The Right Moves

Colombian family brings a Latin flavor to the Comox Valley

“Dancing,” says Ruby Restan-McNiff, “is my passion. I love it!” That could well be because Ruby had the good fortune to grow up in a country where the people are surrounded by music —and its natural partner, dancing. Not only music, but the infectious rhythms of Latin America, which almost force a body to move.

“Everybody dances in Colombia,” she says, throwing back her head and shaking out her long hair as she raises her dancer’s hands upwards. “People dance in the local shops, in the streets —it’s everywhere.”

People in Colombia dance all the time, “because you can always hear music playing, ” adds Ruby’s daughter, Milena. “Because it’s hot, people don’t shut their doors over there, so music comes out the houses, sometimes people are playing it on the street, it’s in all the stores.”

“Dancing is my passion,” says Ruby Restan-McNiff (left), who has passed her love of dance on to her daughter Milena, performing here at Courtenay’s La Cabana De Marcos Mexican restaurant.

“Dancing is my passion,” says Ruby Restan-McNiff (left), who has passed her love of dance on to her daughter Milena, performing here at Courtenay’s La Cabana De Marcos Mexican restaurant.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

In 1991, while teaching dance in university in Monteria, Colombia, Ruby met Canadian Brian McNiff, also a teacher. A graduate herself, Ruby at that time was teaching traditional Colombian dancing as part of the curriculum.

The family agrees life is lived much more in public in Colombia than Canada, as in many countries with a hotter climate. “If a family is having a party, they put out the table on the street and all the neighbors and passers-by are welcome to join it. And there’s always music and dancing,” Ruby says.

Milena gives a cheery smile and continues, enthusiastically, “Children play outside all the time too—no one is in their houses. There are soccer games, skipping, running about—all sorts of things going on, including dancing. Here, kids are mostly in their houses, playing on computer games.”

Not surprisingly, Milena is also a dancer. She dances with the Ballet Folkloric—Esta Es Colombia, a troupe of dancers from within the Latin-American community in the Comox Valley that Ruby, along with dance partner Javier Guavina, established. Ballet Folklorico is steadily expanding their repertoire by learning new dances. Meanwhile, Milena also performs solo, dancing and singing.

Although only 12 years old, Milena has the physical appearance and poise of a much older girl. With the recent information coming to light of the benefits of ‘brain gym’ exercises—movement that is shown to integrate information and co-ordination in the brain—this is no surprise. Dancing is full of ‘brain gym’ moves: opposing limbs touching, lifting, twirling, legs and feet criss-crossing, the body making figures of eight—all moves that bring young (and old) bodies into harmonious working.

Milena has recently started singing with ‘Luzna’, a Latin-based band, with her debut being the Canada Day celebrations in Courtenay this year. The band is a regular at La Cabaña de Marcos, a local restaurant specializing in authentic Mexican food, music and dance. Ruby works there as a sometimes-manager and server. When she’s not leading the diners in a spicy salsa dance or meringue, that is.

“Sometimes I’ve been in the restaurant since 8 o’clock in the morning, getting things set up, bringing food to the tables, and I feel so tired,” Ruby says. “Then the band starts and I don’t feel tired anymore and want to dance!”

Ruby’s occupation has changed many times in the 18 years she’s been married to Brian. Shortly after they had their two children, Miller, in 1982, then Milena, in 1987, they moved from Monteria to Panama. There, Brian worked as a diving instructor and Ruby looked after their young children. Upon their return to Colombia, the family settled in Santa Marta, on the coast. Ruby, with her degree in business and marketing, ran a diving school as an affiliate of an international agency, Padi. Brian was the instructor and had a 36 foot boat that could sleep up to 11 prospective diving teachers, who came from all round the world. Depending on the certification they were seeking, the dive boat would be out in a huge protected parkland of the ocean from between three days to a month. This body of water is home to 15 or 20 reefs that the divers use.

While in Santa Marta, Ruby was also teaching dancing and a young Milena would go along with her. As Brian was in many bands, drumming, the house was filled with music and dance. The traditional dancing from the coast is hot and steamy, reflecting the climate. Ruby has a photo taken just before she met Brian, in 1990, and she’s clad in the exotic, scant outfits well known in the Caribbean and Cuba—glittering sequined bra-tops and bikini-style bottoms, with diaphanous ‘wings’ that the dancers hold aloft and swirl around. Feathered headdresses augment the carnival style outfits, giving the girls an extremely sexy look—and they always dance with great amounts of gusto.

