Katarina Smith

Quetzaltenango, Guatemala: July 2022

Katarina will be completing her capstone project in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, with five local Community Alliances: Cuerpo de Baile, Centro Cultural Efrain Recinos, Caras Alegres, Casa Onices, and Escuela de Danza Municipal.

Read Kat’s blog below to immerse yourself in her project over the next few weeks!

Prep Week

June 30th, 2022

¡Hola, y bienvenido a mi blog!

I am beyond excited to share my upcoming journey to Quetzaltenango, Guatemala with you. I would love to give a huge thank you to all of my friends, family, and coworkers who have supported, followed, and inspired me through this project. My love for JUNTOS Collective and what we do as an organization originated in Guatemala in 2018 when I had the opportunity to join them for my first JUNTOS Abroad trip. Once I saw how powerful the impact that dance can have on communities, regardless of background, age, or technical proficiency, I knew that performing and teaching workshops with JUNTOS would be something I would want to continue with.

In just a few days, I will be starting the final leg of a project that is near and dear to my heart. During my senior year of college, I made the easy decision to become a JUNTOS Ambassador and create my capstone project. Even though knew it would be a sizable endeavor, felt that it was the obvious choice for the kind of work I aspire to do and the kind of artist I want to become. The JUNTOS directors were supportive of us Ambassadors every step of the way, from helping with fundraising ideas and grant writing to curriculum building, and travel planning. Through the Ambassador program, I have been able to grow not only as a teacher but as an arts coordinator and facilitator as well.

As fate would have it, the year I planned to complete my capstone project was also the year of the start of a global pandemic and it soon became clear that I would either have to modify or postpone my capstone project. After weighing my options, decided to postpone my capstone project until a time when it is safer to travel and now the time is here! I am so excited to continue my journey with JUNTOS by completing my capstone project this July. I will be working with a few organizations such as Cuerpo de Baile, Centro Cultural Efrain Recinos, and Escuela de Danza Municipal. I am ecstatic to see the fruits of my labor come to life after two and a half years of consciously and subconsciously planning!

My anticipation is growing more and more as finish my preparations of planning classes, practicing Spanish, and figuring out how I will get three weeks of clothes into a carry-on suitcase!

Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will be live from Guatemala!


Week 1

July 9th, 2022

Wow! What a time my first week here in Guatemala has been! From meeting many new people to teaching at inspiring schools, I have had an absolute whirlwind of a week. After a long day of travel, which included one taxi, two plane rides, and a four-hour drive through the mountains of Guatemala, I arrived in Quetzaltenango around 5pm on July 4th.

Quetzaltenango, otherwise known as Xela, is the cultural center of Guatemala with a strong Mayan history, art galleries, museums for days, and colonial architecture that dates back to the 16th century. Xela is located in a valley surrounded by some of the tallest mountains and volcanoes in Central America, the nature is absolutely beautiful, but for a girl who is used to sea-level altitudes, I have some acclimating to do.

I am lucky to be staying with a host family who has taken me under their wing by taking me shopping, helping me with my Spanish, and giving me recommendations for where to get the best breakfast in town (Hint* it’s their neighbor’s homemade tortillas). The house doubles as a Spanish school named “Fatima” in which I took three days of classes for five hours each day – talk about intense! Daniela, the daughter of the family, shares the same passion for dance and education as I do, and I am so happy to be working with her and her company, Cuerpo de Baile, during my time here! 

After settling into my homestay, I made my way over to the Teatro Municipal to meet up with the JUNTOS Abroad group, who were finishing up their time in Guatemala just as I was beginning mine. I had the pleasure to see some old friends and meet the students who were participating in the abroad group. It was really nice to see them work with Cuerpo de Baile before I started as it almost felt like the passing of a baton. On Tuesday, July 5th I got to work by joining Daniela to help her teach at the Cultural Center: Efrain Recinos, where we taught children from ages 5-12. I will be working with Efrain Recinos twice a week during my time in Xela, teaching jazz and ballet classes that will accumulate in a final performance! On Wednesday, I started my Spanish lessons and once I finished I had the opportunity to watch the JUNTOS Abroad’s group final performance at the theater, it was beautiful to watch the pieces that have such a special place in my heart, be brought to life and experienced by other dancers. On Thursday, I had a full day starting with Spanish class, teaching at Efrain Recinos, and finishing with my first class at Cuerpo de Baile. We started our first piece, a ballet dance about community as we will also have a final performance at the Theatre!

