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Mexico's Lively, Colorful Dances Kept Alive in Unlikely Places

September 04, 1986|EILEEN SONDAK

SAN DIEGO — The brassy effervescence of a mariachi band echoed through the Santa Fe depot in downtown San Diego as dancers from El Grupo Folklorico Chicano gathered at the entrance.

It was America's Finest City Week and the Fiesta Mexicana was bustling with activity inside the old railroad station as the dancers--decked out in full regalia for a folk performance--prepared to play their part in the festivities.

Yolanda Guzman, an 11-year-old dancer with almost a year of experience with the troupe, was the first to arrive. Her mother, Cathy, used to dance with the group, and performing folklorico dancing has become "a family tradition," she explained as she fussed over Yolanda's embroidered costume.

Soon a carload of kids from 3 to 12 were rushing toward Yolanda, eager to begin showing off the new dances from the Mexican state of Guerrero that they had learned. Directors Glory Galindo Sanchez and Rafael Sanchez (no relation) readied the props for the performance, surveyed the performing space and patiently kept the little ones in line.

Pint-sized Tajin Sanchez, Rafael's son, is only 3. He busied himself by fiddling with his shiny black boots as the girls adjusted their dangling gold earrings and put the finishing touches on their stage makeup in the makeshift green room behind the lobby that would serve as a stage.

When the group got the signal to start, even the rambunctious younger dancers, who had been horsing around on the sidelines like any other kids, lined up with smiling faces for their energetic entrance.

As Rafael announced, the program would consist of a suite of dances from Guerrero. Although there are six regions in Guerrero, only dances from Costa Chica, Tierra Caliente and Centro were used. The costumes--colorful turquoise skirts with embroidered cotton overblouses for the girls, and white cotton suits with colorful panuelos (scarfs) worn cowboy-style around the neck for the boys--would be as close as possible to those indigenous to Costa Chica.

All the dancers in the company participated in the Chilean-influenced dances of Costa Chica, circling their partners with gusto and tapping out the fancy footwork according to their abilities. It was a spirited performance that compensated for any lack in formal technique, and even the youngest dancers in the ensemble had something to contribute.

They took the greatest personal pleasure from la iguana, a dance depicting the slithering moves of a lizard. Here the boys had a field day, pouncing on the ground with each attack, as the giggling girls fended off their aggressions with swinging kerchiefs.

The ebullient finale was a May Day celebration that dispersed the dancers in a boisterous procession of swinging sticks and brightly colored paper ornaments. It culminated in a candy-throwing session, to the delight of the audience, just before they all marched off.

A train depot is about the last place dance enthusiasts might expect to see a performance, but it's typical of the types of places Mexican folklorico dance groups call home in San Diego.

Despite the beauty, pageantry and vivid theatricality of Mexican folk dancing, local concert stages rarely showcase these hearty ethnic expressions. Nevertheless, the lively dancing that tells the story of Mexico's colorful past continue to flourish throughout San Diego's bicultural community.

Folk dancing thrives in offbeat settings--fueled by the enthusiasm of a few teachers and nourished by a new generation eager to absorb the dancing traditions.

The tenets of Mexican folk dance are taught in classrooms and cultural centers throughout the county, and several public schools, such as Sweetwater High, have formed folk groups of their own. Although individual ensembles come and go, these amateurs and a few professional troupes keep the art form alive by performing in schools or parks, and for private parties and conventions.

As a result, visitors to Balboa Park, Old Town or other public places are likely to see folk dancing performed outdoors--with no theatrical trickery or elaborate settings--often by performers as young as 3.

Centro Promotes Programs

The Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park's Pepper Grove, an institution devoted to Indian, Mexican and Chicano arts and crafts, is a staunch supporter of folk dancing, sponsoring many of the programs throughout the area. The center provides training, workshops and rehearsal space, and organizes community events on both sides of the border to promote appreciation and understanding of folk dancing.

The center has its own troupe, the Ballet Folklorico Aztlan, directed by Viviana Enrique. But as her sister Veronica, director of the cultural center, said in a recent interview, "the center has sponsored many folklorico groups until they've become independent." And most of those groups are either direct offshoots of Folklorico Aztlan or can trace their origins and development to the cultural center.

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