CALIFORNIA — On Wednesdays and Saturdays this summer, the sound of metal on concrete and faint mariachi music echoed from the Proctor Park picnic shelter. Sometimes the tempo picked up and loud stomps punctuated the cadence. It was the “Jalisco,” or perhaps the “Costa Chica.”
Inside the shelter, girls twirled in frilly and brightly-colored traditional Mexican dresses. The boys wore black “El Charro” brand boots with nails pounded into the heels to make spinning easier. It was a hot day, so many of the boys wore jean shorts, leaving an awkward patch of bare, hairy leg between the boots and the denim.
Myriam Dominguez commanded the attention of her adolescent dancers as she choreographed their steps and spins. She sniffed the red shawl draped over her arms and laughed, admitting that it smelled of sweat.
After finishing a dance, the kids dispersed briefly to watch a DVD, “Folklorico: Volumen IV,” on a television that is brought to the shelter each week. After analyzing the steps, they talked about what they saw and went back to work.
It was a typical practice for the Hispanic Heritage Dance Group, which is based in Jefferson City. The group performs traditional Mexican folkloric dances at cultural festivals, Mexican holiday celebrations and in elementary and high schools.
It began loosely in 2001. Myriam Dominguez, and her husband, Edgar, and Myriam’s sister, Maria Cepeda, and her husband, Antonio, danced at small events such as reunions and barbecues. They used to practice in the Dominguezes’ garage.
“We started dancing for ourselves,” Edgar Dominguez said. But they always had some material ready in case they were asked to perform.
Folkloric dance is familiar to the Dominguezes and reminds them of living in Mexico. “Just to listen to the music makes my heart beat faster,” Myriam Dominguez said.
The Dominguezes and the Cepedas grew up in Chihuahua, Mexico, and have danced since they were in grade school. Edgar Dominguez and Antonio Cepeda competed and often placed in regional contests.
The Dominguezes and the Cepedas moved to the U.S. in 1995. They continue dancing to expose their kids to Hispanic culture and traditions.
“I dance because I want my son to like it,” Antonio Cepeda said. “But he doesn’t want to practice. He wants to stay home and watch TV.”
Even so, Cepeda’s son, Christian, seems to like it, his father said as his son danced a few feet away in the picnic pavilion.
After dancing for a few years, the four were performing at festivals around Missouri. They decided they wanted to expand the group. They went to California, Mo., where they knew there was a large Latino community and invited children to dance with them. “Suddenly we had 45 people in the group,” Myriam Dominguez said.
In 2005, Roberta Magai got involved through a friendship with Maria Cepeda and eventually became the group’s executive director. For the last two years the Hispanic Heritage Dance Group has received money through a grant for obesity prevention from Missouri’s Office of Minority Health.
Complying with the grant’s requirements, the group is busier than ever. They practice at least two to three times a week and perform at least once a month — more during September and October for the numerous Hispanic Heritage Month events in Missouri (see the group’s schedule, next page).
“Believe me, we get real tired,” Myriam Dominguez said. “We have three kids, 17, 12 and 9. Homework takes so long. And sometimes I want to quit.”
“But I think of the kids and that they need me and they enjoy [dancing],” she said. “And we are the only [Hispanic dance] group around here in this area, so I feel a commitment to keep doing it because I know nobody else is going to give their time.”
When practice is over and the kids gather around a laptop computer to look over pictures from a recent trip to St. Louis, it’s clear that what Dominguez says is true, that they are “more than a dance group,” they are a “big family.”
Giggles break into an amplified, “eeewwwww,” when one of the girls is shown standing next to a boy in a cowboy hat.
“The kids, they really like it,” Edgar Dominguez said of the dancing, “When it is time to leave, they don’t want to go home.”
Although some of the children had danced before while living in Mexico, most were first exposed to traditional Hispanic dancing in Missouri. “When [the kids] started dancing they were real shy,” Edgar Dominguez said. “When you put the couples together, the man and girl...”
Myriam finishes the sentence for him: “They didn’t want to touch each other.”
But now they have become better dancers and semi-celebrities in their community. “They feel really important,” Edgar Dominguez said. “When somebody recognizes them in the street, they feel so proud.”
The kids who dance with the Hispanic Heritage Dance Group grow up between two worlds — living U.S. lives while their parents want them to understand their roots in Mexico, a country most of them left when they were so young they have few memories of the place.
Group member Hector Calzadillas, 18, is an exception: He remembers it well. Born in Chihuahua, he lived in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, soon after. “I was raised in, I guess you would call it, the ghettos,” Calzadillas said.
When he was 8 years old, he moved to Jefferson City where his mother was already living and where they live still. Calzadillas says he feels like Missouri is his home and that he doesn’t miss Mexico much. “My parents are over here,” he said. “I was pretty much raised here.”
Two years ago Calzadillas started dancing with the group. At first he was hesitant — he didn’t think he could get the moves down. But he improved quickly and even danced in front of his friends and classmates at his high school, Jefferson City High.
But he wasn’t nervous. “Whenever I got out in front of everybody it felt good,” he said. “I liked looking around and seeing a lot of faces that I knew, and a lot of people just looked at me and smiled.”
Dancing with the group has also helped him relate to his family. “I talked to my grandparents, and they asked me what dances I did, and my grandfather told me he had done a few [of the same dances],” he said. “And I was like, ‘Dang, they go back that far.’”