A male dancer is sometimes an oxymoron—though not at Relampago del Cielo Grupo Folklorico rehearsals, at the Orange County High School of the Performing Arts. There, in the fading afternoon light, Latino men of all ages stand in a loose circle and begin the "Hawk" dance under the stern jurisdiction of former artistic director Emilio Rivas.
The neatly dressed Rivas urges the men to listen to the music under the vocals, and they dance, sweeping together two by two. Balancing large blond sombreros with wifebeaters and jeans or, for the younger men, striped warm-up pants, they clasp their hands behind their backs and smooth out their chests like roosters, their feet flicking at the ground in a slapping step designed to mimic a hawk's leathery talons. As they press forward in two lines, their faces are impassive, smooth, proud.
These rehearsals mark the end of more than a year of intense preparation. It was fall 2004 when Marlene Peña-Marin, current artistic director of the nonprofit Mexican cultural dance organization Relampago del Cielo, talked her mother, founding director Rosie Peña, into doing a concert that would involve the community they had served for the past 30 years. What happened to all those kids they trained in the Jarabe Tapatio, the Las Chiapanecas and the La Botella for $25 a month? What about all those dancers who performed with the Santa Ana-based professional company? It was time to find out. They put out press releases, bought ads in local papers and called everyone they knew, telling them to get back to Relampago and start shaking their booties.
"When we first got back together, it was like, 'No way,'" Peña remembers. "We came back with our knee braces and our back braces—it was really funny. But they are looking good. They're pleasantly surprised, and I'm pleasantly surprised."
Alongside the younger members of Relampago, ages 13 to 22, who started rehearsing five months ago, are the mamas and the grandmas rehearsing the Jalisco (one of the most recognized dances in the United States) in skirts threaded with ribbon. The young and the newly in-shape elders place their hands on their hips and smile coquettishly at their partners; the teenage boys look uncomfortable, while the men soak it in with a big grin.
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The nonprofit Relámpago is a family affair in every sense of the word. "We have brothers, sisters, cousins," Peña-Marin declares. Mid-rehearsal, a young man runs up to kiss his slack-jawed grandma, who is sitting in a wheelchair in the hall watching the proceedings. "Estas bien?" he asks before jumping back into the fray. Young and old watch each other and learn: younger dancers respect the expression of the former members, and the alumni marvel at the youthful technique in dances like "La Iguana," where the younger dancers do the worm on the ground and start popping push-ups like agitated lizards or launch into a flurry of high-heeled taps.
Peña and Peña-Marin were surprised to see how many former dancers were eager to get re-involved with their folk-dance past. Their anniversary program reflects the diversity of their repertoire and the 32 states of Mexico. There are dances like the lilting Oaxaca waltz step; Revolucion, a polka-influenced dance from the north of Mexico; and a challenging piece from Nayarit called Los Machetes, where the men dance with very large knives and the ladies twirl their skirts so they spin flat like a plate.
"It took our students a year to master it," Peña-Marin says. Which is time well-spent.
RELÁMPAGO DEL CIELO, GRUPO FOLKLORICO 30TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION, LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, 14900 LA MIRADA BLVD., LA MIRADA, (714) 994-6310 OR (562) 944-9801. SAT., 8 P.M. $15-$35.