With their dazzling, sequined costumes shimmering in the midday sun, members of Lazaro Arvizu's Xipe Totec Aztec dance group turned slowly to face east, west, north and south, replaying a centuries-old ritual to the haunting call of a conch shell.
As the beat quickened, drummers pounding out pre-Columbian rhythms, Arvizu joined in, hopping, twirling and stamping fervently, his brilliantly colored headdress feathers doing a jiggly dance of their own.
Thirty-three is relatively young to be considered a master of anything. But Arvizu, who teaches his troupe the ancient dance, music and costuming techniques he learned from his elders, has earned that title from experts in the field and is respected throughout the state for his skills and the contribution he makes to the preservation of Mexican arts and culture.
"It is good for us to know where we come from so that we may know where we're going," said the Anaheim resident, still perspiring from his recent performance at La Jamaica(, the Bowers Museum's annual Mexican folk festival.
Arvizu on Thursday was awarded a $1,700 Apprenticeship grant from the California Arts Council. The program pairs a master folk artist--from Iranian musicians to American Indian basket weavers--with an apprentice. (The other Orange County recipient of an Arts Council Apprenticeship grant is Byung Sang Lee of Orange, who received $2,415 to teach Korean wind-instrument techniques to Hee Jong Choe of Los Angeles.) Arvizu's grant will support his work teaching costume construction--involving intricate bead, sequin, feather and embroidery work--to Robert C. Jacobo, a 15-year-old Xipe Totec member from Rialto.
The importance of perpetuating these costuming techniques, in addition to the dance and music forms, goes beyond conservation of art for art's sake, said Sacramento anthropologist Joyce M. Bishop, one of eight state Arts Council advisory panelists who recommended Arvizu for the grant.
In fact, Bishop explained in a phone interview, Arvizu and his dancers should not be viewed as just a dance troupe, but as members of a religious sect called Danza Azteca(.
The sect, which has followers in Mexico, California and elsewhere in the Southwest, was formed in Mexico about 450 years ago "in response to the trauma and pain of the Spanish conquest," she said. It "fuses Spanish Catholicism and pre-Columbian Indian traditions," including the worship of myriad deities. Members hold elaborate ceremonies where dance and music are performed for religious purposes, not secular amusements.
Thus, Arvizu's group preserves the ways of an ancient religious group "that is extremely important to the creation and maintenance of contemporary Chicano ethnic identity throughout the state and Chicanos in the Southwest," Bishop said. "The Arts Council's goal is to support the artistic traditions of ethnic groups that make up California's population."
As a teen-ager in his native Mexico City, Arvizu learned Aztec dance from a master, who in turn learned from his elders in the same way the tradition had been passed down through generations. At 16, he moved to the United States with a group of Aztec dancers, eventually rising in rank to become leader of his current, 40-member troupe, which includes his wife and six children.
In full costume, his height reaches some 10 feet when he dons his statuesque headdress, made with pink, green, blue, yellow and striped feathers from tropical parrots, macaws, pheasants and other birds, all radiating from his head like a peacock's proud display.
Bracelets of shiny black rooster feathers encircle his arms, wrists and calves. His ankles are sheathed in leather, onto which are attached hard, tan chachayotl (seeds that make rustling, percussive music with his every move. Bare-chested, he also wears a lustrous, royal blue cape, every inch encrusted with shiny sequins.
The designs adorning Xipe Totec's costumes correspond to the dances, which are between 500 and 800 years old and usually pay tribute to nature spirits or deities, Arvizu said. His cape, for instance, bears the image of the warrior eagle, believed to soar "near to the creator," and other costumes' images symbolize Tonatiuh(, the sun god, or Xiuhtecuhtli(, the fire god.
One woman's dress shows ears of yellow corn and is used in a dance "dedicated to the gods of corn and water," Arvizu said with the aid of an interpreter, Guillermo Martinez(, one of his dancers. "It's very important for us to give a message about nature--to protect Mother Earth, because she protects us."
The dances are authentically pre-Columbian, Arvizu said. But, he admits, as chief choreographer he occasionally takes liberties, and some steps are highly "stylized."
"I make them a little more exciting," he said.
Similarly, as the troupe's primary costume designer, he sometimes jazzes things up with more elaborate beading or designs than the Aztecs might have done, all to appeal to contemporary audiences.
Evidently, his methods have proved successful. Xipe Totec, which means "god of new life" in the Aztec language Nahuatl(, has toured the United States, Mexico, Canada and Japan and performs every Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. on Olvera Street in Los Angeles, Arvizu said.
Beyond cultural preservation, the group serves as a positive outlet for its youthful members and other children who attend his weekly dance classes in Downey, he added.
"It's good for the young people," he said. "They're not in the streets doing something bad."
Jacobo, who began training with Arvizu at age 12, said he has enjoyed learning about his heritage but has also derived a somewhat less lofty benefit.
"Before I started dancing, I used to be chubby," he said with a smile.
BUDGET: Layoff threatens state folk arts program. F2