Neri Torres remembers the culture shock she experienced when she moved from Havana to Miami in 1991.
"Being an immigrant is not an easy ride in the park," she says. "You are leaving all your roots, what you believe in, the people that you grow up with, your background, your beliefs, even your way of eating."
She learned Americans don't make unannounced visits to people's homes when she attempted to give her resume to the director of Florida International University's dance department.
"When she opened the door … she opened her eyes like she had seen a ghost," Torres recalls. "Then, I realized that no one here invites anybody to their homes. For me, it was different, because in Cuba anybody can knock at your door any time."
Experiences such as this one inform a piece her dance company will perform during the 17th annual IFE-ILE Afro-Cuban Dance Festival, taking place Aug. 20-22 in Miami.
The festival will begin with a free panel discussion, "Salsa and the Cross Fertilization Saga of Son," on Thursday at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. On Friday, it will feature showcases by salsa groups from Miami and New York. The festival will include workshops on Afro-Cuban dance styles, including salsa, orishas, son, rumba, reggaeton and Afro-modern. There will also be dance parties at night.
Torres' nonprofit IFE-ILE Afro-Cuban Dance Company will perform her Afro-modern dance piece on Saturday. The work is also inspired by the Marielitos, Cubans who came to America in 1980 through the Mariel Boatlift.
In her choreography, Torres doesn't portray immigrants as victims. Instead, she wants to show them as strong people who overcame difficulties to create new lives in a foreign country.
"You have to go through a lot of different stressful situations, a lot of challenges," she says. "People don't understand that it's hard to leave your country behind. They don't do this because they want to. They leave because they are faced with a difficulty."
She titled her piece "Contra Viento y Marea," or "Under Heaven and Earth." The dancers perform to upbeat music mixing movements from salsa, conga, orishas and other popular Afro-Cuban dances with contemporary and modern steps.
"I wanted to tell a story that is more positive," Torres says. "It's very much about the way we Cubans see the world, and everything always has dance, even in the bad moments."
Dance has been a part of Torres' life since she was a child and danced at home with her parents. She began formal training at 12 years old, and never considered another career.
She learned modern dance, ballet, Afro-Cuban and international folklore.
But because her parents were against the Cuban Revolution that put Fidel Castro in power in the 1950s, Torres says their political views made it hard for her to join dance companies and get authorization to travel and perform abroad.
"The people who had success as an artist in Cuba, they were really affiliated with the revolution," Torres says. "Otherwise, you couldn't make it."
In her late 20s, she finally got an authorization to travel to Rome to tour with a singer. From Rome, she came to Miami, and moved in with her sister and brother-in-law.
In the United States, her career took off. In 1996, she became the principal dancer for Gloria Estefan, which took her to the Latin Grammys and the Latin Billboard Awards. She later became Estefan's tour choreographer. She has also done choreography for the Super Bowl's halftime show.
In 1996, she founded IFE-ILE, through which she organizes festivals, workshops and dance projects.
"Cuba is full of different people from different walks of life. We have different races, blacks, Europeans, Chinese," she says. "So I guess in our country we have that idea [that] you don't do only one thing, you can do many things."
The 17th annual IFE-ILE Afro-Cuban Dance Festival will take place Aug. 20-22 at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 W. Flagler St., in Miami. $20-$230. Call 305-547-5414 or go to Ife-Ile.org.