Celebrate Latinx Dance and Identity at the Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival

The Pilot Dance Project hosts the Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival for the third year.
The Pilot Dance Project hosts the Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival for the third year. Photo by Lynn Lane
Celebrate Latinx choreographers, both established and emerging, and identity during The Pilot Dance Project’s 3rd Annual Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival this weekend at The MATCH. In anticipation of the festival, we spoke to three of the choreographers participating in the one-night showcase to learn more about them and the work they will present this weekend.

Elisa De La Rosa

Elisa De La Rosa remembers the day she received her acceptance letter from Texas Woman's University and her mother asked her what she was going to study.

“I’m like, ‘I’m going to study dance’ and she says, ‘no, you’re not,” recalls De La Rosa with a laugh.

As a child, De La Rosa says she was very shy – like “why isn’t she talking to anybody’” shy, according to De La Rosa. But, as a grade schooler, her parents left her in the care of her tía for a summer as the family transitioned from Dallas to the Rio Grande Valley and she learned something about herself.

She really liked to move.

From a karate class De La Rosa moved to taking ballet, jazz and tap classes at a local dance studio in Weslaco, Texas. When dance became too expensive to pursue after her parents’ separation, De La Rosa discovered that high school drill team was a way to continue dancing that was a little more affordable.

De La Rosa did go on to major in dance and then earned a Master of Fine Arts – all before a very proud mother. The dance artist will premiere a new work at the festival, a two-section piece featuring longtime dance collaborators Fernando Ibarra Rocha and Krista Carson.

“It is about a lot of things relationship-wise,” says De La Rosa. “We’re really touching the surface, peeking in on a relationship – the intimate parts, and the very raw parts, and the frustration, the beautiful parts.”

The duet will also feature live vocals from Brittany Padilla, who will be singing two songs previously performed by Lila Downs (one of which is “Paloma Negra”).

“[Padilla] is phenomenal. She can belt out and really get into these ranchera songs,” says De La Rosa, adding that “there’s an emotionality to [mariachi music] that that I can relate to.”

This year will be De La Rosa’s second participating in the festival, and she sees it as an opportunity for Latinx artists to “charge up and get inspiration.”

“I have felt for a while, that as a Latina dance artist, I felt kind of alone and hungry to see other Latinx artists making work because I want to celebrate them and I want to see myself in their work,” says De La Rosa. “It’s like a push for us to continue making the work that we’re so proud to make that represents who we are as Latinos.”

M. Gabriela Estrada

M. Gabriela Estrada started dancing at the age of almost five. In her hometown in north Mexico, where there were no dance classes for children, a chemist began offering dance classes out of a garage to their friends – one of whom was Estrada’s mother.

The “amateur family dance group” went on to stage Giselle with a guest choreographer from Mexico City’s national ballet. One day during rehearsal for the show, a young Estrada was running through the studio when she heard the choreographer complain that one of the dancers was missing.

“I raised my hand and I said, ‘I know it,’ and everybody started laughing,” remembers Estrada.

It turns out Estrada did know it, and she went on to make her dance debut in the production.

Today, Estrada is a member of the University of Houston’s dance faculty, and on Saturday will present “Not a Single Carmen More!” during the festival.

The piece dates back to 2019, when Estrada was approached to choreograph a piece to be performed in recognition of a Day of Action Against Domestic Violence.

Considering her lifelong focus on the relationship between ballet and Spanish dance, and without a dance company, Estrada set out to create a choreography on the topic of intimate partner violence with a solo inspired by Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

Estrada recalls seeing Carmen the first time and being “very upset.”

“I was, like, this is totally the #MeToo of the 1600s,” says Estrada. “The music is lovely, the opera is amazing, but it’s a case of intimate violence. Carmen gets murdered by the guy because he’s jealous…Everybody blames Carmen for being a gypsy, for being a flirt, for being all these things, and not him.”

For the solo, contemporary with a Spanish dance-influenced vocabulary, Estrada incorporates the fact that one in every four women experience intimate partner violence with Carmen’s famous habanera and spoken word from a podcast that discusses the story and Bizet’s health.

The piece offers a chance to address embedded stereotypes, including biases towards women and even the hyper dramatic, rose-in-teeth stereotypes we often see in Hollywood films and cartoons surrounding dances like flamenco and tango.

Estrada sees the festival as an opportunity, one that offers more than just “the beauty in just witnessing art from diverse people.”

“I think the best way to create empathy, respect and advocate for other cultures is the opportunity to share space with other cultures and be there and listen and share and witness,” says Estrada.

Cynthia Garcia

Cynthia Garcia says that dancing has always been in her blood.

“When I was in daycare, I would always be moving and dancing,” says Garcia. “According to my mother, I would be teaching everybody dance moves. She would come and pick me up and she’d see everybody following me.”

Garcia, a first-generation college graduate, began training at the age of six and went on to earn three degrees in the arts – a fact that she emphasizes.

“I feel like it’s important for other families to see that even if you are the first person in your family to go to college, there is hope and opportunities for you to achieve your dreams, especially in the arts,” says Garcia. “I feel like when you love the arts the possibilities are endless.”

This year, the dancemaker and professor returns to the festival for the second time to present a solo titled “Mexican Vanilla.”

"Something that has been with me throughout my life is that I’m a Mexican American that does not speak Spanish fluently,” says Garcia. “I also sometimes gotten it throughout my life that I don’t really look Mexican, so I’m using those experiences and creating this solo based on that.”

The piece uses the song “My Way” in both English and Spanish, performed by Frank Sinatra and Vicente Fernandez, and a spoken word audio track put together by Garcia.

“It’s almost like voices in my head from experiences that I’ve had growing up,” says Garcia, recalling being placed in a bilingual class in second grade because of her last name, being bullied in middle school as the only non-Spanish speaker in her theater class, and name-calling.

Utilizing props like a folklórico skirt, serape, hat and a big comical moustache, as well as a a variation on a popular TikTok, Garcia says she will play with the idea of “what a Mexican should look like.”

“It can be a little funny, but it’s also very personal, so I feel like it’s an emotional rollercoaster,” says Garcia.

For Garcia, the festival is not only an important platform to showcase the stories of Latinx creators, but an opportunity for healing.

“It’s very important for us to have a voice and sometimes for me in particular, because I have a hard time using my voice, I use the work I create to express myself and to express how I’m feeling towards these issues,” says Garcia. “It’s a way to heal past traumas that I’ve had in my life.”

The 3rd Annual Texas Latino/a/x Contemporary Dance Festival is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday, September 2, at The MATCH, 3400 Main. For more information, call 713-521-4533 or visit $15-$20.
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Natalie de la Garza is a contributing writer who adores all things pop culture and longs to know everything there is to know about the Houston arts and culture scene.