"Desde el principio!" dance instructor Emilio Rivas says from the middle of a rehearsal studio in Santa Ana. "From the beginning!"
Mariachi music cues dancers from Relámpago del Cielo. Men cross from one side of the studio to greet women at the opposite end. The men twirl a bandana above their heads while women perform traditional faldeo movements with long, ruffled skirts in hand. The gracefulness of their dance turns into a thunderous sound with zapateado, lightning quick percussive heel steps, creating a rumble below the studio's floor. The mariachi song comes to its "tan-tan" finale with the dancers turning their heads for a would-be kiss. Rosie Peña, the dance company's founder, leans on the ballet bars taking in the legacy of her vision that began decades ago.
The seeds of what would become Relámpago del Cielo Grupo Folklórico were sowed in 1975 when Peña taught Mexican folkloric dance classes at Santa Ana College. One day after class, a dozen students approached her with the idea of starting a ballet folklórico group. "The sincerity with which those students wanted to learn their culture is what got to me more than anything," Peña says. "They literally begged me." Having grown up in East Los Angeles, Peña danced professionally under the discipline of serious teachers. She relented to her students' pleas but not without a caution. "You don't know what you're asking for," Peña told them. "This is my stipulation: You have to do what I say!"
With the ground rules firmly established, classes for the new group took place late at night on Tuesdays and Thursdays at Santa Ana College. The first performance came at the school's Phillips Hall that same year. Cinco de Mayo celebrations the following year increased demand for the group still without a name. The gig at UC Irvine required a contract, pushing the issue.
The dancers spent one night at Peña's house brainstorming ideas. "We toyed with 'Dorados de Santa Ana' because it's the Golden City," she recalls. When the name didn't stick, Peña turned to playing albums when the "El Relámpago" came on. The night dragged on until 2 a.m., when a student finally suggested "Relámpago del Cielo," or "Lightning From the Sky" to complete the group's new identity. "Okay, we can always change the name later!" Peña said.
But the name stuck when the group became more than just an informal ensemble. "We decided to move forward and take Relámpago del Cielo to another level," Peña says. "Everybody did all the paperwork to become a non-profit." Relámpago del Cielo also became incorporated later in 1976. With the Chicano Movement inspiring youth to learn more about their culture, ballet folklórico groups existed in LA, but Relámpago del Cielo stood out as a rarity in OC.
Peña never pushed her own daughters to dance, but they decided to anyway. Marlene Peña-Marin, 52, took classes as a kid and later became part of the company in 1982 while a teenager. A few years later in 1986, Rosie approached Marlene to take an expanded role by teaching children's classes. "I immediately realized how much I loved working with the kids and how rewarding it was," Marlene says. "I always felt that I had a natural ability to dance and giving it back to the kids was just so fulfilling." Two years later, Rosie, a single-mother stretched too thin, retired from Relámpago del Cielo.
The organization had its share of ups and downs but never folded throughout the decades. Some years it solely taught ballet fólklorico classes without having a dance company. And in 40 years, it's never had a place of its own to call home. "From day one of the original dancers, the big picture plan was to have our own cultural center or studio where we could do more than just teach dance," Marlene says. "Finding that space has always been a challenge." In the meantime, they set up at various schools in Santa Ana, scuffing up the floors with their dance shoes much to the chagrin of custodial staff. The city helped find them places, but that usually meant basements.
When the Orange County School of the Arts opened up, it seemed like a prime opportunity for Relámpago del Cielo. In 2001, they rented two dance studios in exchange for helping increase Latino enrollment at the Santa Ana school and have remained there ever since. The stability allowed for Relámpago del Cielo to grow from having 75 students to now more than 280. They offer three classes for beginner, intermediate and advanced dancers with nine levels. Most of the company dancers, following in Marlene's dance steps, now teach.
Marlene became a full time ballet folklórico instructor at OCSA and officially assumed the title of artistic director of Relámpago del Cielo in 2003. The organization returned to full strength in 2008 when the dancers urged her to bring the company back. "I sat the advanced dancers down, just like my mom did, and said 'if we're going to do this, we all have to be committed to do this,'' she says. "Most of them are still here."
The legacy of Relámpago del Cielo is a lasting one, helping to graduate professional dancers, teachers and other working professionals. But it's not just the kids who gain confidence from culture. "We've really been a positive influence in the city," Marlene says. "For our students to go and perform, we're educating the community about our culture."
With a 40th anniversary milestone to commemorate, Relámpago del Cielo is planning a celebration that will offer audiences lessons about the history of the group through dance. They invited alumni to come back and perform for a pair of weekend shows at Irvine's Barclay Theatre. "Of course, we're all a little older, and heavier, but the art can't be taken away," Peña, now 73, jokes. "We coerced her out of retirement," Marlene says of her mom. Though Peña taught dance with Relámpago del Cielo for many years, she hasn't performed onstage since Marlene was just three months old.
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The anniversary show will pay homage to the various styles Peña mastered such as tropical, rumba and flamenco when dancing professionally in the late 1950s. It will also honor the multigenerational reach of Relámpago del Cielo in a personal way with a dance featuring Peña; Marlene; and Marlene's two daughters, Madeleine and Melina.
Peña puts on her white dancing boots and heads back into the studio. The violin sounds from a regional song about Tecolotlán in Jalisco, Mexico, while gritos echo off the walls. Relámpago del Cielo dancers begin another choreographed routine that is practiced into perfection under the watch of its founding mother.
"Now here we are 40 years later and it's still in existence," Peña says. "I'm in awe."
Relámpago del Cielo perform their 40th anniversary concert at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (949) 854-4646; thebarclay.org. Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. $35. All ages.