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Burb's Eye View: Dance teacher gets people up on their feet

February 19, 2013|By Bryan Mahoney

Julio Barrenzuela tells his story with a kinetic energy coursing through his body. At any moment the sweeping narrative is going to lift him off his chair and swing him into dance.

Then he reaches the part about his time in the Navy, stationed in Italy, learning what it truly means to salsa. He stood in a club swinging his hips trying to impress the Italian girl who agreed to a dance.

“I thought I knew how to salsa, but when I got there it was all about partners, which is a whole different beast,” he said.

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Now he's up on his feet, recalling how his one cha-cha move carried little weight with the more experienced dancers in the Italian club. The Salsa Ambassador was born, though Barrenzuela, 31, would have to study for years and encounter some missteps before he could believe in the title that would put him front and center of his community in Illinois, and now Burbank.

He learned that salsa — a dance performed throughout the world — was just a common language in which he could communicate. The true meaning of his message would come in his work with the marginalized, with people who have given up, or with those who are surprised to learn a simple dance lesson means so much more.

“As much as I want Burbank to move, I want to change minds and hearts,” Barrenzuela said. “I want people to feel moved through a shared experience.”

A native of Peru, he grew up in Springfield, Ill. After high school, Barrenzuela joined the Navy and became a chaplain's assistant, serving in an office job on larger ships where he learned that to become an officer you needed a college degree and a personality.

Barrenzuela already had one of those, and almost four years into his naval service, he returned home and went to college.

In 2008, he graduated and founded Salsa 29 Productions, a company with a staff of one — Julio Barrenzuela. His company would help people connect to each other through a shared experience of a salsa lesson, but a lesson with a chair would change all that.

He was hired to teach a company's staff a few salsa moves as a team-building exercise. There were a handful of willing participants, but most of the room was reluctant. When he asked them all to loosen up, only a few of them stood up. Barrenzuela instead got on their level.

“I realized I'm here to expand their comfort zone, not disrupt it,” he said.

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