Most people can’t wait for Mondays to end. Cassandra Lopez isn’t one of them, even though she has a longer Monday than most of her high school peers. After a day as a dance major at the School of the Arts, which includes rehearsal until 6 p.m., she rushes to the Hochstein School of Music and Dance for another rehearsal at 6:30, this time with Borinquen Dance Theatre (BDT).
BDT teaches Latin-based dances for students ages 8 to 13 as well as an audition-based troupe of dancers aged 14 to 24 (including Lopez), who perform in community and out-of-town events. The group is celebrating its 35th anniversary in a concert called “Evolution” at 7 p.m. April 16 at the Hochstein School of Music and Dance.
The passion at BDT starts at the top, with the commitment of founder and artistic director Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez. By day she works as director of community partnerships for the Rochester School District, then spends her nights teaching with Borinquen, using the arts as another way to serve Rochester youths.
When Nydia Padilla-Rodriquez launched BDT in 1981, she intended to work primarily with adults. However, she changed her focus when her job in community problem-solving at the United Way made her aware of some disturbing data regarding Latino students in RCSD schools.
“Even though we weren’t such as large population at the time,” Padilla-Rodriquez says, “the percentage was way too high of a dropout rate.”
BDT became a way for her to merge her concern for Rochester’s young Latino population with her background as a dancer — she was an original member of Garth Fagan’s dance troupe Bottom of the Bucket, and considers him a mentor.
“The program is more than just dance,” she says. “They learn about working together as a team, group dynamics, self-development, respect for each other, and respect for yourself first.” She emphasizes that all this is “keeping in mind that school attendance is key,” and that participation in the program is contingent on maintaining academic achievement.
Borinquen, which takes its name from the original Taino name for the island of Puerto Rico, teaches students about the African, Taino-Arawak and Spanish influences on Caribbean folkloric and modern Latin dance. The classes emphasize that these dances come from a rich cultural background and heritage.
“It’s good for our kids to understand that so that they feel that they belong and have a sense of identity and an appreciation for our ancestry,” says Padilla-Rodriguez.
Not all of the students are Latino — many come from African-American or mixed backgrounds. This diversity only adds to the experience, allowing students to learn from and work with each other.
In addition to learning about the history of their cultures, Borinquen helps prepare students for their professional futures. Performances in the community, such as at the annual Borinquen festival, give students the opportunity to think about “public speaking skills, how to present yourself when we’re out in public, how you represent your ancestors, your family, your community,” says Padilla-Rodriguez. “It’s good exposure for them to be conscious and more familiar with why all those things are important.”
Lopez, who just turned 16, can attest to the program’s results. “I’m kind of shy,” she says. “Since I’ve started dancing there I’ve seen myself opening up more and become a young adult who’s not afraid to let herself go.”
Beyond being an educational program, Borinquen is a place of support for its members. Lopez says her favorite thing about Borinquen is the sense of family. “If I ever need help with something, someone’s always there to back me up.”
Padilla-Rodriguez also emphasizes the security Borinquen provides. “Some of the students face some challenges because of what’s going on in their homes,” she says. “We’re like an extended family.”
The program has more concrete perks, as well. Lopez was excited to share that she and three other dancers will be participating in the San Diego International Fringe Festival this summer. They will perform two dances — one a modern African piece, another a tribal dance.
“This is the first time I’m going to travel for dance,” she says.
But first she’ll be performing in Evolution this April. The 35th anniversary concert will look back at the growth of the program.
“We’re bringing back old pieces, we’re bringing in new pieces, we’re combining different styles to show our evolution,” says Lopez. This evolution involves branching out into other styles of dance, including hip hop and tap. “We’re getting better as dancers.”
Padilla-Rodriguez is looking forward to seeing her students share their professionalism and cultural pride with this concert. “It’s a great way to showcase their talent and demonstrate how discipline and having rigor really equates to great results.”
IF YOU GO
What: Evolution, Borinquen Dance Theatre’s 35th anniversary performance.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, April 16.
Where: Hochstein School of Music & Dance, 50 N. Plymouth Ave.
Tickets: $10 students/seniors, $20 adults, available online at borinquendancetheatre.org.