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Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice: IFÉ-ILÉ Hopes to Bring Afro-Cuban Dance to the Masses

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The Knight Arts Challenge South Florida 2014 People's Choice Awards nominees are live. The community can vote now through November 17 via text message for one of six selected Knight Arts Challenge finalists to receive $20,000 to fund their projects. It's a text-to-vote campaign: Choose your favorite group and text its code to 22333. Of the 75 finalists, the six People's Choice nominees are small, emerging groups from different parts of South Florida, all working to make the region a better place to live.

Neri Torres, the founder and executive and artistic director of IFÉ-ILÉ Afro-Cuban Dance & Music, is ecstatic about being named one of the finalists for the Knight Arts People's Choice Award.

"It is an incredible honor and an unexpected reward to all the hard work and sacrifice that goes into being an artist," Torres told New Times. "This award, even just as a finalist, contributes to fuel my inspiration and determination to continue on this creative path. It is a breath of fresh air, a burst of faith for me and all of our company performers."

See also: Knight Arts Challenge People's Choice: Mexican American Council Hopes to Open Mariachi Academy

IFÉ-ILÉ is a nonprofit organization that works hard to preserve Afro-Cuban folklore and culture through the arts. The organization aims to create cross-cultural ties and educate Miamians through music performances, festivals, dance performances, workshops, poetry readings, and other outlets.

Torres' life in dance led her to create IFÉ-ILÉ. "I remember being frustrated with the audition process and the lack of opportunities for dancers of [different types] of art forms, such as Afro-Cuban," she said. "Then, around 1994, I started to recruit Cuban dancers who had emigrated in search of a better life and were proficient in this art form as well as competent in traditional concert dance, mostly modern and ballet. By 1996, we were an official organization."

IFÉ-ILÉ began doing commercial and grassroots work at venues such as nightclubs, colleges, elementary schools, and museums.

"My concept was to reach out to all kinds of audiences until we started to grow and were able to showcase our work in theaters," Torres said. "I think that openness and variety have been crucial to the sustainability of our organization over the years, which has been an artistic harbor not only for Cubans but also many other dancers from countries such as Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and Jamaica, to name a few."

IFÉ-ILÉ represents the "wide array of cultures" in Miami, such as Cuba's vibrant and colorful traditions, focusing on the uniqueness of its black heritage, Torres said. The organization also highlights the commonalities among Hispanic, Caribbean, and African-American cultures.

If IFÉ-ILÉ is the People's Choice Award winner, Torres said, the organization will expand one of its biggest events, the annual dance festival.

"I would like to use the funding to expand IFÉ-ILÉ's annual dance festival -- now in its 16th year -- which attracts people from all over the world, featuring seminars in relevant cultural topics by guest scholars, dance and music workshops, and live performances," she said.

Torres also plans to produce an evening-long performance titled Entre Cielo y Tierro, which will explore the Cuban exodus of theMariel Boatlift and its cultural implications in the United States.

"Mariel was one of Cuba's turning points for my generation, like many other moments," she said. "It meant the painful tearing away of the family tapestry. Because the loss of some is sometimes the gain of others, in America, the Mariel Boatlift brought a fresh influx of a lively culture."

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