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Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010 10:19 pm

The Ambassador of Salsa

Springfield entrepreneur uses dance as a teaching tool

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Julio Barrenzuela uses dance to teach kids at Lee Elementary School in Springfield.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Pulsing Latin rhythms echo through the cavernous gymnasium at Springfield College, as a handful of college students take their first few steps into the world of salsa dancing. Some glide gracefully across the floor, while others seem to move with leaden feet, but each of them is smiling.

That’s thanks to the magnetic charisma of their instructor, Julio Barrenzuela – local entrepreneur, activist, motivational speaker and official Salsa Ambassador of Springfield. Through his start-up dance company, Salsa 29 Productions, Barrenzuela teaches salsa dancing as a way to inspire and enlighten students, workers, the elderly and anyone else he can find.

“Salsa isn’t just a dance; it’s a way of life,” he says with conviction. “It’s a metaphor, a mixture of things that make a whole. The same way the food salsa can complement your food, salsa dancing can complement your life.”

Originally from Lima, Peru, Barrenzuela moved to Springfield at age nine with his family, later graduating from Lanphier High School. He is thin and energetic, quick to laugh and even quicker to tell stories – like the one about when he was named Springfield’s Salsa Ambassador.

Barrenzuela says he joined the Navy after high school, and he had a sort of dance floor epiphany while visiting clubs all over the world.

“When I was traveling from base to base overseas, I realized that it is one thing that really brings people together,” he says. “I realized that it’s good to be known as ‘the salsa guy,’ and if you have a message to go with it, people will listen.”

Using this logic, Barrenzuela is spreading his message of diversity, health, motivation and fun to Springfield schools, nursing homes, businesses and other organizations. During a recent visit to Lee Elementary School, 1201 Bunn Ave., Barrenzuela had dozens of children and older mentally disabled students dancing with wide smiles on their faces and hanging on his every word as he talked about the importance of respecting one’s self and respecting others. Barrenzuela's program was developed with help from friend and consultant Amy Quarton, a graduate of the University of Illinois Springfield.

Barrenzuela always includes in his lessons a segment on accepting other cultures, races, ethnicities and beliefs.

“If I can make more people like salsa, and then they turn around and say they don’t like Mexicans, there’s an internal fight, a cognitive dissonance,” he says. “They would have to like the dance but not the people who dance it, and that’s hard to do. Hopefully, it’s getting through to them that our differences are okay, and I think salsa helps to make that point because there’s no black or white in salsa.

“The message can be right, but the messenger is even more important,” he continues. “Diversity in Springfield is such an issue. You can’t just go, ‘I’m going to put you in a room with some Latinos and some African Americans, and we’re going to teach you about diversity.’ Instead, we use salsa to engage people in relationship-building and breaking down stereotypes.”

Barrenzuela’s ultimate goal is to have a big salsa-dancing party in Springfield, gathering together everyone he has taught to dance and everyone else who wants to learn.

“I’m trying to unite Springfield by going to nursing homes, schools – anywhere they don’t normally do salsa dancing – because when they walk out of there saying, ‘I did salsa,’ what they’re really saying, from my point of view, is ‘I got out of my element, and I learned something.’”

For more information, visit Barrenzuela’s website at Salsa29.com.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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