The first-floor ballroom of Movement House is alive: Dancers step side to side, swinging their hips and arms back and forth as they follow Crystal Peña ’24 and Emily Rodriguez ’24 to the pulsing rhythms of Romeo Santos’ “Sobredosis.” These joyful gatherings are a weekly respite from the stresses of student life for many Wesleyan students.
After a pandemic-induced stretch of dormancy, Wesleyan’s Latin and Ballroom Dance Club has returned, with greater popularity and reach than ever. The club meets weekly, and, unlike many of Wesleyan’s other dance groups, operates on a drop-in basis: A new dance routine is taught to whoever attends in a given week.
As one of Wesleyan’s few Latinx artistic spaces, club leaders aim to foster community while sharing elements of their underrepresented culture with the greater Wesleyan community. As the club continues to grow and expand its reach on campus, its leaders are faced with a difficult task: continuing to reach as many members of the school community as possible while ensuring that their dances remain connected to and situated in their traditional cultural context.
Amending and Adapting
According to club leader Peña, the organization was founded well before the pandemic and once operated very differently from how it does today. An external teacher and choreographer would come to Wesleyan each week and offer a 45-minute open class, followed by a 45-minute rehearsal for members of the club who wanted to compete in Latin dance competitions.
Like many campus organizations, however, the club became a casualty of the pandemic, slipping into inactivity as students left campus and club leaders graduated.
“Around this time, possibly a little earlier, last year, the former primary contact for the club decided that she had to step down,” Peña said. “She was offering up her role to other people including my friend who knew that I like to dance, and…she was like, ‘Ooh, do you want to do this together?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure.’”
After Peña took the helm, she said many members of the school community who missed the presence of the club on campus urged her to restart the weekly meetings.
“Everyone just kept asking us when the [club meetings] were starting,” Peña said. “So spring semester, we decided that we would just do it. We didn’t have [a] space. We didn’t have an instructor. But we started teaching the classes ourselves, in La Casa, the program house we were living in.”
Though this format was originally meant to fill the void left by the club’s absence until an instructor could be found and hired, Peña said she began to prefer this way of meeting.
“We still just weren’t able to get an instructor by the end of spring semester…but we really liked [the new format] because it became very…open,” Peña said. “You could come whenever you had time, and there was no competition expectation. You would just come in, learn, and have fun.”
According to Peña, this new club format allowed members to build stronger bonds with one another.
“It was a really small, tight-knit thing,” Peña said. “The previous in-class pressure was also gone…. So it was going really well.”
A Semester of Success
After the success of last year’s club meetings, the club has continued with its self-teaching format this year.
Last year, Peña’s teaching partner stepped down and, as a result, Rodriguez began to co-instruct the club with Peña this semester.
“The friend that used to co-teach with [Peña] last semester couldn’t run the club this semester, due to her schedule, so [she] asked if I could step up and hold a leadership position as co-captain,” Rodriguez said. “So I agreed to do that. In the beginning, I specialized in teaching bachata, since that’s the dance style that I’m most comfortable with.”
As official club leaders and primary teachers this year, Peña and Rodriguez decided to make important changes to the club’s structure and format.
“We realized that the [two] 45-minute blocks were just too rushed and didn’t really give you the opportunity to dive deeply into the aesthetics of each individual style,” Peña said. “So now we only teach one style for the full hour and a half.”
And much to the leaders’ surprise, these 90-minute meetings have been a campus-wide hit, forcing the meetings to relocate from La Casa to the expansive ballroom of Movement House in order to have enough space for the dozens of weekly attendees. Peña attributes this newfound popularity to one of the club’s most recent investments: a robust presence online.
“It’s gotten so much interest because now we’re more active on social media, ” Peña said. “I feel like we have more defined roles on the board [including social media directors]. And so our social media is super active now and has attracted so many new members.”
According to club member Daniel Goldberg ’24, the club provides a friendly environment for students of all levels, including those who have never danced before.
“I didn’t know my left foot [from] my right foot when I came to Wesleyan,” Goldberg said. “I think that the beauty of dance at Wesleyan is that you can really join at any level.”
Goldberg strongly recommended that everyone should come to the club to experience the atmosphere.
“You have to try it,” Goldberg said. “No matter what your ability is, you have to try it. It’s just so fun. But it’s more than just the dance. The dance itself is great, and all the different styles are great, but the most beautiful thing is the energy that you feel in the room when everybody is dancing together.”
