Latinx Heritage Month: Reflecting on a journey of dance and identity

September 28, 2023

Ambar Matos Ortiz (BFA '25) | Photo by Jessica Gonzalez

Ambar Matos Ortiz (BFA '25) | Photo by Jessica Gonzalez

Ambar Matos Ortiz (BFA ‘25) recounts how her Latinx heritage has informed, inspired and enriched her experience with dance. She shares how this embodied sense of intersectionality has shaped her into the artist she is today.

Navigating Identity

“Ok, here we go, 5..4..3..2..1..”

These were the words I told myself as I stepped into the shivery, icy water that rained down from the shower-head of my cramped bathroom. Instantly, I felt every nerve in my body rejecting the temperature. My inner thoughts persuaded me to turn the knob and make the water just a little bit warmer; just warm enough for my body to tolerate. Not too hot that it causes my body to reject it once more. However, in a matter of minutes, my body had adapted itself to what I had previously perceived to be the coldest water ever. Isn’t it bizarre how fast our bodies are able to adapt to new environments?

A sensation flutters in my mind. I am taken back to my overcrowded yet joyous house in Sabana Perdida, Dominican Republic. This is where I lived for the first seven years of my life. When I stepped foot in my new basement rental after immigrating to the United States, I immediately became aware that I had stepped into an entirely new world. Here, I encountered that same cold, shriveling feeling of entering a cold shower for the first time. This was a new environment where I knew no one, recognized nothing and felt utterly alone. That is, until the day my mom signed me up for dance lessons. Suddenly, everything changed. 

Ambar Matos Ortiz (BFA ’25) dancing at the Southern California Choreographic Collective‘s ARTSfest (Vol. VII) | Photo by Wyatt Florin

A New Sense of Self

When I stepped into my first dance studio with cavernous ceilings and warm Marley floors, all the nerves I had been carrying suddenly left my body. The excitement of moving around and learning new steps was all that remained. As I met and interacted with new peers, I was able to form connections with them through dance. I regained the sense of companionship and warmth that I had lost after leaving my country. 

From then on, I was always moving — always exploring new ways in which I could articulate my body. Even on days when I was gloomy or had no desire to do anything, I danced. I found the ways I was able to express my thoughts and emotions through the simple flick of my foot or the roll of my spine to be unmatched. For me, it diminished uncomfortable feelings. The stretch of my leg when followed by a swoosh of turns or a pass of jumps provided an escape to the reality of life itself.

As I embarked on my first year of school in the United States, I carried the comforting sensation of dancing. On days when I felt isolated, surrounded by people I barely knew, I embodied this sense of comfort by dancing all night. I knew little to no English when I first arrived in Maryland, so my interactions with my peers was minimal. However, dance was a universal language within my friend group, one that we could draw upon at any given moment. As a result, I gained experience communicating through dance. I gained a strong desire to move in any way I could, even if it was abstract. Through movement practice and classes, I really began to feel my comfort zone evolve and expand.               

Intersecting Identities

 I no longer let my inner thoughts convince me not to talk to someone new or stay hidden from the crowd. I have conquered my anxiousness around opening up. In the end, it was dance that served as an outlet for expressing my vulnerability. I felt that icy cold feeling I had when I first moved to the United States transform into a flow of warm energy throughout my body.

Life continues to change all around me, but my love and passion for dance remains the same. Dance has gotten me through it all. Therefore, I will continue to explore the art form forever. Over the past two years at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, I have allowed my Latinx heritage and upbringing to guide me through creative processes.

Ambar Matos Ortiz (BFA ’25), Onye Stevenson (BFA ’25), Summer Vu (BFA ’25) performing for Choreographers and Composers 2023 | Photo by Wyatt Florin

A recent example of this includes my Choreographers and Composers process last spring. Alongside fellow BFA students Summer Vu and Onye Stevenson, I choreographed a work titled Home… The First Place I…, which was based on personal iterations of home and the first places we felt love. We were able to incorporate voice memos from my family in the Dominican Republic into our musical composition with the help of our composer Chloe Elise Villamayor. The work was very fulfilling. It is something that I will cherish forever.

My Latinx heritage seeps into my everyday life and into my art. Without it, I would not be the artist I am today. Now, I step into the cold water and face my fears head-on. Dance has helped me establish an unbreakable bond with my inner self. With it, I will continue to thrive as an individual, student, daughter, friend and leader.

By Ambar Matos Ortiz (BFA ’25)