“We need a voice, we need a platform to share these dances,” said Karlies Kelley, the artistic director and founder of Panadanza Dance Company.
After moving to Milwaukee from Panama and earning a degree in African Diaspora Dance from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Kelley knew that dance would be the driving force in her life. She was right.
Listen to the companion audio piece to hear from Julie, a Panadanza dancer.
Kelley founded Panadanza in 2008. The all-women ensemble focuses on Caribbean and Latin American dancing, but this isn’t just your ordinary adult Salsa class where you learn to move your hips. You also learn why you move your hips.
“In Latin dance the hips are used a lot,” said Kelley. “In Panama, the enslaved would be working in the sugar cane plantation, their master could see them from the waist up, but from the waist down there was movement and dance that would help them express their sorrows.”
Kelley provides dance instruction and also teaches the women about the historical context behind the rhythms and moves she’s teaching.
Kelley also provides handmade, authentic dress for her company. Long, flowing skirts have their place in many forms of Latin American dance and Kelley wanted to be sure her company was having an authentic experience.
“When we first started… I asked people for their curtains and fabric they wouldn’t use,” said Kelley. “I bought a sewing machine and just started sewing up skirts. They didn’t know they were wearing curtains at the time,” said Kelley with a giggle.
Panadanza Dance Company is full of a diverse range of women. They span different ethnicities and races, career paths, and even ages. There were women as young as 21 and women in their 60s who were shaking their hips and twirling in their skirts. Kelley says there is no reason for a newcomer to be nervous or intimidated.
“Latin dance has the gift to connect you with joyful and warm people,” said Kelley. “We are the platform for that.”
Kelley also teaches private dance lessons and has an adult class every Monday night focusing on a different form of Latin American dance. For class schedules and information, visit the Panadanza website here