Photos for a song and a dance

Latino dance group hosts “Picture Day”
By T Martin

The stars of the 2002 Puerto Rican Day Parade staged a fundraiser that got families out of the house in one of the “many positive things” they do in the community. Ritmo Latino dancers and their parent-managers organized “Family Picture Day” on Friday, March 5th and Saturday, March 6th at 7th and Rising Sun Avenue.

The group is raising money for a trip to New York, where members hope to perform at the Catskill Salsa Congress. They also aspire to take a trip to Puerto Rico to compete in a salsa contest there.

While the dancers were off rehearsing for their next performance, their parents oversaw operations of the “Picture Day” fundraiser. Parents took initiative to manage the group when the group’s hired management company seemed to “lose sight” of the children’s best interest.

“We, as parents, do have the best interest of our kids at heart,” said Saly Guzmán, the team’s secretary, adding that the best interest of the kids is to “keep them off the streets and in dance competitions.”

The dance troupe began this year’s “Picture Day” fundraiser on Friday from 4 PM to 9 PM with photographer Mike Houston of Tennessee. Selling 10″x13″ photos for only $10 and following up by selling packages during the actual sitting, Guzmán seemed discouraged by 3:30 PM on Saturday, with only 66 sittings of 140 scheduled.

“Our picture project is busy, but slower than other ones,” she said. “I think the rain drove a lot of people away today. Usually we do much better with this fundraiser.”

Even at 3:30 that Saturday, a number of families were in the waiting area for photos, and more were flowing in as NF made its way out of the former offices of Muñez Real Estate, located at Erie and Rising Sun Avenues. Children watched “Lion King 1 ½” or “Finding Nemo” to keep them entertained, though the parents were giving the TV more attention than their small children were.

Getting there
By 9:30 PM, as Ritmo prepared to lock down the building to end their fundraiser, they had totaled between 140 and 150 sittings between Friday and Saturday, reaching and perhaps even superceding their original goal.

Having performed at Catskill in the past, group director Wanda Torres was confident about their return.

“We will go again [to Catskill Salsa Congress] for August 21-23!” she declared.

Currently the group’s funds cover about ¾ of the group’s expenses for travel and costumes, while parents put up the other ¼, according to Guzmán.

“The dancers pay for hotel and food, and we parents cover costs of transportation… stuff like that,” she explained. Costumes for the group, she told us, can cost up to $2,500.

Ritmo Latino Dance Group is no stranger to this scene, however. Some members of the group have performed together, not necessarily as “Ritmo Latino”, for about 10 years. Their performances at the Puerto Rican Day Parade have earned them recognition and a trophy almost every year, according to Torres.

Guzmán expounded that 4 of the current 12 dancers have been together for 10 years, under different instructors and group names. Parents took over the group after exploitation by their former managers. They dancers won some rank or another in the Puerto Rican Parade for 7 of their 10 years together.

The group is diverse in age as well, its youngest member being 13-year-old Natalie Sanchez and the eldest being 20-year-old Roberto Ortiz. Surprising to NF, Roberto has only been with the group within the last year, while Natalie is one of the first dancers of the group – dancing with them since she was only 3!

Other early dancers of the group include Christina Torres, Nelson Miranda and Carlos Nuñez, all of whom have danced together for 10 years. Devin Guzmán, age 16, has been with the group for eight years, and Amanda and Bianca Torres, 16 and 15, have danced with the group for the last 7 years. Naisha Gonzalez, 18 and on a trip to Europe at the time of this article, was with the group for the last 5 years. Newest members of the group have danced with Ritmo Latino only within the last 2 years, none of them actually being with the group that long yet.

Through candy sales, bowling parties, Picture Day and other interesting fundraisers, parents hope that their children in the group will stay motivated and active in dance.

“Competitions keep the kids going and motivated,” Guzmán said. “We hope that some will become teachers of dance if they want.”

She said that Torres, Ritmo’s director, would even like to rent the space they used for “Picture Day” as a dance studio for teaching dance to community youths, pending talks with owner Mike Muñez.

To ensure that their group doesn’t invite less-than-motivated youths, Guzmán said that they promote good grades and school attendance. Even that is no guarantee that the group will succeed, however.

Funding the fun
Except for generous donations by Coca Cola, it has been hard for the small group to get sponsorship. As the group’s secretary, Guzmán is responsible for overseeing fundraising and writing grant proposals.

“Applying for grants doesn’t bring much, except to help with costumes and shoes,” she explained. And costumes are among the most important aspects of Ritmo’s performance, according to her.

“Costumes are the thing. We have a different costume for each performance,” she said.

Costumes are part of the thrill of competition, besides developing new routines for every performance. Except for one run-in with local competitors, Ritmo hasn’t had many problems in arranging and implementing their performances, recently pulling one off at the Marriott near the Philadelphia International Airport as part of the bill for a gala event.

When they are not performing, dancers are busy rehearsing new routines at Universal Dance Studio in New Jersey. Devin Guzmán told NF that they rehearse frequently, though they sometimes don’t know where they’ll perform next until the last minute.

“They don’t tell us where we’re going next; they just wait till the last second to tell us,” he said.

Yet, because the children have worked together for so long and because their parents have taken on management roles for the group, the dancers feel as if they are part of a bigger, stronger family.

“We’re like a huge extended family,” said Devin.

“We meet a lot of people when we travel, and we even keep in touch with them if we get cool with them… just like one, big extended family. We like it!”

Their camaraderie was evident in the way they interacted with each other and with others passing through the narrow walkway to make their way upstairs for photos. Youths behind the counter glass were courteous and helpful in getting families signed in and checked off for the photo sittings. When they encountered old or new friends coming in to support their cause, they were as professional as they were with strangers.

These are the stars of the Puerto Rican Parade, making a positive difference in their community by bringing families together for posterity while raising money to promote a positive image for youths of North Philadelphia!