A lifetime of adapting to different dance styles has prepared Artistico School of Dance’s Linda Ayentes to pivot in the face of COVID-19
By Katherine Brubaker
Linda Ayentes has been a performer her whole life. She started her journey in the spotlight as a rhythmic gymnast in Canada. Today, she owns Artistico School of Dance with her husband in Westchester, which converted to outdoor dance classes earlier this summer and will be continuing outdoor lessons into the fall.
Ayentes’ career has been nothing short of fascinating. She seems to have done it all — fearlessly taking on the multi-faceted world of dance as a competitor, artist and teacher.
Ayentes was born in Slovakia but moved to Canada at age four. She started training as a rhythmic gymnast in elementary school, going to practice five days a week before attending school. Though an intense schedule for a child, Ayentes wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“I loved what I was doing so it was just what I did,” she said, “I trained in the morning in elementary school, so I would wake up at 4 a.m. in the morning and then get ready and train from 6 to 8 a.m. in the morning, and then I would have to go to school after.” Once she reached high school, she entered a sports program that allowed her to go to school from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and exempted her from taking electives, giving her more time to train.
Ayentes also trained in ballet for rhythmic gymnastics. “Once we hit high school, we would have a Russian master come in, and he would teach us,” she said, “they told me I should take ballet outside because it would help me a lot. I didn’t really like ballet, but it really did help the elegance, the poise, the precision. There is a lot that it gave me in my rhythmic gymnastics.”
After years of traveling, training and competing, at age 15, Ayentes achieved the title of Western Canadian Champion and attended the Canadian Winter Games, where she won a bronze medal in rhythmic gymnastics. “This was kind of like the Canadian version of the Olympics with all the different sports,” she said, “we had an athletes village and opening ceremonies where our Prime Minister came out. It was cool feeling, like you were at the Olympic games.”
With a light chuckle, Ayentes explained that at 15, she was ready to retire. “I said, ‘Ok, I am done with this.’” She made this decision in part due to the physical demands of the sport. “It was a lot of pressure on my body and body image. At fifteen I noticed my body changing, and I didn’t feel comfortable anymore. It was becoming harder maintaining that stick figure image. That sort of thing changes the direction of your life sometimes, and that’s what it did for me,” said Ayentes.
Ayentes later auditioned for a summer intensive at The National Ballet of Canada. She was accepted and trained there for the summer. “This is where I noticed that the body for rhythmic and ballet were very similar in terms of body image issues,” she said. “You had to reaudition every year to get back in. So every year it’s like the summers were really hard for the girls that have already been there for a year because they were also auditioning. I would see them struggling and not eating anything. It was heartbreaking — you never felt safe.”
Instructors told Ayentes she was a beautiful dancer, but that she was “better made” for other styles such as jazz or hip-hop. “I was fine, because I didn’t love it like a ballerina should,” said Ayentes. After the summer program, she went home and delved into jazz and hip-hop.
Ayentes went on to work with many stars, including Halle Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Benjamin Bratt, and Sharon Stone. She enjoyed these opportunities, and found that each star “has their own way about them, so you have to be very respectful of what their requests are,” she said. “It was cool having idols that you saw growing up and then you are on set working with them. That was a really amazing experience. Like Sarah Jessica Parker — I loved her as a kid, and then I got to dance with her on set.”
Ayentes later competed on the reality TV show “Making it Big.” “It was a show where different artists came on and you had to run an audition and pretend to put on a show,” she said, “so you had to work with these people that came on and choreograph a dance right there on the spot, and the client would tell you what they wanted. They would keep throwing things at you too — like one of the dancers would stop dancing or get injured and you would have to deal with that.” With a smile, Ayentes recalled that she had won the competition. “I think I ended up winning that one…yeah.”
After winning “Making it Big,” Ayentes was flown to New York City and met Jamie King, a choreographer working with Madonna at the time. On set one day, Madonna showed up to see King. “I said to myself, ‘Ok, there’s Madonna right there and I’m going to pretend I’m not seeing this right now,’” said Ayentes.
When Ayentes was 15, she found out that her father was South American. She had been born in Slovakia and grew up speaking Slovak, so she believed that she was completely European. “For some reason I was always drawn to the Latin side of dance and Latinx culture. And then, I found out I was part Latina, so I started dancing salsa,” said Ayentes.
She fell in love with the style immediately and started social dancing. “Once you start social dancing you’re hooked. It’s just so much fun,” said Ayentes, who also got into Bachata, a social dance style from the Dominican Republic, during her late 20s.
Ayentes took a break from dancing at around 23, got married, had her daughter, and then went back to dancing and competing. In 2011, she won the title of World Latin Cup Salsa Champion in Las Vegas, Nevada. “In Bachata we came in fourth, and in salsa we won that year. That was pretty amazing,” said Ayentes.
Ayentes now faces a whole new frontier of dance: running a nascent dance studio during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is only our second year of having the studio, so it was pretty devastating emotionally because we were building. Then January came and we were finally seeing a lot of people have interest, and business was growing, and we were like ‘Oh my gosh we finally have got two solid feet on the ground,’” said Ayentes. She and her husband had just finished their second winter show when the pandemic shut everything down.
At first, Ayentes was running her studio on a virtual platform, which she found more difficult than teaching in-person. For the studio’s online classes, Ayentes and her husband held Zoom classes and then filmed and posted them seven days a week. The work was physically and emotionally exhausting, but Ayentes threw herself into it even as “emails from people saying that they are dropping, or saying that they are going to take a break” poured in. Seeing that client base dwindle was “heartbreaking” for Ayentes.
But in the summer, Ayentes moved her studio completely outside for outdoor dance camps. The outdoor space in a parking lot behind the studio consists of flooring, tents and the backdrop of an iconic Westchester mural. Courses will continue being held outside in the fall until health guidelines change. In this way, Ayentes has been able to make the most of a difficult situation.
Ayentes’ favorite part of teaching is seeing her students improve and take what they learn in the studio and apply it to their lives.
“When they are going through life, they have instances where dance helps them, or things that they have learned in class whether it be discipline or passion or dedication or perseverance, that they take with them,” said Ayentes. “That’s my passion: to not just give them the dance steps and teach them how to dance, but to give them the whole package, how it all kinda works together and makes you a stronger person.”
Ayentes’ journey and success as a dancer are a testament to her versatility and love of the art form. Though faced with the challenge of being a dance studio owner during the pandemic, Ayentes remains optimistic for the future.
Artistico School of Dance is located at 8939 South Sepulveda Blvd., Westchester. Visit artisticodance.com to learn more.