Ana Maria Alvarez is like many moms. She’s been in her house with her husband and two kids, ages 3 and 9, for months now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On this afternoon, she’s found a quiet spot in her Los Angeles home within earshot of her youngest, who is napping. She’s hoping he doesn’t wake up while she’s talking about the Dancing Familias program she’s bringing to Texas Performing Arts.
Alvarez, 43, the founder of the Los Angeles-based Contra-Tiempo dance company, has been spending her time staying at home trying to dance as often as she can while juggling parenting, preschool and elementary school and a dance company that has had to get creative to perform.
"It’s a good day when we have a dance party," she says.
Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays, she holds virtual dance classes. On Wednesdays, it’s the Dancing Familias class for everyone ages 3 and up.
She says the class gives caregivers permission to let down their hair. They are dancing and laughing and sweating.
"This class is people who have to change a dirty diaper sometimes, people who need a nap midway and moms who sneak away and have class," she says. "It really is on your own terms."
Alvarez will be hosting a virtual class for Austin families Aug. 22. It’s free because of a sponsorship from H-E-B.
Like all her Dancing Familias classes, some of it is call and response: She does a move and you do it back. Some of it is playing with prompts that come from her but allow for free expression.
Dancing is important for kids and really all people, she says, because "dance is our connection to ourselves. We all have bodies. We all have a connection to our bodies. It’s easy to be still all day. ... The practice of moving your body and moving to the music and feeling the rhythm and having that connection to you — there’s nothing more powerful."
Right now people are feeling disconnected, she says. "Dance has the capacity of creating a connection."
The class begins with sharing what people are grateful for and then, at the end, sharing a wish and a hope for each other and the world. Participants write their responses in the chat of the Zoom meeting.
They get to dance to a range of different music, from newer songs to oldies.
For the class, people should clear a space that is twice the size of their wingspan if they can, she says. Put on comfortable clothes, put hair up and get ready to move and sweat.
"Joy is a muscle that you work and you practice," she says. "It’s not something you wake up every morning and feel. This class is practicing your joy muscle."
Alvarez created Contra-Tiempo in 2005 after touring with a dance piece she created during graduate school at UCLA. It was about empowerment and who she was as a dancer and included salsa, hip-hop dance theater and dance activism.
While it was originally about being herself in the space of dance, it’s become a bigger mission, she says. Contra-Tiempo is now a collective of people who speak in a shared language of salsa, but they bring their own voices and backgrounds to the group.
The dances share the traditions of the African diaspora, from Brazil to Cuba to Haiti, to African American culture including hip-hop.
Alvarez grew up all over the southern United States. Her father’s roots were Cuban. Her mother is a Southerner. In North Carolina and Georgia, she grew up in a world that was very Black and white. It was rare to see someone else who was Latinx, she says. "I got asked very often, ’What are you?’"
She grew up with parents who were union organizers and who brought her up in a multicultural environment. "Because of the village that raised me, I felt included," she says.
Now one of the themes of Contra-Tiempo is to reflect what it means to embrace the diversity that is the United States. "We are deeply connected," she says.
The connection can be through dance. "Moving and grooving and improvisation, a deep part of itself is accessing our humanness and shared humanity," she says.
Especially now after a summer of more awareness about the struggle for racial justice, she sees dance as having "the capacity to heal, and to connect and to rise to the challenge."
"My goal is that people leave feeling lighter, feeling connected," she says.