The origins of ¡Azúcar!, home of dance, culture and family

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The dancers in ¡Azúcar! take their starting positions while practicing in Lower Herrick at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Nov. 6, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

Xianna Ortiz (senior) founded ¡Azúcar!, Occidental’s Latinx dance group, in 2016, her first year at Occidental. Ortiz said she came to Occidental wanting a cultural space, and she knew that dance was important to her. She joined the Occidental College Dance Team her first semester and enjoyed it throughout the year, but she knew she wanted to make a space like ¡Azúcar! that was affordable, cultural and required no prior experience.

According to Ortiz, while she was at a Latina student mixer her first semester, Dorian Rico ’17 approached her and complimented her dancing. After Ortiz told Rico her idea about starting a Latinx dance group, Rico said she would be treasurer and help her start the club.

“It was serendipitous. It all sort of fell in place. Then it was just about the paperwork and figuring out what I needed to do to make a club on campus,” Ortiz said.

According to Ortiz, Rico knew the right advisor for their group: Spanish professor Gloria Orozco Allan. Rico and Ortiz asked her to help them come up with a name that was not similar to another group and not commonly used, so Orozco Allan suggested ¡Azúcar!

“Azcúar literally means sugar, but the phrase ‘¡Azúcar!’ is an exclamatory phrase coined by Celia Cruz, an Afro-Cuban artist, and it’s a term of celebration and endearment,” Ortiz said.

According to Ortiz, ¡Azúcar! was intended to be a performance group, but students perceived it as a community workshop dance group. The next year, she hosted the group’s first round of semesterly auditions, emphasizing that no experience was necessary. Since then, they have established what they call the family model, with 17 members today, four of whom are inactive — meaning they do not perform but still support the club.

According to Ortiz, ¡Azúcar! performs in the quad, at orientation and at their own showcase in the spring. They also host community workshops and partner with KOXY and other clubs like PULSE.

“The whole idea is that it’s a cultural space. I’m Puerto Rican, and Puerto Rican culture and Latinx [culture] in general is very family-oriented,” Ortiz said.

¡Azúcar! performs at the Intercultural Community Center (ICC) at Occidental College in Los Angeles on Nov. 7, 2019. Gwen Berghof/ The Occidental

Isabel Morales (senior) also reflected on how this experience has shaped her, as she was one of the five women who started ¡Azúcar!.

“Azúcar is first and foremost a dance club, but it is also a family where everyone is always supported and loved, whether you are actively a dancer or halfway across the world,” Morales said via email. “These people have become my family, and if it wasn’t for Azúcar, and its growth into what it is today, I would probably be a completely different person,” Morales said via email.

Destiny Rosas (junior), vice president of ¡Azúcar!, has been in the club since her first year. She also thinks of ¡Azúcar! as a community and appreciates how members bring their individual visions together.

“It’s more than just a dance team, it’s a place where people want to choose to be in because it is our family,” Rosas said.

Ortiz thanks Orozco Allan and Rico for helping her get where she is today. She also recognizes all the people in the club for the work they do choreographing their own performances and making the team a family. Both Orozco Allan and Ortiz said they have a lot of love for each other.

Anne Werum (sophomore) and her partner Graham Gerrity (sophomore) practice in Lower Herrick at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Nov. 6, 2019. Gwen Berghof/The Occidental

“What haven’t I seen Xianna do for the club? Even one of the shows I went to that was a lot of fun at the Cooler — it was a small show — she was in Europe for study abroad but she was there on Skype or something,” Orozco Allan said.

As a senior, Ortiz is proud of what she has done with ¡Azúcar! and said it has a significant meaning for her and her experience at Occidental.

“Because I started it freshman year, it feels like Oxy,” Ortiz said. “It’s been a beautiful experience. When I think of college, I will forever think of ¡Azúcar!. Those two can’t be separated for me, but I’m excited to watch it grow.”