I remember when I first met Juliana. I was walking into a dance studio that smelled of fresh wood and baby powder from the previous ballet class, and my inexperienced-self walked through those hopeful doors that screamed confidence and “Vamos a practicar una última vez.” I was exhausted from dance practice day after day, and I considered dropping out of the talent show at least ten times—per class. What kept me in check was Juliana and her incredible persistence. She not only teaches but exudes a sense of security and care when you attend one of her classes. I’ve been in dance camps with Juliana, in choreography practices, and salsa lessons not long ago. But Juliana’s mission goes beyond teaching dance and confidence to girls like me. Juliana teaches more than dance, and her students range from pre-schoolers to brides… and convicts.
As I walked through the gates of the women’s correctional facility I soon forgot the familiar dance studio where I first met Juliana. I had my phone taken away, and after signing in, I was taken to the “open space” where the inmates were practicing their choreography during their weekly dance lesson. Juliana, up front and center, was leading the class. But the Juliana I saw today, in her lycra pants and a baseball cap had a much more “classical” dance uniform years before.
“My dancing career started when I was 13, but I began practicing when I was five years old,” Juliana told HipLatina. Her childhood was wrapped in chiffon, tule, and baby pink leotards that adorned her passion for dancing. Ballet, the ultimate symbol of poise and charm was Juliana’s first love. She studied dance at Escuela Julian Blanco, a public school specializing in dance, located in San Juan, Puerto Rico. There, Juliana spent her days at the studio practicing her pointed toes and numerous positions. Progressively, her hunger for learning and her passion pushed her towards commercial dance, where she found the opportunity for a long-lasting commitment with the thing she loved the most. “I think that to be a dancer, you must begin with ballet. You need to have that core. Then continue. People are going to call you and ask you to dance for different artists and different genres, and you have to be versatile.”
“Juan Gabriel was the first artist I danced with, then Juan Luis Guerra, and countless Miss Universe pageants. I danced with artists for 25 years, and I’m only in my 30’s because I knew how to be versatile.”
Juliana continued her work as a dancer by becoming a certified teacher. “I always knew that I wanted to teach… when I found out I could both teach and transform, I was fascinated. I love creating; it’s my passion. Dancing is transformation and liberation.” Transformation and liberation were the words that brought Juliana closer to her mission as a dancer, an educator, and a figure of hope amongst a rare group of females.
Two years ago Juliana’s life came to a crossroads when both of her passions collided. Juliana was meant to be part of the video we’ve all grown to love and dance to Despacito. And although dancing for artists (and yes, that includes Fonsi, her longtime friend, and colleague) made her happy, it did not fulfill her.
“Dancing with stars is an ego booster, and traveling to dance feeds your soul—but it’s all fleeting. Teaching was something that fulfilled me,” she said. Juliana’s opportunity awaited her. On the same day of the video shoot, not so despacito, she chose to attend the women’s correctional facility to begin teaching psicoballet instead. This defining moment determined Juliana’s mission for the following years.
Born in Cuba in the 70’s “Psicoballet” is the therapeutic strategy that combines science and art in harmony; using psychological techniques, ballet, music, physical culture, corporal expression, role-playing, game and relaxation techniques.
“A psychologist came up to me; she was writing her thesis on the effect of psicoballet on women in the correctional facility. Nearly a year later, we were given the go-ahead, to do just 13 classes. Once the classes were done, and she finished her study, it was over,” she says. But fate was not ready for Juliana to leave her position in the correctional facilities. A yoga and Reiki instructor had to terminate some of her courses due to time constraints, and a door opened for Juliana, and her plan to transform and liberate came at five different facilities.
Juliana has always had the attitude of an amazing educator, she has faced adversity and overcome her obstacles as a mother, a dancer, and now an inspiration to the women of correctional facilities all around Puerto Rico with just one formula: “Passion, love, and discipline. They [the students] know I love them, but I expect them to work hard. I’ve never changed as a teacher, and I treat them just as I would treat any other student,” Juliana adds. She is absolutely right. I saw a forceful Juliana no different than the one that pushed me to perfect my moves. The inmates’ dance, set to The Greatest Showman’s “This is Me” brought me to tears.
Nowadays, this natural-born teacher now alternates between the classroom, stage, and prison, but her approach is the same, no matter the student. And she inspires others to teach as well. Through Juliana, I’ve had the privilege of speaking to young girls about acceptance and speaking to inmates about second chances, and my life is all the better for it. If there is one thing Juliana has taught me, it’s that life changes, and plans change. The only constant: is passion.