Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Passing on My Bolivian Heritage through Dance

Julie is the third person from the right in the blue dress.

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the following is a guest post by mom of 2 boys, Julie Santelices, who shares how she is passing on her Bolivian heritage and culture to her children.

It’s 7 pm on a rainy weeknight. The members of my Bolivian folk dance group are gathered for practice after a long day of working, mothering, or both. The occasional crack of thunder outside reminds us of the storm rolling past. But inside is a safe and familiar refuge. Hand-painted Indigenous artwork adorns the walls while the comforting smells of cafécito and baked humintas waft from the nearby kitchen. All the furniture has been pushed aside to make room for us to practice our choreography.  Our performance songs play on repeat. We synchronize our spins, jumps, and steps for a couple hours until we are either satisfied, exhausted, or both.  

When I get home, my two kids are already asleep. I used to feel a twinge of guilt that I had missed their bedtime stories and goodnight kisses. Now I remind myself that folk dancing isn’t just for me, it’s for them too. I begin my night time ritual and step into a shower. Under the warm water, it’s quiet and I reflect on my slowly evolving dance practice. How learning the steps of my ancestors feels both humbling and empowering at the same time. How dance education has become my way to honor the generations before me and the ones yet to come. Folk dancing makes me feel like an important link in the infinite chain of my heritage.

My first dance lessons weren’t in a dance studio. Rather, my early childhood memories of learning los pasos were in my mother’s suburban kitchen. The same room where I watched her prepare meals and share chismes with her friends. There was a small TV in the corner of the kitchen, but when it wasn’t on, my mother was the most entertaining thing to watch. She would go about her business while booming ballads and pulsing cumbias crooned from the Spanish language radio. I learned the words to familiar songs and sang and danced along with her. I wanted to move with my mother’s grace and confidence. She owned the room, with a sway of hips or a stomp of her feet. A dish towel would circle rapidly over her head as she demonstrated the quick cueca steps for my wide eyes.  

Bolivian dancers

My mother never gave herself the gift of joining a folk dance group. I think she would have appreciated the discipline it requires, and enjoyed the sisterhood that comes with belonging to a performance group. I still thank her for teaching me to love dancing, and more importantly: to love my raices.  I reassure her that I’m passing on all this knowledge to her two grandchildren; that we are all learning together how to heal through dancing. Healing the enduring damage of colonialism. And that dance is like a salve on all that weighs heavy in our hearts.  

Now my own two sons watch me with wide eyes when they see my dance group performances. When they hear the familiar sounds of indigenous instruments, their shoulders bounce, their feet tap, and they understand that tradition flows through their DNA. My children are learning folk dances right along with me. I’m hoping to teach my children what our ancestors already knew: that the dance lives within us. It is an immense honor to do justice to each dance step. I never forget that each dance carries meaning, purpose, and retells our ancestors’ stories in a way that history books cannot. 


Julie Santelices is a Bolivian mamí and lover of languages. She is raising her two multilingual littles in Central Florida.


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