Students at the well-appointed Ashburn Academy of Dance had a chance to see their art—and their humanity—through the eyes of someone who grew up with very little.
Jose Soto was a special guest instructor at the school this week. His family brought him from Mexico to the United States in search of a better life when he was 8 years old. He overstayed his visit, working for cash, doing any kind of job to get by, until his family became legal residents.
He has had little formal dance training—he said it adds up to about six months of ballet instruction—instead schooling himself through YouTube and performances with various dance companies. He first tried it in an elective class at 17 years old. His family couldn’t afford to send him to dance classes, although a ballet teacher, seeing his passion, took him under her wing for free for a time. Now, he’s on his way to citizenship, and using his art not just to make better dancers, but also to be better people.
“I teach to be good humans, and that’s it, because we need more good humans than we need good dancers,” Soto said. “Because that will come later in life if you love it, but being a human will be forever.”
He has taught and performed across the country and currently performs with Scorpius Dance Theatre in Phoenix, AZ. But he has had to work every day to get there.
“It’s OK to be tired, but when it gets to the point that it becomes a burden, stop,” Soto told the young dancers between classes. “Stop it, because dance is artwork. Dance is medicine. Dance heals.”
Anne Marie Kimmel and Katie Beliveau, the co-owners of the Ashburn Academy of Dance, met Soto during a conference of other More Than Just Great Dancing studios, a nationwide network of dance studios of which they are part. They were captivated by his passion and hard work. They wanted to bring that passion back to their young dancers.
“It’s hard in Ashburn, because they have this huge facility to dance in, and their parents have so many resources to give them,” Kimmel said. “… People in this area are trained and they have so much available to them.”
With so much pressure to achieve and be technically perfect, she said, it can be difficult for dancers to tap into their passion and feelings.
“Sometimes they’re so rigid into learning their technique that they forget that the movement comes from within, and I think he can really bring that out,” Beliveau said. “I’ve seen things in these dancers today that I have never seen before.”
She said, “there’s something so raw about him that makes it OK.”
“It doesn’t have to be just in dance, but when they are speaking in front of their peers or onstage expressing themselves, they really have something to pull from,” Kimmel said.
During classes at the Ashburn Academy of Dance, he sweated and danced along with the students until he was panting for breath. And between classes, he knelt on the floor and gave an emotional account of how he came to dance, how hard he’s had to work for it, and why he does it.
“The day I’m not humble anymore, and I don’t get nervous to dance, is the day that someone needs to keep me in check and I need to stop dancing, because that’s when things become ugly,” Soto said. “And I don’t want to be a diva.”
He said he’s known since he first tried dancing that it was what he wanted to do with his life. And since then, he said, dance has made him a better person.
And that’s why he teaches.
“I’m like, well if this helps me be a better person, then maybe I can help others become better people through dance,” Soto said.