When Carmen Dence was growing up in the Caribbean coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia, she danced to cumbia, porros, gaitas and other traditional sounds of her country.
Dence left Colombia in 1969 to attend graduate school at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Nine years later, she and her husband moved to St. Louis, where she became a radiology professor at Washington University. But she never lost her passion for the music and dances of her homeland.
In 1995, Dence founded Grupo Atlantico, which will perform Sunday at the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park. Dence aspires to preserve and present the music, dance and culture of her homeland.
“It’s where I come from,” Dence said. “It’s where my heart is.”
‘We see the commonality’
Twice a month, dancers and drummers pour into Dence’s basement for rehearsal, filling it with music and fellowship.
They practice for events at schools and festivals, held at least twice a month. Usually the group performs with fewer than a dozen dancers. But Dence has enough bright, colorful costumes stored in her home to outfit many more: Seven closets full, to be exact.
“When you do a simple math, will get you close to almost 300 to 400,” she said.
Dence designed and sewed almost all of them herself. Her costumes and dances largely reflect Colombian indigenous, Spanish and African cultures. But everyone is welcome, and Dence seeks inspiration from all nationalities. Her choreography includes a mix of movements.
“It’s amazing when you look carefully at those traditional arts which are different from yours, then you say, ‘My God, we have something very something very similar, and we call it so-and-so and we move this way and you move this way,’” Dence said. “And at the end, again, we see the commonality.”
For dancer Alparna Kalyanarman, who is of Indian heritage, Grupo Atlantico is like a family, one that also welcomed her 3-year-old daughter.
“She might not dance all the time but she jumps in and she's doing a little bit a dance and she's under my skirt and holding my leg,” Kalyanarman said. “And there's no problem because it's just all part of it.”
Group member Tahira Mari also has found a home with Grupo Atlantico, in which her performances include singing as well as dancing.
“It’s electrifying. It feels like I come alive,” Mari said. “I enjoy feeding off their energy and combining our energies.”
The group’s three drummers are an essential part of the collaboration. St. Louisan Michael Nelson, known as Baba Mike in local music circles, said he and Dence share a passion for blurring the differences among people.
“Even if it’s subliminal, they understand, that, ‘Wow, OK, we’re all like, alike,’” Nelson said. “And that’s kind of the mission that we both are on.”
Grupo Atlantico dancers will hold lessons beginning at 4:15 p.m., Sunday in the Village Green area of Tower Grove Park.
Teaching others, especially any reluctant comers, is one of Dence’s favorite parts of the annual event.
“It feels empowering when you see them getting braver and stepping a toe in,” Dence said. “It makes me extremely happy.”
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