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News | Health Education and Human Sciences | AlumniJanuary 24, 2023

For the Love of Dance and Language

Written By: Antoinette Grajeda

Dance is a joyful practice for Isaac Navarro, UAFS class of ’12, who shares that joy with the community as a Zumba instructor at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith’s Recreation and Wellness Center and Mercy Fitness Center. He also incorporates his love of movement into the classroom as a Spanish teacher at Southside High School.

“When I’m doing it, I feel happy,” he said. “It comes to me easily, and the music gives me energy. That makes me able to give to somebody else, and … I try to transmit it to my students.”

A veteran teacher of 10 years, Navarro uses dancing to engage with his students, which has the bonus of helping him stay in shape.

“My purpose is to try to have fun, and they learn the language and the culture, and I like to sing and dance even though I don’t do it well,” he said with a laugh.  

Navarro learned to love dancing regardless of his ability in El Salvador when he performed with a team sponsored by his high school. Born and raised in the capital city of San Salvador, Navarro practiced every day after school with a dance squad of 25 to 30 guys.

“It’s just more common over there because we don’t focus so much on technique,” he said. “It’s more like you like to dance? Let’s try to do the steps together to a song.”

Fort Smith is roughly 2,200 miles from San Salvador. A civil war in the 1980s prompted his grandmother to move to the United States. More family members followed, and they eventually made their way from California to Arkansas. Navarro’s mother also came to the US, and when she obtained her citizenship, she brought her son, who’s now a citizen as well.

“It’s a long process,” he said.

Navarro moved to the US in 2006 at the age of 20, and in 2007, he enrolled at UAFS intending to become a Spanish teacher. As a native speaker, Navarro thought he could be a good instructor. He also pursued a career in education to provide better representation for minority students. 

“I wanted to show students of color, minorities that you can be a professional,” he said. “They can see me, and then they hopefully see themselves because we have a lot of Hispanic people here — El Salvadorans, Mexicans — in Fort Smith, and we don’t have that many Hispanic teachers.”


UAFS provided a comfortable environment where Navarro could study to become a teacher. He liked the smaller campus and said the professors were very approachable and willing to provide help right away. 

“Once you get into your specialty or whatever you actually wanted to do, the classes become even smaller, and it becomes almost like a family because only those people take those classes … . It’s very individualized, and you get a lot more one-on-one (attention) compared to what I would think would be a bigger campus,” he said.

Navarro appreciates that his professors were former teachers, which allowed him to learn from instructors with real classroom experience. He also enjoyed taking Spanish classes from native speakers.

“Most of the professors here are heritage speakers — they’re either [from] Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru — and it was more authentic than somebody that learned the language later on,” he said.

Navarro interned at Ramsey Junior High School (now Ramsey Middle School). The teacher mentoring him retired in 2012 — the same year Navarro graduated from college — so the UAFS alum could take over the position that fall. He taught Spanish at Ramsey for eight years before moving to Southside High School, where he is beginning his third year.  

 When the Fort Smith school district ends its academic year, Navarro continues teaching Spanish through the summer as an Upward Bound instructor at UAFS. Funded by the US Department of Education, the program helps prepare low-income students to succeed in high school and post-secondary education. 

Many of the program’s participants and Navarro’s students at Southside will be first-generation college students. Some of Navarro’s family attended college in El Salvador, but he was the first to graduate from a university in the US and navigated the system alone. Now he uses his experience to help guide students who want to attend college 

“I had to do it all by myself, and I’m like, hey guys, you have to start thinking about your future, what you can do, and what classes you can take,” he said. “And if you don’t want to take any Spanish classes because you already know that, I’m here to support you,” he said.

Even if his students don’t earn a degree in Spanish, simply learning a new language is a beneficial skill. 

“It doesn’t matter if it’s Spanish, it could be German, it could be French, learning another language opens so many doors not only travel-wise, but business-wise, but also how you learn and how you see the world,” he said. “And even your English gets better by learning another language.”