Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Latino culture taught through salsa lessons

Salsa lessons include Latino culture

Julio Barrenzuela, a salsa fixture in Springfield, is making a serious effort to introduce the dance and the Latino culture behind it to schoolchildren in the city.

Spending a day and a half at Black Hawk Elementary School this past week, Barrenzuela, 28, got started with some second- and third-graders Wednesday afternoon. He began with questions.

“How many Spanish-speaking countries are there?” he asked. Moments later, he revealed it’s 21.

“Who wants to grow up?

“Who wants to go to school?”

These aren’t icebreakers. Barrenzuela wants to use salsa as a way to build cultural awareness and help children develop social skills and make healthy life choices.

He tends to adjust his message depending on the audience.

“For older kids, salsa is a gateway to talk to kids about staying in school, drugs, using a skill to meet more people and enjoy them,” Barrenzuela said. “I’ll ask them, ‘What are three other things you can do to improve? Three things you don’t want to do?’”

Regarding the last question, getting pregnant is a common answer from teenage girls, Barrenzuela said.

After Barrenzuela had the Black Hawk students count to 10 in Spanish, Italian and French, he got down to business.

“Can I have the guys over here and the ladies over here?”

“Your first salsa step is always going to be with your right foot,” he said to the girls.

For smaller children, Barrenzuela mostly sticks to simpler, merengue-style moves, which was the case at Black Hawk. Within minutes, dance music was pumping through the gym and roughly 20 children were following Barrenzuela’s moves, wriggling hips, waving arms and stepping back and forth in unison. In one class, a group of girls wouldn’t let go of him. In another, the boys were the ones hanging on.

“I like dancing, because it gets me fun and active,” said Black Hawk second-grader Jacob Thomas Brubaker-Lee. “Salsa dancing might be one of my favorite things. It seems familiar. Maybe from TV.”

For the past several months, Barrenzuela has been holding such lessons in schools as well as after-school programs hosted by the Springfield Urban League. He considers himself in the pilot phase of a more ambitious plan, leading workshops for physical education and Spanish teachers on integrating dancing with more serious life lessons.

A graduate of Lanphier High School who studied marketing at Southern Illinois University, Barrenzuela taught salsa at SIU, including to members of a VFW lodge.

“That’s Mexican, ain’t it?” Barrenzuela recalls being asked. He figured he might be in for a rough night.

“But within 45 minutes, they had changed their stigma and were dancing along. Through this, people walk away with a different appreciation of Latino.”

Black Hawk principal Bob Mitchell, a former art teacher of Barrenzuela’s at Washington Middle School, recruited him to help with a family fitness night at his school. Mitchell said his original intention was to find a instructor in Zumba, a dance/aerobic exercise, but a Black Hawk teacher recommended Barrenzuela.

“I recognized him from Washington,” Mitchell said, before joining in on the merengue lessons for a few minutes Wednesday. “He was a little more shy then. But he’s always been likable. For fitness night, he was very well received.”

Mitchell said salsa lessons complement another program the school is using that addresses healthy living.

“He talks about the culture, speaks to them in Spanish. He gives them the whole gamut of stuff in a short amount of time,” Mitchell said.

Barrenzuela has plans to beef up his presentation.

“If I pursue a higher-education degree, perhaps in educational psychology, maybe in five to 10 years I can raise the status quo, of cultural awareness, education. I think I can do it.”

The Springfield School District appears willing to see what’s possible. However, it hasn’t made any commitments.

“The district has been working diligently with Mr. Barrenzuela, as he has a great deal to offer both in the academic and physical realms,” said Jane Chard, managing principal of secondary programs for the district. “Hopefully … there may be opportunities to incorporate his work,” she said.

Pete Sherman can be reached at 788-1539.

Salsa dancing, which features a mixture of Latin and Afro-Caribbean influences, was created by Spanish-speaking people from the Caribbean, although the term itself originated in New York. The name "salsa" is the Spanish word for sauce, suggesting a spicy mixture of ingredients.

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