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Liethis Hechavarria Channels the Forces of Nature

Liethis Hechavarria performs at Pier 1 in Brooklyn Bridge Park for the 15th anniversary of the Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble. Photo by Raphael Helfand

In 2016 Liethis Hechavarria’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. “She took it like it was nothing,” Hechavarria remembers, but watching her mother go through an arduous treatment changed the way she looked at the world. Her whole life, she’d worked toward a career as a dancer, but now dancing wasn’t enough; she wanted to be a healer too. 

Using the Yoruba religious traditions of her native Cuba as building blocks, she created a class called Orisha Femininity Flow. “It’s for anyone who feels like a woman,” she says. “I want women to know they can be powerful, to learn to live with the suffering, because it will always be there.”

In Yoruba legend, the Orisha are forces of nature in spirit form, sent by the supreme being Oludomare to guide humanity. The women in Hechavarria’s class learn to channel their inner Orisha, to connect with them through movement and laughter.

Hechavarria immigrated to New York with her mother, Danis “La Mora” Pérez, when she was 13. Pérez, a world-renowned dancer, started the Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble shortly after arriving in the U.S. For the past 15 years, the company has educated New Yorkers on the evolution of African dance culture in the west and dazzled them with lively, colorful performances.

This year should have been a year of celebration for Hechevarria and her family. Pérez had survived cancer. The company was turning 15. Hechavarria’s classes were growing, and she was going back to school to finish her Dance Performance degree. But COVID came, and dance performance went the way of live music, theater and drinking at bars. Shows were cancelled, studios shuttered, human contact prohibited. No stranger to the forces of nature, Hechavarria adapted.

I documented the muted finale of Hechavarria’s year in dance—an outdoor Femininity Flow class, an online rumba lesson, and Oyu Oro’s unofficial 15th anniversary show.

Hechavarria coaches a student one-on-one during her Orisha Femininity Flow class at the Prospect Park Boathouse. Photo by Raphael Helfand

Hechavarria observes her Orisha Femininity Flow students as they channel the forces of nature through dance. Photo by Raphael Helfand

“Your skirt is you movement,” Hechavarria tells her students. “It’s part of you.” Photo by Raphael Helfand

From left: Elsa Cruz, Isabel Estrada Jamison and Liethis Hechavarria pose in front of the Manhattan skyline at the Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble’s unofficial 15th-anniversary show at Pier 1, Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo by Raphael Helfand

From left: Roman Diaz, Eliezer “Che Che” Mendoza and Dylan Blanch set the beat for the Oyu Oro dancers. Photo by Raphael Helfand

Ethan Wagner takes centerstage at Pier 1. Photo by Raphael Helfand

Halima Lugent looks to Danis “La Mora” Pérez (offscreen) for instruction. Photo by Raphael Helfand

Hechavarria’s cousin, Alexander La Rosa, sprints across the Pier 1 stage. Photo by Raphael Helfand

Passersby stop to watch Oyu Oro’s anniversary show, from a distance. Photo by Raphael Helfand

Hechavarria and Isabel Estrada Jamison trade contactless blows near the end of the anniversary performance. Photo by Raphael Helfand

The Oyu Oro Afro-Cuban Experimental Dance Ensemble poses for a final portrait before dispersing for the winter. Danis “La Mora” Pérez (center, sunglasses, floral dress) has led the company for its entire 15-year run. Photo by Raphael Helfand

In November, as COVID cases start to spike again, Hechavarria takes her teaching online. Here, she walks her weekly Cuban rumba class through some skirt-work. Photo by Raphael Helfand