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Lady in Red

The Latin Ballet of Virginia keeps the holiday traditions of other countries alive with “The Legend of the Poinsettia.”

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If your holiday decorations are up and you’re still buzzing on sugar, you aren’t alone. Hispanics and Latinos all over the world are still celebrating. In Virginia, the Latin Ballet keeps the party going with its 15th annual presentation of “The Legend of the Poinsettia.”

The story behind the dance is based on 16th-century Mexican folklore about a girl who’s too poor to bring a gift to Jesus on Christmas Eve.

“She finds a handful of weeds,” Artistic Director Ana Ines King says, “and because she gave with her heart, all of the weeds transformed into beautiful flowers.”

The flowers, of course, are the red leaves of the poinsettia plant, indigenous to Mexico and Central America. “In my country it is a tree,” says King, a native of Colombia.

Founded by King in 1997, Latin Ballet is a school and professional company of 11 dancers that performs throughout Virginia, the United States and South America.

“Everything was kind of like an accident,” says King, whose only ambition was to dance and choreograph. “Maybe a happy coincidence.”

King came to the United States 22 years ago after establishing herself in Colombia as an award-winning choreographer. Taught initially by her mother, a professional dancer who established a studio in their home, King took classes at Virginia Commonwealth University department of dance and choreography when she came to Richmond. To her surprise, she was asked to be a professor of Latin dance . “I wasn’t planning on that,” she says.

In 1997, while teaching three classes at VCU, she choreographed a performance in honor of her brother, who’d recently died from cancer. The director of the Cultural Arts Center of Glen Allen loved her choreography and offered her a space to teach classes.

“She told me, ‘You don’t have to pay rent,’” King says. “But pretty soon I had 150 students. And then she says, ‘Ana, I think you better pay rent now.’”

Now more than 400 students a year 3 and older take multicultural dance classes as wide-ranging as salsa, flamenco, hip-hop and contemporary African. Part of the learning experience includes the history and culture behind the dance. The school is credited as one of only three arts organizations in the country offering English as a second language program. Scholarships are available for at-risk children, and there are programs for children with disabilities and those new to the United States.

Known for combining social and folkloric dances with ballet, modern dance and jazz, Latin Ballet has a repertoire of more than 20 dances and performs five productions a year, as well as touring schools with educational programs. “Poinsettia” focuses on the holiday traditions of Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Spain. The colorful costumes are authentic, as are the dances.

“In Colombia,” King says, “the holiday is about love and being with family and friends. That is the most beautiful thing. The houses are very close together. We go house to house, and if you know how to sing, dance, play an instrument, you get something to eat or drink at each house. Everything is a party.”

The party starts in Latin American countries Dec. 7, when families light candles in honor of the Virgin Mary and to provide light for the journey of the Three Kings to Bethlehem. The season continues at least to Epiphany on Jan. 6, when children put out their shoes with food for the camels, and the Three Kings bring them presents. In Brazil, it doesn’t end until February and carnival.

“It really doesn’t stop with the new year like it does here,” King says.

Dancer Frances Wessells, 95, a founder of the VCU department of dance and choreography, again will join the company dancers, apprentices and students of Latin Ballet for “The Legend of the Poinsettia.” She’s played the grandmother roles in the production for the past 12 years.

King estimates Latin Ballet touches more than 100,000 people a year through performances, lectures and residencies. “I was teaching at the university. I wasn’t looking for anything like that,” she says of founding the company. “It was for fun.” S

“Legend of the Poinsettia” runs Jan. 8-11 at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen. For tickets and show times visit latinballet.com.

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