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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
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
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
"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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