My Friday was very special because in addition to Spanish classes and working with Cuerpo de Baile, I had my first day working with the organization Caras Alegres (Happy Faces). This organization is working to bring joy to vulnerable students in any way it can. One of the main reasons I wanted to do the Ambassador program was to spread the joy of dance and teach the ways in which dance can be used to express emotions. At Caras Alegres, we created a dance all together using a word the students chose. The students chose the word “Angry” and together, we made a dance expressing the way that word feels in our bodies. Seeing this goal of mine play out in real time will be something that I remember for many years. 

As planned, the weekends are for resting and exploring! Today, I joined Daniela and her friend on a hike up a scenic mountain. Once at the top, there is a slide to go partway back down, and my new friends showed me the trick of sitting on a piece of cardboard to make the trip down the slide faster. Me, being the adrenaline junkie I am, was more than excited to increase my speed. Well, let’s just say, I forgot to learn how to stop when you get to the bottom of the slide and I’m pretty sure I got a good three seconds of airtime before tumbling down to the ground. I left with only a few elbow scratches and dirt on my pants, so all in all I would rate the experience a 9/10 lol. 

My first week here in Xela has passed by faster than I slid down that mountain, but I am so excited to see what the next two weeks hold! To those who made it this far, thank you for your interest and your support, it means the world to me!

Nos Vemos!

Week 2

July 16, 2022

Welcome back to my blog! I have just finished my second week here and feel thankful, accomplished, and ready for a restful weekend. Now that I am fully settled in my homestay and have become acclimated to the bustling yet peaceful city of Xela, I have been able to dive into my work. This week was one for the books, from traveling to new organizations to challenging my mind to create meaningful class plans to performing for government officials from Mexico. 

This week started a bit rocky as I recovered from what I can only assume was shellfish poisoning (I had a feeling I was trying my luck by ordering shrimp at a country-side theme park). Fortunately, I only had a 24hr downtime, and I was able to teach the classes I had planned for Monday evening at Efrain Recinos and Cuerpo De Baile. By the time Tuesday morning had rolled around, though still a bit fatigued, I was ready to rock and roll with the awesome boys at Casa Onices. Casa Onices is a home for teenage boys with disabilities; however, nothing stopped these boys from spreading pure happiness and having a blast during dance class! We had a two-hour workshop that accumulated in practicing our dance for the final presentation and creating a new dance using movements associated with the word ‘Feliz’. After leaving Casa Onices, overjoyed and hungry for more (or maybe just hungry in general?) I made my way back home for lunch. Lunch at my homestay is cooked on a rotation basis, one day for Doña Rosa, one day for Daniela, and one day for me. This works out perfectly because if you know me, then you know that I only prefer to cook about 2 times a week anyway. Once I finished my first real meal in 2 days, I headed for Efrain Recinos to teach two jazz classes. The children at Efrain Recinos are young; however, they are always ready to try new things! Next in line for my Tuesday was the opportunity to take an open improv-based contemporary class that is held at the Theatre on a weekly basis. As someone still performing in addition to teaching, it felt amazing to give my brain and voice a break and instead just listen and move my body! My long-winded Tuesday finished off with teaching a ballet class at Cuerpo de Baile. Working with the students at Cuerpo de Baile is always a fulfilling way to end my days, as these students always give 110% – no matter the style, day, or hour!

On Wednesday, I taught at a school named Escuela de Danza Municipal. This school is located across from the Municipal Theatre and trains ballet dancers of all ages. The director asked that I teach his students jazz because they primarily do ballet, and teaching jazz to ballet students is always a blast because it is one of the only times the students can let loose during class and move their bodies in different ways! Wednesday with Cuerpo de Baile was special for me because I got to teach with a pianist who is learning how to accompany ballet classes. I have never taught with an accompanist before, so I did my best at mimicking the teachers I had with accompanists at Ailey, throwing in the phrases “A 4/4, por favor ”, “En Adage”, and “Gracias Maestro” where I thought they belonged. Through my broken Spanish and guesstimating phrase timings, we somehow understood each other, and thus my love for teaching with a live accompanist began!

Thursday began with another day at Casa Onices, jamming with my favorite dudes of Xela, and ended with a surprise performance at the Municipal Theatre! We only learned of the performance which would contain excerpts from the live arts happening in Xela such as; the Orchestra, Cuerpo de Baile, A Traditional Mayan performance, and a Marimba (Guatemala’s national instrument) performance about 18 hours before the show. The performance, which somehow was pulled together at lightning speed, was for government officials from Hidalgo, Mexico who are visiting Xela this week. Of course, I was coerced into performing as well, conveniently I had a solo prepared from a previous JUNTOS show in NYC. Although, if the volcanos piercing the sky in the distance didn’t remind me of the immense altitude of Xela, performing my solo certainly did. 

