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Diné, Puerto Rican Ballet Dancer
Leaps His Way to the Top

By Joab Maestas
Dawn of Nations Today

Portrait of Jock Soto
Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

Somewhere in New York City, Jock Soto is on his toes doing a pirouette.
He awes those he dances for with his shape, but it’s his exotic look that makes him breathtaking. His Native American background caught the attention of some of the most elite performers and teachers in ballet—instructors like Peter Martins, artistic director at the School of American Ballet and ballet master for the New York City Ballet (NYCB), who remembers first working with Soto. “He has a natural grace … very rarely do you see people that naturally gifted … somebody up there wished him to have this talent,” Martins said.

Soto was born in Gallup, N.M., and was raised on the Navajo Reservation. Soto, 44, is both Diné and Puerto Rican. He started dancing ballet when he was five in Phoenix, A.Z. After years of training and encouragement from an instructor at the age of 14, Soto applied to the School of American Ballet and was accepted. Soto said he moved to New York City with a full scholarship in hand and more dedication than he had ever known. He said he was ready for a new lifestyle and a different kind of discipline. “I lived in a school where we lived and breathed ballet and all the students were working toward a common goal,” Soto said.

Soto was one of the last dancers to be handpicked by George Balanchine, the original ballet master of the NYCB, who immigrated to the U.S. after leaving the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. Soto originally was cast in the corps de ballet for the NYCB. Through hard work and partnering ability, he soon was promoted to principal dancer. Soto was a rarity, having been only one of a few Native Americans to be admitted to the NYCB. Soto preceded Maria Tallchief, who danced with Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo and was a prima ballerina with the NYCB. Soto said he met Tallchief, who was married to George Balachine, but never had a chance to talk to her.

Since 1996, Soto has been a faculty member at the School of American Ballet (SAB), and for 24 years he was a principal dancer with the NYCB. Kay Mazzo, co-chairman of SAB faculty, said Soto uses his experience to educate those he teaches and does an excellent job of it. “His expertise in partnering … he was one of the premier partners in the NYCB … it’s a very difficult part of the art form … lifting a girl and making it look effortless,” Mazzo said. “He also brings professionalism … as a dancer with NYCB and as a former student of SAB, he knows what the school requires of the students. He knows this art form requires dedication and hard work … his students learn by watching him, and they emulate his demonstrations.”

Native American ballet dancer Jock Soto dances with his partner Miranda Weese performing "Mercurial Maneouvres" at the New York City Ballet in 2000.
Photo credit: Paul Kolnik

But no one knows Soto’s partnering ability better than his former dancing partner, Wendy Wehlan. In a biopic video about Soto, called Water Flowing Together, Wehlan said there couldn’t have been a better connection than the one she had when she danced with Soto. “It’s like our spirits become one, he has sacredness,” Wehlan said. Off of the stage, Soto said he has tried to become more connected with his Native American heritage.

In Water Flowing Together, Soto’s mother, Jo Soto, said her son’s gift for dancing could very well have came from his Native American background. “Part of Jock’s gift comes from an inheritance he does not quite understand,” Jo Soto said. “Jock was dancing in my stomach before I had him.” Jock’s parents often traveled to different powwows. He grew up watching powwow dances and his mother perform the hoop dance. Soto said his parents were always very supportive of his dancing career, which wasn’t exactly a career that is financially driven. Unfortunately, his mother was diagnosed with cancer, and Soto spent as much time with her as he could to learn about his heritage. “(I spent the) last five years with her and learned about the culture,” Soto said. “She would tell me stories about the culture. I rediscovered the culture with new eyes, and this was amazing.” Soto said that since he’s rediscovered his culture he has thought about using what he’s learned about his culture to choreograph ballet.

“I have thought about it over and over again, because people have asked a lot in the past,” Soto said. “It was just in the last couple of years that I started choreographing. I have choreographed for the school. I have been choreographed on so much in that past that I feel as I will just be repeating myself.”

But even through all of his accomplishments as principal dancer and now faculty at the most admired ballet school in the country, Soto has had his share of adversity. One might be quick to think that Soto ran into troubles because of his skin color or mixed heritage, but Soto said it was his sexual identity that he struggled with most. “I was treated equally. I was never treated differently because of my ethnicity. I was most worried about my homosexual identity. I was not dancing alone in that environment ... New York City is very gay friendly. About half of male dancers are gay and half are straight.”

