Conversation with Clara Bello about DEL’s new Latinx series on Salsa Stories
The Director of DEL sat down with dance educator Clara Bello to discuss her new course on salsa dance, music and stories for DEL’s Fall calendar.
Below are excerpts from their conversation. The video shows their full interview.
Erin Lally, Director of DEL at 92Y: I’m so excited to speak with you about your upcoming workshop, Salsa Stories. I have a couple of questions and we’ll just see how they unfold and how the questions might turn into stories. So can you start off by just telling me, what is your experience in relationship with salsa dance?
Clara Bello, DEL Facilitator, Salsa Stories: I’m Dominican raised in Inwood / Washington Heights. I grew up hearing merengue, bachata, salsa, bolero and other Latin American and Spanish songs. To be honest, I didn’t know who the Beatles were until I went to high school. And dancing was a part of every family get together. I felt comfortable in this world where music and food were the ways we showed love. But for some reason, in my mind, I thought salsa was extra hard and that kind of just set in. I felt that I couldn’t do it. And as a teenager, I remember going to parties and people would ask me to dance, and I said I couldn’t because I just didn’t know how. And you know, mental blocks, that’s how they work. Like if you say you can’t, you can’t and you won’t. I just felt I didn’t understand it, even though I had been hearing and feeling this music since the womb. So I started taking dance lessons at Santo Rico in Washington Heights. And from there, the rest is history. I started dancing with them and I finally felt complete that I knew this was where I was. And like, this was like me being fulfilled in my identity.
Erin: And so when thinking about your workshop title, “Entering into the clave,” what does that mean to you?
Clara: So the clave is a beat that some people call the heartbeat of salsa, others call it the pulse, and you’ll see so many different variations, but it comes from the fact that salsa in itself, the term and the genre have such a varied, enriched history that brings up many stories and many discussions. “Entering into the clave” is really just a way of us inviting the participants, or whoever is interested, to come into this world and learn about our stories—as rich and different as they are—and feel that delicious excitement that is satisfying, because it just gets into you…
Erin: What are you excited to share with our DEL community in this experience?
Clara: This is the first time we have a Latin American dance form coming to DEL, and I think that’s huge. It’s an honor to be able to bring this to the DEL community. I want to leave the community with the understanding that salsa is not just a dance for many of us. It is the way we get through what our day-to-day lives are as immigrants or as first generation, second generation… it’s the way we connect back to our homelands and our histories. Salsa tells our stories. And through this course, I want to not only tell the DEL community the stories that come from salsa, but I also want participants to be able to tell their stories and connect to salsa in that.
Erin: As educators are preparing for their year and thinking about how to make students feel valued in the classroom and seen and heard, they can incorporate the students’ stories as well. I know that a wealth of information and knowledge is found in our communities and with our children and with their families. Can you talk a little bit about how you, as a teacher, have engaged your school community, your student body and families in either salsa dances or any other Latin dances in your classes?
Clara: Thank you for asking that. It’s important to understand that the students don’t come in blank. There is no tabula rasa. Students are experts in their own histories. So with that in mind I just try to ask students: “Tell me about you. What do you know? What do you dance? What do you listen to at home?” And, and for the most part, if you ask, they’ll let you know! I’ve had families share Venezuelan folk dances, Mexican folk dances… And all of these are very meaningful for our students, and for our community, because they see themselves reflected in the culture and the students themselves shine. When they see that someone actually cares about who they are and what they bring to the table. I think it’s important to ask, not assume, and to know that inviting people in is honestly the best way to get to know someone or to get to know some people.
Erin: Can you tell me what your hopes are for participants when they walk away from this course?
Clara: I hope participants leave with some understanding of salsa as not only a dance that has steps, but it is this cultural history, woven into music and dance, and it tells our stories. I want them to walk away with the fact that they don’t need to necessarily have been born into the culture to be part of the culture—that we welcome everyone and want everyone to bring along their tapestry of stories and join into this wonderful quilt that we’ve been weaving throughout time in history.
Hear about guest artists Baudilio “Lío” Rivera, Yesenia F. Selier, and Dr. Derrick León Washington, PhD, and how educators should incorporate Latinx culture year-round (not just during Latinx Heritage Month) in the full video interview.