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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Juan Aldape practices some of his movements at the school of modern dance at the U. in Salt Lake City.

The movement resembles the waves of the ocean — the body stretches and contracts, creating an expression and transforming it into art, the stage is the medium and the dance is the message.

"I love moving!" said an excited Juan Aldape, a graduate of the University of Utah and winner of the Erasmus Mundus grant, a program of advanced education that will take him to complete a master's degree in Europe, all expenses paid.

Upon his return home, Juan has a clear objective. He wants to create his own dance company and wants to be close to the community so he may share his knowledge with younger generations.

"Sometimes, education separates you from the rest of society. Just here we have a university up on the hill, away from the community, creating a separation that has no reason to exist," he said.

The artist of Mexican origin believes that his philosophy comes from the heritage he received from his parents, who emigrated from Guanajuato to fulfill their American dream.

"My parents worked hard to get us out. They believed that this country is a place of opportunities and prepared me to get as much education as I could reach, but they asked me to never forget my sense of community, giving back what it has given to me," said.

Rose Park

Juan remembers with a laugh the episode that marked his life. He was a student in junior high and a restless teenager in the Rose Park neighborhood when gangs and drugs were a temptation in his life.

Believing he could circumvent the authority of his parents, he left very early in the morning to get to school. Once he was out of the house, he walked to a friend's house and changed his regular clothes for baggy pants and an extra-large shirt.

"I got to school, and my mother was waiting there. She was worried because she realized that I left the house much earlier than usual, and when she saw me, she scolded me in front of everyone and told me to change my clothes. I never again tried something like that," he said.

The story earned him a public disgrace, an experience he could never forget and that later become a life lesson.

"I'll never stop thanking my parents for being there, for letting me do everything I wanted while caring enough when I was faced with temptation," he said.

The years passed, and Aldape was already in high school when he discovered his passion for dance. "I had always liked to dance. I'm always the first of my family on the dance floor, but I used to dance salsa and cumbia — I had never received a formal dance class," he said.

When he had to face the decision, Aldape left his defensive position on the soccer field, hung up his cleats and changed them for ballet slippers. He was 15 years old.

Immediately, his classmates made fun of him, but nothing could take away his dreams.

"I had never seen a ballet performance ever, never before in my life, but I was learning among children of 8 and 9 years old, in order to reach the level appropriate to my age," he said.

The adventure begins

Supported by his teachers and mentors, Aldape clung to the belief that dancing was going to give him a way to make a living.

As a junior in high school, with little formal education in the art, Aldape became a rising dancing star, and when the time came, the University of Utah welcomed him.

His first two years of college education were covered by scholarships, and last year, Aldape heard about the opportunity to apply for a grant to study his master's in Europe.

He applied in December for the Erasmus Mundus educational program and after demonstrating his academic work and his artistic talent, with written references and letters of recommendation, he was accepted by the international commission.

A few months later, in May, he was notified that in addition to his free education, he was going to receive a full scholarship that would cover his living expenses, too.

For 18 months, he will travel with his wife, Melissa, for instruction at universities around England, Finland and Serbia.

Hip-hop and ballet

Among being the first university graduate in his family, he will become the first Aldape to travel to Europe, "the old continent."

He will receive a master's with a specialization in international performance research, which will allow him to continue working as a performer, choreographer, dance teacher and researcher with an international vision.

"I want to do everything, but creating my own dance company and connecting my work with the community will be my priority," he said.

In the last five years, Juan has traveled constantly to perform in New York City, working with his partner, Molly Heller, with whom he has designed a mixture of ballet and hip-hop, an interesting combination of smooth and linear movements with bits of break dancing.

"When I'm moving, I like having control of my mind and my body. I hate to lose my mind. I like to make decisions when I move and be aware of the direction I take," he said, explaining what happens when your body is your instrument to work.

Studying different types of dance and adding the practice of disciplines such as yoga and Pilates have been very helpful in his professional development that has led to a scholarship provided for only seven other students from around the world.

Aldape believes that his parents and siblings provided him with the confidence to achieve his dreams and helped him cope with the economic and social pressures on his way to achieve his goals.

"Being the oldest brother in the house, I thought I should leave college and help my parents with the household expenses. I think many Latino men go through the same situation. You get to thinking you're being selfish because you see that they are making sacrifices for you to receive an education," he said.

But as he progressed with his education, Aldape knew that it wouldn't be too far in the future when he could reward his family and give back.

Aldape will leave for Europe in September, but his dreams will remain in the Salt Lake Valley, where he promises to return to make them reality.