Early evening at the BellSouth building in downtown Jackson, the streets are quiet and bare, except for a security guard and a window washer. In the spacious lobby the sound of vacuum cleaners hum ominously as cleaning workers drag rumbling trashcans across the tile floor. Past the empty tables in the atrium, a vibrant energy disrupts these mundane scenes as a group of vivacious young women dance the Flamenco and the Salsa to the festive music blaring from their portable stereo.
The members of the Latin American Folkloric Dance Group, sponsored by the Mississippi Hispanic Association, practice their traditional dances here twice a week and sometimes more if they're preparing for a performance.
For their rehearsals they wear long gray skirts (so as not to get their show dresses dirty), which hang with full ruffles along the hem. When a song begins, the dancers circle around each other, all eyes focused and serious, while rolling their outstretched arms and gyrating their wrists to the rhythm. As the beat calls for action, they alternately freeze with arms overhead, stomp, leap and whirl, often while grabbing the hem of their skirts and shaking them as if the ruffles are on fire. A few let out the occasional "Aye!" for emphasis.
As the building workers dutifully continue their cleaning, darting occasional glances at the hoopla, I imagine for a moment that everyone would be moved to join in the festivities—brooms, dust pans, clipboards and all—just how it would go in a Broadway musical. I am completely mesmerized by the dancers' energy, and this is just the rehearsal.
According to Zulma Cuadra, their director, the Jackson-based dance group (which started in1998) frequently performs throughout Mississippi. Cuadra coordinates rehearsals and performances for the group. Nine Latin-American women make up the ensemble—mostly students or young professionals in their 20s. They volunteer their time and energy to represent their heritage with traditional Latin-American dancing. The countries represented include Venezuela, Nicaragua, Mexico, Panama and Brazil.
Vanessa Morales Butler, a 25-year-old student from Venezuela, is one of the most energetic of the bunch, jumping up to lead almost every dance. Her passion for dancing is apparent in her performance, but she says she finds the work deeply satisfying as it helps the community. She recalls a recent performance when they danced for a group of mentally challenged children at Hudspeth Regional Center. "You could just see their eyes light up when they saw us dancing in all of our colorful dresses," she says. "You could see that we were making them happy."
I watched the rest of the rehearsal and felt pretty happy myself.
The Latin American Folkloric Dance Group will perform on Cinqo de Mayo (May 5). Call (601) 638-0939 for details.