October 14, 2008

Living Latin in Roanoke

By Amanda Codispoti [email protected] 981-3334

The children shuffled slowly onto the stage, the bells tied around their wrists and ankles jingling.

Few of them dared to look out at the crowd seated in the grass around the stage at Elmwood Park.

Instead, they kept their eyes trained on their dance teacher, Rosario Byrd, who sat in front of the stage signaling their next move with her hands.

When the music started, the 12 children stomped, skipped and swayed their arms, keeping the rhythm.

The children, from 6 to 10 years old, were performing a Mexican Indian folk dance.

Their performance was one of many on the schedule at Sunday's 5th annual Latino Festival, which drew thousands to downtown Roanoke.

The festival is organized by HACIENDA, a Roanoke nonprofit whose full name is the Hispanic Alliance Center for Information, Education, Neighborhood Development and the Arts.

Organizer Yolanda Puyana said the festival is a good way for Latinos in the region to connect.

"People work a lot and they don't know what's happening outside" their lives, she said. "They are not really aware there is this community."

The event, which ran from noon to 6 p.m., featured a variety of musical acts and food from countries including Honduras, Mexico and Cuba. A 5k run that had been scheduled for Sunday morning had to be canceled because of low participation.

The festival is also a good way to teach children about their heritage, Puyana said.

Byrd, the dance instructor, learned the Indian dances as a school girl in Mexico and wanted to pass them on to her 9-year-old daughter, Samantha, she said.

Now, a group of up to 20 children gather in her back yard every weekend to practice for performances at local churches and schools.

Earlier in the day, a small ensemble of Roanoke Ballet Theatre students performed flamenco dance, a vigorous rhythmic style with roots in southern Spain.

Anna Sawyer, an eighth-grader at North Cross, recently began taking flamenco dance classes because her mother wanted her to embrace her Spanish heritage.

Her instructor Zuheil Banuelos not only teaches the students their moves, but also the history of the dance.

"I always say it's another language they can communicate with to express their feelings," Banuelos said.

But not all the emphasis was on Latin heritage.

Between music and dance performances, Puyana asked the children in the crowd if anyone could list the names of all the United States presidents.

A 7-year-old boy promptly took the stage and the mike. With hardly a pause for breath, he gave the presidents' first, middle and last names in the order that they served.

After the applause died down, Puyana asked the boy who the next president will be.

"I don't know," he said.

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