America’s First Queer Latin Dance Festival

In Lak'ech dancers pose for the camera after Friday night's performance (Photo by Carmen Veronica Studio CV)

What’s all this noise about gay dancing?  And why should we care?

Even if you don’t care about fabulous, innovative dancers both up-and-coming and multiple-World Champs, there are many things everyone’s been talking about since #MeToo movement hit the social media: building safer spaces, consent culture, and equity within the partner dance scene for everyone.

And that’s not just for the gay people.

I went to Oakland, California, for the first annual Queer Latin Dance Festival to discover what it’s all about. The festival is co-organized by Angelica Medina and Jahaira Fajardo.

All Are Welcome Here

Staff members Ximena Arias Orozco, Dulce Garcia and Esteban Rodriguez at the Welcome Desk

Upon checking in, you get a copy of the Program, the Community Agreement (also known as the code of conduct), and a name tag sticker in which you can fill out your name and pronoun (he/she/they). Why the pronouns? Because no matter their clothing or appearance, we can never assume anyone’s gender identity!

Name tag, Program, and Community Agreements

We make it the norm to ask, so we don’t single out any community members who otherwise might have to keep correcting others. And in case you’re wondering, yup—it is grammatically correct form to use “they” as singular gender-neutral pronoun. As in: I asked an English teacher and they told me it’s in the Associated Press Stylebook.

The Community Agreements (Read it here) drawn up by In Lak’ech, queer-centered, people of color-centered Latin dance company hosting the QLDF, is already the talk of the town. With growing voices speaking up about the frequent sexual harassments in many Latin dance socials and festivals, organizers trying to keep their attendees safe are beginning to turn towards equity policies.

Queer space is by design, a safer space; the community must enforce policies that prioritize LGBTQIA+ members’ sense of safety to keep the space queer-centered. In Lak’ech took a significant step as the first Latin dance festival to implement a dedicated, trained Safety Team on top of having the Community Agreements to make sure it’s being honored by the attendees, installing 6-7 Team members at all times monitoring the event, walking around and checking in with the attendees on their well-being.

In Lak’ech’s community-based, preventative approach to the safer space policy is noteworthy in comparison to the commercial, club-based “Zero-Tolerance” policy, which often relies only on the reactionary policing of the reported complaints, while unable to address most of the underlying problems at its source. (Also discounting the fact that most majority of the incidents go unreported)

There were also numerous signs throughout the venue showing that they are openly committed to providing space where people can celebrate being themselves, and feel safe doing so without fear of judgments. It’s no wonder queer spaces attract women—even straight ones—who feel safer expressing themselves without it being perceived as an invitation for sexual engagement. This pattern is echoed throughout many of the queer partner dance communities I have spoken to.

Learning From Connecting To Each Other

In classrooms, everyone was asked to choose whichever dance role they’d prefer, a standard practice in queer partner dance classes.  This is a notable recent worldwide trend even in non-queer scenes (the practice has become a commonplace in mainstream Swing & Blues scenes), especially meaningful in Latin dance considering hyper-gendered, hyper-sexualized mainstream Latin partner dance culture.

Bachata Sensual instructors Vicky Vazquez & Rey Ursery gave a passionate speech in the class, focusing on the connection and conversational dancing—not turn patterns or dips—as well as consent-based social dancing that feels comfortable for both partners.

Attendees take a Cumbia class

After teaching his class, top International dancer/educator Zeke Ruvalcaba humbly gave his heartfelt thanks to the attendees for coming and supporting the queer Latin dance community, almost unable to finish his last sentence: “It’s been long time coming…”  It definitely made my eyes water.

Another big hit was the Body Movement workshop by MG dance company, introducing lesser-known Afro-Latin dances such as Afro-Peruvian and Honduran Punta to focus on on utilizing leg muscles to facilitate different hip movements. We finished the workshop off with a big dance circle encouraging each attendees to solo their butt off to build confidence in self-expressing. The noise everyone was making made the staff members and attendees from the other side of the hallway come over to watch in excitement! By the end everyone was clapping, goofing off, laughing, and hugging. There was much positivity and celebration of individuality in the air.

