Think 'Quetzall,' 'La Bamba'

Familiar rhythm: Mexican troupe twists, twirls into The Washington Center

April 15, 2011 

  • Ballet Folklorico 'Quetzalli' de Veracruz

    What: This troupe, based in Veracruz, Mexico, tours internationally, performing the country’s traditional folk dances to live music.

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

    Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. S.E., Olympia

    Tickets: $23.50-$39.50 for adults; $21.50-$35.50 for seniors, students and military; $11.75-$19.75 for youths

    More information: 360-753-8586 or www.washingtoncenter.org

If you think you're not familiar with Mexican folk dance and music, think again.

Ballet Folklorico, performing “Quetzalli” on Wednesday in Olympia, will be dancing to at least one song that virtually every American will have heard: “La Bamba.”

The song is best known through the 1958 Ritchie Valens hit, which was reintroduced in the 1987 film by the same name. Rolling Stone magazine placed “La Bamba” at No. 345 on its 2004 list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

While Valens added a rock rhythm and beat, “La Bamba” is a traditional song from Veracruz.

“The song could be as old as 300 years,” said Steve Heath, the group’s manager. “There are some musicologists who believe it can be traced back to Africa.

“It’s also referred to as the unofficial state song of Veracruz.”

Traditionally performed at weddings, the dance that goes with the song involves dancers tying a ribbon into a bow with their feet. “They’re pretty adept at this,” Heat said. “You’ll see the dancers pick up the bow and show it to the audience at the end of the dance.”

The song has evolved, he said. “There are dozens of verses, maybe hundreds, that have evolved over the years, from the silly to the sublime.”

Even without the rock, though, the troupe’s dances are high-energy and its costumes are colorful. “Quetzalli” refers to Mexico’s quetzal bird, known for its elaborate and multicolored plumage.

People “often make the same comment: ‘You look like you’re having such a good time,’ ” company founder Hugo Betancourt said through a translator in a 2005 interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And we are!”

While the troupe – coming to Olympia with 12 dancers and five musicians – hails from Veracruz, the performance will include music and dance from throughout Mexico. In fact, the evening begins with Danzas de Concheros, thought to have been performed by the Aztecs in ancient times.

“You can still see them performed in front of the pyramids,” Heath said. “There’s no definitive interpretation of what those dances were like, but it’s an impressive of what they might have been like.”

The second half of the program is devoted to dances from Veracruz, a region with a strong African-Caribbean influence.

Many folk dances are still performed in Mexico today, Heath said. He pointed out, though, that their origins have nothing to do with performance.

“These were dances that people did for themselves, not for audiences,” he said. “They evolved around occasions — fiestas, festivals for patron saints, whatever. The dancers were entertaining themselves.”

In Southern Veracruz, for example, fisherman danced on their boats.

“They used to turn their boats upside down and dance on the boats because they liked the sound their feet made,” Heath said. “That evolved into dancing on wooden boxes. You’ll still see that today where they use wooden boxes to get the resonance.

“On a stage, you wouldn’t need that.”

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