Latin American dancing flourishes in Minnesota

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May is a busy month for Latin American dance groups in the Twin Cities. What with three Cinco de Mayo celebrations, the Festival of Nations, and May Day, groups that celebrate traditional Latin American dances are busy.

Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc and Los Alegre Bailadores regularly perform at such events as Cinco de Mayo festivals, Landmark Center events, and other large festivals. Grupo de Quetzal, while a new group, is a re-organization of an older tradition of dancers that began in the 1970s. Many other Latin American groups dance in Minnesota. If you are a member of a group, or if you know about a group, please add the name and contact information for the group as a comment to this article. We would like to gather a list of many local groups and make it available to the public.

Danza Mexica Cuauhtemoc

In the mid-1990s, student groups at Saint Cloud State were fighting for a cultural center to promote diversity, and a list of other demands, said Felipe Espinoza-Day, one of the participants in Cuauhtemoc. Espinoza-Day said at that time the students conducted a hunger strike, and had ceremonies that celebrated the campus’s indigenous background. The students brought Steve Casanova, a professor from Texas, who knew some of the ancient dances of Aztec culture, and he taught the students the dances.

The open circle of dancers, called Cuauhtemoc, now resides in the Twin Cities and aims to promote and preserve multiculturalism. The group consists of 40 people, and they can regularly be seen at festivals, special events, and in the work they do with public schools.

Espinoza-Day said that the group doesn’t perform, but rather conducts ceremonies. Ceremonies are held to celebrate events, but also to commemorate four stages of life. The stages of life are ages 0-13, 13-26, 26-39, and 39-59. The ceremonies aren’t about the person, but about the stage. “It’s a teaching tool,” Espinoza-Day said. “Each ceremony is different, that there was no right or wrong way.”

As the participants learn the dances, they earn articles of their dress. A new dancer first earns his or her chachayotes, which are worn around the ankles and make a jingling sound. As the dancer advances they earn the right to wear a splendor, a fancier traje than a beginner gets to wear. Eventually a dancer earns an copílle, a headdress.

Espinoza-Day said that Danza is an open circle, and that anyone seeking to learn may come to their weekly sessions. The schedule can be found on their website. He said children too young to learn, or pregnant women who cannot participate may sit in the middle of the circle and absorb the drums.

While Cuauhtemoc is a grassroots gathering of people, it is affiliated with Ce Tempoxcalli, a nonprofit organization that sprang from the open circle, said Tara Chadwick, a coordinator for the group. Ce Tempoxcalli works toward cultural development of the Latino Community. Its main project, Chalchiutlicue, aims to increase Latino participation in environmental issues. They will hold a summit May 29-31 at various locations in the Twin Cities. The conference will include presentations by students and community leaders, and will also include a march on Saturday beginning at 11 a.m. at the American Indian Center, followed by a ceremony at 1 p.m. at Powderhorn Park.

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Los Alegre Bailadores

Los Alegre Bailadores is a Ballet Folklorico group that has been around for 30 years. The group, which consists of adults and children, practices every week at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Saint Paul. The adults, who practice three times a week, also act as teachers for the children’s groups.

Wendy Everett, who was born in El Salvador, said that many of the members of the group aren’t Mexican, where the Folklorico dances come from, but she said the important thing was that they were teaching children about culture. “It’s good for their confidence,” Everett said.

The group performs at schools, festivals, at weddings, and thrives on word of mouth. “We don’t have a website,” said Everett, “but we’re on pretty much any search engine.”

Everett said the group recently got back from Crookston, where they saw the devastating effect of the floods. The dancers were surprised by how many Latinos were living that far north. “These people worked so hard coping with the floods,” said Everett. “They just embraced us. We were so happy to share, to have other people enjoy the dances as much as we do.”

Grupo De Quetzal

Azeta Garthune and her friend Amy Sjellman met when they were attending the University of Minnesota and they realized that they had danced together as young girls in the Twin Cities. Their parents had an informal Guatemalan Folklorico dance group that performed throughout the community at schools, festivals, and organizations while they were growing up. The group didn’t have a name. It was just a gathering of people who wanted to participate in the cultural dances of their heritage and share them with the community. The group had formed in the 70s, and had disbanded. Garthune and Sjellman decided to revive the group in order to keep the culture alive. They formed Las Niñas del Quetzal in the summer of 2008 for young girls, and Las Mujeres del Quetzal for women in the fall of 2008. The group stirred interest with men as well, so the adult group has changed its name to Grupo de Quetzal, and includes six men and six women dancers.

Garthune and Sjellman remembered some of the dances from when they were young, but they also contacted elders from the community to re-teach the dances. They practice once a week, and perform throughout the year. They performed at the Festival of Nations, at Intermedia Arts, and have an upcoming performance at the Minnesota Immigration Reform Conference.

The dances that Las Niñas and Grupo del Queztal perform incorporate indigenous and ceremonial dances of Guatemala. Some of the dances include offerings to the four directions, but there are also more social dances such as the Rebozo (shawl) dance, which celebrates daily life and having a good time.

In Grupo del Queztal, each woman wears a traje (traditional tunic) from a different region of Guatemala. The trajes are hand-woven, brought from the group members’ travels to the regions.

Garthune said her favorite thing about the group is that “It’s very social. I get to be with my friends.” With the girl’s group, she hopes that she can teach first and second generation children to re-claim their identity and cultivate pride in their heritage. Garthune said that when she started she thought it would just be for fun, but now she’s realizing that there’s a high demand for what they do, and the group may consider establishing non-profit status in order to support their growing organization.

Many other Latin American groups dance in Minnesota. If you are a member of a group, or if you know about a group, please add the name and contact information for the group as a comment to this article. We would like to gather a list of many local groups and make it available to the public.

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.

Tara Chadwick, one of the sources for this story, worked as a teaching artist at Teatro del Pueblo, where the author of this article works.

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