Ruby’s dancing partner Javier sports the more modestly dressed styles from the interior. “Each region has its own style of dancing,” Ruby says. “Within a few miles along the coast, there are many differing styles. The same is true of the interior, where there is an even greater number of dance styles.” There are still the more generic Latin dances of salsa, marimba, tango and the others already well known in the west.

Since Ruby left Colombia, there has been a huge shift in political will and ideology. For the first time in Colombian history, a president has been elected for a second term. Albero Uribe has halted the outrageous corruption that was rife in government, when local and central government officials routinely pocketed the lion’s share of taxes and income (as well as the many bribes that go hand-and-hand with corruption). Roads were left to deteriorate and garbage left to rot on the streets, while social issues of homelessness, education and health were ignored.

Ruby’s mother is a keen political activist and keeps Ruby posted of the improvements since Uribe’s more stable and socialist government has had the clout. Milena nods her head emphatically. “There’s far fewer people living on the streets, the roads and pathways are cleaner. It’s much better now.” Ruby agrees: “Oh yes, much better. He made lots of parks for children; things that are expected in other countries.”

When Miller and Milena went to school in Santa Marta, it cost about $25 a year—a seemingly modest cost by Canadian standards, but far beyond the reach of many Colombians. Education is now free for all Colombian children.

It was, in fact, education that drew Ruby to make the decision to relocate in Canada. “Brian would encourage the children to speak English at home, but they would cry and say, “Oh, we don’t want to speak English, we want to speak Spanish.” I think it’s a huge benefit to be bilingual these days, and I was happy to come and live here. I like Canada a lot.

“Of course, I miss my family and I love my own country, but here, it’s tranquil, it’s safe. People are friendly. In Colombia, the cost of sending children to a private school is enormous and public schools don’t turn out English-speaking pupils. They can say a few words, or phrases, but that’s about it.”

Since her arrival in Courtenay, Ruby and Javier have been offering dance classes at the Women’s Centre on McPhee Avenue in Courtenay. Classes are on Monday nights from 7:30 – 8:30 and as word is getting out on the street about how much fun it is, they are slowly filling up. “Not so many men though,” Ruby says, rolling her eyes. “The Canadian men are shy about dancing.”

Miller would agree with that. No mean shoe-shuffler himself, when he was in Colombia Miller was actually paid to dance in a local store. Since coming to Courtenay to live, he’s much more reticent to show off his talents though. “People here don’t dance like we do—especially guys,” he says with a quick grin.

Reminders of their home country are prominent in the Restan-McNiff household. Their ranch-style home has a brick fireplace that is decorated with a poncho depicting a Latin vaquero (cowboy) with their distinctive chaps, hats, boots and spurs. A variety of beautifully woven wide-brim hats add color, along with pictures and Columbian paper money in a frame. Ruby plucks a pair of earrings with tiny dangling sombreros from the wall and offers them to me as a gift, urging me to put them on.

Matriarchal roots being strong in most countries, particularly Latin America, Ruby’s mother recently paid a six month visit to the family. A photograph of Ruby’s grandmother hangs on the wall, to commemorate her death—she died at age l04.

Ruby sees her contribution to her new community as an exponent of Latin culture as well as a dancer. “I would like to introduce elementary children to dance, so they grow up with it,” she says. As Milena is a student at Courtenay Elementary, Ruby is planning to approach them to see if they are interested in dance classes.

Ruby was also instrumental in helping to bring Latin festival to Courtenay this summer. “We held it in the parking lot of La Cabaña de Marcos and all the Latin dancing teachers were involved—anyone who wanted to show off a style of dancing, or take the crowd through the steps. A band from Victoria and one from Mexico played, along with Luzna and other local Latin-based bands.” The festival also featured stalls with ethnic food and crafts. Ruby and the rest of the organizing team hope it will become an annual event. “Victoria and Vancouver have huge Latin festivals,” Ruby says. “Of course, they have a bigger Latin community, but that’s OK. We can start with a small one.”

Given the energy and enthusiasm Ruby has put into her dancing, supported by her compatriots and Latin enthusiasts, there’s little doubt local residents may well be stepping and strutting a lot more often to those irresistible Latin beats. It’s already happening at the Women’s Centre and anyone interested can drop by Monday nights. Dancing at La Cabaña de Marcos is a weekly event, with a live band usually playing Friday and Saturday nights.