Equity In Diversity: Performance Showcases

Celebration of diversity and camaraderie ran strong throughout the emotionally charged weekend: As Mireille Ruiz & Manny Villarreal—who presented Cumbia-Bachata piece—appeared on stage to Selena’s indelible live opening of Como La Flor, fluttering giant sparkly white wings à la Freddie Mercury, thunderous reaction erupted from largely Latinx/LGBTQ audience.

Jaw-dropping Quebridita aerial acrobatics by Araceli Cruz & Roger Gomez followed drawing standing ovations, not to mention Brazilian Zouk, Afro-Caribbean, Burlesque fan dance, Modern Afro-fusion solos, and an unexpected stunner from the festival’s very own MC “Lady Forbidden” Danni Lopez’s drag performance which included her jumping 3 feet in the air on-stage and landing on her knees off-stage!

David Beltran, Choreographer for MG dance company based in LA, California, told me how his dancers embraced the all-male 3-couple Bachata piece where every dancer switches back and forth leading and following: “I was nervous how they’d take it since they were all straight guys except one. Luckily they were all open-minded and enthusiastic!” The piece was significant in showcasing all the spectrums and fluidity of male expressions through the switches in a team setting, keeping the audience engaged with each dancer’s individual expressions; rather than the conventional, “who’s dancing the girl’s part now?”

MG dance company’s Josh Enamorado, Eleazar Perez, Jhaime Judah Vega, and Alberto Rosas Jr. show off wrist bands that say “Ask Me To Follow”- Ask Me To Dance Initiative started by Blues dancers

In a similarly mold-breaking, Reno Empire dance crew’s Urban Latin piece, all performers wore identical baseball-jersey uniform, yet each dancer’s uniqueness shined through the choreography that played up on individual strengths. It was delightfully empowering to watch these youths bring down the house.

Married couple Andrea & Mariah Burkhart, founders of Embrace Dance Company in Reno, Nevada, showcased a Bachata piece where the Lead is neither hyper-masculine nor hyper-feminine: with her androgynous outfit and beautifully flowing long wavy hair, Mariah showed off her own brand of understated, confident Lead style, while Juan Carlos Camarena & Jeremy Blake debuted a delightful same sex couple Chachachá switch piece, exploring wide spectrums that exist in between the energy exchange of power and playfulness between the two dancers.

Festival headliners Tina Cavicchio & Courtney Livingston, who gave stunningly powerful Bachata Sensual-Contemporary Fusion performance on Friday evening to standing ovations, presented new ideas for the future of Bachata Sensual—a refreshing departure from the current European narrative. “We wanted the dance to reflect our own lives, with the constant struggles and the resilience,” Tina, co-director of Alma Latina Boston explained, “and how important connection to each other is; sometimes we try to fight the connection, but it’s what helps us get back up on our feet.” And it was a transcendent experience indeed to see Tina, at 5 feet, pick up her dance partner Courtney in her ethereal white dress and spin triumphantly across the floor to climax.

Connected Through The Community

Backstage, performers and members of In Lak’ech dance company huddled together trying to contain the overwhelming emotions. Through months of tireless hard work and dedication, they have created a place for themselves and others like them, and it was all coming together in reality.

Remembering LGBTQI+ ancestors who fought for equality

Edwin Baltierra, a 22 year old dancer from Coachella, California also known as “Edoncé”, was debuting his very first solo piece to Beyoncé-Luis Vargas mix. He later shared with me his experience backstage: “I came by myself and was so homesick, and freaking out during tech rehearsal because I had no one with me… But after I met all the other performers; I was totally fine! Everyone was so nice, and there was SO much love.” Edoncé crushed the piece with strikingly charismatic stage presence and confident, virtuosic movements.

Instructor and performer Rey Ursery also admitted to feeling very emotional: “To be in a community where me being trans was not only welcomed, but celebrated is foreign to me. Being seen as normal because I’m a trans human and not because people assumed I was a man meant everything to me.”
As you entered the Oakland Asian Cultural Center where the Saturday events were being held, a beautiful altar had been set up to honor Latinx LGBTQI+ individuals who had come before them—with messages of “No More Transphobia”—those who had faced the similar adversities and struggles, each individual story just as unique and colorful as the next.

