The teenage dancers twisted and twirled across sheets of plywood in the basement of the First Baptist Church of Astoria on Wednesday, waving their skirts and stamping their nailhead-packed Spanish dancing shoes in a Mexican polka.
On May 3 at the Liberty Theatre, the Mi Cultura Folkloric Dance Group will perform several traditional Mexican dances as part of a Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Rocio Lizarraga Simmons, a board member of the Lower Columbia Hispanic Council, created the dance group two years ago to expose locals to Mexican culture.
“It’s very traditional in Mexico for kids to participate in folk dances,” she said. “Most kids are exposed to this through their schools and local cultural centers. Maybe a third of children in some form participate during their childhood.”
Lizarraga Simmons immigrated to America in 1994 from the Mexican state of Sonora, where she danced with folk groups in high school and college. When she arrived on the North Coast, she found the exposure to Hispanic culture lacking.
“To me, it’s very important that Hispanic children grow up knowing their roots,” she said.
She began organizing dances at Cannon Beach Elementary School, where her children attended. Two years ago, with her children grown and moved out, she founded Mi Cultura, including troupes in Astoria and Seaside, under the umbrella of the hispanic council.
Sponsored by a grant from Cannon Beach, they practice for free at local churches and the El Tapatio restaurant in Astoria. Her brother, Nicolas Lizarraga, who studied and teaches folk dance in Sonora, ships her handmade dresses from Mexico, along with Spanish dancing shoes, the heels and toes lined with small nailheads that crackle on the wood floors.
Mi Cultura, supported by mariachi band Alma Sureña, will perform several traditional dances at the Liberty Theatre, from Mexican polka and “La Danza de los Viejitos” (“The Dance of the Little Old Men”) to a rendition of the folk song “La Llorona” (“The Weeping Woman”) sung in the Disney movie, “Coco.”
Mi Cultura’s troupes are a mix of children and teens. Lizette Velazquez, 15, said she travels from Chinook, Washington, to experience her heritage.
“In my school … there’s only like 10 Hispanics over there,” she said. “It’s nice to come over here and do something that actually involves our culture and not just sports.”
Views on masculinity have left Lizarraga Simmons with mostly female dancers. Adan Gaspar-Lucas, 15, from Warrenton, said he was initially coerced by his mother to participate, to the chagrin of his father.
“My dad, he was sort of against it,” he said. “He sort of thought guys shouldn’t dance. It’s not their thing. But I guess he just went with it.”
Gaspar-Lucas said he initially didn’t try much, feeling forced, but that dancing has slowly grown on him. He now practices several hours a day and takes ballet at Maddox Dance Studio.
Lizarraga Simmons hopes the group can grow, attracting more dancers, teachers and gigs at cultural events around the region. She sees the dances as educational.
“All these dances are a mix of indigenous dances, Indian dances, with the European influences we’ve had from Spain and France,” she said.