Afro-Cuban Artist Infuses Hip Hop, Salsa, and Merengue into Preschool Musical 

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By Christina Fernandez-Morrow, Hola Iowa

Paige Hernandez, an Afro-Latina from Baltimore with roots in Cuba is the writer, choreographer, director, and star of Havana Hop, an interactive tale of confidence, culture, and family coming to the Des Moines Civic Center January 27 in the Temple Theater. The production is about Yeila, a young Cuban girl who gets stage fright during a dance audition. The judges tell her to tap into her roots, but she doesn’t understand what this means. With the help of her mother and grandmother, she begins to understand herself and her history through music, particularly hip hop and Caribbean beats. In the process, her grandmother begins recalling her past, even as she battles Alzheimer’s. The story revolves around the three generations of women, Cuban culture, and the power of music. What makes this production so unique is that Hernandez created it for a preschool audience. It is also interactive from beginning to end, allowing the kids to be part of the story. “It’s the intersection of art, learning, and moving,” says Hernandez. The scenes require the audience to clap, stomp, and make noise, something Hernandez knew was essential to keeping them engaged. Her favorite scene showing the flight to Cuba on Hip Hop Airlines is a call and response party. The kids in the audience get out of their seats and dance along. “I feel like a rock star. I look forward to it every time.” 

Havana Hop began as a game Hernandez played with her preschool students. She built on it over time and it caught the attention of the school’s administration. She began performing it at other schools and in 2008 it became the traveling show it is today. It is a family affair. “My husband built the set and my little brother, a hip hop DJ composed the music,” shares Hernandez. While the plot is autobiographical, her grandmother passed away before seeing the show. Today, Havana Hop has gone all over the globe. “I never dreamed of all the places this show has taken me. I thought it would be just for the classroom.” The production is mostly English, with some Spanish elements, but audiences don’t have to understand either language to know what’s going on, or to get in on the fun. “I aimed to see something I wanted to see when I was young, and it means everything to me to meet these audiences and see them having fun and reacting to the music.”  

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This is the first time Havana Hop comes to Central Iowa, but Hernandez is no stranger to the state. She worked with Des Moines Performing Arts in 2014 as an artist in residence, running workshops for local schools, and performing Paige in Full: A B’Girl’s Visual Mixtape, another production which she wrote and stars. She plans to do a workshop before and after her shows to take questions and help the audience better understand her homage to her Cuban heritage. “I’m excited to represent Afro-Latinas. Our identity is so important and multifaceted, and not often seen. I just hope I do it justice.”

Tickets are on sale now and start at $10. The show is an hour long and runs at 11 am and 2 pm. The afternoon show is sensory-friendly, with adjustments to bright lights and sudden loud noises. It will have a variety of seating options and be an environment that encourages breaks when needed to ensure guests with sensory sensitivities are comfortable enjoying the show. You can visit www.desmoinesperformingarts.org to learn more and purchase tickets.

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