Hugs are mandatory in Exenia Rocco’s Latin dance class at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School. The 24-year-old teaching artist greets each of her 16 students for the 4 p.m. after school class with a warm smile and open arms.
It puts them in a tranquil mood, she hopes. At least that’s her goal.
If the mostly Hispanic students from Washington Heights just learn how to relax and never dance again, that’s fine with her.
Rocco first calls on the mostly Hispanic, mostly female students who come from nearby Washington Heights to play dead by lying flat on the floor like a corpse with their eyes closed and palms facing the ceiling. She turns off the lights in the classroom.
The purpose of this yoga pose, called Savasana, is to bring kids closer to a peaceful reality by symbolically dying. “I want to make a connection with these kids that’s beyond, ‘5, 6, 7, 8,’” said Rocco, constantly on the move. “I feel I am in a unique position to do that because I’m dealing with kids who look like me. In age and appearance.”
Students of different statures and shades of brown relaxed and meditated while stretched out on the cold tile floor. Some looked self-conscious with arms close by their side, while others resembled caged birds that have recently found freedom. Rocco had them repeat affirmations like, “I am beautiful,” “I am loved” and “I am worthy of my dreams” in the dark room.
“I tell them to take a moment and believe everything they just said,” she said. “Getting the students to dance for the rest of their lives is a goal, but if not, then giving them principles will take them a long way.”
Her class is part of a 25-year-old arts and education initiative in A. Philip Randolph High School called the College and Career Preparatory Institute. It’s kept afloat by charging fees and selling tickets to the student end-of-year dance performances. “It’s a win-win situation for the school,” said Charles Thompson, executive director of Sound Business, Inc., the umbrella non-profit organization. Students help out with stage props and lighting when times are lean.
In the fall semester of 2014, students had to choreograph their own show for the first time. “We didn’t have any teaching artists,” Thompson said. “I had to oversee it myself.” This year, however, with a new infusiib of funds from Harlem Stage, a performing arts center in Harlem, Sound Business Inc. was able to hire Exenia Rocco.
An Ohio native, she moved to New York at the age of 18 and graduated in 2013 from City College with a bachelor’s degree in music.
Music and dance has been part of her home and her identity for generations. Rocco is of African, Italian, French and German descent. Her mother, who has taught dance for over three decades, is French Caribbean and her father is European. She graduated from City College, which houses the 1,360-student school.
Latin dance infused with yoga is her specialty. “The word yoga means union, so anything that brings you more into union with yourself is theoretically a form of yoga,” Rocco said. “So when I lead these kids through RMAR (Relaxation, Meditation, Affirmation, Relaxation), they’re lying on their backs with their palms facing the ceiling in a complete position of rest and they’re learning to connect with their breath. If you can do that, you save so much energy in your life.”
Raymond Ortega, 17, one of Rocco’s students said that he joined the college institute because he found their programs liberating.
“I used to think that dance was all for aesthetic pleasing,” Ortega said, “but Exenia taught me that there is power and beauty in dance and in every move, from the big, explosive movements, to the small and more subtle dances.”
Eduniz Mendez, 16, said, “I do wish to pursue dance later in my life. I hope that after I graduate medical school I am able to establish my own dance studio so that I can come back and be the Teaching Artist for Latin DVD.
“Exenia make sure to get our moods up if we’re not ok,” Mendez said. “What she does for us and for me in general, inspires me to want to do that for other students someday.”
Rocco patches together a livelihood by working part-time at a college, a freelance writer, social media manger and a web designer. Her ultimate goal in life is to be a successful touring musician and dancer.
“I teach and I bring a similar style of teaching that is about connection, not just about content, but I also plant seeds in the minds of these kids because of the other things I am passionate about learning—health, kindness and even yoga philosophy and inner peace,” Rocco said. “And then, on top of this, because I am a performer, I am able to bring that out of them through demonstration and encouragement, and it’s perfect because they are prepping for a show at the end of the semester.”