Alex Swift Almaraz’s first tattoo reads, “Live hard, die free.”
The tattoo reflects a mantra he would later devise, taking inspiration from the words of house dance pioneer Marjory Smarth: “Live true, dance free.”
Almaraz, a UCLA alumnus, will share his passion for teaching and performing hip-hop, house dance and Chicago footwork this summer. After graduating June 16, Almaraz began his career as a solo artist at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in Downtown Los Angeles. Now, Almaraz will teach at local Los Angeles intensives, such as one offered by LA Dancefit Studio, and was asked to perform his solo at a juvenile detention center, bringing lessons about creating, analyzing and teaching dance with him.
“I feel I’m starting to communicate myself with all these dance forms and I’m making them a huge influence in my own practice,” Almaraz said.
Almaraz began dancing as part of his high school’s hip hop team, but said he learned about hip-hop culture and began seriously training during his time at Versa-Style Dance Company, a hip-hop and street dance company based in North Hollywood. Almaraz’s hip-hop solo, entitled “A Tattooed Man,” was originally choreographed as a part of the UCLA dance department’s senior projects course. The course allows graduating seniors to gain experience choreographing, designing lighting and creating a piece from start to finish, dance professor Dan Froot said.
For his senior project, Almaraz drew on his vast knowledge of social, street and urban dances to quickly transition between styles like locking, house and Chicago footwork, an energetic and fast-paced dance derived from house dance, Froot said. While Almaraz initially wanted to incorporate other styles of dance he has learned at UCLA, he said his REDCAT performance will focus more on his hip-hop roots to better represent his preferred style.
“(He) had the experience of building a dance composition over time and being in dialogue with mentors, designers and other dancers as he’s building it so that he is in a constant conversation about the work,” Froot said.
Froot facilitated the 20-week class and helped the students develop their work. Almaraz said over the course of the class, he relied on feedback from Froot and his classmates to develop his piece. Almaraz said the most surprising lesson from his time at UCLA was to read more academically, but also to read into how choreographic decisions can express an idea or theme.
Almaraz also taught at several prisons and juvenile halls, hoping to show his students a way to more positively channel their energy. While he was teaching at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, California, Almaraz said his students would get excited when he introduced a social party dance, like the whip or the nae nae, that they recognized from their past, especially since they are unable to keep up with current dance trends.
Almaraz has taught dance for seven years, at first for Versa-Style Dance Company. He later choreographed for his UCLA peers during the dance department’s student-run production, WACSmash. Melina Vasquez, a rising third-year dance student, said working with Almaraz to perform his WACSmash choreography was a physically exhausting but rewarding process. Vasquez said Almaraz’s future students should be prepared for intense workouts involving extensive calisthenics to achieve the physical condition needed to perform Almaraz’s choreography.
“There was not one moment where (Almaraz) didn’t encourage us and didn’t push us to go further,” Vasquez said. “It’s not that Alex thinks he’s better than anyone, but he knows that everyone can get to the same level if they just continue to work hard and put that passion in.”
Almaraz said he treats all his students the same, regardless of whether they are incarcerated or their socio-economic position. As a teacher, Almaraz said his passion for various dance forms resonates with his students because he uses many familiar social party dances. While not everyone embraces hip-hop, Almaraz said he shows the same love to all his students.
Almaraz said his main focus now is to spread the feeling of community he has found through dance by traveling to Chicago and Amsterdam this summer. In Chicago, Almaraz will travel with a group called Creation Global to learn from the people who helped pioneer Chicago footwork. In Amsterdam, Almaraz will learn about how house dance, which originally evolved from disco, has developed in Europe. Almaraz plans to return to UCLA to receive his MFA in dance, in addition to continue teaching in correctional facilities.
“(I want to) continue to just dance every single time and just go out and experience the world, go to different shows, be open to change, and always try to carry that same sense of positivity throughout everything that you do, even if it’s hard,” Almaraz said.