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The Boston Globe

Putting The Moves On Paris

Jamaica Plain Dancers Get A Chance To Salsa In The City Of Lights

Lauren Smiley, Globe Correspondent

June 23, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Jazmin Bernabel braced for a tough sell. Sure, a virtually free trip to Paris with her salsa group might be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, but then you don't know her mother, Rosalia - the kind of mother who shows her love by making Jazmin come straight home after ROTC and only letting her join Ritmo en Accion after a potluck with the coordinator at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Jamaica Plain two Decembers ago.

Ready for combat, Jazmin, 16, launched the question.

"Mom, if I had the chance, would you ever let me leave the country?"

"For what?"

"For dance group."

"If you got chosen . . . I'd say yes."


This afternoon, Jazmin Bernabel will lug her suitcase up Centre Street to the Hyde Square Task Force office in the part of Jamaica Plain where the streets are lined with Spanish-American groceries and murals, where women in Islamic head scarfs push strollers by guys in oversize jerseys and bohemians in Birkenstocks. There she will join the five other dancers chosen to go from the 11-member group. The teens, whose previous trips abroad have mainly been to visit relatives in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, will trek to Logan Airport to catch the 4:15 for New York and the 5:25 to the City of Lights.

By 6 p.m. tomorrow - French time - they'll be doing salsa and merengue for French youth dance groups - compliments of a $15,000 grant from the Cloud Foundation, a Boston nonprofit that supports artistic programs for at-risk youths and has sent a group to France for the last four summers to partner with its sister organization Nuage.

The group members may be rooted in Latin American culture, but French? Not so much. Many tried beef bourguignon and petits fours for the first time at a dinner hosted in the spring by the Cloud Foundation, and when Bernabel's mom asked her where Paris is, she said, "You know, in Europe with the Eiffel Tower."

Good thing dance is a visual art form, because although most of the kids - the majority from lower-income, single-parent homes in Jamaica Plain and Roxbury - speak Spanish with their parents at home, their French is somewhat restricted. Nick Escoto, 16, has been memorizing salutations spoken by his French for Everyone software on his home computer.

Bernabel's not worrying about it too much: "All I need to learn is `Help,' `I'm lost,' and `food.' "

Anny Sanchez, 16, comes to the rescue, whipping out a French dictionary, given to her by her Spanish teacher, from her Hello Kitty purse: " `Can you help me please?' `Poo vey voo miday, see voo play?' "

Then there's that whole French aloofness - especially toward Americans.

"They told us that [the French] think all Americans are blond with blue eyes, so since we look different they won't treat us that way," Bernabel says.

"They don't look so bad in the video," Sanchez says of the French Culture 101 presentation they received from the Cloud Foundation along with the food. "I heard the fashion's great."

But if the past is a guide, the members of Ritmo en Accion specialize in adapting. The group was formed in July 2002 after a neighborhood teen voiced the need for an organized dance forum, and they have been juggling practice sites ever since. When members felt the group wasn't prepared for a performance at the Museum of Science last month, Bernabel rigged an extension cord from her kitchen at Academy Homes into the housing development's parking lot, where the kids scuffed their elbows practicing floor moves in the sticky heat.

Last Monday the group couldn't get practice space at the Kennedy Elementary auditorium or the River of Life Church basement - their usual practice pads - so they folded up tables in the back of the Task Force office and divided into two groups to fit into the cramped space one at a time.

Then the CD skipped. The dancers counted out the beats, not skipping one.

"We're very multitalented here," says Burju Hurturk, who choreographs along with her fiance, Victor Perez, the cofounders of the dance troupe Hacha y Machete. "We dance and sing and act. Triple threat baby!"

And that's just at practice. Nick Escoto, for example, would regularly dash out of basketball practice at Blue Hills Regional and Technical School in Canton, take a bus to Mattapan, and switch to the 29 to Jackson Square, rushing up Centre Street to catch the last hour of dance practice. He'd arrive ready to hip-hop, with sweat from basketball drills still on his forehead.

"It would be pretty bad some days," he says.

But it's worth it to Escoto, whose family knows him as the one who likes to dance at family parties. As soon as the music starts, he becomes Mr. Mambo King, contorting his dark eyebrows into a debonair arc that makes the group's director, Brenda Rodriguez- Andujar, laugh.

"He's so gung-ho," she says. "He gets the eye of the tiger look."

Leo Peguero, 18, first came to practice to watch his brother, too timid to take the floor himself. Two years later, he choreographed his own salsa solo to perform in his high school talent show and afterward presented his participation certificate to Perez and Hurturk, bringing the latter to tears. He's now featured on the Massachusetts Bay United Way poster and is headed to Boston College after the trip to Paris.

The kids must turn in their grades to Rodriguez-Andujar every term and enroll in tutoring if they falter; group members marvel at Rodriguez-Andujar's Big Brother-like surveillance of their school performance. "She knows everything. She has connections everywhere," Sanchez says. When Sanchez was late to first-period journalism class, "Brenda would say, `So, where did you go this morning?' I said, `School,' and she said, `Oh, I thought you were late.' "

It's this relationship with their director that the kids say was the linchpin in getting permission from their parents to go abroad. Such was the case with Bernabel's mother, who, upon finding out the trip was with Rodriguez-Andujar, agreed for good. Is she proud of Jazmin?

"Hasta ahora, si," she says. Up until now, yes. But she does have one more request from her daughter.

"I want her to teach me how to dance."

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