On Friday, I visited the cutie pies at Caras Alegres again after not seeing them for a week, and their smiles lit up my eyes! We worked on new class themes, such as traveling across the floor and practicing exercises in groups to feel the sensation of mini-performances in preparation for our final performance next week. I had my final class for the week at Cuerpo de Baile, and after a long week, I figured a Pilates warm-up was just what we needed before starting rehearsal though the student’s abdominals might’ve thought otherwise! After a bit of core-searching, we ran all three of the pieces we’re working on for the final performance (one contemporary, one ballet, and one Jazz). I am so impressed with the speed at which the students learn, as I have been throwing so much at them, and they have been absorbing the information and choreography like sponges right out of the packaging! 

And thus, another week has ended and I am sure this weekend will be filled with adventure and relaxation! Thank you again for keeping up with my work, your support fuels my passion! 


Week 3

July 27, 2022

I am at a loss for words for how to describe my third week here in Guatemala, however, as this is a blog, I guess I should find some!

This week was truly one of the busiest yet most rewarding weeks I have ever experienced. The combination of it being a lively week at the Municipal Teatro and wanting to fit in many experiences before I returned to the U.S. left us with super full days during my last week in Xela. Saying goodbye is never easy, however as I finished my time at each organization, I was able to reflect on how much love I was able to feel from the students, and how each organization impacted me in a different way – it never felt like ‘goodbye’, only a ‘see you later’. 

One of my goals for the trip, which is also something that is encouraged to do as a part of the Ambassador program, was to have a final performance for all the organizations I worked with. With the help of Daniela, I was able to build a close relationship with the crew of the Teatro and they were happy to help host my final performance! Once I had a performance date and venue secured, I knew we had a lot of work to do this week to make sure the eager students were ready to shine on stage by Sunday.

I usually had the mornings off on Monday, which was a great opportunity to take class myself, plan out my classes and goals for the week, and take care of any admin work I needed to finish before I lost wifi. After a relaxing morning, I made my way over to Efrain Recinos and Cuerpo de Baile where we had classes that built on our curriculum as well as spent time rehearsing for the upcoming shows. 

I always enjoy walking through the city to Casa Onices on early Tuesday mornings because of the feeling of tranquility and I could take in the views before the bustle of the city awoke. Every time I went to Casa Onices, I felt a surge of welcomeness and excitement for class – the perfect way to start my day! After a quick lunch, I had my final class at Efrain Recinos. The two groups of students I had at Efrain Recinos were simultaneously hardworking and playful in the best ways. I loved working with the students and watching them absorb so much information in a very short amount of time, and we were always able to laugh together about my mispronounced Spanish.

Next, I worked with Cuerpo de Baile to finish up the pieces we were working on. I knew I wanted to work on many styles with Cuerpo de Baile, as well as have a piece for each style, so by the end we had a piece for Ballet, Jazz, and Contemporary! My last week in Xela coincided with the 127th anniversary of the Municipal Teatro, which they celebrate by hosting free shows to highlight the art of Xela. We wrapped up our Tuesday a bit early so we could see the Municipal Teatro’s concert of the night which started with a beautiful performance by the orchestra and was followed by a spectacular local band! 

On Wednesday, I had my final day with the lovely students at Caras Alegres. Due to Caras Alegres being further away from the Theatre, we decided to host a smaller in-house final performance on Wednesday. Even though the students were nervous to present to each other, I tried to bring my goal of instilling confidence to this moment, I reminded the students of all of the reasons they should be proud of themselves and in the end, they absolutely killed their dance! After Caras Alegres, I ran to work with the awesome students of Escuela de Danza to have a jazz class to continue to prep for our Sunday show. This was definitely one of my busiest days of the week as the nightly show at the Municipal Teatro was dedicated to dance on Wednesday! After class with Escuela de Danza, I taught a quick warm-up to the students at Cuerpo de Baile who were later going to be performing in the show. The Wednesday evening show hosted dancers from all over Xela, including salsa dancers, hip-hop dancers, and of course the dancers of Cuerpo de Baile! It was amazing to see all the artists come together and create a show of variety, precision, and celebration all at the same time. Despite being extremely tired at the end of my day, one of the performers and friend of JUNTOS Collective was hosting a salsa parter after the show and insisted I stopped by. Once I saw how close the party was to my homestay I obviously couldn’t say no and I ended up dancing the night away to live salsa music! 

By Thursday, I was pretty exhausted, but there was still much preparation, work, and enjoyment to come. A day full of last but not forever goodbyes, I had my last classes with all the organizations performing in the final presentation, including Casa Onices, Escuela de Danza, and Cuerpo de Baile.

