Atlantic City’s Dante Hall Theater for the Arts celebrated Hispanic culture Sunday afternoon in a way that would not have been possible a year ago.
Children from the Azteca Organization danced in traditional Mexican garb, actors performed scenes from an original play and writer Ottis Blades, of Atlantic City, read from his Spanish poetry collection to mark the culmination of the three-day festival.
None of that would have been possible without the reopening of Dante Hall earlier this year, said event organizer Carlos Espinal, of the city’s South Inlet neighborhood.
“This is just the beginning. It’s wonderful to see different aspects of our culture come together,” said Espinal, who is also the director of the Bilingual Theater of the Americas. “Even if people didn’t come out for this event, they should know that the theater is here. It’s a different option for residents to be able to come out and entertain yourself, to express yourself.”
Dante Hall was built in 1926 by St. Michael’s Church and was used as a gymnasium. But when the church shut down the school in the late 1980s, the building remained unused until the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority funded a $3.5 million renovation transforming the space into a 240-seat theater. It closed in 2009 due to funding issues.
Located in the city’s Ducktown neighborhood and referred to by some as a focal point for a planned arts district, Dante Hall reopened in April after The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey struck an agreement with the Diocese of Camden to help run the venue.
The crowd that gathered for Sunday’s events was modest — not exceeding 50 people — but enthusiastic. They cheered as the children from the Azteca Organization — between the ages of 5 and 11 — stomped and spun, and they laughed loudly as actors performed Spanish dialogue on stage.
Espinal said he would have preferred a larger group but acknowledged that acclimating people to the theater again is a learning process, as many still might not realize it’s open and hosting regular events.
“The majority of the people in the neighborhood around this theater are Hispanic. I hope that we can attract more interest,” Espinal said. “But even if you’re not Hispanic, there’s still something to appreciate.”
The three-day event also featured a gallery of artwork created by Hispanic artists and musical performances by three Latino singers and composers.
Theater manager Stephanie Clineman said the cultural event was the first of its kind since the theater reopened.
“This really is the beginning for us. It’s the beginning of bringing new life back to the theater,” Clineman said.
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