Folklorico group Relampago del Cielo celebrates 40 years

Rosie Chavarria-Peña thought she was done dancing.

The former professional dancer had spent the 1950s touring the United States performing folklorico, Mexican folk dancing, but after her children were born, she decided to retire.

"I always said I hung up my dancing shoes in 1964," Chavarria-Peña said. "I took my daughter Marlene on a tour with me when she was 3 months old, and I figured that's it. I can't do this anymore."

Instead, she turned her efforts to teaching the next generation of folk dancers through Relampago del Cielo Grupo Folklorico, a Santa Ana-based performing arts nonprofit that she founded in 1975.

But this month, Chavarria-Peña will lace up her dancing shoes again for the first time in five decades, as Relampago del Cielo hosts its 40th anniversary concert at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

"I'm a little nervous, but I'm looking forward to it," she said.

Chavarria-Peña's performance begins with her at center stage, waltzing with a partner. After a few moments, she is joined by her daughter, Marlene Peña-Marin — who years ago succeeded her mother as Relampago's artistic director — and eventually by her two teenage granddaughters, Madeline and Melina, both Relampago dancers. This brings three generations of the family on stage together, a tribute to their contributions to Relampago, past, present and future.

"Dancing has come back to me," Chavarria-Peña said. "Friends from my era say, 'How do you remember all that?' And I said, 'It's all there, it's ingrained.' Maybe I loved it so much that I never forgot."

After giving up professional dancing, Chavarria-Peña, a Los Angeles native, became a folklorico instructor at Santa Ana College. She was then approached by a group of students who wanted to take their dancing outside the classroom and create their own professional company.

"I had come from a strict dance education, so I told them, 'If I do this, you need to trust me,'" she recalled. "I said, 'I'm not going to let you go out on stage if you don't know what you're doing. And until I say you're ready, you're not going on. These are my conditions — you have to do what I say.'"

The students agreed, and in 1975, Relampago del Cielo — literally "lightning from the sky" — was formed.

The group has two components: dance classes for children and adults, and a professional dance company that performs regionally throughout the year.

The creation of Relampago, the first group of its kind in Orange County, came at a time of heightened awareness and interest in Mexican folk dancing.

"It exploded here in the United States in the 1960s with the Chicano movement," Marlene Peña-Marin said. "Folk dancing became a tool that was used not only for students to learn about their culture and identify with who they are, but also to share it in a positive light.

"That was the catalyst that brought it to the forefront, and eventually you started seeing groups pop up all over the United States, sometimes at a very high level."

Mexican folk dancing, which is best known for its female dancers in colorful, flowing skirts, represents the confluence of cultures, said Peña-Marin.

"There's a lot of influence with the rhythms that are African, footwork that is Spanish and other movements that are indigenous," she said. "There's a lot going on."

The dances feature intricate footwork and upper body strength requiring a high levels of training, said Peña-Marin.

"It's risen to the level of classical or modern dance, where you would have to train weekly and put in many hours," she said. "There's a lot of technique involved to understand how to execute the footwork."

In the 40 years since Relampago was founded, Peña-Marin has seen a growing interest in folklorico, both inside and outside the Mexican American community.

The children's classes — minimum age is 3 — have grown to 280 students.

And Relampago's professional company now has more opportunities than ever, including a spot as the resident dance company for Disney California Adventure Park's Christmastime show "Viva Navidad."

"Not only are they technically outstanding, but by virtue of the history of this company and the legacy that they've passed on from generation to generation, they also bring an innate pride and joy in their Mexican heritage," said Susana Tubert, creative entertainment director for "Viva Navidad." "That's really what sets them apart."

Tubert, who said the response to the show has been "amazing," recalled that after one performance, a little Mexican American girl ran up to one of the Relampago dancers, gave her a big hug and kiss and said, "You're my favorite princess."

"It was extraordinary," Tubert said. "In their minds, these dancers are Disney princesses who they can relate to. They're their role models."

Meanwhile, Pena-Marin said, folklorico is adding to the national dialogue and reducing xenophobia. Understanding one another's culture is a way to "squash negative stereotypes," she explained, noting the history, culture, geography and traditions of Mexican American families revealed in the dancing.

"It's a volatile time right now, and I think it's important for our community to view each other in a positive light," she said. "Arts — whether it's music, theater or visual arts — puts people in a relaxed, comfortable place of happiness, and I think more than ever we need that in our communities."

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IF YOU GO

What: Relampago del Cielo's 40th anniversary concert

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 20 and 2 p.m. Aug. 21

Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine

Cost: $35

Information: thebarclay.org

caitlin.kandil@latimes.com

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