When Hiromy Araniva moved from El Salvador to New York in her early 20s, the lifelong punkster found a subculture that looked, sounded and danced differently from the alternative spaces she knew back home. In underground Brooklyn venues, she was embraced by a community that, like her, was skanking to ska-punk and reggae, but whose steps and techniques felt foreign. 

“I began to wonder why we, in El Salvador, were dancing this way and who we were imitating. I started to question why the new people I was meeting, like Jamaicans, were dancing it completely different,” Araniva, 34, tells FIERCE.

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It didn’t take long for her to seek answers to those inquiries. Talking with new friends and diving deep into Internet research, Araniva started to piece together the history of alternative dance and how migration, racial and ethnic cultures as well as moments of struggle influenced the ways these styles were transported and performed across the world. Even more, she studied the style, speed, moves, steps and sways of subculture dances across regions and eras.

After sharing videos on social media of her performing the different styles along with history breakdowns, she started to build an audience. Some ridiculed her, particularly the way she was merging cumbia with alternative dance, but many more felt seen and excited. In her DMs, people from all over the world urged her to teach classes. In 2016, she heeded their advice and founded Dance Culture By Aranivah, one of the few dance schools offering classes on ‘60s-era alternative styles of movement.

“I am trying to create a space where people can have dance content available, so anytime they want to move their body they have options, based of course on the subculture things that I like,” Aranivah says.

We chatted with the instructor about Dance Culture By Aranivah, the need to preserve these styles of dance and the role punk culture has played in her own life. 

How would you describe Dance Culture By Aranivah?

It’s dance culture but through my lens, through my personal tastes and through my own experiences and the things I’m exposed to in New York. It’s not that I’m trying to cover all of the dances in the world. I’m trying to cover what I see and feel here in New York as somebody involved in the alternative and subculture world. That’s why I say I showcase, document and promote subculture and alternative dances that are part of the social world and that are a little bit obscure and underground.

What sorts of dances do you teach?

The things I specialize the most in is Northern Soul, which is a 1960s British dance; reggae, rocksteady and ska, specifically of the 1960s era, covering the British style and Jamaican style; and cumbia, and in cumbias I cover a wide range of cumbias because in New York we have so much access to cumbias and underground parties. Those are the things that I focus the most on, but most of the things that I cover are rooted in 1960s underground and subculture, specifically bopping and skinhead dances.

Why is it important to you to teach, or preserve, these styles of dance?

I noticed that a lot of people dance, but they don’t even know what they’re dancing or who they’re imitating. I believe that dancing is more than just moving your body for fun, which is lovely and I support that, but I believe that humans develop dancing based on specific situations, experiences, moments and times. So most people who are related to subculture – rudeboys, mods, skinheads – they are dancing more of the British style because that was what became popular in England, of course brought by Jamaicans. It’s important for us to know why we are doing these dances and where they come from, how they were inspired, who created it and where we are taking it from. Most of the time, nobody talks about that part of the culture. I just find it so fascinating, and I get so frustrated that there’s no information about it.

Did you grow up dancing as a kid? What was your relationship with body movement?

Really bad. I was not allowed to listen to music. My family was very religious, extremist, square-minded type of people. My first window to rebellion was punk. Even in El Salvador, I rejected cumbia, salsa and merengue. For me, that was music to keep you sleeping from the real problems of the world; 13-year-old me felt so strongly about that. I rejected all of that growing up. I was more into punk. 

But when I came to the United States, I realized I’m Latina. I’m not just Salvadoran anymore. I’m Latina, which is this concept from the United States. In El Salvador, I never had any idea of being Latina, not even Salvadoran. It’s something I never questioned. I was just a normal person. But here it hit me that I’m not seen as a normal person anymore, so that’s when I started embracing this part that I had been rejecting and suppressing because I thought I was too cool. And, I mean, I was very young, and sometimes teenagers need that.

You’ve been dancing in the NYC underground scene since moving here from El Salvador more than 10 years ago. What role did dance play for you after your migration?

Ever since I moved here, even with my punk community that I found, I still noticed that, even in this subculture, there was another subculture underneath that: this Latino or immigrant sub-subculture. There were very specific types of parties, and these people were doing cumbia-punk, cumbia-reggae or cumbia-ska shows. After the bands played, they held whole cumbia parties, and that was my first exposure to this. I was very shocked. I was like, “how does this go together?” If you say in El Salvador that you like cumbia and you like punk, back in the day, you were called a poser. So I was mind-blown and humbled by how people embraced that Latinidad in the subculture here because it had been rejected for a long time. 