As well as providing students with a space to learn many dance forms, Andrea Coronel-Lopez ’24 also said that the club gives people the chance to connect with other dancers on campus.
“I think, in particular, it’s really fun, the partner work that we do because we get to meet new people,” Coronel-Lopez said. “We get…put in these awkward positions sometimes, but it ends up being so fun [getting to know new partners].”
For Isabella Lozada ’26, the club’s supportive environment is one of the main reasons she attends almost every weekly meeting.
“The environment is definitely very welcoming, and supportive,” Lozada said. “Everyone is just cheering everyone on; it’s very high energy and low pressure.”
As the club has garnered increasing support this year, Peña and Rodriguez are planning to use this increased interest to expand the club’s reach on and off campus. Since the club missed the fall deadline for new club registration, it is not officially included on WesNest, which limited their ability to host events, but Peña and Rodriguez are looking forward to registering next semester.
“We missed the registration deadline, unfortunately,” Rodriguez said. “So a lot of the promotion has come through our Instagram and through flyers…because we’re not officially on WesNest, so we can’t host events since we’re not registered this semester. But we’ll be registered next semester and so our goal is to have a showcase similar to the other dance groups on campus.”
The club is also planning to introduce a performance team in the upcoming weeks and months to allow more advanced dancers to bring Latin dance pieces to the stage.
“It seemed like everyone really enjoyed our performance at the dance showcase at the beginning of the semester, and a lot of people have expressed interest in performing with us, so we decided to start a team,” Peña said. “We’re still figuring it out right now, but we’re hoping that next semester, we can have an established show. Right now, we’re just using smaller performance opportunities to get the team going.”
These events have already begun: The team will host and perform at a Latin dance mixer on Friday, Nov. 4, as a part of Wesleyan’s first Latinx affirmation week. The team will also perform as a part of pre-frosh programming later in the semester.
In addition to giving members performance opportunities, a more advanced team offers the promise of challenges not always present in the weekly open classes.
“The classes are fun, but I am kind of familiar with a lot of the styles,” Lozada said. “I want a challenge and also the opportunity to perform at lots of different events.”
Beyond simply sharing dance routines with interested students on campus, the club provides a space for Latinx students to connect with their heritage.
“I grew up dancing different styles of dance,” Lozada said. “That was always something that we would do at different social gatherings. And so [through the club] I’ve been able to continue that and find a similar space here at Wes. It’s been a way to connect with people, to express myself and my emotions, and specifically just connect to my culture.”
Coronel-Lopez said being a part of the club allowed her to explore other Latinx art forms beyond her Ecuadorian background.
“I knew about Bachata, but I did not know any of the other Spanish dances,” Coronel-Lopez said. “It was just really neat to learn about Salsa. It was really neat to learn about Cumbia. It was nice to learn about hip-hop, because that gets me out of my comfort zone. It just shows how there’s just so many different elements within Latin dance.”
For Peña, creating a space to share Latinx culture with the Wesleyan community feels important and overdue in many ways.
“[Latinx culture] is just so underrepresented here,” Peña said. “You don’t really see the artistic aspect of Latin culture being represented at all. I feel like it’s really important to create a space in which people can learn about it.”
Lozada emphasized her gratitude for the Latinx space that the club offers students on campus.
“I was really happy to find out that it existed,” Lozada said. “And also for other people who don’t identify as Latinx, they can come into this space and learn a little bit about the culture.
In addition to providing a space for Latinx students to explore their identities through movement, the club has become a space where students of all ethnicities can come together to learn about Latinx culture.
“[The club] is a community and anybody can bring their friends and you see people from all sorts of different backgrounds coming together,” Goldberg said. “I think that’s why I felt comfortable to even try it out.”
As the club continues to grow, Peña said she hopes there will be more opportunities to discuss the history and cultural context behind the dances that she teaches as a part of the weekly meetings.
“I don’t want it to seem like we’re there just for entertainment purposes,” Peña said. “Dance is a lived experience and such a crucial part of our culture. We can understand each other better if we take the time to see where everyone comes from and [learn about] their cultures. So I feel like, for me, that’s why it’s important for me to bring that to Wesleyan, because if not me, who?”
Akhil Joondeph can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Linda Lu can be reached at email@example.com..