A dance company where size does not matter

Roberto Villanueva. Photo by Joseph Pe

By Cristina DC Pastor

When you watch a BalaSole Dance Company performance, it would be easy to get momentarily distracted by some sort of physical misalignment. For example, not all female dancers are slender, and not all male dancers are taller than the women.

But that kind of “diversity” is what Roberto Villanueva’s two-year-old company is about. BalaSole (derived from the words “balance” and “solo”) is about a group of people who possess a passion for dance and have the confidence, artistic intent and technique to do it. Size – or shape — does not matter.

“It’s about providing dancers the opportunities to express their own artistic voice, even to those who don’t fit physically,” Roberto explained to The FilAm.

Roberto’s mission comes from his difficult beginning as a dancer. As one who stands 5’2”, he’s suffered a series of rejections because of his height.

“I always used to say I’m 5’2 and-a-half because it somehow made me feel taller. I know it sounds silly. I don’t have a hang-up about that anymore,” said Roberto, who was dubbed “small powerhouse” in a Village Voice dance review. “I’m quite happy with how God made me.”

For him, the human body is like a musical instrument. It has its different look and purpose, just as each instrument has its own unique sound. “For me being an ‘ideal’ dancer has nothing to do with height, weight or looks.”

Dancing didn’t come easy for Roberto who struggled not just with body issues but also parental objection. Just like Billy Elliot in the hit musical, his parents were not very encouraging. But in the end, he prevailed and chose dancing over a career in accounting “just as Billy Elliot traded his boxing gloves for ballet slippers,” he said.

“Billy Elliott reminded me a little bit of my journey,” he said. “Our fathers were not supportive of our dancing, although his father eventually supported his choice; my father never did.”

He remembers inviting his parents to his first dance performance in college and seeing the look of shock and dismay on their faces. Instead of congratulating him, they asked, “What is happening with accounting?”

Roberto’s small frame did not deter him. Along the way, he met teachers who encouraged and mentored him until he developed the technique and confidence and found his “artistic voice.”

At 21, he dropped out of accounting to focus on dancing. A college mentor, Tom Ralabate, offered to train him and enter him in a national dance competition.

“I never told my parents because I knew how they felt. By 22, he won the titles Mr. Dance of Western New York and Mr. Dance of America. Although his parents were proud to share the news with relatives, they still considered Roberto’s dancing “extracurricular” activity.

“For them, dance is not a profession and you can’t support yourself financially doing it. They still wanted to see me join the corporate world,” he said.

Roberto would later earn a degree in Dance from the University at Buffalo in Upstate New York. He moved to New York City to pursue a career in concert dance. When his father passed away, he realized the importance of financial stability and how it seemed to elude him in his pursuit of performing.

“I realized my parents were right. However, I didn’t want to give up dance,” he said. “Dance feels natural to me, and it is something for which I have a strong passion.”

He founded the nonprofit dance company BalaSole where he coaches and inspires students the way his mentors had encouraged him.

“While my family doesn’t fully understand the world of dance, they are proud of what I’ve accomplished thus far,” he said.

BalaSole is holding a one-night event called “Pieces Of Me: An Inside Look At A Dance Artist’s Journey” on April 1 at The Alvin Ailey Citigroup Theater at 405 West 55th Street, at Ninth Avenue. Tickets are available now at SmartTix (212-868-4444 or http://www.smarttix.com/show.aspx?showcode=PIE7). Support for the show has been provided through the Harlem Stage Fund for New Work, which has received support from the Jerome Foundation. This concert also serves as a fundraising event for BalaSole Dance Company.

The dancers of BalaSole. Photo by Eric Bandiero



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