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Dance student finds passion, challenge in salsa classes

Xochilt Huitzil is Outstanding Undergraduate in Herberger Institute

woman's portrait in a dance pose
April 27, 2022

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2022 graduates.

When Xochilt Huitzil started at Arizona State University, she took a salsa dance class with David Olarte, clinical assistant professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre.

“I thought I already knew how to dance salsa but when I took his class, it was, ‘What I thought was salsa my whole life was not,’“ she said.

“The first dance I had was extremely difficult and I was off timing. His words to me were, ‘It’s possible’ and he walked away. I was so intimidated.”

Four years later, Huitzil is graduating this semester with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance education with a certificate in entrepreneurship and innovation, and has been named this semester's Outstanding Undergraduate in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts — thanks to Olarte’s nomination.

“He asked me to think critically of myself and my experience at ASU and to realize what the dance program is teaching us and apply it to myself,” she said.

“He’s helped me to hone my technique and mastery. In the past four years, I’ve taken salsa every year and at times I would hop into another class to get an extra two hours of training.”

Huitzil is president of the ASU Salsa Club this year, and in that capacity led the organization and production of Latin Sol, a three-day dance festival held in March. She also is a member of the Arizona Soul Edition, a collective of artists recently awarded the Vibrant City Arts Grant funded by the City of Tempe Arts Council.

She also dances in the Stilo Dance Company, which Olarte directs.

“It’s supportive and uplifting. It’s also critical and blunt and not sugar coating. It’s, ‘This is where you need to be,’ “ she said.

“I’m thankful I put myself out there and introduced myself to him that first day of class.”

Huitzil answered some questions from ASU News:

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I did not originally choose ASU. I went out of state and the program I was doing at Colorado State did not feel right and they did not have an arts program in that school, so I decided to come to ASU to do dance.

Q: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: My freshman year of college I was on the dance team at Colorado State and I was a coach at a gym, and it was the only place I felt positive and felt that I could have a positive impact. I realized I wanted to pursue dance and stop fearing the stigma of a starving artist.

Q: Did you dance in high school?

A: My father’s side is from Mexico and my mother’s side is from El Salvador, so dancing on the weekends was a family tradition. We did social dances like salsa and that is where I found my happy place. We would go out every weekend as a family and dance.

I went to Moon Valley High School and I had dance there. It wasn’t until high school that I learned styles other than social dance, like jazz, ballet, postmodern contemporary, and I learned what it was to perform.

I thought I should go into the science and math part of the world and do STEM but it didn’t happen.

Q: What’s something you learned at ASU that changed your perspective?

A: The size of ASU changed my perspective. The vastness of the opportunities and groups of people. There was opportunity and accessibility for all of these things. It was eye opening and made me question what I already knew. I had to tell myself that there is more than just my bubble.

Q: Do you dance every day?

A: I try to dance every day but the body gets tired so sometimes we rest.

I do postmodern contemporary at ASU and also a lot of hip hop and house and footwork and vogue. The other style that really calls me is waacking, which is from the West Coast, and I found a few dancers I’d like to take a class form.

I have a very intuitive femme movement aesthetic and I’ll dance in heels a lot of the time. Apart from salsa, I do a lot of heels classes.

I’m now doing a residency for teaching at Moon Valley High School and teaching choreography, so I’m busy.

Q: What’s your favorite spot on campus and why?

Answer: I love the Performing and Media Arts building behind Cain’s and Buffalo Wild Wings (at the corner of Rural and University). That’s where I took my first salsa class and where all the Salsa Club socials happen. We got new floors my senior year. It’s my home and where I learned the most and I have a lot of memories in that space.

Question: What are your plans after graduation?

Answer: I don’t have very defined plans yet. I have a job with Amazon as a problem solver and I want to continue working there.

I want to save up some money and train in a few different cities in whatever company or city feels fitting to me. My ultimate goal is to be a master of my craft in salsa dance.

I love this community and thankful for all the mentorship I have had here but now, for the level of performance and artistry I want, I have to learn from many.

Question: If someone gave you $40 million to solve a problem in the world, what would you spend it on?

Answer: I would love to create a program or series of programs for accessible art classes and art performances for the community that is also sustainable, so once the 40 million has been used, it’s a continuous flow of opportunities for individuals who don’t have regular access to the arts. The arts is one of the most underfunded programs in education and the community. I think creating that opportunity will change the way we see and talk to each other.

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