AILSA CHANG, HOST:
This Hispanic Heritage Month, Ballet Hispanico is celebrating its 50th anniversary. The dance company features work of Latinx choreographers, as well as a robust educational outreach program. And it was just awarded a $4 million grant from the Ford Foundation, which designated it as one of America's cultural treasures. Jeff Lunden reports.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Fifty years ago, Tina Ramirez, a New Yorker of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent who was born in Venezuela, founded Ballet Hispanico. Eduardo Vilaro became its artistic director 11 years ago.
EDUARDO VILARO: Tina Ramirez's vision was to give access and to show artists beyond the stereotypes that they were being put on on stage and in the media. So she started teaching kids, and that turned into kids being professional, being a dance company. Her heart has always been to give Hispanic and Latinx people the place they deserve in the American landscape.
LUNDEN: The Cuban-born Bronx-raised Vilaro honors that original commitment, but adds...
VILARO: My vision is really about developing this platform further to serve the Latinx community by creating leadership.
LUNDEN: So the 15 members of the company don't just learn the dance repertoire. They lead workshops, give classes in New York City and wherever they tour.
VILARO: Our dancers are ambassadors of the culture but, you know, much more so of human kindness and connectivity.
LUNDEN: Melissa Verdecia is a longtime dancer with Ballet Hispanico.
MELISSA VERDECIA: Immediately when I joined in 2012, we were trained in seminars on how to engage with different demographics and age groups. And I found that to be so useful and invaluable.
LUNDEN: She's worked with senior citizens, people with learning disabilities, incarcerated youth. She even taught a social dancing workshop in Israel, where no one spoke the same language, but they all learned to mambo, salsa and merengue.
M VERDECIA: By the end of the class, we were able to pair one Palestinian girl with one Israeli girl, and people were having such a great time. And it was evident in their body language. And it was a true testament to how verbal language is not our only source of communication, that art and movement and physical touch is what breaks down these barriers that our society has set up for us.
LUNDEN: Dancing brought romance to Verdecia as well. She married another member of the company, and they're expecting their first child in January. The two performed a duet together in a video for the company's online fundraiser, Noche Unidos, in June. With the COVID crisis, Ballet Hispanico adapted quickly, says artistic director Eduardo Vilaro.
VILARO: I like to say that I went into my immigrant mode. How do you survive? What do we have to do?
MICHELLE MANZANALES: Immediately, we went into free programming that we shared on our social media.
LUNDEN: Michelle Manzanales is a choreographer and director of Ballet Hispanico's School of Dance.
MANZANALES: Because we wanted to stay connected. We knew how important it was for our students and for our community to continue to dance, to continue to connect.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
LYVAN VERDECIA: Hello, everyone. My name is Lyvan Verdecia, and I am from Havana, Cuba. Today's class, we're going to be learning salsa Cubana en pareja.
LUNDEN: And Artistic Director Vilaro introduced weekly online programming called #BUnidos, B United.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
NINA VACA: I'm so pleased to be celebrating Hispanic heritage with you.
LUNDEN: There's Pride Mondays, Salsa Tuesdays, Wepa Wednesdays featuring videos of Ballet Hispanico and other Latinx dance companies - Tiki Tiki Thursdays with gossip.
VILARO: And then on Fridays, we have Fiesta Fridays, the best - sharing food recipes from dancers, artists, families to everyone. So that has really buoyed our profile in many ways and also helped sustain us.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: To get us started, I have the music playing to get us in the mood to cook some delicious Dominican dish, La Tres Golpes.
LUNDEN: Another source of sustenance is the $4 million grant Ballet Hispanico received from the Ford Foundation. President Darren Walker says they gave out unrestricted grants to arts organizations that represent the best of African American, Latinx and Indigenous culture.
DARREN WALKER: The criteria was artistic excellence, national reputation, strong leadership, known as a training ground and highly regarded. Ballet Hispanico is all of these things. And it was an easy decision.
LUNDEN: Artistic director Eduardo Vilaro says this grant will help sustain the company while it waits to return for live performances and classes. And he hopes to use some of the money to invite artists from Latin America to come to New York to share their work and collaborate - be unidos. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
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