Life lessons taught with the discipline of dance

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For four decades, Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez has used dance as a vehicle for success in life. The founder and artistic director of Borinquen Dance Theatre, which celebrates its 40th anniversary tomorrow, has witnessed many Rochester youth become engaged with the community.

“It’s a program that’s structured to really build self-esteem, the sense of belonging, while at the same time learning about our rich culture, the etiquette of working together as a team, group dynamics, understanding that you’re going to meet people that you may not like but we have to learn to work with each other (and) respect each other,” Padilla-Rodriguez says. “It’s more than just dance.”

Launched in 1981, at the Puerto Rican Festival of Rochester, BDT began with classes for adults. Padilla-Rodriguez, a former administrator with the Rochester City School District, wanted to help city students who were dropping out of school and failing to graduate. She shifted gears to work with children and teenagers.

“I decided, let me come up with something creative and innovative that will help attract students to this performing arts program with the understanding that you have to maintain your academic achievement and school attendance in order to be part of this group,” says Padilla-Rodriguez, an original member of Garth Fagan’s “Bottom of the Bucket” dance. “And I think that worked well because it had an incentive where there were high expectations. The rigor of our classes was very, very intense.”

The organization aims to offer young people, many from economically challenged households, an opportunity to develop and practice discipline through a dance program. Dancers learn traditional Puerto Rican dances, Latin jazz, and African and hip-hop styles in classes at the Hochstein School of Music and Dance. Through the program, these children learn leadership, group dynamics and teamwork. During the pandemic, classes were held outside (weather permitting) so that students could continue that focus.

“Sports is used to turn the life around for a child,” Padilla-Rodriguez says. “It’s the same thing with dance. It’s just that dance has more of this social element (when) it really does involve discipline and the kind of discipline that you need in order to sustain what we have done. (It) has to involve rigor, commitment, dedication, working together as a team, seeing each other (as part of) an extended family, supporting in any shape or form once you make that transition.”

BDT has enabled more than 1,000 students to lead productive and successful lives. Some alums have returned to assist with programming and instruction. Students who stay in touch while they’re at college and return to help with a class or choreograph a dance during the summer illustrate the BDT extended family concept, Padilla-Rodriguez says.

Nydia Padilla-Rodriguez

“I don’t ever want students to feel once you leave (it) doesn’t mean that we’re no longer connected,” she says.

Some students stay in touch in other ways. For instance, an alum who started a pastry business after being laid off, will cater her treats for the anniversary gala at the Harro East Ballroom. BDT is assisting another student, who launched a dance attire business, to promote her products. A physician in Florida, a BDT alum, is offering a scholarship for a student who starts college in January. 

As she looks ahead, Padilla-Rodriguez would like to sustain and grow the nonprofit’s infrastructure and support. She hopes to recruit more students from city schools—which has been tough during the pandemic and with transportation issues—so that when she is ready to pass the baton, it’s not a challenge to keep going.

“I want to make sure that this infrastructure is in place and the kind of resources that you need to stay and continue is there so that when the torch is passed, it’s passed with that level of support,” Padilla-Rodriguez says. “So, it’s not a major struggle. Because being a dance company is challenging as it is.”

The Nov. 6 gala will be dedicated in memory of Borinquen members and an instructor, respectively—Diana Ortiz, Gloria Lopez, Ruthie Diaz Emmonds and Christopher Morrison—who have died in recent years. 

“They say, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well, it takes a village to raise a community and to keep a community intact, especially when you’re dealing with vulnerable youth,” says Padilla-Rodriguez, who is grateful for donors, family and friends that support BDT’s mission.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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