While social dancing I met Hyejin Shim, a queer woman training with In Lak’ech, who shared her story: “I’ve had bad experiences at socials with men touching me inappropriately or trying to hit on me during a dance, and In Lak’ech was so refreshing not just because it was for queer and trans people of color, but also because it was grounded in values that really prioritize our safety and consider our experiences of trauma in the world.”

The first day, going over the orientation packet, I felt so relieved and thankful to see a sexual harassment/assault policy as well as other guiding principles around gender and homo/transphobia. It really helped me to trust the space.”

The air at the social dances—Friday’s All-White party, and Saturday’s Queer Prom themed party—was just that: Trust. Everyone was introducing themselves to each other, catching up with old and new friends, talking about where they came from and their experiences, about the performances they have just seen.

I social danced with men, women, non-binary, trans, queer, older, younger (even with a 7-year-old!), beginner, world-champion, dancers of all different races and backgrounds. And as each night wore on, the profound sense of trust and belonging in the room deepened. Many dancers were switching (switching the lead and follow back and forth within the course of one song) and exploring variety of different connections, some goofing off and laughing so hard, some sharing a loving moment with their significant other without the fear of staring eyes.

“One of many things I loved about this weekend was that a lot of women were open to dancing with me-” Long-time Oakland resident and dancer Gonzalo Figueroa Landeros told me on Saturday. “In the ’90s, when I started attending queer dances, there was a lot of mistrust towards men among queer women. Women typically didn’t dance with me—even though we were both gay. Back then, it was very segregated; queer group was mainly white and male, and so lesbian and trans women wanted a separate space, and so did Latinos.”

While this separation continues today in many of the cities and communities, (sometimes by necessity for the community, to be sure) In Lak’ech have achieved impressive inclusion of all of the above with QLDF, both with the queer and Latin American/minority community members.

Andre Veloz, Dominican feminist icon and fierce bachatera who performed with her band at the Saturday evening party, later told me about the whole different level of appreciation she felt there—“Being able to contribute to this event that highlighted equality and unity as human beings was such a blessing for me.”

Dominican Feminist icon and Bachatera Andre Veloz performs with her band

Looking Ahead

The success of QLDF is significant: Latinx- and queer-led, community and familia oriented, with many of the dancers and instructors younger millennials from more integrated and accepting culture of FaceBook age– it proposes a new, positive model for the future of Latin dance scene that is less commercial and more community-based, less heteronormative/patriarchal and more equity-based. And above all, the experience of Latin dance that celebrates and cares for each and every one of the community member.

Andrea and Mariah Burkhart poses with friends from Reno, Nevada community who have supported and helped them build their dance company (Photo by Coralline’s Playtime)

Despite all the set-backs in the last two years for the Latin American and queer communities in the U.S., after meeting all of these dancers—inspiring and supporting each other, coming together to celebrate the shared love for Latin dance and self-expressions—I am convinced the future is bright. It doesn’t matter what your background or gender is, or who your significant other is; Now is the time to celebrate yourself.

“Anywhere you go, somebody’s gonna look at you; somebody’s gonna judge you. So you just have to come in, knowing that you are beautiful, no matter what.” 3-time World Salsa Champion Andrew Cervantez shared words of wisdom: “If you feel discouraged, then you know what? Let’s find you a different space. Because there’s going to be a place out there that will accept you for who you are. Be YOU. Don’t be nobody else.”

And they did. They created a space that truly was a place where all were welcome. Everyone celebrated each other; empowering those who have been marginalized—and looking towards the future together, on equal grounds.

Do you identify LGBTQI+ or wish to be a strong ally to help build your local queer community?  Find your local queer Latin dance communities on the Go Latin Dance LGBTQIA+ PARTNER DANCE RESOURCES page.

Do you run, or know of queer Latin partner dance communities not listed here? Interested in starting one in your area?
Please feel free to leave comments, share resources, and tell us your story!

Special thank you to Mischa Freeman and the incredible community members of In Lak’ech dance company who welcomed me into their home with open hearts, and Rachel Cassandra for encouraging me to write this article, and mentoring me every step of the way. Muchas gracias desde el fondo de mi corazón.

