Photo: Enrique Duarte leads his Weigh of Life dance exercise class in Richmond, Calif. (NAM/Edgardo Cervano-Soto)
RICHMOND, Calif.--Like a grand marshal leading a parade, Mauricio "Enrique" Duarte leads his Weigh of Life class in exercises – squats, followed by quick bursts of running in place -- choreographed to hard-banging reggaeton music and club beats.
Duarte, 25, claps in rhythm to motivate the women in the class, all of them Latina and diverse in age. On a raised platform overlooking the class, Enrique projects an energy and a smile that encourages his students.
"He's inspiring to us", said Maria, a co-instructor and former student of Duarte's. "He knows how to relate to people, be a leader and ask people so they can collaborate."
Unrushed Despite Frantic Schedule
After class, Duarte cools down. He is of average height and build, with brown amber eyes. A piercing on his bottom lip gives an edge to his friendly attitude. After making his way to his car, Duarte stashes his gym bag in the back seat with a couple of towels. He has another fitness class in less than an hour and may be using all the towels.
Duarte has a frantic schedule, but he never seems rushed. Instead, he enjoys it -- the dancing, the fitness, the people.
"Dancing is my life. I am happy I am able to dance and motivate others through dancing,” he explained.
For Duarte dancing has always been a constant. His home, he recalls, was his first dance studio. Born in San Francisco to Salvadoran parents, Duarte grew up in Richmond and San Pablo in a large family and with a lot of music.
"We're very family oriented -- always having parties every weekend. That's where the dancing comes from," Duarte noted. The mixture of music at home, from his parent’s to his own, ranged in style from such cumbia bands as Sonora Dinamita and Sonora Margarita, to ‘90s hip-hop, like Lil Kim and Missy Elliot, to the classic reggaeton of El General.
According to Duarte, his love for dance was a result of a sheltered childhood. His parents forbade him and his two younger brothers from going outside—except to play soccer. Unlike his brothers, though, Duarte had no interest in the sport, so he stayed indoors.
While Duarte wished he could have spent more time outside, he recognizes the reason for his parent’s strict style. “Back in our parent’s country, children were free or didn’t have structure so they got into a lot of trouble. I think our parents didn’t want us to grow up too fast or make any mistakes.”
Yet, this limitation didn’t mean Duarte had no fun. His father built a playground complete with swings and slides in the back yard for the children.
“Every kid from the block, kids I didn't even know came over to the playground,” Duarte said. Plus, there were always the family parties to look forward too.
Fulfilling His Dream
Enrique also found inspiration in his cousin, eight years his senior, who would dance and exercise indoors. He remembers she was the one who introduced him to dance and inspired him to dream of being a choreographer for Missy Elliot.
In school, Enrique was a good student but in high school, he said, he got sidetracked. He transferred from Richmond High to Pinole Valley High, and later to Martinez Adult School. He describes it as a rough period, one in which he discovered his true friends and realized that he had his family’s support. During this time, Duarte said, everything in his life was up in the air, but “dancing was the one thing I never got sidetracked from."
At 18, he would enter dance battles – it was the peak of the Bay Area Hyphy Movement -- and would drive to Manteca and Los Angeles for dance auditions. The experiences, he said, made him wiser. He re-organized his goals and began working on fulfilling them.
Duarte’s work in the community started in 2009, when Richmond’s RYSE Center permitted him to set up his dance space there. Soon after he positioned glass mirrors in the studio, his dancing drew attention and he started to teach youth and organize functions for the center. He also started teaching dance exercise at Weigh of Life, where his class quickly became very popular.
In addition to his work schedule, Duarte is also a student at Contra Costa College, earning an AA degree in dance. This month he plans to coordinate a toy drive, something he has been doing for several years. If that weren’t enough, he has plans to open his own dance studio in San Pablo in 2013, and is creating original choreography with his own dance troupe.
Making a Difference
Although Duarte’s fitness work in the community goes largely unnoticed, there is no question it is making a difference in the lives of the people he mentors. Helping his students lose weight and live healthier lifestyles, he said, motivates him to continue his work.
Among his success stories is one student of his lost 40 pounds over the course of a year. She was happy because she was able to attend a reunion feeling confident, Duarte said.
Duarte knows the positive benefits of fitness first hand. "I used to be overweight myself," he admitted. "Growing up, you begin to feel self-conscious, for example, not being able to take your shirt off. But the more I started dancing and fitness became part of my life, I became comfortable and it wasn't about appearance anymore."
With a laugh Duarte remembered his first class as an instructor for Weigh of Life three years ago and 50 pounds heavier. "They must have asked themselves, who is this gordito [or “little fat guy”] coming to teach us about fitness?”
Duarte’s success with Weigh of Life is evidence of a growing fitness culture in Richmond. A city of 103,700 people, Richmond’s obesity rates are alarmingly high, especially among people of color.
According to Contra Costa County’s Health Department, 58 percent of Richmond adults are overweight or obese. Among children, the number is only slightly lower, at 50 percent. Duarte believes the city needs to push the culture of health and active living to the forefront of the discussion, especially with children who are experiencing high rates of obesity-related illness, such as diabetes.
"The city can bring in dance fitness to schools, or have more fitness activities available. A good start is supporting programs like Weigh of Life and local health businesses like the karate studios on 23rd street," Duarte said.
Even though he recognizes that fitness can be intimidating to some, Duarte insists everyone can be fit, he emphasized the too often people mistakenly think being healthy equates to being thin.
“One thing I tell everybody when they ask me what they can do for a diet is, “Eat a pupusa, have some horchata, but exercise! Like everyone else, I love to eat, but no matter if you do weight lifting, running or dancing. Stay fit!"
Enrique Duarte teaches dance fitness three times a week at Weigh of Life. For more information on Enrique's classes and about Weigh of Life, call 510-323-3052.
Edgardo Cervano-Soto writes for the Richmond Pulse, a program of New America Media.
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