Dancer Paula Vasquez Alzate finds a way to dance in the Black Label Movement film "A Dream of Touch When Touch is Gone." Credit: Courtesy of Carl Flink

When Paula Vasquez Alzate teaches her husband to dance at their home in Burnsville, she tells him to feel the music in his stomach.

From the time she was in her mother’s belly, merengue, salsa, and vallenato music has felt so visceral, “it’s as if it’s part of my digestive system, from my guts,” she says. “It’s like the digestive system feels the beat of the music and connects.”

Though she danced at every family gathering and celebration in her hometown of Medellin, Colombia, as a child—and there are plenty of holidays in Colombia, she says—she remembers the moment, at the age of 8 or 9, when she discovered that dance could be a profession.

“I was first introduced to dance outside of something cultural when I saw a recital from a studio in town,” she says. “I just remember my eyes were about to explode from everything I’d taken in. From that moment I knew I wanted to dance and be on stage.”

Still, she never dreamed that at age 25, she would be quarantining in order to dance in Minneapolis (a city she had never heard of). 

This Friday, October 23, Vasquez Alzate will appear in Black Label Movement’s film debut for TEDxMinneapolis, A Dream of Touch When Touch is Gone, produced in September during three weeks in soft quarantine with 10 other dancers. Black Label Movement is an athletic, contemporary dance company in Minneapolis founded in 2005 by choreographer Carl Flink. 

The virtual three-day TEDx conference will explore the title theme of “Adaptation,” with presentations by  immigration historian Erika Lee, poet Sagirah Shahid, consumer economist Neely Tamminga, and Bharatanatyam Dance Artists from Ragamala Dance Company, and others.

Vasquez Alzate and her husband, Matt, plan to watch the production while texting with her mother, who will be watching in Colombia.

‘Where is Minnesota?’

Vasquez Alzate started taking dance classes after that formative recital, quickly connecting with a group of older students who dreamed about honing their skills in New York City. During a summer break in high school (wintertime in New York), she and those friends rented an apartment in Manhattan’s Chinatown and bought 10-packs of class passes to attend Broadway Dance Center. They’d often end up punching their cards four times a day. 

“I just remember being so hungry and curious and thrilled,” she says. She loved it so much that she returned after high school, getting an international student visa so she could spend the six months between high school and college taking more classes at the Broadway Dance Center. At this point, Vasquez Alzate looked for dance opportunities everywhere: participating in flash mobs, finding a mentor. 

She set her heart on attending the New World School in Miami. When she didn’t get admitted on her first try, she moved to Florida anyway. While in Miami, she took a master class with Toni Piece-Sands, the artistic director and co-founder of TU Dance in St. Paul, who also teaches at the University of Minnesota. 

After the class, Pierce-Sands beckoned Vasquez Alzate. “You, c’mere,” Vasquez Alzate remembers her saying. “You should come to Minnesota.” Vasquez Alzate also remembers her own response: “Where is Minnesota?”

Even after learning exactly how far north of the equator Dinkytown sits—and after being accepted at New World–Vasquez Alzate followed Pierce-Sands here, instead.

At the University of Minnesota, Vasquez Alzate majored in dance, taught dance in Lakeville, Bloomington, and Fridley, and danced with companies such as Strong Movement and Black Label Movement. 

“The energy with Black Label is one I really treasure; every single time I rehearse with them I vibrate to the highest extent,” she says. 

Black Label Movement artistic director Carl Flink, who met Vasquez Alzate when she was at the U, says Vasquez Alzate’s “intellectual bravery and physical daring” makes her a perfect fit for the company. 

“In our rehearsals, no one is shy about saying, I utterly disagree with you, Carl,” he says. “And she is absolutely comfortable in that world of diving in and questioning and talking. It’s a kind of curiosity and intelligence and spiritual bravery.”

In order to stay in the U.S. on her student visa after graduation, Vasquez Alzate knew she would need to find a full-time job within her field of study. She landed a gig as a development student intern at Northrop, thrilled to discover the work that goes into arts administration. She loved the balance of sharing her passion with a community. And she has found that her employers appreciate her experience as a performer. 

“It’s a wonderful full circle that I keep on completing day after day,” she says. 

In early October, she began a new job as a program team administrator at the McKnight Foundation supporting grantmaking programs and “vibrant and equitable” communities. 

Dancing during coronavirus

Eight months of a pandemic life weighs heavily on most, but perhaps especially on those whose art relies on touch and close proximity. So Vasquez Alzate didn’t hesitate when Flink proposed creating a “bubble”—like the NBA’s residency at the Walt Disney World Resort—in order to dance as a company. Such opportunities, she says, “inject life back into me.” 

Flink had almost abandoned Black Label’s scheduled spot at TEDx: His initial concept started to feel less relevant in the wake of COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder. But he couldn’t shake another idea, even though it seemed impossible. Finally, in late July, he reached out to Dr. Jon Hallberg, medical director of the University of Minnesota Physicians Mill City Clinic, in late July. 

He asked Hallberg if he would laugh at the idea of creating a process that would allow dancers—or movers, as Black Label prefers to call its performers—to take their masks off and get close to each other. Hallberg didn’t laugh, and instead spent hours advising the company on how to do it. 

After extensive Zoom meetings with the entire company and documents outlining the process, they landed on a plan that condensed 29 hours of rehearsal, plus an eight-hour day of filming, into a three-week period. To speed up the process, the dancers underwent three rounds of COVID-19 testing and stayed masked up and socially distant for the first several days of rehearsal. 

The process involved trusting that everyone was adhering to the self-isolation protocols. (For Vasquez Alzate, that part was easy: “Trusting that the other movers would preserve themselves in self quarantine responsibly was something I did not question, ever.”) And every step of the way, Flink reminded the performers they could change their minds. 

Any positive test would have ended the project. 

The experience mirrored the point of the performance, which is sort of a COVID collage, Flink says. The film presents images that evoke the pandemic journey—sheltering at home, social distancing, all culminating in a moment of experiencing touch again. 

“Our goal was to offer an anthem and a dream so everyone would remember that we need to try to get back there,” Flink says. The film achieves that, he adds, with a much gentler touch than the physical, aggressive style that Black Label Movement is generally known for. 

Even in rehearsal, the moment the dancers touch felt like an emotional climax. Many were craving hugs and physical connection, but the fear of touching also felt palpable for many, Vasquez Alzate says. The dance called for groups of four dancers to cradle each other’s heads, “a part of the body that is extremely vulnerable emotionally,” she says. 

At first, people were tentative, hugging each other lightly. “Not touching for a while had some repercussions in my body,” she says; she never hugs like that. But soon they remembered, and the hugs lingered. “It was lovely,” she says. “It was a wonderful experience, everyone feeling the positive energy.” 

This Friday night will be the first time Vasquez Alzate sees the finished film. No longer in the bubble, she’s back to regular life in 2020. For her, that means focusing on her new job, spending time with her puppy, finding ways to enjoy the winter. And—though he’s still learning—she’s extra grateful that her Minnesota-born husband is always willing to be her dance partner.

TEDxMinneapolis 2020 | Adaptation, runs (virtually) Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, October 23–25. Tickets start at $25 (some scholarship-level tickets may be available through email upon request). 

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred writes stories about health equity for Sahan Journal. As a freelance journalist, she has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, FiveThirtyEight, NPR, STAT News and...