Constable: Mexican folk dancers help youths celebrate Hispanic heritage
Modern American culture offers youths endless opportunities to watch cat videos on YouTube, play Fortnite online, binge-watch TV shows, hang out at a local place with yummy fries and take selfies of themselves eating those fries. And then there's school, plus violin lessons, soccer, baseball, softball, swimming, tennis, football, scouting groups and school clubs.
That makes it difficult for kids to find time to learn the traditional folk dances of their ancestors.
"For us, it's double the work because our kids don't know our own culture deep enough to interpret the traditional dances from Mexico," says Manuel Cuevas, who pairs with fellow "maestro" Martin Rodriguez to teach dancing to young people in the Grupo De Danza Folklorica Quetzaly dance group in Elgin. "It is our job and responsibility to bring them to these national conferences in Mexico, to witness our tradition and regional dances from the people of Mexico, and to embrace the culture."
The dancers practicing for two hours on a school night in the basement of the Park Manor Bible Chapel in Elgin are smiling and laughing as music fills the space, and they repeat and repeat the intricate movements and steps.
"I like the dances we do," says Antonio Munoz, 13, of Lake in the Hills, an eighth-grader at Heineman Middle School in Algonquin. His father, Miguel, 45, is the music director, and his mother, Marlene, 41, is the vice president of the group. His sisters Marilyn, 18, and Isabella, 11, also dance. That family feeling extends beyond relatives.
"You make a family within this group," says Ashley Gasca, 14, a freshman at South Elgin High School. Her mother, Erika, is the group's president. Her father, Ricardo, is the event coordinator, and her sister Abby, 11, also dances.
"This is our home," Ricardo Gasca says, as kids and adults pack the area that the church gives them four nights a week.
"We see this as a blessing," Marlene Munoz says. "Things just fall into place as they should."
Founded on Nov. 12, 2015, with five dancers, the Quetzaly group now features nine male dancers and 28 females.
"More than anything, it was about finding something positive for our youth to do in their own community," says Cuevas, 54, who works in a factory and lives in Elgin. He started dancing in elementary school and continued it as a hobby even after he graduated from college with a degree in education and became a teacher. "It has been in my blood since I was young."
This past Christmas, Quetzaly took a group of 18 dancers to Iguala, the historic Mexican city where Cuevas grew up and still has family and friends. "It was a very cool experience for the dancers to see where he came from," Marlene Munoz says.
Rodriguez, 54, was a teacher in Mexico for 30 years before moving to Addison. "I've been here nine months, a newborn," he quips. He danced professionally for 11 years and created several award-winning dance troupes in Mexico. Cuevas discovered Rodriguez on Facebook while searching for ways to grow the Mexican folk-dancing group.
The Quetzaly dancers compete in tournaments across the nation and in Mexico, recently bringing home five trophies from a competition in Corpus Christi, Texas. They've invited dancers from Mexico to participate in Quetzaly's third-anniversary performance on Dec. 15 at the Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin.
"We're trying to build that brotherhood in the dance community," Marlene Munoz says. The group draws dancers from Elgin, Round Lake, Bartlett, Huntley, Barrington, St. Charles and other suburbs. All the dancers have some Mexican roots except for one dancer whose family hails from El Salvador.
"We support education and dance at the same time," Marlene Munoz says, noting the not-for-profit group, which charges $30 a month to join and hosts a variety of fundraisers, recently awarded a $1,000 scholarship to a dancer going on to college. Dancers range in age from 5 years old to adults in their 50s. After performing this weekend in Carpentersville and Hanover Park, the group dances Sept. 22 during the Fiesta Familiar at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. For details and information, visit their website at gddfquetzaly.org.
The traditional music, maestros yelling instructions in Spanish, bright costumes and dancing boots with nails in the soles to create the iconic tapping sound give dancers a chance to experience "your culture and your background and where you come from," Ashley Gasca says.
"And," Marlene Munoz says, "it helps our kids get better in Spanish."