"Third floor. Once you get there, you can't help but hear and see them."
That's what I'm told when searching Spirit Square for The Carolinas Latin Dance Company. In a small studio, big things are happening. Members of the group are frantically preparing for their annual dance performance and 10-year anniversary celebration, "Dancing Through Latin America," at McGlohon Theatre on Saturday, April 28.
Founded in 2001 by executive director Gladys Gomez and three other parents, The Carolinas Latin Dance Company is a nonprofit organization born from the demands of children. In the early 2000s, Gomez taught Spanish at the Smith Academy of Languages. After introducing dance during a cultural fair, some of her students wanted to learn more about the art, especially styles related to Latin America.
"Most of the students and parents are from different Latin American origins," says Gomez. "We wanted to preserve the roots for our children who are growing up in America and create a sense of acceptance and unification between the different Latino cultures."
The Carolinas Latin Dance Company started out with only eight dancers, and now has 35 divided into four age groups. Members pay a $40 monthly fee for classes that meet on Saturdays for six months, concluding with a choreographed year-end show.
This year, 16 countries, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico and Spain, are represented through dances at the Uptown performance.
Across the room, some boys are dragging their feet across the floor. The dance moves, which on first glance look like sloppy slip-ups, are part of the style "La Cumbia." The Colombia arrangement originated from slaves who were forced to move in this manner because of the shackles that bound their feet.
Gina Mallay, Gomez's 25-year-old daughter, leads the class. She started dancing with the group when she was 13 and at 16 transitioned into teaching. Her learning environment is relaxed, as students come and go, switching into different costumes and shoes along the way.
Mallay's enthusiasm runs deep. Since she's been in the group for so long she's developed a sense of kinship with her dancemates. "Each kid has a burning desire to do the dance that represents their family's country," says Mallay. "I'm from Colombia, but sometimes when I dance the Mexican dances, I almost feel Mexican because of how enthusiastic the kids are about that dance.
"What's also really neat is we have some non-Latino background and mixed (black and Hispanic) kids, and they get to learn these dances, too. Then they start learning Spanish because I'll say things in Spanish sometimes without thinking. There are three little boys who are African-American and they were talking to me in Spanish one day. It's really amazing how they've immersed themselves."
"Dancing Through Latin America 2012" will be held April 28 at 7 p.m. in McGlohon Theatre, 345 N. College St. Tickets cost $10-$15. Details: 704-372-1000 or www.blumenthalcenter.org.