Alisa Bowens-Mercado: "If you can get a kid up and they're dancing, that gives you an opening to have fun and embrace different cultures." Lucy Gellman Photos.
It was just past 10 a.m. at John S. Martinez School, and time for some fancy footwork. Shoulders flexed and loosened around the room. Congas hammered out a rhythm that seemed to summon the sun. But as the first strains of José Missamou's "El Manicero" floated over the floor, nine-year-old Jeanielys Vargas could feel herself getting nervous.
Then she remembered the four-four count that builds the backbone of cumbia, and the nerves melted away. It was just her and the music—and four dozen of her peers, working to find their rhythm.
Thursday morning, Latin dance filled the gymnasium at John S. Martinez School, as salsera Alisa Bowens-Mercado arrived to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with an hour of movement and music. Flowing through salsa, cumbia, bachata, merengue, tango and flamenco in under 60 minutes, she and drummer Melvin Hernandez got students on their feet, using dance as a tool for social and emotional learning and cultural exchange through the arts.
Top: Percussion player Melvin Hernandez and four-year-old Cali Smalls. Bottom: Jeanielys Vargas, who is in the fourth grade (at the right, with long hair).
"I started working in schools because there was a need to teach diversity and culture through dance," Bowens-Mercado said as students trickled into the room, some gravitating immediately towards Hernandez' drum set. "If you can get a kid up and they're dancing, that gives you an opening to have fun and embrace different cultures. The joy is that they can go home and share this with their family, their parents and brothers and sisters."
At this point, she said, she's been doing it for over two decades, including 21 classes for Hispanic Heritage Month this year alone (while the month technically ends Oct. 15, salsa remains her year-long passion well after that). "When the music comes on, that exhaustion goes out the window. It awakens the soul," she said.
The connection with Martinez was born earlier this year, when Assistant Principal Lauren Sepulveda met Bowens-Mercado days before New Haven Public Schools convocation in late August. For the first time this summer, NHPS teachers and staff formed a Latin dance team to welcome Superintendent Madeline Negrón to the district.
In just three days, the team put a routine together. For Sepulveda, who is half Puerto Rican and grew up in Meriden and Wallingford, it was a moment she wanted to bring to her work as an educator.
Students started with doing percussion on their knees.
"I was so fulfilled in my mind, body, and soul and I wanted these kids to have that experience," Sepulveda said, adding that the choreography helped her communicate and connect with her colleagues in new ways. "This is one of many activities prioritizing social and emotional learning of our students."
Thursday, it seemed that Bowens-Mercado could feel that from the moment she walked through the school's doors, letting a patch of sunlight follow her across the floor to a sign-in table cloaked in a Puerto Rican flag. By the time students streamed into the auditorium, she had mapped out a makeshift stage on which to teach, already sure of how to get every pair of feet moving.
"We're not eating salsa, we are gonna dance salsa!" she said as students cheered, some yelling the word "salsaaaaaaa!" joyously back to her. Bringing students to their feet, she asked them to spread out, shaking out hips and shoulders as a series of delighted shrieks filled the room. "It's looking good! It's looking good! It's looking good!"
She turned, a rhinestone belt buckle shimmering as it caught in the sunlight. Behind her, students swayed in zigzag rows, stepping from side to side in a sea of khaki, white, navy and light blue cotton. Across the floor, the occasional sneaker squeak joined congas, Hernandez beaming at the unexpected accompaniment. Every so often, four-year-old Cali Smalls began to giggle, occasionally running from his place to inspect the drums nearby.
Students do the washing machine, one of the ways Bowens-Mercado has figured out how to talk about salsa moves and Latin Dance with younger audiences.
"Keep going! Keep going! Oh wow!" Bowens-Mercado exclaimed, turning over her shoulder as she moved. Beside her, the congas now floated over the room, wrapping themselves on the rafters and slipping into the cracks and crevices that filled the space. "We've got some dancing stars in here today! Yes! All right, let's put a little bit more shoulder into it."
She was just getting started. With students watching each move ("we're gonna do the washing machine!" she exclaimed to a symphony of shaking hips and pumping arms), she added an above-head clap, flowing from English into Spanish and back again. It's the language of the dance, she explained—and can help transport students halfway across the globe without ever leaving a gymnasium in Fair Haven.
"I need two volunteers," she said, scanning the room as a few hands went tentatively up. Close to the front of the room, Jeanielys gave a shrill, small squeal and covered her mouth, half-jogging to where Bowens-Mercado stood. Still half-listening to the drums, eight-year-old Marvin Carrasco followed, smiling just slightly into the collar of his white polo shirt.
"Everybody say, 'Hola Marvinito!" Bowens-Mercado said, and close to 50 young voices shouted the words back. The drumbeat rolled over the floor, and as if on cue, Bowens-Mercado moved from salsa to cumbia, the beat slowing as she moved back onto her left heel, then brought her feet back together. On each side, Marvin and Jeanielys mimicked the steps with a dimpled, giggly and pint-sized version.
