Folklorico dance group observes Dia de Los Muertos

ALL SAINTS’ DAY Esperanza Del Valle is preparing for its Dia de Los Muertos performances at El Teatro Campesino’s Playhouse in San Juan Bautista. Photo: Robert Eliason

On an otherwise quiet and serene Sunday afternoon, an assertive and rapid-fire polyrhythm spills out onto Watsonville’s City Plaza. Too explosive to be drumming, the sound is coming from the plaza’s northeast side. There, inside the open doors of a dance studio on Cabrillo College’s small Watsonville campus, about two dozen people are stomping in staccato precision on the hardwood floor with their chunky-heeled folklorico dance shoes.

This is the unmistakable and distinctive sound of Esperanza del Valle.

For close to 40 years, Esperanza has been giving audiences in the Monterey Bay area the kind of tradition-grounded ethnic dance performances mostly found only in major cities like Los Angeles or Mexico City.

On this particular Sunday, the troupe—evenly numbered between men and women—is taking instruction from Daniel del Valle Hernandez, who traveled to Watsonville from his home in Veracruz, Mexico, where he is the artistic director of the Ballet Folklorico of Puerto Veracruz. The dancers stomp in unison, the women holding their arms out parallel to the floor but bent at the elbow, in preparation for holding up their voluminous skirts during performance.

On Friday, Nov. 1—All Saints’ Day—Esperanza Del Valle will host a free performance outdoors at the Watsonville Plaza, followed by a five-performance, three-day engagement at El Teatro Campesino’s Playhouse in San Juan Bautista.

The weekend slate of performances is to celebrate the Mexican observance of Dia de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). But Esperanza del Valle is also using the occasion to take a deep dive into the remarkably rich dance/music subculture of the state of Veracruz and the region of Huasteca on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.

The traditional dance of the region is known as son jarocho, and if that sounds unfamiliar and distant, consider the case of “La Bamba.” Long before Los Lobos recorded it, long before even Ritchie Valens sang it, “La Bamba” was a prime example of the son jarocho style, and is still considered one of the classics of the tradition.

The El Teatro shows will feature Esperanza’s take on the traditional “La Bamba” as well as the Day of the Dead performance Danza de los Viejos.

“That one is about disguising ourselves as people who have passed on,” said Esperanza’s co-founder and artistic director Janet Johns. “We’re wearing these masks made in the Huasteca region, all hand carved and made of cedar. The idea is to dress like people who have died and dance as they would have danced.”

Esperanza del Valle has maintained a relationship with the dance masters of Veracruz for years. In years past, Esperanza has hosted choreographer Mario Cabrera, a widely admired popularizer of son jarocho. 

“I think of him as the Mexican Fred Astaire,” said Johns of Cabrera. “There are bronze statues of him in Veracruz. He’s like an arts treasure in Mexico. He couldn’t come this year; he’s been ill. But Daniel (del Valle Hernandez) is carrying on the legacy.”

The Dia de Los Muertos performances will feature other styles from Veracruz, which has a particularly rich cultural legacy thanks to the melding of indigenous, Cuban and Spanish influences. Perhaps most central to the show’s theme is Esperanza’s original “choreo-drama” called Macaria, based on a traditional Mexican story about a poor woman who is visited by angels and devils after she takes a turkey from a Day of the Dead altar.

Locally, Esperanza is known for its dress as much as its dancing, most notably the brightly colored full skirts worn by the female dancers. The new performance, however, will present a wide array of costumes and dress styles. The show will feature no less than eight costume changes.

Formed in 1980 with six couples, Esperanza del Valle has survived on a shoestring. Staffed with volunteers, it spends what little money it raises on bringing in dance professionals from Mexico and in research on folklorico traditions in Mexico. Johns, who teaches folklorico dance at Cabrillo College, said her dance company is kept alive by continuing interest from generation to generation.

“Right now, we span from (ages) 20 to 60,” she said. “My son is in his 20s, and now his generation is coming into the group. It’s wonderful to have the older veteran dancers, but luckily, we keep having these new generations of dancers coming up too.”

Johns pointed to 2020 as a watershed year for Esperanza del Valle. For its 40th anniversary season, the dance troupe hopes to be more visible than ever on the local performance calendar.

“Next year, for our 40th anniversary,” said Johns, “I want to bring in three master teachers, from three different states in Mexico, and have three different open studios so that the community can come in, maybe for a lecture, some photographs, to learn about the dance. And, of course, we’ll have some gala performances too.”

Esperanza del Valle will perform at El Teatro Campesino Playhouse, 705 Fourth St. in San Juan Bautista, Friday, Nov. 1 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 2 at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 3 at noon and 5 p.m. Admission is $22 adults; $17 military, students, and seniors (over 55); and $12 children under 12. For information, visit esperanzadelvalle.org.

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