On January 19th, 2018, “America’s Got Talent” holds auditions in San Jose. Among the competitors will be a local dance teacher to developmentally disabled adults.

Izabella Jay Torres calls her style “Latizmo.” She explains, “it has a lot of attitude, popping, locking, salsa, merengue, a little Aztec in it. Also, break dancing.”

This is no average dance class, but not just because the style of dance is unique.

Some of the students can talk. Some can’t. Some can walk. Some can’t. The students at the College of Adaptive Arts all struggle with physical challenges like autism and Down syndrome. The non-profit, operating out of a modest office space in San Jose, has been offering arts classes to developmentally disabled adults since 2009.

But whatever their individual stories, every single dancer can respond to music — and to Torres. “They have no fear. They have no stereotypes. They have unconditional love,” says Torres.

Izabella Torres holds the mic for Carlos Solorzano while Robert Tafoya looks on.
Izabella Torres holds the mic for Carlos Solorzano while Robert Tafoya looks on. (Photo: Courtesy of Sridhar Pursai)

That means a lot to Torres, who says she was sexually abused by an older brother when she was five years old in Hollister. Dancing helped to heal those psychological wounds, as does teaching at the college.

“What are the three Ps?” she calls out to the class. “Patience, passion, perserverance!” they yell back. “What are the three Rs?” “Respect, respect, respect!”

Torres doesn’t talk much during the class. She dances, and the students follow as best they can. “I put my hand out and most of the time, they’ll put their hand in my hand,” Torres says. “People have a really hard time communicating with each other, expressing our pain, expressing our passion. What Latizmo does, for me and my students, is that it releases the language of the soul.”

The class also gets out into the community for performances and competitions. Watch them impress the crowd at the Stanford University Dance Marathon back in February of this year.

“I love to be with my friends and follow the steps,” says Jenni Pencer of San Jose, who’s been coming to the Latizmo classes since they started.

Pencer’s calendar is packed with physical activities. She’s big into a variety of sports, including swimming and basketball. She’s a “Hall of Famer” in Special Olympics. But many people, with special needs or without, struggle to get off the couch.

College co-founder and executive director Deanna Pursai notes many people who can’t be convinced to exercise jump at the chance to bust a move on the dance floor. “You’re focusing on something you love, and you’re dancing with people who are your friends.”

“Isby teaches us never to be afraid to try,” says Rachel Henderson, who attends the class together with Lisa, her mother. Lisa waves one arm in the air while the other swings Rachel’s wheelchair around. Rachel has cerebral palsy, but she’s fully cognitive and can talk through her computer. “I am so thankful for my teacher. Because of her, I will never give up on myself or never will stop dancing,” Rachael Henderson says.

Rachel and Lisa Henderson both say they've gained confidence and improved coordination on the dance floor with Izabella Torres.
Rachel and Lisa Henderson both say they’ve gained confidence and improved coordination on the dance floor with Izabella Torres. (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Torres faces fierce competition with America’s Got Talent next week, but the class knows: any excuse to get out on the dance floor and strut your stuff is a good one.

San Jose Hip Hop Dance Class Inspires Teacher to Reach for the Stars 20 January,2018Rachael Myrow


Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED’s Silicon Valley Arts Reporter, covering arts, culture and technology in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She regularly files stories for NPR and the KQED podcast Bay Curious, and guest hosts KQED’s Forum.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

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