So one of the first things that I noticed when I started dancing long hours at night was that I started entering these time-travel experiences. Dancing amplified that cultural experience that the music was transmitting. You can feel the African influence, the Indigenous influence and the Spaniard influence, in the music, through it. It was expansive. And it made be very confident in my body. To be able to do things with my body made me more confident as well.

I think so many people can relate to that experience. When did this go from something you enjoyed doing to something you taught? When did you start Dance Culture By Aranivah?

I started the school in 2016. Before that, I was a nanny for an online strategist. She was an entrepreneur, and I didn’t even know what that was when I started working with her. I started noticing that her clients were making money off of simple things that they just loved doing: cleaning, singing, regular things that people like. So I started thinking, what’s something I love doing that I could make money from? And that’s initially how I got the idea. To be honest, my goal was to grow an audience online and then to create a fashion line. That was the goal. I was not thinking about dancing. But when people started ridiculing me for the things that I was doing and learning in New York, and maybe in Latin America is done differently, I started to realize how ignorant people are, and how hateful they can get because of their ignorance, and how they don’t know what they’re dancing or where it comes from. That’s when it started shifting for me. Also, people started requesting it. I started doing online videos first on the history of the dance moves and music.

Talk to me about the different classes and options you have available. I know you offer online and in-person dance classes as well as workouts, tutorials, subscriptions and more. 

I am trying to create a space where people can have dance content available, so anytime they want to move their body they have options, based of course on the subculture things that I like. I hate the gym. I don’t like doing repetitive exercises. I don’t like aerobics. Dance is the only physical activity that I truly enjoy, so I figured there must be other people who feel the same. And I was already doing it, so I was like I might as well record it and make it available for people. So that’s how I started the workouts. The dance subscriptions came because sometimes dancing, with all its techniques, you can get stuck, and it’s good to loosen up and get into a dance trance. And I also have Spotify playlists that I created because people love my music taste, so I figured I’d make playlists for them. Just like that, I’ve been gathering and creating little things that I think people want. And, again, I don’t think my business model is perfect yet, but I’m learning and changing.

You have more than 62,000 followers on Instagram alone. Why do you think your dance school, and your style of teaching, has resonated with so many people?

I think my biggest strength is also my biggest weakness in the dance world: the fact that I’m organic and I’m not highly professionally trained or do complex techniques. I’m one of the few people in the world who is doing this, in the size that I’m doing it, so in that sense I think I have it easy. But I also feel a little alone. It’s hard to find a network. 

Also, I think people relate to having fun. Sometimes I, a full-time dancer, feel anxious when I watch these videos of dance instructors who are so perfect, because I know I’ll never be able to do that. They’ve been studying their style of dance since they were five or so. I know I can’t catch up with them. So it’s also hard not to compare myself with other people, but, in that sense, I think that’s where my biggest strength lies, because you don’t have to be perfect to do this and not being perfect probably makes it more welcoming to people. 

One of my biggest flexes is that people who come to my classes, online or in person, are of all different body types, races and backgrounds. People just feel like it’s a place where they can do it and keep up because they know there’s no need to distort their body and that the movements don’t have to be crisp, perfect and highly trained. It makes dancing more accessible. 

How do you want people who take these classes with you to walk away feeling?

I want them first to be able to feel like they know a little something more about the dancing that they didn’t know. I want them to be able to appreciate it a little more because now they know a little secret or a little bit of history. When you understand why you’re doing these dances, it’s even more meaningful.

I also want people to feel like they enjoy dancing and that dancing doesn’t have to have so many rules or restrictions, and with basic standards of movement you can create your own style. You don’t need to follow any specific rules of any system in order to live off of your passions. I have broken all of the rules. I’m not professionally trained. I don’t have a professional system to pass down. Most of the things I do are very emotional-focused. I have this dance called Creative Dancing where we dance with different physicalities – like rhythmic, emotional, acting, performing and energy – and we go through all of these styles of dancing. For me, it’s experiencing these different layers. It’s not just professional choreography. It’s culture, it’s history and it’s resistance.