AJ Juarez, founder of Barrio Dance, tells us about the future in Madison that’s yet to be built, the self-taught mechanisms of creativity that complement his work, and the generous neighborhood surrounding his city and his studio.
Dance has always been exciting to me. There was a certain fervor about the art form that made me want to explore it further. I remember asking my mother one day, “Hey, I’d love to go to this dance class here in the city. Do you have any money?”
I grew up in a really poor environment in Argentina, and often saw my mother struggling. Not only did she not have money for dance classes, but she didn’t even have the cash for the bus ride to get there. And I think that’s the moment that I realized that I could figure it out myself if it meant that much to me. Sure, money is important. But it could never stop me from doing something that I want to do. At 15, a teacher offered me a scholarship to train in ballet and contemporary dance at her studio, and that continued at age 17 with a full scholarship to study musical theater at the prestigious Fundación Julio Bocca.
And since then, I’ve been a dancer. My entire life, I’ve never known anything else other than dance, choreography, and performing. I’m really grateful for my own tenacity to push towards what I wanted. It changed my life.
Dancing took me all over the world. After working as part of an advanced company in London, I met a girl and she was from Madison, Wisconsin. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I followed her to the city. The relationship didn’t work out, but the city did. After being here, I was like, “This is the city for me. I love this city. I can’t leave now—I’m going to stay.”
Madison is a special place. I’d even say it’s underrated (although most people would probably say that about their city). Huge lakes, the isthmus, fantastic food and drink, and the backdrop of nature really seems to highlight the city well.
After spending a few years getting to know Madison, I opened a dance studio in 2019 called Barrio Dance, which means “neighborhood.” And it’s been exactly that: a community of neighbors learning and dancing together. When I arrived, there weren’t any dance communities in Madison, and that’s what I’ve spent my past few years trying to build. The city needed a place that people could call home. They could arrive with different skill sets or backgrounds. Kids, adults, anyone. This is that place.
The community has grown a bit, too. We’re connected to the freestyle dancers, to the street dancers, to the videographers and photographers here. And that’s the whole purpose of the name—to create a neighborhood where we have people to look to when we need their help.
In 2015, I started working as a dance professor for the University of Wisconsin. In both the dance studio, and in my beginner classes, I’m conscious of being a leader and mentor to my students. Our general ethos is centered around consistency—in dance, and in movement, or in a musical, the next step is always forward. It’s on your path, you just have to step to it.
In 2009, I bought my first camera. We wanted to start creating videos—filming our choreography and such, but didn’t know anything about it. I just started taking photos, one after another. And it slowly felt better, until one day we were just content creators. Like, truly. Over the years, we studied lighting and composition, and the terminology of the craft. It’s really amazing to think of the progress we’ve made as dancers simply because we took the time to learn a new craft that was complementary to what we already knew. And since then, we’ve been able to work with other creatives—designers, videographers, muralists in Madison who share our passion for the city.
You know, Madison is a special place. I’d even say it’s underrated (although most people would probably say that about their city). Huge lakes, the isthmus, fantastic food and drink, and the backdrop of nature really seems to highlight the city well.
In Madison, creativity seems to linger. It doesn’t hit like a lightning bolt of inspiration. More like a fine mist of rain that follows you throughout the day. When I think about creating something new, I don’t consider how much time it will take. Or how much money it’s going to take. The only thing I’m thinking about is how I’ve got to get this done—I’ve got to make this real.
Maybe it’s a video. Or a commercial for a client. Or perhaps it's a new span of choreography that I need to crack before class the next day. I can’t seem to escape my own creative process. I get into my own world, desperate to create something and share it with everyone. I want to take everyone—even you—into my world alongside me.
That world, that environment, is key to the process. And I think it’s one of my biggest strengths: bringing good energy into the process. From my perspective, it’s because of my personal experience with dance. I’ve brought new meaning to what dance means to me. Earlier in my life, dance was a story told from dozens of dark places, and now? Now it’s born from something good.
You could go to a bigger, “more iconic” city and see a million things that have been launched to huge acclaim. Madison might not have what you’re looking for. But isn’t that the opportunity?
I often say that everyone has a place. Madison is mine.
When I showed up, the dance community wasn’t here. But if you don’t have it, it’s time to build it. That’s what I did. Everyone goes to Los Angeles, everyone goes to New York—everyone goes to these huge cities. And that’s not a bad thing. Most of the time, the work is there. But now? The world is smaller, and social media can launch you from anywhere.
I’m trying to change minds about Madison. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want you to go and experience those cities. But you can come back, and build your future here. If you don’t have it, build it for yourself and for everyone else who is coming after you.
I often say that everyone has a place. Madison is mine.
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