By Seth Daniel
One might have seen South End Dynamite doing their expert baton work, and dancing to pulsating beats, during parades across the region – from the South End to Haverhill to Providence – but the group has a lot more meaning behind it than just the typical Latin-American baton tradition.
Founder Natasha Rivera said the team of young men and women, girls and boys, is the area’s first LGBT-friendly baton team, and one that she said frequently breaks tradition within the community of baton teams and often pushes the limits to promote inclusion and innovation.
The group was founded in 2009 when Rivera and her brother Jeremy, who are both gay and hail from the South End, decided to bring some innovation and inclusion into what has been a popular but very strict and traditional activity in the South End Latino community.
“I’m gay and he’s gay and we didn’t have anything for us growing up,” she said. “We had no after-school programs that would include us. We didn’t have this home away from home that baton offers. He had the idea of us going together and creating the first LGBT friendly dance team. We had open tryouts and the response was incredible.”
Initially, she said, they had 42 girls in the South End sign up for the team, though these days she said she keeps the numbers more manageable at around 24 participants, which also bucks tradition by including boys and young men.
Now, they serve as an inclusive team for those that maybe don’t fit the mold of what Rivera says are the more traditional teams.
Deion Docanto, 18, is one of those teens who didn’t fit the mold, and said after seeing South End Dynamite in the Boston Pride Parade, he was destined to try out.
“I had some conversations with Natasha and started to get comfortable with her and really decided I wanted to join,” he said. “I was on other teams and they always had me in the back. This is open. There’s no discrimination on this side. Different teams don’t like guys dancing. They don’t want to see me dance. The other teams put me in the back of the line so no one could see me. Natasha wasn’t going to do that. I think South End Dynamite is just fun – boom.”
Parent Laura Rosa has her daughter participate in Dynamite, and does so to support her friend Rivera, and also because she likes the inclusiveness.
“I think the way Natasha is inclusive of everyone is great,” she said. “They’re different. Their routines are different, and their music is different. I’ve always seen South End Dynamite, but being part of it is a totally different experience.”
And different they are.
This year, Rivera, 30, said they’ve caused a stir in the community by wearing a rainbow costume and marching in the Boston, New York and Providence Pride Parades. Many people did not like the message, she said, and that has been a constant since the beginning of the group.
Being gay and also being LGBT friendly, many people focus on that and not on the task at hand – which is dancing, baton work, choreography and music.
“It became very hard because of being gay,” she said. “Girls were dropping out, but we kept it going. We had some strong members that kept everyone together, and we got stronger instead of falling apart. Every year, though, someone had something to say. They didn’t like the colors. The unicorn symbol we use is too gay, the said. They said it’s a Puerto Rican thing and not a gay thing. Eventually I became a voice and we developed some great partners. But there is always an issue.”
Some of the partners that they’ve developed include the McKinley South End Academy, where they practice twice a week, as well as the Blackstone Community Center, South End Baseball and IBA.
But mostly, Rivera and her volunteers carry out things on their own.
This year, they will march in 10 parades, down from their usual 16. They’ve also opened up an East Boston division to join in with the South End.
This month, they celebrated their first Rainbow Pageant – where girls were able to practice public speaking and public presentation at the McKinley Auditorium. The traditional queen of the Pageant was not picked just by the judges, but rather by chance.
“We’re doing it the way it should be done, drawing out of a hat and letting everybody have a chance,” said Rivera.