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Leave a Reply

  1. says: Andy

    Thanks for your answer. Giving out wristbands or buttons sounds like a great option.
    I asked, because I can lead and follow and it is getting more and more common in my dance scene (Zouk). But sometimes I want to lead (or respectively follow) a song so when I look for the person to ask for the dance, I will need to find someone who can follow (or respectively lead). Of course they can always decline (dancing in general or dancing that role), but I would have to ask less people in the first place and it opens the chance to be asked for a dance in the “uncommon” role. For example my boyfriend was a little sad because he is barely ever asked to follow – which he prefers – because most people don’t assume he can follow.

    1. says: Jeemin Kim

      Hi Andy, thank you so much for sharing! I love hearing everyone’s experiences so we can all discuss ways the community can take actions to help make it better for the future. ? If you’re game for it, wearing the signs definitely can make it easier for you to find more potential dance partners. I do understand your boyfriend’s frustration- even though female leads are more common than male follows, I’ve struggled with my share of lack of dance partners as a lead. If I may make a suggestion; I’ve found this is the best done in a smaller community first- join local dance school (speak with the directors first to make sure they’re going to be accommodating) where he can take regularly offered classes as a follow and let it be known in that school community that he wants to dance as a follow. Make friends with the classmates, and start going out social dancing with that group (who are already used to dancing with him as a follow). When people at the social event see him being normalized as a follow within his community, they will also be more likely to accept it as normal and even ask him to dance.

  2. says: Andy

    The event sounds awesome. I have a general question: How do you know who can dance as follow/lead (apart from watching which is difficult at large events)? Do you hand out bracelets (shown in one photo) or do you have other ideas?

    1. says: Jeemin

      Hi Andy! Thank you so much for your question!! There are a few ways people are promoting it out there in their own scenes- some Blues/queer dance events give out small buttons (that say “She Leads”, “Ask me to Follow”, etc), name stickers they can write preferred roles on, or wristbands as you see in my photos. I had brought 75 wristbands to give out as part of “Ask me to dance” Initiative ( to QLDF, and by the end of first night’s social dance all but 5 were gone!
      I’ve also seen a Blues scene that teaches participants to hold out pre-agreed hand signs for the role they want to dance for the next dance, while walking around looking for the next dance partner.

      But not all scenes are like that, and as a general rule, I am a strong believer that it is best to ALWAYS ask for verbal consent.
      Let me explain why: we as a society have always *assumed* women (& petite, feminine-looking humans) to follow, and men (& big, masculine-looking humans) to lead, so when we go up to ask a petite, feminine-looking woman to dance with us, we’re already assuming she must know how to follow. So if said woman wanted to lead, the burden of convincing others to dance to her lead now falls squarely on her, and her only. Conversely, I have encountered many masculine-presenting men (straight and queer) who wanted to learn how to follow or learn body movement, yet they couldn’t because their local scene wouldn’t allow him to take classes as a follow, or classes that typically only women would take. (I.E.: “Ladies Styling” classes in a scene where there’s no body movement class available for everyone)

      This is why we try to make the buttons/stickers/wristbands widely available to everyone at no cost, so that it’s not an “extra burden” only for those who need it, but the “norm”.
      All these efforts are one of many different ways of slowly training our society away from the traditional gender-binary idea of leading and following. (Leading=Controling=Dominating=Masculine, and Following=Flexible=Submissive=Feminine.. And the way we have been training Western partner dancers for decades that reinforce this binary idea that breeds power imbalance and conflict- but that’s a whole separate bag of beans to unload at a different time!)

      For all of us to move away from these gendered roles, we all need to stop making assumptions about dancers’ preference/abilities/”skill level”/gender/background based on their appearance.
      And the only way to not make an assumption is to ask. 🙂

    2. says: Jeemin Kim

      For example, in many Blues (and Swing sometimes) dance scenes, it’s not that unusual to ask “Would you like to dance? Do you want to lead, follow, or switch?”/ “Would you like to dance? Would you mind if I lead?”

      In scenes that are not as progressive, I’ve personally found most success first to make individual connections and ask “Do you like leading, or following?” before asking them to dance – Often times, women say they’ll follow and men say they’ll lead (because that’s what they know-many express interest in learning the other, but are too shy to try), but they appreciate/feel empowered (especially the women) when reminded it is their choice, nonetheless. 😉