The Discovery of America: 

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For the fifth year, the Latin Ballet of Virginia is performing "The Legend of the Poinsettia" around the Christmas holiday. It's a dance piece about a poor little girl who doesn't have a gift for the baby Jesus, but, being a decent person, brings a gift -- a handful of weeds that surprisingly bloom bright red.

"It's kind of like the Hispanic 'Nutcracker,'" says Ana Ines King, founder and director of the ballet. Only there are no giant rats. King's mission is to use her company as a way of introducing Richmond to Latin America — not just its dances, but also its history and culture.

King is sort of like that little girl, coming here from Colombia 16 years ago to bring us the gift of salsa — the dance. "They didn't know what salsa was," she says of Richmond folks back then. So when she began teaching classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, slots quickly filled.

The Latin Ballet of Virginia has become, since King founded it in 1997, the entry point for many Richmonders into other cultures.

King says hers is the only company other than one in New York that covers so much multicultural ground. It's grown from 35 students in one classroom to 150 students in two classrooms to its current roster of 400 students at two schools — the original at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen and the other in Chesterfield County.

The classes include the "soulsa" (a mix of Latin and African dance), Brazilian capoeira, belly dancing, hula dancing, and even classical dances from India. Education always has been the core of King's mission, so the ballet leads programs in schools as well as running the performing and touring professional company.

The company stays busy: five productions a year, two or three performances in schools every week, a tour that includes some 80 colleges, Mexico and Colombia. This year, King also will introduce a new production, "El Dorado" (Oct. 19-21), a Colombian story about a golden city and the discovery of America. It's the first time King has done a production from her home country.

When she had a dance company in Colombia years ago, she says all everyone wanted to do was European dance. "They were forgetting how beautiful was our own music and how beautiful was our own dance," she says.

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