Behind them, students formed two lines, waiting to see what would happen next. As she wiggled her hips, stepping back and forth, Bowens-Mercado gave a history lesson that came with a downbeat, jumping from salsa's jubilant birth in Cuba back to cumbia's Indigenous and Afro-Colombian origins. Often, she taught with no words at all, stepping her way through world history. When students seemed ready, she instructed them to dance in pairs one by one, so that everyone got a turn.
"Everybody say: ‘Cumbia!’" she said, and young voices formed a tidal wave of sound over the tiny footfalls. "Wepa! Oh, I'm seeing some really good cumbia!"
Students dance with their peers.
In the line, Marvin and Jeanielys were off, giggling as they step-stepped, spun, and flexed their feet hand in hand. Jeanielys, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, later said that the dance helped her move through whatever pre-class jitters she was feeling. Marvin chimed in that he was excited to teach the dance to his parents, who immigrated to New Haven from Ecuador.
"The music is the best part!" Jeanielys said, unable to stay still for any more than a few moments. "It makes me happy. Like, at the beginning, I get nervous, but then I get used to it [dancing] and I feel better." .
That was true across the gym, as Bowens-Mercado slipped from cumbia to merengue, traveling from Colombia to the Dominican Republic. Close to large, sunlit windows at the edge of the gym, eighth graders Canayza Smalls and Joseanlis Aponte joined hands, and tried out their best moves. As they eased into the dance, both praised the class as helping them start out the day on the right foot.
"It just makes me feel good," said Aponte, who has danced bachata at home and at pep rallies, but never taken a class.
Joseanlis Aponte and Canayza Smalls.
For Smalls, the class was a cultural portal, letting her travel to across a diaspora without ever leaving the corner of Chapel and James Streets. As soon as the music started, she saw it as an invitation to learn about other cultures—and find her own rhythm at the same time. "There's always something new to learn," she said.
She was far from the only one to think so. As music filled the gym, students from four to 13 worked through their airplane arms, side shimmies, and tentative twirls, some counting their way through the steps. From where it stands just off Chapel Street, even the school building seemed to be dancing, with a one-two step that fell into rhythm with footfalls and congas echoing through the gym.
Outside the gym, that sound was catching on. The hallways, which sport paintings of Puerto Rico, bright world flags, and construction paper cutouts fêting Hispanic Heritage Month, felt propulsive and alive. As Bowens-Mercado glided across the floor, hits from J. Balvin and Maluma gave way to Prince Royce, students shimmying their way into a bachata version of "Stand By Me" that made it impossible not to move.
Top: Principal Luis Menacho. Bottom: Student Chris Menard tries out the congas.
Such celebration feels fitting in the school, where some of Thursday's students hailed from Mexico, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Panama.
By the time a tango came crackling over the speakers, Principal Luis Menacho had put down what he was doing in his office and headed for the gym to watch. Within seconds of arriving, he was practicing his best steps alongside the students, arms raised in the air to make space for an invisible partner. Like Sepulveda, he said he was excited to introduce students to dance as a form of social and emotional learning.
Dance holds a special place in his heart, he added: years before he was at Martinez, where he has held the position for 13 years, he was a physical education teacher in New London. He knows how much moving around can help students get through the day.
"Having an outlet for self-expression through dance—it makes you feel great!" he said. "I look around and I see all smiles."
At the center of the gym, Bowens-Mercado lined up with students, walking them through their best tango with a "T-A-N-G-O" that carried them across the floor, one letter and beat at a time. When they had made it all the way to one side, she spun on her heels, and began leading them back across to the other. Four dozen voices carried the word in time with the steps, until a celebration of the dance felt imminent.
As the hour wound toward 11 a.m., she gathered them in a final group, some lining up to play the congas as others weighed in on teaching their parents to dance. From where he had perfected his merengue with Sepulveda, third grader Leonardo Morales burst into a toothy grin.
"It keeps me motivated!" he said as he queued up behind students waiting to try out the drums. A few steps ahead of him, second grader Chris Menard didn't want to let his chance on the congas go so easily.
"You're gonna officially be playing with us soon!" Bowens-Mercado said as she gave him a high five and he scurried off. "You're part of the band!"
As students huddled around her, she brought the mic to her mouth one last time. It was a reminder, she later said, of how she's sure that she gets more from students than they get from her.
"Today was a full Hispanic Heritage Month experience," she said. "You want to make sure that you are embracing culture, because at the end of the day, what happens is, you're going to meet people in your life that might not look like you, they might not eat the same foods as you, or speak the same language."
"But what you want to do is what you showed Ms. Alisa and Mr. Melvin today," she continued. "You got out of your comfort zone. You tried something completely different. And you all made us both very proud. No matter where you're from ... know that every place that has culture has something to offer. You can take what you learned today, and you can share that with others."
Before she left, one more hand shot up into the air. A young girl stood up. "I didn't know how to dance, but now I'm going to try," she said.