Carmen Sofia Dence, 2023 Living Traditions Sustainer Fellow
Carmen Sofia Dence, St. Louis, Mo.
Colombian Folkloric Dancer, Choreographer, Costume Maker, Founding Director–Grupo Atlántico
Carmen Sofia Dence learned to dance as a child in her local barrio (neighborhood) in Barranquilla, Colombia from her mother, her aunt, local elders, and her peers. In her coastal state, the music and dances are imbued with indigenous, Spanish, and African influences. She is proud to share with others the vitality of dance from her hometown, the site of a spectacular four day extravagant carnaval that precedes the Lenten season. As a young adult, Dence made her way from Colombia to the United States to pursue her university education in the sciences. She and her husband Joseph, also a scientist, then settled in St. Louis in the late seventies, where they pursued research and taught at Washington University. She says Cardinals baseball was also a compelling reason to stay. She now has lived in St. Louis for over forty years, where she spent decades at Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University, retiring in 2015 as an Associate Professor.
Dence tends to her lifelong passion for dance via Grupo Atlántico St. Louis, the dance troupe she founded in 1995. They perform often at Missouri History Museum, Festival of Nations, and other key events in metro St. Louis. As Missouri Touring Performers through Missouri Arts Council’s directory, Grupo Atlántico has performed around the state and in the Mid-America region. In 2012, Dence founded Dancing Damsels, a troupe of “seasoned seniors” dedicated to artistry and activity for life.
She is a previous recipient of the 2022 Missouri Arts Award for Individual Artist; 2019 St. Louis Visionary Award for Outstanding Teaching Artist; and 2019 Anthony B. Ramirez Esperanza Award, among others. Dence additionally has conducted school residencies, exhibited a custom-tailored costume at the Museum of Art and Archaeology, and taught five apprenticeships since 1994 in the Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program.
Nominator Denise Henry wrote of Dence: “Carmen’s performances have touched thousands of lives, both audiences and dancers. Carmen has also had an impact on many who have arrived here in St. Louis from South America, Central America, Mexico, and especially those from her home of Colombia, South America. She has especially held a welcome mat to those who have traveled to St. Louis for educational, career opportunities, or other purposes. She has warmly become a connection through the shared similarities of the culture and the ‘language of dance’.”
In 2021, Dence helped celebrate a special occasion– Missouri’s 2021 Bicentennial when she performed cumbia with Moises Sosa in the finale of a set performed by Pablo Sanhueza and his Kansas City Latin Jazz Orchestra on stage in Jesse Hall in Columbia, Mo. KCLJO’s performance is linked below, beginning at 2:16:06. The especial cumbia performed by Dence and Sosa is at 2:48:54.