Lighting the Candle: Dance with Me

Lilliam Rivera (left) with Titi Luz. (Photo courtesy of Lilliam Rivera.)

She wore a long, colorful falda and matching blouse, or blusa, with ribboned ruffles, perfectly made for twirling. On a small stage stood my aunt Luz E. Ortiz Vázquez, ready to dance with her partner, who took her by the hand and made a slight bow. She responded with a radiant smile. I was six years old, visiting Puerto Rico from my home in New York, and when the music began, I watched my aunt command the audience with her graceful moves.

Titi Luz has traveled all over the world as part of the Guateque Ballet Folklórico de Puerto Rico, established in 1976 in her hometown of Corozal. Luz is my mother’s sister, and she has a wicked sense of humor and a very strong understanding of self. When I was young, I was secretly in awe of her, and also maybe a little afraid, since her character went against my own quiet, shy type. And there were those rumors of her being “difficult” and whispers about why she didn’t get married until she was much older. It’s funny how a larger-than-life personality can be misunderstood.

Titi’s lifestyle as a dancer planted a seed in me that I would not discover until many years later. To be a dancer is to be a storyteller, and Titi is gifted in her ability to translate the history, joy, and pain of Puerto Rico so that others can be moved by them.

Dance always plays a role in my stories. In my young adult novel Never Look Back (a 2021 Pura Belpré Honor Book), I retell the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and set it in New York, featuring a young Dominican bachata singer and a shy Puerto Rican girl. Bachata hails from the Dominican Republic and is a form of blues, very much grounded in that island. Throughout the novel, bachata and the Caribbean take center stage to bring to light the history of generational trauma and the toll of mental illness in the Latinx community. Through music and dance, these characters are able to find salvation.

How does movement translate into inspiration? The seed my aunt planted many years ago is a constant reminder that my stories have a rhythm of their own and that I am inviting readers to join me on that stage. Do the words ebb and flow? Are there moments of joy, of twirling? Are there scenes of love, of dancing intimately with another? Dance is my inspiration and my way to grapple with pain. Dance also reminds me to laugh, to not hold so tightly to the words but rather to allow them to flow.

It has been two years since I last saw Titi Luz. On that visit, she pulled out all the photo albums featuring beautiful black-and-white images of my family. She told me so many stories of her childhood. We sat out on the porch until the sun went down, but I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t get enough of the tales. Lately, she’s been calling me. She talks about how much she misses traveling and performing. I mail her my latest work, and Titi Luz tells me the parts she likes.

As we reach a year of this pandemic, I’ve been forcing myself to move my body by taking bachata lessons via Zoom. Each week I learn a new step. Sometimes I mess up and forget the basic rhythm. I get in my own way, and feel foolish at times, but the instructor reminds me how this is joy. My dance lessons are a gift to my future self when we are able to meet again on the dance floor. I can’t wait to dance again, to exchange stories, and to be moved once more.

From the May/June 2021 special issue of The Horn Book Magazine: The Pura Belpré Award at 25. Find more in the "Lighting the Candle" series here.

Lilliam Rivera

Lilliam Rivera received a 2021 Belpré Honor for YA narrative for Never Look Back. She is the author of the forthcoming We Light up the Sky (both Bloomsbury).

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