About a month ago, I attended Julio Barrenzuela’s salsa dance workout with the students of Hope Institute for Children and Families. It’s the school first known as Hope School for the Blind, out near Lake Springfield. These days they serve developmentally disabled students from probably eight to 21 years old. For months I’ve offered to write a story about Julio for the best business monthly in the tri-state area and for Illinois Times. If Fletcher “Bud” Ferrar at IT had not been out of town until mid-January you might have read my article there. Before Julio made a special presentation at Sangamo Club downtown, I had e’d him and asked the person filling in for him to forward my note and indicating I’d be attending the Sangamo Club thing anyway since there seemed to have been a promise of dinner or lunch from the “Springfield’s Ambassador of Salsa,” and a good time, regardless. As “Springfield’s Photographer of Salsa” (among other appellations) I am to Julio what Linda Eastman was to rock ‘n’ roll, which I believe in.
I didn’t hear back from Bud until two days after I posted the Sangamo session story here at Honey & Quinine. He had just returned to Springfield, had not received the e which I had been told would be forwarded to him and wondered if I had attended the Sangamo event. I responded that since I had not heard back from him, I had gone ahead and posted my story here, adding I’d still gladly write about Julio for the best community weekly in the tri-state area if he was still interested.
The answer was in the non-reply to my offer. Writers learns things, as a recently formered president might say. For example, non replies always mean NO. Carried to an extreme, a non-answer, from a pretty girl, say, interpreted by an eager male friend to mean YES, can land a bloke in jail. The safe way to go for writers and others seeking sentient COmmunication from silent walls is to SILENCE (<– verb) along and chase more rewarding avenues of verbal exchange.
Even so, when Julio asked me to attend the Hope Institute presentation, a few weeks after Sangamo Club I was happy to accompany him and Amy.
A few seconds after exiting her car at Hope, Julio turned to me and told me he was going into what I call “performer mode.” I have seen this kind of cautionary distancing before in the theater. It’s the time when casual chatter ceases, and the performer steps into his persona until the event has concluded. Correspondingly, I transitioned from amigo to observer. I had brought my camera, well aware that photography of residents was not permitted, and kept it in my zippered jacket until all the young people had returned to their dorms. I didn’t want anyone to even see the camera, because if they saw it, they might worry about it, and I didn’t want that. There would be time for pictures before the kids arrived and after.
Many people who don’t know Julio Barrenzuela well don’t know how long he has been presenting salsa workshops. He’s been coming to Hope once a month for the past ten years! This is one of many reasons why he was nominated for the Springfield First Citizen Award in 2009. This kind of dedication and endurance speaks volumes for the man, and this is just a small part of what he’s doing.
People at Hope knew him on sight and reacted warmly as the residents began arriving, led into the gymnasium by their resident supervisors. Their eyes were bright. often arms extended for brief hugs. It was like watching a family reunion . . . of family who loves each other. For many of the residents, what followed in the next hour and 15 minutes or so was probably the highlight of their week. The Hope Institute’s evening activity director (AD, pictured above) chatted with “The Ambassador” before folks started coming in. The AD is an old hand at Hope; started just after Julio started his regular visits.
The two occasionally talked between music tracks, deciding what to play next, and the music was almost constant. There was some distortion from cranking the volume up on a machine designed for smaller venues, but most everyone was having fun. The purpose of the visit was as much to allow the kids to socialize and practice interpersonal skills in a totally positive, unthreatening environs as it was to teach them the fine art of salsa. A lot of the former and a little of the latter carbonated the night with special flavors. I was amazed by how few kids lined the walls the way folks do at some dances.
I was disappointed by how most of the “wall flowers” who clearly were “NOT in bloom” on a Friday night in January were residential supervisors and Hope faculty. I didn’t approach any of them to ask WHY AREN’T YOU OUT ON THE FLOOR DANCING and BEING INVOLVED WITH YOUR CLIENTS??!!! and they didn’t approach the bearded barnacle in the brown leather jacket with the big lump in part of his chest that might have suggested I was swiping a toaster or football. Still, I wondered.
As the music continued, a young man approached me, asking if I had substitute taught in Springfield. He addressed me as “Mr. Conger,” and said he remembered me from when he had attended middle school. Wow! I asked him if he was having fun, and he shook his head up and down, smiling, before saying goodbye and getting back to the dance floor. WOW!
This was Amy’s first visit to Hope, and she was in action as much as Julio, engaging mostly young ladies and some of the fellows in reciprocal salsa inches away from each other. Julio was clearly the “meat and potatoes” of the evening, but Amy . . . . let me put it this way. It’s always nice when say a leading soccer player attends an event, but it’s even nicer when his girlfriend comes too. As “Springfield’s Salsa Observer” I looked at a lot of faces on that dance floor and didn’t see a frown on any of them!
That is until the sound system overheated and quit, signalling the end to the evening which probably would have continued until 8:30 or 9 otherwise. This happens at Hope Institute more frequently than it should, I was told, and that’s too bad. I know everybody has problems, but there should be an individual reader of Honey & Quinine willing to contact Hope and offer to DONATE a sound system (large boom box) that can serve that institute. And not just for salsa night. If you can — or your civic organization can — you are smart enough to look them up in the book and put wheels into motion.
It was over too soon for me, and I had not wandered more than 10 feet from the sound machine. Paraphrasing what Paul McCartney used to sing when Linda Eastman was taking pictures, “I may be a lover, but I ain’t no dancer.” But I loved the music. I don’t own a single salsa CD. This music deficiency will be set right soon, for sure.
The four of us went looking for a place for a group pic of Julio, Amy and AD and we found it in a hall.
I believe Julio is headed for a future beyond the fair city of Springfield. He has the talent and dedication, and from what I’ve seen in the course of knowing him a short time, he has the presence and poise.
As soon as we departed the building, I returned to “friend mode” and Julio did the same. It was time well spent. And if anyone at the business monthly or Illinois Times or the State Journal Register is reading this post, consider this an invitation to engage a talented writing to pay attention to this fellow. As a kitty might say, “If not me, YOU. Miew mew, if you prefer.
Live long . . . . . and proper.