The next morning, we woke up before the crack of dawn to board the bus to Antigua for a midday school performance. To clarify, this Antigua is a city in Guatemala known for its beautifully colored buildings, surrounded by picturesque volcanoes, and not the tropical Caribbean island you may be thinking of. That’s why it only took us about three hours to arrive in Antigua (though it could’ve been more, I somehow slept through the entire voyage through the mountain curves). We had a wonderful performance at La Salle, a secondary school, as the students were very receptive and excited to watch the show! After the show, we had a bit of time to explore and walk around the breathtaking city, where I bought as much coffee as I could possibly fit into my suitcase, and before we knew it, it was time to return to Xela. 

Another early morning awaited me on Saturday, although this one was purely by choice. When I first arrived in Xela, I met a lady who told me about her experience hiking up the volcano Santa Maria. After hearing about her surreal experience, I knew I also needed to try it. Once Saturday came around, I rolled out of bed well before the sun, and I was picked up around 4:30am to start my hike. Realistically, I packed for a dance trip, not a hiking trip, so I skipped out on a few essentials that would have come in handy, such as a flashlight and gloves. I wouldn’t recommend hiking in Doc Martens, but we make do.

The hike itself was absolutely amazing. As the sun rose and we ascended into the clouds, I was able to take the quiet moments to reflect on my week so far. Having the morning to myself brought so much clarity, peace, and a fair amount of pain as the 4,000 feet weren’t going to climb themselves! By the time I got home, my legs felt like jelly but nature had allowed my mind to feel the calmest it had all week.

After a jam-packed week, Sunday had snuck up on me, and it was already time for the final performance! I spent the morning practicing the speeches I wanted to give during the show and preparing the music for the pieces. The final show consisted of three dances by Cuerpo de Baile, two dances by Efrain Recinos, one piece by Casa Onices, one by Escuela de Danza, and a solo performed by my friend Nestor (the one who hosted the salsa party earlier this week), as well as a solo I performed myself. Another school also asked to perform with us as well as a music group, and even though I had never met them, I always say, “the more the merrier”! I think having the other groups in the show was great because we could collaborate and show even more variety to the audience. With all of this coming together, I definitely had my work cut out for me as I was running backstage for about three hours; however, I loved the experience as I have never been on the show-running side of performing. It gave me a new thrill for the excitement of live arts! Seeing all of the dancers perform their hearts out and watching the proud parents in the audience is an indescribable feeling. It was as though I was watching everything I had been working on for the past two years transform into a real-time vision. I loved watching the students show their personalities, passion, and growth on stage, and I felt overwhelming happiness to know I had accomplished something. I am unsure if I achieved each goal I had set at the beginning of my project. Still, the finale of my project certainly felt like a victory to me. It is something that I will remember for years on end. 

As I mentioned earlier, it is hard to put into words what my experience has been during my time in Guatemala, but I do know it went by extremely fast. About forty classes, five shows, three-day trips, and many friends later, my three weeks in Guatemala were jam-packed from start to finish, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Even though I was in Guatemala to teach, I felt I learned more than I could’ve imagined. From the true passion for dance to the enriching culture, I am leaving the country feeling incredibly inspired. Nothing is possible without support, from close friends and family to strangers who became friends along the way. 

I would love to take a second to thank many, many people, including; Joanna, for founding such an important organization; Amy and Cristiana for helping run the Ambassador program and leading me through every step; and Sussan and Cristian for helping me coordinate with all the organization in Xela, Daniela, and Doña Rosa. They treated me as family the entire time I was there. My family has also supported me more than I could ever have asked for. My mom would do anything to help me follow my dreams and has unwaveringly been there for me. My dad, who has supported and always guided me to experience everything I can, my brother, who was my first best friend and helps me every time he has the chance; and my aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandma, who always show me their love, support, and interest.

I can’t forget about my friends who helped me with or attended fundraisers back when I started my capstone project in 2019-2020; Yasiri, Adia, and Sami helped teach a fundraising class in Tampa. My college roommates Sneha, Rachaita, Abbie, and Morgan (and Ashley in thought) let me throw a party to fundraise in our apartment. A big thank you to everyone who attended those fundraisers and always gave a listening ear to learn about what I was working on. Also, thank my bosses at Studio Pilates and ATF, who supported me and shared my project with others. A huge thank you to Marvin, who pours so much love into me every day that I can share the love with others. If I didn’t make it obvious yet, THANK YOU for your support, even if it is just reading this blog, I appreciate it, and I truly couldn’t do it without you! Thank you Guatemala and JUNTOS Collective, for welcoming me into your hearts!