do a play, but the 5 year old looks at the 16 year old like a

goddess. They share a lot of things that they don’t know they can

share. When they help each other, it is amazing how fast they learn."

"What we do is very relaxed. If something is not working, we sit down

and talk about it. We don’t have a clock – we stop and talk about what

is happening now. The only rule is that we are paying attention to

what we do now."

"For many of them, it’s not that they are going to continue with a

dance career, but it does something for them. It changes them in other

ways. For instance, it enhances their physical and mental

coordination," says Concepcion. "Kids you think can’t jump – by the

end of the year they really can do it. It teaches them rhythm and

control, and it stimulates their minds, challenging them to remember

visual and audio patterns. And it gives them a creative outlet. When

they work together to create a group piece, it brings out in them

solidarity – as well as healthy competition – and enables them to

express their feelings."

Academically, she believes, the weekly meetings helps to prepare the

children for college. Sometimes, instead of dance class, she enlists

the parents to give workshops on the history of the Caribbean and

Latin America.

Angela Morales-Castaneda is a prime example of the program’s benefits;

she danced in the program 20 years ago, when she was 11. "She knew she

wanted to be a teacher when she started with me," says Concepcion.

"She went to college, got married, became a teacher, and rejoined the

program, this time as a teacher."

Taller de Danza has had some mini-grants, has given programs at

bicultural centers and churches, and has received recognition from the

Weed and Seed program, Head Start, and the Trenton Board of Education.

With no current sponsors, relying on attracting new participants by

word of mouth, it depends on volunteers.

It really takes a village to make a difference, says Concepcion. "It

is not enough to do a small program for a girl. A scholarship to

Princeton Ballet – they can do it for a little while but then their

parents can’t bring them any more. And after awhile they have

difficulty continuing in my program." This is where other parents step

into help.

"They became so involved that one parent said we want to be part of

this. and they became the board. It took seven years to organize as a

nonprofit. Every time I sent a paper I got seven papers back."

Most participants from the Hispanic community in Trenton, but

sometimes others, including African Americans, have attended. "All of

them come from communities that have wonderful links to culture and

old rituals and sources of other forms of culture, Bible and oral

traditions, music, and dance," says Concepcion. "And they draw from

all that. They come from traditions that have solidarity and bonds."

Reaching out to learn from people from various backgrounds has been a

constant for Concepcion. For 12 years she has been working with Pat

Andres and Sarah Hirschman on the Trenton-based "People and Stories –

Gente y Cuentos" program for underprivileged communities in New

Jersey. "We read a ‘master story’ in English or Spanish, and we open

it up for a dialogue," says Concepcion, who trained with the founder.

"Sometimes I am facilitator, sometimes I train, sometimes I visit the

sites," she says. "I really love that program, and I have been doing

it for over 12 years." This program is not a class or a book club.

"The purpose is to enjoy the literature, and we discuss through

peoples’ life experience. I always learn something from participants.

They are very sensitive. They have had experiences that you are always

surprised to know."

"When you read a story with 10 or 12 people you see so many other

things that you could never have imagined. And every time you read it,

you see more," says Concepcion. "And when you thought you had seen

them all, you always see more. It is really quite amazing."

– Barbara Fox

20th Anniversary, Taller de Danza, Hedgepeth Middle School, 301

Gladstone Avenue, Trenton, 866-835-1869. Program at 6 p.m.

Reservations required for the 7:15 p.m dinner. Donations accepted.

Friday, May 14, 6 p.m.


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