IU graduate student Gabriel Escobedo is sharing Latin culture through his love of dance

Post by IU Newsroom intern Annie Brackemyre:

When Gabriel Escobedo moved to Bloomington from Texas, to start his graduate career at Indiana University, he brought with him a little piece of home through his love of dance.

Creator of Paso a Paso, or step-by-step, Escobedo has been passionately sharing the cultural value of Latin dance and his Mexican-American culture with both the IU and the Bloomington community.

But Escobedo’s cultural tie to dance was not always so clear. His childhood was colored by familial and social pressure to appear “less Latin” in a predominantly white Texas suburb. But a love for dance permeated his life at an early age.

For Escobedo, dance expresses a pride in his heritage and has bridged the identity gap between feeling both proudly American and Latino.

“The only time I felt Latino or Mexican American is when I was dancing,” said Escobedo, a Ph.D. student in anthropology of dance with a specialization in Latin dance. “Dancing was my way to express my culture and my way to reconnect with it. And when I wanted to study dance, especially the anthropology of dance, it was a way for me to rediscover myself.”

Gabriel Escobedo

Escobedo dances with Claudia Viloria during a recent workshop. | Photo by Chris Meyer, IU Communications

Escobedo recognizes that dances such as salsa or tango have much more meaning than just the exercise of the movements. Each step tells hundreds of years of history of Latino culture and experiences.

What started from a few sheepish Latino friends asking Escobedo to teach them how to dance and a few girlfriends urging Escobedo to teach their boyfriends how to dance, has evolved into Paso a Paso. The program offers a comprehensive cultural approach to first understanding the history and mindset behind the dances and then learning the steps.

“Paso a Paso is not only meant to bring Latino students or the Latino community together, but also to share with non-Latinos what it means to be Latino,” said Escobedo. “It shows that [Latinos] have a voice in the community too, but sometimes we don’t say it. We show it.”

Escobedo initially approached La Casa, the IU Latino Cultural Center, for permission to use the space to teach some friends and anyone else a few moves. La Casa’s administrators were so impressed with Escobedo’s passion and appreciation for dance and Latin culture that they asked him to create a cultural dance series that would cover a variety of Latin dances.

Initially, Escobedo laughed, thinking “I don’t have time for this.” But Lillian Casillas, director of La Casa, gently pushed him, asking why he danced.

“[Dance is] the only time I feel Latino and accepted. It’s a way for me to be who I always thought I am,” said Escobedo.

She urged him to share that feeling with others.

“When Gabriel came to me with Paso a Paso, I saw a great opportunity to take something that is fun to the next level. I often challenge folks to see Latinos or Latino culture beyond the food, fun and festival,” said Casillas. “Through Paso a Paso, Gabriel includes an educational component while not losing the fun. Keeping that balance is important towards furthering folks’ understanding of Latinos.”

Gabriel Escobedo

Shannyn Brandon, left, and Escobedo share a laugh during a recent workshop. | Photo by Chris Meyer, IU Communications

“She was right,” said Escobedo. “I wanted to share that with other people, but I was just scared to do it. I needed someone to push me to do it.”

With that push, Paso a Paso was born.

Paso a Paso means something different to everyone in attendance, explained Escobedo. He invites Latino students to get in touch with their roots but also encourages IU students and the public at large to learn about the culture and embrace the way of life and community that comes with the dances.

At a recent community salsa workshop, Escobedo noticed that most community members were curious but stayed on the periphery.

“It shows that they are curious,” said Escobedo. “The community is accepting but they might not understand it yet. I’m working to show them that Paso a Paso is not just a workshop, it’s a cultural experience open to everyone.”

Escobedo will be hosting workshops throughout the year. Those interested in attending should contact La Casa for upcoming dates.

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