At Pura Vida Sanctuary, the Afro roots in Latin dance come alive
It was more than just a love of salsa music that brought Anais Harvey, 29, and Juleon Lewis, 30, together.
The two dancers are the co-founders of Pura Vida Sanctuary in Arlington, where they teach salsa, bachata and kizomba in nontraditional ways. They incorporate the histories of the dances, which have African influences and were later mixed, developed and popularized in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
“Maybe it’s because we live in Texas but a lot people still think salsa comes from Mexico,” Lewis said, laughing. “So that’s a lot of the driving force behind our brand, Pura Vida Afro-Latin Dance, because we try to acknowledge the Afro roots that exist in dances that primarily dubbed Latino that have a heavy influence or a foundation in Afro movement, beats and rhythms.”
Lewis, who is African-American, and Harvey, who is Afro-Latina, had both been dancing for years before partnering up. As a child, Lewis picked up Afro-Latin dances during family vacations to the Caribbean. Harvey grew up around it since her parents are Panamanian. She was involved in folkloric dance and later competed on salsa teams.
Although they met in the dorms at the University of Texas at Arlington nearly a decade ago, they lost touch after graduation and Lewis moved out of the country. He was living in the coastal city of Barranquilla, Colombia, when he found out he was going to be a father and immediately came back to the U.S.
Upon his return, he said, the first thing he did was look up the DFW salsa scene.
“If you go out enough, you begin to see some of the regular faces and [Harvey] was one of the regular faces,” Lewis said. “She stood out because she was a phenomenal dancer. So we reconnected through dancing, we got to know each other, we still have some of the same friends.”
When Harvey heard about a dance instructor opportunity and sent it to Lewis, he asked her if they could try it together. She was skeptical. Eventually, he said, he wore her down and they started Pura Vida about a year and a half ago.
Lewis learned to speak Spanish in school and by traveling through Latin America, immersing himself in different Latin cultures. Harvey’s parents had taught her the language at home but she didn’t keep up with it, she said.
“Pura Vida is [the name] because it’s just the limited Spanish that I knew,” she joked.
The studio, to an extent, is an extension and culmination of their individual identities. Harvey said she has faced ignorance within her own communities about what being Afro-Latina means.
"Latinos would look at me and tell me I’m no longer black because of where my parents are from,” she said. “And I’m like ‘can you not see my afro? I’m super dark [skinned]. How can you strip me of my blackness just because I’m Latina?”
The questioning of her identity is frustrating at times, Harvey said.
“From African-Americans, I tend to get ‘why are you trying to be white or Hispanic?’” she said. “I’m not. I’m trying to be myself and no one else."
While Lewis is not of Hispanic descent, he identifies with the Afro-Latin experience.
“I do think there is a shared history between the Afro experience and the Latino experience whether you talk about colorism, colonization or some of the earlier years when they were interacting with the European settlers,” he said. “I do think we have a lot of similarities in our histories, our culture, our music and our dance.”
Because of their shared experiences, Lewis and Harvey agreed that to effectively teach these Afro-Latin dances, they have to do it in a culturally mindful way.
“If you lose sight that salsa originally came from Africa, you can just call anything salsa,” he said. “If you strip the culture from the movement, then you do a disservice to the people who use that movement for freedom, for expression.”
Pura Vida Sanctuary
604 Doug Russell Suite A
Arlington, Texas 76010