Student Spotlight: A Life of Dance & A Friend Forever

By Joanne Maldonado for Ana Gelabert

It all started in a dance class. She was 15 and I was 17 and yet it seemed like just seconds ago. As I always do, I watched her with an impressive eye because this petite spitfire exuded an attitude and a sexiness that I hadn’t seen before. Who was she? How did she just show up in MY jazz class and dance like this? It was as if she was meant to dance – graceful, strong and drawing beautiful lines with her tiny frame.

Ana Carrion was her name. She just arrived from the Philippines and with some luck from the dance gods she ended up at my ballet school. We gravitated towards each other before we even knew we were friends and it was through our love of movement and expression that we found our connection. There are great partnerships in dance and without a doubt I knew I had found mine the moment I saw her move.

When you are a teenager, you feel invincible. Our new friendship quickly grew and the center point was any form of dance we could get our hands and feet on. We had heard about a dance studio in Dupont Circle and since we had already pushed the limits with our teachers in Fairfax, we took the leap to the big city. Soon, we were regularly sneaking off to Joy of Motion and parking in the alley behind the studio.

We had found our Mecca and our escape in this one room studio situated in the heart of Washington, DC. We found our home. We soaked up the knowledge of dance from teachers like Michelle Ava, Doug Yeuell, Adrian Bolton, Kim Teri, Tim Roberts and the delicious Tyrone Murray. We hopped from different genres of jazz, modern and ballet like bees skipping from flower to flower. And then we found Robert Teri. We gravitated to his sexy style, his fast-paced choreography and his passion for dance. He pushed us and he wanted us to be better. We were putty in his hands. We joined his company and danced as if time was standing still. There were countless dancers that we met along the way, some that went on to big and brighter things, but with every step, every class, they taught us something. Those early days were the days to remember. We even created our own small company with an obscure name – Three O’Clock Party – because we ended up dancing and creating until 3am in my basement full of mirrors and dancing around the city in festivals and showcases. Two feisty Latinas, two beautiful black men and a tall blonde. We were young and wild and free.

Then life shifts. People grow as they should. There were careers, weddings and beautiful babies born and suddenly time moves at warp speed. How did we grow up so fast? I thought we were teenagers and work study know-it-alls with countless hours to take unlimited classes. Why can’t we stop what we are doing for a rehearsal or a show? But life catches up to you and you must grow. But with that there are precious times together watching our children become strong individuals, camping on the beach, girls weekends away, forced eight-hour hikes, caravan trips to Puerto Rico and Florida and motivating each other to keep dreaming. It’s a kind of friendship that is not judgmental but supportive, not arrogant but understanding.

Ana never gave up on dance or me. She danced before and after giving life to two beautiful girls. She inspired me to come back after at least five years away. Those years weren’t easy on my body. I had gained over 120 pounds and she saw the pain in my eyes. She knew I longed to dance. She never pressured me – not once – but she told me about a teacher that she had found who was challenging her. I was so curious and before I knew it, I was a regular in Maurice Johnson’s jazz class. At first, it was humiliating because I knew that under all of the weight I was a dancer but I couldn’t prove it. Maurice brought Ana and I back to life in so many ways. He had and still has a creative and guiding spirit that made us feel that even in our 30s, we could still dance. Ana kept me going to class, even though for 10 years I avoided any jumps or floor work because of my size, and yet I watched her in class with such awe. I was her biggest cheerleader and her biggest critic. In a sense, she was dancing for both of us, so she had to succeed and shine. Little did she know that she was one of my main motivators for my next important move.

I couldn’t go on the way I was and I wanted to be on stage again before I left this amazing world. With Ana’s support, I decided to have gastric bypass surgery and before I knew it I was 140 pounds lighter. It was as if there was music playing again and I was ready to dance and there she was by my side. Just five months after my surgery and at my insistence, I convinced her to try something new. I’ll never forget that first class. Who was this Derek Brown that everyone was raving about? We walked into his class not really knowing what to expect and within minutes we were hooked. He transformed us back to our 20s with his sexy choreography, lyrical stylings and quick transitions and he left us wanting more. I was so worried about getting a parking ticket during that first time that I ran outside in between classes and there he was – “you and your friend are great dancers.” Me and my friend would do whatever we needed to do to get to Derek’s classes for the next three years. It was our release and our right.

Studio to Stage was soon calling our names because we wanted to be able to be on stage side-by-side again. And the unexpected benefits were that we found these amazing, young and intelligent women and men who craved that moment on the stage – again or for the first time. It was invigorating for me to see them and nurture them. I had been on stage since I was 7. This was nothing new and yet I missed those brief moments. The bond you make with dancers is amazing because you are vulnerable together – hoping for no mistakes, hoping to be in sync and, for me, hoping that I could see Ana while I danced. I would not trade those performances for a moment.

We were guided by Derek’s vision and when it was time to perform, we were ready just like 20 years before. Our daughters, our families, our friends, and even our dear teacher, Maurice, saw us perform. We had fun being girls with ample costume changes and the ability to wear stage make-up to the extreme. I finally felt like I was at the peak of my fitness in my early 40s. I was somehow keeping up with girls in their 20s and 30s – but my fear was that soon someone would figure out that I was old. Ana never let me think that way. She managed to find freedom in rock climbing, marathons and eventually completing an Iron Man. I felt that I was with her on those journeys and I beamed with pride by sharing all of her accomplishments to anyone who would listen. She was and is my hero.

When I look back, it doesn’t seem possible that we’ve been escaping to Joy of Motion for 28 years, but when you find a community of artists that accept you for who you are, you’ve found your home. It’s funny to write about someone you’ve known for 30 years. You know everything about them and yet it’s amazing to reflect upon how they have evolved from a dancer, to a mother, to a medical professional and to an extreme athlete. I can’t say that Ana’s moving to San Diego will be easy on me, her family and her amazing circle of friends. I’ve known about it for years but the last few months have been a mental game of avoiding the inevitable. Who will push me? Who will I marvel at in class? Who will go across the floor with me and have a sneaky look on their face? There isn’t a replacement. But I know this. Every time I dance at Joy of Motion, no matter how long that is, Ana Carrion will be in my class, right next to me, smiling, being loud, dancing through the pain and inspiring me to fight for every move. That’s what best friends do and that’s what dancers do.