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The Hartford Courant

Latin Culture, Uno-Dos-Tres

By LISA JEAN-FRANCOIS, Courant Staff Writer

March 26, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved.

Sandi Rodriguez is just about 5 feet tall. But when she stands before her Latin dance class of 20 children, ranging in age from 6 to 18, she's a towering authority.

Although the children have been dancing for more than half an hour under bright overhead lights, they have no complaints when asked to do more. Rodriguez directs them with a simple command.

"Let me see Mama Guela!" Rodriguez instructs.

The children scurry to put on traditional dancewear over their T-shirts and sweats, and then break into a soulful hip-hop salsa routine.

Rodriguez prides herself on teaching the African and Native American influences found in many forms of Latin dance.

"The kids must learn the roots of the dance," she says. She said dance is one way to teach them about Latino culture.

Rodriguez was an East Hartford police officer for 15 years before opening Areyto Latin Dance Studio at 1483 Main St. three years ago. The name Areyto, she says, is a Taino Indian word meaning a form of celebration.

Rodriguez's decision to open the studio came after she taught classes for years at local colleges, public schools and at a casino. Now she serves as an instructor, and as a mentor and friend to the many children who take classes at her studio.

"She's the best person I've ever met," said Katherine Rosario, 16. "This is my dream - dancing, being with the kids. It's awesome."

Melissa Vazquez, 13, agrees. "She's like a mother and a sister," she said.

Vazquez said she plans to one day open her own dance studio after attending college to study forensic psychology.

Rodriguez's devotion to her students has landed them many invitations to dance both locally and abroad.

"We frequently perform. It's one of the main things - that the children get out there and put their talents out," Rodriguez said.

In December, they were invited to dance at the governor's mansion during Christmas festivities. In July, they traveled to Puerto Rico and danced in the World Salsa Congress. This year, they are looking forward to being featured dancers at a Puerto Rican flag-raising ceremony in Ohio.

The children also have been able to dance with and for several renowned Latin celebrities. Jorge Santana, choreographer for the recently released dance movie "Havana Nights," has led several workshops at the studio.

In 2002, the children opened for the late Cuban singer Celia Cruz in a concert at the Windsor Amphitheatre.

Despite their successes, Rodriguez makes sure to keep her students grounded by giving them responsibilities.

Each week, for example, one student is responsible for preparing a snack for that class. Their school grades also are a priority.

"The kids' program is not easy," she said. "There are a lot of requirements."

"Their grades come first," Rodriguez said. If their school grades fall too low, Rodriguez places that dancer on probation until the grades get better.

"It's not just dancing," said one parent, Dominique Dickens. "She also teaches them about self-esteem."

Many students in Rodriguez's adult classes also admire her dedication.

One of them, Antonio Gonzalez, said, "She is really skillful and an excellent teacher." Outside the dance studio, he and other adult dancers enjoy accompanying Rodriguez to various social functions, including clubs and restaurants featuring Latin music and food.

But life isn't all dance. Rodriguez prides herself in affording her younger dancers opportunities that they may otherwise never receive.

"One of the things I always said is I will not have these kids disappointed with shattered dreams," she said. "When I grew up in Hartford, I saw a lot of that and one of the things I said is I would never let that happen to my kids."

For more information on Areyto Latin Dance Studio, contact Sandi Rodriguez at 860-528-8900.

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