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May 1, 2008

Chiapanecas with children

by Ya Zhou, Online Connections Editor & Online Copy Editor
The girls stand primly, watching the rowdy boys run up and down the stage stairs, hollering incessantly. Suddenly as if on cue, the girls form into two straight lines as the boys shuffle with less energy on stage right next door. Teacher Maya Maldonado-Weinstein brings back the boys' attention as she claps and hums a catchy melody, leading them in quick-paced, disciplined dance routine that sharply contrasts with the energy the 10 and 11-year-olds were previously exhibiting. With zeal, the young dance students start practice, preparing for two performances they will be putting on for their peers at Rolling Terrace Elementary School on May 2 and May 21.

Blair juniors Maldonado-Weinstein and Mandy Brown and Kennedy junior Marcy Nadel devote their Friday afternoons to teaching these students the basics of Mexican dance at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park. They teach several forms of Mexican dance, each different and elaborate in costumes and movements. Though outnumbered by the students, the teachers are patient as they remember their own elementary school days spent dancing in Rolling Terrace's cafeteria. The experienced teachers share their own talent and time with the eager students in a friendly, inspiring setting that is all too familiar to the teachers. Above all, the teachers and students share a love for the dance.



Dance history

After settling the kids down, the teachers break them up; Nadel and Brown teach the girls while Maldonado-Weinstein stays with the boys. On the girls' side, students learn Chiapanecas, a traditional girls' dance that involves large double-layered skirts that twirl and a steady, rhythmic beat. Meanwhile, the boys practice the Machetes dance, which usually involves real knives (for safety's sake, the students do not use actual knives) and a rapid beat.

While these are more advanced dances usually performed by adults, the girls like to teach them because they are more interesting and involved. "The kids' dances are just boring," Maldonado-Weinstein says.

With so many complex steps to learn, the kids often get restless. Luckily, the teachers can relate: the three girls were all at Rolling Terrace Elementary in fourth grade, where they too were taught Mexican dance by adults from an area dance troupe. "We started out the same way these kids are starting out," Maldonado-Weinstein explains. Each has continued with Mexican dance and has been part of the same dance troupe, Los Quetzales, since eighth grade. Six years after they started, in 2006, the team decided to give a similar opportunity to the next generation of kids.

The dance class that began the trio's interests in Mexican dance ended with their graduation from elementary school. Wanting to extend the same new and interesting experience to other students at Rolling Terrace, the girls began collecting money to fund the class. In October 2006, Brown, Nadel and Maldonado-Weinstein asked for donations in lieu of presents at their joint birthday party. The $200 they received went directly into paying for the costumes, shoes and other equipment they needed for classes. In January 2007, the teachers met with the school to make plans for classes.

Actual classes for the students began a year later in January 2008 after coordination with administration at Rolling Terrace. The girls performed an exhibition dance at Rolling Terrace in January, and students responded out of interest. Fifth grade student Jakob Little became interested immediately and invited some of his friends. "I dared Eli to do it," Little says, pointing to another student. "I just wanted to try something new," Little says, addressing and answering his teachers' aspirations.

While some of the accessories are from Mexico, others were ordered from the Mariachi Connection, a store in San Antonio, Texas that sells traditional Mexican dance costumes and shoes. The school kept some of the skirts used during the teachers' time as students, but more were ordered in bright yellow and floral print. The vibrant skirts come alive when worn, making the dance more genuine and realistic.

At the end of class, the teachers showcase their own skills to the students.  <i>Photo by Arlene Gao.</i>
At the end of class, the teachers showcase their own skills to the students. Photo by Arlene Gao.


A little fortune-telling

Lessons began recently, but each of the boys and girls has already learned one dance. During class, Nadel dances with the girls, showing the proper hand gestures and foot motions while Brown calls out the rhythm and fixes any mistakes. After a short break, the girls put on their sweeping floral print and bright yellow dresses, bringing their dance moves to life.

The boys are anxious to get their turn at the water fountain, but are firmly asked to remain on stage to go over the steps. Even if some of them are easily distracted and resistant to constant vigilance during practice, all students are commended for their efforts. Constant praise outweighs careful criticism in this class.

At the end of class, the groups of students perform for each other. The girls sashay confidently, showing off the numerous dance sequences they learned in the hour-long class. The boys are a bit more shy as they keep their hands folded behind their backs, but the teachers attribute that to stage fright in front of the girls. "They want to impress the girls," Nadel says with a knowing grin.

The students will continue to learn more dances and their teachers hope to put them in a performance at the end of the school year for the other students and parents. As students themselves, the trio is not sure if their busy schedules will allow them to commit on a weekly basis in senior year, but they do wish to continue teaching the kids.

Even though it is hard work, Brown emphasizes that although they have less control than adult teachers do. Maldonado-Weinstein stresses that it's a class for kids who like to have fun. "We don't want to be all serious," she said. For the teachers, seeing the kids enjoying the class is especially empowering. "The first class, they got so excited and were just so enthusiastic," Nadel smiles.



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  • Jon Phoenix Brookstone on May 18, 2008 at 1:55 PM
    YAY MAYA!!!!!!!! OMG I HAD NO IDEA YOU DID THIS!!!!!!!! YOU RULE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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