Meet Michelle Manzanales, Director, Ballet Hispánico School of Dance

Classes for Kids on Upper West Side

By Anu Kapur, Publisher, Lower Manhattan Macaroni KID & Upper West Side Macaroni KID June 12, 2024

Michelle, please tell us a little about yourself and your background.

I am a Latina, originally from Houston, TX, who has been dancing for as long as I can remember. My mother put me in dance classes when I was three years old, and it has been part of my life, ever since. I had the great joy of dancing professionally for over a decade, but I have also had the honor of being a dance teacher, choreographer, rehearsal director, and arts administrator over my 30-year career in this artform. I am currently the Director of the Ballet Hispánico School of Dance.

When was Ballet Hispánico incorporated? What was the concept behind creating Ballet Hispánico?

Ballet Hispánico was incorporated in 1970. The School has remained a prominent component of our organization throughout its fifty years.

Recognized for her achievements by the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest cultural honor, Tina Ramirez founded Ballet Hispánico in 1970. From its grassroots origins as a dance school and community-based performing arts troupe, the organization has grown into a world-class institution. Ballet Hispánico’s New York City headquarters houses a School of Dance and state-of-the-art dance studios for its programs and the arts community.

Our Founder took a revolutionary step by creating an organization whose mission was to provide access to communities of color, instill a sense of pride, and create a pipeline to personal transformation. She envisioned empowering children, giving them a voice and an opportunity to discover new careers in the arts. She believed the arts belonged to everyone and her vision of sharing lives on today through Ballet Hispánico's educational programs.

What is the ideal age group for your classes? How are classes structured?

We have classes for all ages (two through adult) and levels (novice to pre-professional) in various styles including ballet, Spanish Dance, flamenco, modern dance, jazz, hip hop, tap, salsa and other Latin rhythms. We offer classes year-round with open enrollment as well as audition-based programs for pre-professional and professional training. Our open enrollment classes range from 45-75 minutes and students select which styles they would like to study. Students in the pre-professional program take a specially curated schedule of classes in ballet, Spanish Dance, and modern dance.

What makes Ballet Hispánico unique from other dance classes?

The Ballet Hispánico School of Dance is directly linked to our organization’s values of access, opportunity, and pride for all students interested in dance and Latinx culture. The School is accredited by the National Association of Schools of Dance. Each day our purpose remains rooted in our founder’s vision as we strive to continue to develop and safeguard the sacred space for discovery that is Ballet Hispánico. We stand proudly as the dance oasis for our Latinx community and all of its aspiring dancers, dance professionals, educators, artists, administrators, and visionaries, committed to ensuring that all that pass through our way, leave as empowered, stronger leaders and trailblazers of the world at large.

Ballet Hispánico is the nation’s renowned Latino dance organization and one of America’s Cultural Treasures. Ballet Hispánico brings communities together to celebrate and explore Latino cultures through innovative dance performances, transformative dance training, and enduring community engagement experiences.

How do you motivate young dancers to keep practicing?

All of our faculty and staff have experienced first-hand the many wonderful gifts that dance presents us; joy, friendship, physical fitness, and an outlet for expression and personal voice. Our classes offer world-class dance training, but beyond technique, our school motivates students by allowing space for both excellent artistry and growth in these many different areas. Students are encouraged to embrace why they, themselves love to dance, and explore their “why” in every class. With this encouragement, students naturally want to practice beyond the classroom and truly enjoy their dance experience with Ballet Hispánico.

One of the many things I love about Ballet Hispánico is that it truly is a celebration of cultures and identity through the lens of dance. As students learn dance techniques from our expert, world-class teachers, they also learn about diverse cultures, countries, histories, and in turn, more about themselves. Our school community, including our student body, staff and faculty, is diverse, warm, and welcoming. We route for each other’s successes and support an environment of learning and discovery. Some dance schools can feel cold and competitive. Our school takes pride in balancing rigor and excellence of training with compassion and kindness as the students forge ahead in their dance journeys. 

What is the most challenging part of running Ballet Hispánico? And the most rewarding?

There are so many activities and opportunities to learn at Ballet Hispánico. Beyond classes offered six days a week, there are also optional enrichment activities such as field trips to see our professional dance company perform, online watch parties, master classes, special student performance opportunities, panel discussions, and more. So, the challenge is to choose what you can fit in to your schedule! 

Does Ballet Hispánico’ host virtual birthday parties? What themes do you’ll cover?

No, we do not currently.

What advice would you give a parent whose kid is passionate about dancing?

I am so lucky that I have parents that supported my desire to dance, but I know it wasn’t necessarily the easiest decision for them to make. I truly believe and intentionally work to ensure that our school nourishes and nurtures dance but also instills and develops valuable life skills that will serve our students in whatever career they choose, way beyond the time they spend with us. Perseverance, tenacity, time management, discipline, teamwork, leadership, accountability, voice, confidence, empathy, are just some of the life skills our students develop and take with them into the world. But above all else, dance is connected to joy...what greater gift is there? So, for those parents with kids passionate about dance...let them dance! There are so many different programs and opportunities out there. Find something that works for your family and let that passionate kid dance and inspire you and others to dance! We can all use more joy in our lives.

Are there any music or dance apps you would like to recommend for kids?

Check out the Just Dance Now app. It’s fun and free!

Where do you see Ballet Hispánico five years from now?

Ballet Hispánico has been a cultural institution for fifty years. Through ups and downs, it has stayed committed to its mission of bringing communities together to celebrate and explore Latino cultures through innovative dance productions, transformative training, and community engagement. In five years, I see Ballet Hispánico continuing, expanding and strengthening that mission. I expect we will be beyond this pandemic, and that our studios will be filled with music, dancing, and students. I also see the re-launch of our youth performing ensemble, serving the community.

Thank you so much for your time!