On Sunday, May 1st, the Maru Montero Dance Company will be dancing on the National Mall as part of the Cinco de Mayo festival (for more details, see http://marumontero.com/cinco.htm.) They will mostly be at the Sylvan Stage, which is on the South Side of the Mall, just east of the Washington Monument, near 15th Street NW and Independence Avenue. Following a noon parade, they’ll be dancing from about 12:30-1:00 and again from about 3:30 to 4:30. You should go. This is why:
The Kids: My daughters will be dancing with Maru’s other Mini- and Micro-Monteros. At Thursday night’s practice, Maru ran the kids through the dances again and again, drilling steps they half knew until, by the end of practice, the kids were sweaty and scared. I’m not especially worried. I went through this last year, and I know that the magic will happen—that along with the make up and fancy flowers in their hair, the flowing skirts and bright white shirts, the energy from the audience and the thrill of being out on the huge stage in front of live Mariachis, these children’s slumping, half-attentive bodies will suddenly produce the steps they’ve been practicing all year. And even if they don’t, these little children—most, but not all, with Latino heritage—will be up there on stage stomping their feet and swirling their skirts, celebrating Mexico, performing the steps all Mexican children learn in school, and it will be lovely (at least to their parents).
The Dancing: A former lead dancer with the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, Maru doesn’t usually dance with her troupe, but her passion and experience shine through her choreography and direction. Simultaneously warm and forbidding, she envisions the dances and then creates them out of the dancers. The traditional dances come from different regions of Mexico, and each has its own costume and music (the adult troupe will be performing some dances from Argentina as well). In many of them, a 1-2-3 beat, referred to as “zapateado de tres,” serves as a base for all kinds of intricate steps—kicking a toe back, a heel forward, swishing the ball of the foot and then clicking the heel, moving to one or the other side, crossing and re-crossing a foot behind or in front of a leg and then back—that are performed at lightning speed and to very precise counts so that everyone’s feet fly and then stop at precisely the same time. Along with these intricate, demanding steps, the women do skirt work with big double skirts that they hold out, arms slightly curved so that the skirts hide their elbows and form a graceful flowing line, and twirl with the same kind of minute and precisely timed variations as the steps. The men mostly hold their arms straight behind their backs as anchors for their steps. When a group performs, the dancers become a kaleidoscope of color and movement, creating an amazing and celebratory energy whose power, like other folk dances, comes in part from the history of the steps having been performed all over Mexico for many, many years and in part from the efforts of the people on stage.
The Dancers, among them Karla and Alfonso: Karla grew up in Tijuana. While she learned ballet folklorico in school, as do all Mexican children, for many years she focused on ballet, modern, and jazz dancing. When she first came to the D.C. area, she taught salsa and mambo. It was only when her studio partner moved to New York seven years ago that she joined Maru Montero’s company and seriously began to dance folklorico. She told me she practices the steps while waiting for the metro, with her earphones on, and other commuters look at her as if she is crazy. The dances exist within her as she goes through her day as a pre-school teacher in a Montessori program, helping children pick out activities, cleaning hands, passing out lunches, and comforting hurt feelings on the playground. She told me that sometimes it is too much to carry within her along with work, her daughter, a move out to Woodbridge and back again to D.C.. At times she has quit, saying she would never go back. And yet she has always come back. On stage she is stunning, all smoldering passion and searing eyes.
Alfonso grew up in Tamaulipas, Mexico, a border state where horrific mass graves have recently been found. Alfonso first learned Ballet Folklorico in the courtyard of his middle school with his entire class. But the dance teacher invited him to practice with his troupe, because he thought he had promise. When, months later, Alfonso told his parents he’d started dancing because he needed their permission to go to Mexico City to perform, he learned for the first time that his father, too, had been a dancer, and had even had his own studio before he’d gotten married and had kids. By 9th grade, Alfonso was dancing all over Tamaulipas, and then all over Mexico in a group called Mextli. He had his own dance group in Mexico for a few years and then moved to the United States. He works as a handyman, doing remodeling, construction, and gardening. He has been with Maru Montero’s group since 1998, when he moved to Washington, D.C. He said he told his wife, who doesn’t dance, that he would quit dancing after 25 years, which gives him two more years of dancing to go. His lightness, grace, and precision come from these years of holding onto the dance even when the many pressures of adult life—marriage, a child, work, money, time—would have made quitting the easier path to take.
These dancers, and others who will be on the stage with them, have committed themselves to the dance because they love it. They, and their dances, have something to offer all of us who are humbled and inspired by the drive of the human spirit to create meaning through art, and to offer that meaning to others. That is why you should go.