|Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance||More Local Groups|
Every motion tells a story
By Shermakaye Bass
Posted: Sept. 16, 1999!--DATE-->
The intermingling of Spanish and English banter grows quiet as two conga drummers strike up a powerful rhythm in a small studio off West Fifth Street. The dancers are being summoned. Men don their straw hats. Women open their fans. Chins go up, shoulders fall back. The members of Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance start to move.
As they launch into rehearsal, their bodies become joyful, then serious, their gestures stylized and then improvised, revealing a series of styles unique to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Danza, bomba. Plena. Each reflects a different aspect of the island's heritage -- Spanish, African, Native -- and at the same time illustrates the melding of those cultures.
"If you want to dance your heritage, you have to know who you are," says the company's director, Ana Maria Maynard, who is helping her burgeoning troupe prepare for performance. The group has gathered for a weekly rehearsal at the Tapestry Dance studio, and the atmosphere crackles with vitality and laughter and genuine studiousness. Dance and music tell the story of a people, Maynard says to her colleagues, who come every week not only to dance but to learn more about the culture they represent on stage.
This evening, six core members and two apprentices of Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance are practicing the danza, a style that combines elements of Spanish/Latin American contradanza with aspects of the Cuban-influenced habanera, a festive couple's dance that swept Puerto Rico in the 1840s when many Cubans immigrated to the neighboring Caribbean island.
"Remember, this is like a 19th-century barn dance. The ladies have been waiting on the side for their partners. They're aristocrats, so they're very proud," says Maynard, as she glides through the steps, holding a fan and delicately touching the folds of her long, black tiered skirt. Her partner wears black trousers and suspenders over an immaculate white shirt. Occasionally, he waves his straw hat gently above his partner's head.
The couple have stepped back in time, into the affluent lives of Spanish-native landholders, who executed an earlier form of the danza in large groups, to entertain themselves. It's very European. And as Maynard, an engineer for IBM, explains, it represents only one facet of Puerto Rico's overlapping bloodlines.
Like the other pieces the company performs, the danza communicates specific phrases and meanings. For instance, during the paseo, or promenade, Maynard reminds one of the group that her fan may not be saying what she intends for it to say:
"Don't forget, this is the language of the fans that our grandmothers used. . . . We should be waving our fans very slowly; otherwise you're telling (a potential partner) that you have a boyfriend and to run like crazy. It's like a Morse code. . . ."
The Bronx native and graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University gives mini history lessons throughout the evening; they punctuate the swirl of flounced ball-gown skirts and the promenade of starched white shirts. Which is one of the charms of Puerto Rican Folkloric Dance, a small organization that has become something of a hot item these days at dance festivals, children's events and Hispanic heritage festivals around town. The nonprofit organization, which was founded two years ago as an informal company and dance school, is as much an educational entity as a performance one. But its "students" are not just dancers who've auditioned for the troupe, or pupils who want to learn more about Puerto Rican culture; the students are the city at large.
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