During the winter months at Zuni Pueblo, the Zuni Youth Enrichment Project provides instruction in traditional social dances at Zuni Middle School and Shiwi Ts’ana Elementary School. Leading the way is dance instructor Tiana Cachini, 22.

Tiana was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and she spent her childhood in Zuni before relocating with her family to Albuquerque. In the city, she had access to educational opportunities that broadened her horizons — and her interests.

“My mom was hesitant about public middle school, because she felt it would be too big,” Tiana remembers. “So she enrolled me at Horizon Academy West, a public charter school, for sixth grade. From there, I applied to the Public Academy for the Performing Arts.”

Attending PAPA from seventh to 12th grade, Tiana studied modern dance and ballet; she also participated in the school’s theater program and audition-only choir. She thrived in the school’s creative environment, so when her family made the decision to return to Zuni after her graduation, she says she was hesitant.

“It was a big change to come back at the age of 19,” she says. “But I’m so glad I did.”

Realizing she didn’t know what she wanted to pursue, Tiana opted to take some time off before pursuing post-secondary education. She worked as a Starbucks barista in 2019, and took on a role in ZYEP’s annual Delap’na:we Zuni Winter Storytelling Project in 2020.

“I played a little rabbit in the theatrical performance,” she recalls with a laugh. “My involvement with ZYEP snowballed from there. Tahlia (Natachu, youth development coordinator) had an opportunity to participate in a trip to the Grand Canyon. We were only gone for four days, but we came back to a different world; the Covid-19 pandemic had just blown up. Life changed forever.”

Fortunately, ZYEP adapted quickly and developed an innovative virtual version of its acclaimed summer camp. Joining the team as a camp counselor, Tiana and Enric Tsalate, ZYEP’s built environment leader, created a special presentation about traditional Zuni clothing, jewelry, and building materials for their fellow counselors.

“It was great,” Tiana says, “and it really triggered my interest in becoming a more permanent part of the ZYEP team. When they announced they were looking for a traditional dance instructor for the school program, it was perfect for me. I’ve been part of a traditional dance group since I was 4 or 5 years old, and I love it.”

ZYEP’s nine-week social dances program combines traditional dance with a nutrition component. Tiana and fellow instructor Edward Lewis focus on the dance instruction while Jessica Quinlan, ZYEP’s nutrition coordinator, teaches the young people about nutritious foods, making healthy choices, and even preparing delicious recipes with simple ingredients at home.

“We have 15 kids in the middle school program, and it’s really exciting,” Tiana says. “You just don’t expect middle schoolers to be into it, but they are. And as much as I love dancing, I really love informing the next generation.”

Tiana also is providing instruction to hundreds of elementary school students, involving them in ZYEP’s 3rd annual Delap’na:we theater project, which will be an online performance this year. She’s teaching the young children about modern theater, and how to perform a song that’s in a traditional Zuni story.

“They’re learning how to use different tones and how to convey emotions,” she says. “This month, they recorded themselves for the voice-over, which was really exciting for them.”

Tiana says her ZYEP experiences have illuminated her path forward. Just three years ago, she didn’t know what her future would hold. Now, she says she has fallen in love with elementary education.

“It really opened my eyes, working with the schools,” she explains. “This has been a great preview of what my life could be like. I’m back in school full time, taking classes online through Central New Mexico Community College. I’m planning to transfer to the University of New Mexico for my degree in education — I want to be a teacher.”