Gabrielle Armstrong Velázquez: Professional Artist and Entrepreneur

From engineers to artists to entrepreneurs, the University of Puerto Rico-Mayagüez Campus (UPRM) has been the birthing place of many successful careers. Her Campus’ very own Gabrielle Armstrong Velázquez mixes her passion for dance and art into her business. The Mayagüez native is now a third-year student in UPRM majoring in English, with minors in Comparative Literature and the Teacher Preparation Program, and is a former member of UPRM’s Dance Team. Outside of University, Armstrong co-owns Avant Performing Arts Studio with her partner Ricardo Badrena and has published a book of poems titled Partida en Dos.

Armstrong’s passion for dance was born when she was eight years old and has continued to flourish for 12 consecutive years. Her journey began with classical ballet in Western Ballet Theatre (WBT) and stuck by it since the beginning of her career. Ballet was a her safe space and for a long time, it was the only dance Armstrong knew and dared to do. It wasn’t until she became a Colegial and joined UPRM’s Dance Team that she began to explore other styles of dance as well as a new side of herself as a person and as a dancer. She was also a part of Mayawest Dance Project (MWDP), where she learned contemporary and experimental styles of dance as well as “the nitty gritty” side of dance, which is what makes dance palpable for anyone with just a bit of life experience needed. Being a part of these two team taught Armstrong that dance is all inclusive. She trained in different methods and techniques with each team and learned how to balance them in the process. Each style of dance is not exclusive, but rather she could merge them both and create something beautiful when she balanced what she’d learned.

The professional dancer was a part of UPRM’s Dance Team for two years and continues to get sentimental when talking about her experience because, more than a team, they were a family. As a part of this family, Armstrong learned a side of dancing where everyone works as a team. Instead of competing with the other members, she was now competing with herself and working to improve her dancing day after day. Her experience in UPRM’s team took her to compete against “other-worldly and supernatural” international teams in the United States.

Regardless of all the experience Armstrong gained as a dancer, what seems of most importance is the unity of the team and the grandeur of representing UPRM. She describes the team as a “group of beautiful people, inside and out, who will always be there for each other.” For Armstrong, there is no feeling like finishing a choreography after months of preparation and see the growth of her teammates overtime as well as running to help a teammate who is injured, because in “good times or bad, the amazing team is always there to hug, kiss or cry.

 

The biggest competition the Dance Team participates in is the annual Justas LAI. They spend months choreographing and training for this event and do it with immense pride. Armstrong says that, even though every athlete says it, there is nothing like competing in UPRM; nothing compared to walking in to perform and hearing “El Colegio!”; nothing like “the moment of silence before the music starts and with and rattles your entire body and spirit.” She has lived this experience through the eyes of her teammates as well: those who were about to graduate and cried with their souls as they went through their last Justas, and those who were newbies experiencing it all for the first time and felt their skin curl as they saw the ocean of green when they walked in and performed.

In her third year of college, Armstrong left the UPRM Dance Team and started taking time for herself. In this new stage in her life, she began doing yoga where she has learned more about herself, her body, and her breathing. She also went back to her roots in WBT, where Armstrong first began her journey. Armstrong describes her journey as that of a hero. She first left her academy and went on to face trials, challenges, and victories. She had guides and companions along the way, MWDP and UPRM’s Dance Team, which she describes as something supernatural. And now, after moments of epiphanies and self discovery, she has returned home to Western Ballet Theatre.

In 2017, Armstrong took her experience as a dancer and took it to a whole other level when she and her partner/boyfriend, Ricardo Badrena, were presented with and opportunity they couldn't refuse. Another owner was about to close down his school and leave a bunch of girls on the street without a place to dance. It was then that the pair decided to go ahead with the project and purpose to bring to everyone, regardless of age or past experience, because according to Armstrong “it is never too early or too late to learn perseverance, positive attitude and discipline."

Armstrong and Badrena met as teenagers and became close friends. After seven years of friendship they decided to take their relationship into the next level, but more than a couple, they are best friends who have seen each other through thick and thin. Their business relationship has been shared work 50/50 from the beginning, though they both are able to pick up the slack when the other is busy. Since they have known each other for so many years, they have learned how to work together and give each other space at the same time. Along with Armstrong and Badrena, hip-hop teacher Kariel Argenis is also an integral part of the studio.

Because of the pair’s hard work, in July 2017, Avant Performing Arts Studio was opened its doors to their students. Their name goes hand in hand with their motto which is “moving forward together”, because dancers should learn from each other instead of constantly competing. Armstrong describes dance as such a pure state of art and an excellent source of exercise which is why the school’s vision is to promote a happy environment for learning “where the students can work towards a better state of mind and being”. Their goal is to grow and reach as many people as they can. Armstrong’s aspiration is to spread the beauty of dance throughout Puerto Rico and reach out to artists from all over the island, taking away the competition and bringing them together through art. She would also like to reach low income communities and those who are ignored by government agencies.

The school specializes in classical ballet technique, contemporary dance, jazz technique, modern dance, and offers ballet, hip hip, yoga, cardio classes, and strength development. They also offer private classes and coaching on any of the aforementioned dance genres as well as choreography for groups (for talent shows and pep rallies). After hurricane MarÍa struck the island, they lost their first studio space and most of their students. Thankfully, they have found a new space with great wooden floors perfect for dancing. All they need now is a few more students so they can add mirrors and decorate the space and turn it into a beautiful studio they’ve envisioned.

 

Besides her studio enterprise, Armstrong is also a published poet. She published Partida en Dos in December of 2016. She describes the experience as fun since it was a cool journey to write and compile her poetry. She had help from a past English teacher who did the introduction and included the artwork of some of her friends. In doing so, she brought together Puerto Rican artists, which she comments was her favorite part. For the future, the poet has plans to publish a second book of poems.

Armstrong also continues to dance professionally in her original academy, WBT, and will be performing with a group of invited artist in a short ballet about Eugenio María de Hostos. For her, combining dance and literature is a dream come true. Outside of her careers in dance and poetry, Armstrong’s academic goal is to continue studying until she’s achieved her Ph. D. all the while working as a K-12 teacher.

 

Check out their website Avant Performing Arts Studio

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