Baila Means Dance, Baila Means Community

Sandra Bernal Heredia uses Latin dance as a cultural bridge between Colby and Waterville

Sandra Bernal Heredia dance class
Assistant Professor of Spanish Sandra Bernal Heredia (center, left) teaches the dance cumbia as part of her “Baila in the Community” course. Colby students join in the instruction by pairing up with community members who attend the free class.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
October 24, 2022

To be clear, I am not a dancer. Yet there I was, lined up with dozens of others. We had gathered in downtown Waterville to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and to partake in Sandra Bernal Heredia’s free Latin dance class. Salsa was on the docket, one of four genres in her “Baila in the Community” series.

“One, two, three,” she called out. “Five, six, seven.” The “four” and “eight” are silent in salsa, I’d just learned. My eyes were glued to her sequined dance shoes.

Sixty minutes later, sweaty and aglow, I laughed with my randomly chosen partner. We had danced a salsa routine!

Baila in the Community is a community-engagement course for Colby students that uses arts and culture to foster a sense of belonging. In this one-credit course, they’re building social justice awareness through collaborative learning to develop skills such as consensus building and the development of participatory democracy. They’re also learning fundamental dance patterns and rhythms of Latin dance they’re teaching to the Waterville community alongside Bernal Heredia.

“Dance is a channel, the vehicle to create community,” said Bernal Heredia, assistant professor of Spanish. “When you get to know each other, when you actually get to know each other’s cultures, you accept them better.”

Baila in the Community is funded and supported by an Office of Civic Engagement course development grant, which provides resources and support for faculty to develop community-engaged learning courses. This year, six new classes integrate academic study with community engagement and critical reflection, said Elizabeth Jabar, the Lawry Family Dean of Civic and Community Engagement.

The Chace Community Forum downtown teemed with cultures that night. Rebecca Lovitz-Ortega brought her daughter, Brianna, 10. Lovitz-Ortega is Jewish and her husband is Puerto Rican. Exposing Brianna to her Hispanic roots is important to their family.

“We embrace opportunities to celebrate other cultures,” said Lovitz-Ortega, a social worker from nearby Fairfield. “We’re thrilled to have access to Latin dance classes in central Maine.”

That’s music to Bernal Heredia’s ears.

Students and community members practice dance steps in one of the “Baila in the Community” dance classes held at the Chace Community Forum, a gathering space downtown in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons.

Bernal Heredia left her home in Peru at age 16 to study at the United World College Red Cross Nordic school in Norway. There, she felt at home with a cadre of international classmates. But when she came to Virginia’s University of Richmond in the United States for undergraduate work, she felt out of place. To cope, she’d go dancing on weekends in clubs where immigrants gathered to listen to music and speak Spanish. It was a place, she said, to connect with one’s identity and culture.

Moving to Florida, New Mexico, and Texas for graduate work, she always found a family in dance. “The only place that felt like home,” she said, “were those Latin dance groups.”

Baila in the classroom

Bernal Heredia first offered a one-credit baila course at Colby in the 2019 spring semester because she hungered for “something Latin” after moving to Waterville the previous fall. More than 40 students signed up for the 15 slots she had available. Faculty and staff clamored to join as well. The turnout was huge for the public dance classes she offered that spring in Waterville, she said.

When she offered the course again, she upped it to four credits to give students majoring in Spanish or Latin American studies the opportunity for advanced study of Latin dance.

But this fall, she returned to the one-credit community baila course for two reasons: as a gift to the Waterville community after two years of pandemic isolation and to give Hispanic and Latinx “heritage learners” the chance to learn Latin dance.

Heritage learners are students with a Latin cultural heritage who speak Spanish at home but attended English-speaking schools. They tend not to major in Spanish or Latin American studies, but they gravitate toward courses that connect them to their culture.

Bernal Heredia and her colleague Visiting Assistant Professor of Spanish Dámaris Mayans have introduced courses specifically for Colby’s growing population of heritage learners. Baila intersects impeccably with their initiative.

The free Latin dance classes are open to everyone and attract Colby students as well as residents from across the area.
All eyes are on Sandra Bernal Heredia (center), who offers detailed instructions regarding the proper way to hold hands (a light touch), foot placement, and the opening and closing of the body at the right time.

Doménica Gomez ’25 is a Posse Scholar and heritage speaker from Pearland, Texas, who has spent summers in her family’s native Ecuador since she was a child. In her first year at Colby, she took Bernal Heredia’s Spanish Language for Heritage Learners course, where she “got the recognition she deserved” as a Spanish speaker while also learning how to write in academic Spanish.

This fall, she’s taking Bernal Heredia’s baila class to familiarize herself with Latin dance styles. Despite dancing all her life in Texas and Ecuador, she never had the opportunity to learn any of them.

The class is also bolstering her identity as a Latina. Gomez admits to having an identity crisis, “a shared experience with a lot of children of immigrants,” she said. “I never really felt like I fit in with the Hispanic students at my high school. But then when I’d go home [to Ecuador], I was too Gringa, too American.”

Now at Colby, she has joined the Colby Dancers, is president and founder of the Spanish Club, and is choreographing Latin dances. It’s all validating her identity, said Gomez, a psychology major and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies minor.

Doménica Gomez ’25 teaches her dance partner a move as part of the “Balia in the Community” course, in which she is enrolled. The dance course has helped Gomez connect to her Hispanic heritage and culture while offering a balance to her other studies in the pre-med track at Colby.

And the community engagement piece? At first, she was a little nervous teaching, but she gains confidence each week. She believes these classes can help connect Waterville residents with Colby students. “I really like the idea of the class,” Gomez said. “I’m excited to see how this progresses.”

So is Lovitz-Ortega, who said she’d be back for more classes. As will I. It’s nearly impossible to ignore Bernal Heredia’s invitation.

“Dance is open to anybody,” said Bernal Heredia. “No experience needed, no partner needed. Just come. Communicate—and dance.”

Balia in the Community classes remaining this semester are listed below. Classes are held in the Chace Community Forum in the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons from 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. and are free and open to the public.

Tuesday, Oct. 25: Bachata

Tuesday, Nov. 8: Bachata

Tuesday, Nov. 15: Merengue

Tuesday, Nov. 29: Salsa

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