Soto was able to find a community that was more accepting of his sexuality. In Water Flowing Together, Soto recalled his discriminatory experiences. He said as a child and ballet dancer, he would often be called a “sissy.” Also in the video, Soto traveled to Puerto Rico with his father to visit his grandparents, who asked Soto’s father why he was not married with children. To Soto’s dismay his father did not tell them that he was gay and just brushed off the subject. But fortunately for Soto, living in New York City and dancing with the company allowed him to accept and embrace his sexuality.

While Soto spends day in and day out hoping to “pass this beauty on to my students, because dance is a beautiful art form,” he wants to pass on a bigger message to his people in the Navajo Reservation. “If you live on the reservation, you do not always have to stay on the reservation,” Soto said. “There is nothing wrong with living on the reservation. Just believe in your roots and culture. There are many opportunities outside the reservation. Get out there and have new experiences.”



Native Soccer Club Kicks with the Help of Golf Pro

By Shynoke Ortiz
Dawn of Nations Today

Professional Golfer Notah Begay III shakes hands with one of the youth attending his golf camps sponsored by the Notah Begay III Foundation.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of the Notah Begay III Foundation.

Funded mostly by the Notah Begay III Foundation, the San Felipe Soccer Club started in the fall of 2005. Notah Begay Sr., who is Diné and the managing director of Native American youth sports for the foundation, says, “It grew too fast! In the beginning, the soccer club started out with a count of 140 participants to about 170 active youth currently. The youth involved range from second grade to eighth grade.”

Fran Ansera is from San Felipe Pueblo and has coached the team for three years. She adds, “When we first started we didn’t know what we were doing. Now everything is structured, even the coaches got trained. We’re not so clueless anymore.” Using his son’s success as an example, Begay Sr. believes Native children need to have opportunities to be physically active. He recalls “I would take Notah out with me and I’d give him a ball and club to get out of my way, and who thought that a Navajo would win on the PGA [Tour]?”

Notah Begay III, is Diné and San Felipe Pueblo, a four-time Professional Golfers’ Association of America winner, began his career back in 1994. By 2000 he had collected four PGA tournament titles, a first by a Native American golfer. Given his experiences he knows the road for Native youth can be a challenge. Begay Sr. says, “The community is getting better at being proactive in making the San Felipe soccer club sustainable.”

The soccer club works in conjunction with the San Felipe Health and Wellness Department and the San Felipe Elementary School. “Their physical fitness grant requires them to do a certain amount of hours of activities with the children. They had trouble with coming up with hours, so we worked with them to help them get some hours, and in return their grant takes care of some expense,” adds Begay Sr.

The majority of the funds come from the foundation. Notah Begay III raises money through his foundation in a golf challenge held on the Oneida Nation’s Atunyote Golf Club at the Turning Stone Resort in New York. The younger Begay along with four other Tour professionals play in the event. All of the proceeds go to the Notah Begay III Foundation, which funds the San Felipe Soccer Club, along with the Tóhajíílee Golf Club in Tóhajíílee, New Mexico.

Begay III hands out stickers to youth at one of his golf camps, sponsored by the Notah Begay III Foundation.
Photo credit: Photo courtesy of the Notah Begay III Foundation

The inaugural event was held August 26, 2008. The second annual Notah Begay III Challenge will begin August 28, 2009 with a series of board meetings. Match play competition will take place on August 29 with a final round on August 30.
Last November, the soccer club lost one of their coaches, William Tenorio of San Felipe Pueblo, to a suspected drunk driver during a hit and run accident in Santa Fe, N.M. Coach Ansera remembered her colleague: “He contributed a lot with his personality. He was outspoken. He knew what he was doing. The kids got along with him well, and he always talked to everybody. He would put a smile on your face even if it wasn’t your best day.” In honor of Tenorio, the elder Begay asked the Tenorio family if the soccer club could name its annual winter event in honor of the late soccer coach.

The December 2008 event was filled with giveaways for all, including free backpacks and soccer balls to the children and sweatshirts with the San Felipe emblem to the coaches. There was also a drawing for a number of items and a large basket given to the Tenorio family. The event was created to celebrate and honor the coaches and those affiliated with the San Felipe soccer club.

Dawn of Nations Today Volumn 4; Issue 1; May 2009, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, N.M.

Dawn of Nations Today is a special edition published by the Native American Studies Department, University College, University of New Mexico
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