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Seniors find dancing fun, therapeutic

September 26, 2001|By AARON CLAVERIE, Staff Writer

CALEXICO — As her classmates clomped in step and swished their skirts, she stood in the back, swaying in time.

Two knee operations don't allow 81-year-old Elisa Valenzuela to practice the folklorico dance steps the rest of the class worked on but there she was — resplendent in her colorful hand-painted dress; watching and learning so when her knees feel better she can clomp and snap her heels with the rest.

Every Monday and Tuesday, Valenzuela and a number of Calexico senior citizens gather at the Jose B. Rodriquez Community Center on Dool Avenue to practice folklorico dancing.

During a recent 5 p.m. one-hour class, there were six students dancing on the wooden floor but they all said there's plenty of room for more.


They agreed folklorico dancing is great exercise, a lot of fun and free of charge for senior citizens.

Valenzuela said she is looking forward to getting back on the dance floor even as she conceded she is having a hard time walking lately.

As a polka beat oom-pah-pahed in the background, she pulled up her skirt to reveal 8-inch long scars on her knees.

The operations have been tough on her because she loves music and dancing and has been a part of the group for three years.

She vowed to hit the floor again as soon as she can.

When she wasn't practicing her skirt moves, she sat and watched others dance such as Reynaldo Ayala and his wife, Marta. They have danced for more than six years and moved with a grace befitting their years of practice.

The class in which they practice in Mondays and Tuesdays at the rec center is designed to accommodate all skill levels.

As the Ayalas sashayed back and forth as a couple, the others watched the instructor's steps and danced at their own pace.

For practice, instructor Yolanda Quadros of El Centro led the group through three of its most polished performances.

During the first dance, the only man in the group, Reynaldo Ayala, had a pretty easy go of it.

As the women moved with intricate footwork and waved their skirts in rhythmic arcs, Ayala stepped back and forth with his hands clasped behind his back.

In the second, faster dance, he had a bigger role as the women started to move, twirl and dance around him.

The steps and the power the women gave to their rhythmic stomps increased in the second dance, reaching a spirited pitch.

In the third dance, the women held jugs on their left shoulders and moved their skirts with their right hands.

The significance of the jugs and the patterns the dancers made on the dance floor are all emblematic of particular cultures within different regions of Mexico, according to Nicola Martinez, a director at Sul Ross University Ballet Folklorico de Las Americas in Alpine, Texas.

The dresses the women of the group wear are hand-painted in a Sinaloa style, showcasing the regional colors and patterns of the coastal Mexican state south of Sonora.

However, in addition to Sinaloan dances, the group performs dances from the central part of Mexico or even the Yucatan.

Martinez said the exposure to different cultures is just one of many benefits of folklorico dance.

"Group dance is an extremely social experience and the social and cultural aspects are as important as the physical benefits," Martinez said.

After the Calexico group finished its three performance dances, Quadros set about teaching the group some new steps.

Some of these dances were couples dances and, since Ayala was the only male at class, some of the women dropped their skirts (reveling fringed bloomers) and led as they paired up.

During these dances 78-year-old Angelina Crummett learned a woman's steps while Quadros (flaunting her bloomers) danced a man's steps.

During another new dance, Ayala held a machete and waved it in slow swoops as the women surrounded him and closed in or filed behind him.

Ayala said the machete symbolizes authority and the dependence on sugar cane of the coastal Sinaloans.

Martinez said there are many machete dances throughout Mexico and each has different connotations.

The Calexico group is called Joyas de Mexico, or Jewels of Mexico, and performs all over the county for schoolchildren, at community functions and for holiday services.

The youngest person in the group is 63-year-old Lina Smith.

When asked what part of the dance class she likes most, she said, "I can't tell you because everything is good for us."

Crummett — "Like the park," she said — wanted to make it clear she did not dance on Broadway despite her fluid moves.

"Yes," she did perform in some plays back east and in Mexico City when she was younger, but she did not ever dance on Broadway.

"Some people say that but I didn't," she added and headed back to the floor.

Candelaria Medina, 85, loves dancing and spending time with her friends in the group.

When she was younger she had to work in the fields and never had much time for dancing.

When asked how long she worked the fields, she waved her hand and sighed into a smile, "Muchos años."

As for the Ayalas, they met in Minnesota at a dance lesson and have danced together since.

They came to Calexico in 1969 and are known throughout town via Reynaldo Ayala's long tenure on the Calexico school board and the bookstore they run. Both worked at San Diego State University-Imperial Valley campus; Reynaldo as a professor of geography and anthropology and Marta as the librarian.

The Ayalas also dance with a bigger group that gets together at the Robert Morales Adult Education Center at 6:10 p.m. Wednesdays. The center is on Kloke Road across from William Moreno Junior High.

Reynaldo Ayala said both groups welcome visitors and anyone interested in finding out more can call the community center at 768-2167.

Staff Writer Aaron Claverie can be reached at 337-3419 or

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