Grandeza Mexicana: Evolving Traditions

By Brian Sonia-Wallace

I show up at the address I’ve been given for Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company and I’m a bit confused: it appears to be a residential house. Surely I’ve got the wrong address, I think, and I call my contact. But when she emerges, we head straight into the house.

As we walk in, I am astonished by what I see: the entire space has been overtaken, front room to basement, with brightly colored costumes. There are even costumes hanging from the ceiling in bags, like cocoons that could hatch at any moment. And apparently this isn’t it – there’s a warehouse too.

What backstage at a Grandeza Mexicana show looks like!

This is what backstage at a Grandeza Mexicana show looks like!

Each garment is stitched lovingly by hand, with fabric from Downtown LA and labor from a network of mothers-turned-master-seamstresses from Grandeza’s training wing, the Grandeza Mexicana Dance Academy (GMDA). I’m told that these costumes can cost upward of $10,000 for each region, and that a Grandeza show can have up to 10 dances, each from a different region. Many of these mothers, like Wardrobe Mistress Rocio Arambula, stay on as volunteers, sewing long after their children have graduated. Five years after her daughter’s graduation, Rocio still manages the hundreds of costumes used in every show. The venue of the residential house, it turns out, is no mistake. This is a company with a grassroots, family spirit. 

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Grandeza Mexicana in a recent performance at Ford Theatres.

But in the case of Grandeza, this spirit is also matched by perfectionism. Benny Vasquez, who personally designs and oversees construction on each costume, is moonlighting from his job as an aerospace engineer and it shows. Each costume is constructed with the meticulous care of a spacecraft being prepped for orbit.

And, the conditions of the dance can be as demanding as outer space. I step, briefly, into the rehearsal room, where Grandeza Founder and Director Jose Vences is putting the adult company members through their paces. They are dancing in the huapango style, moving around the space in herds to mimic the movement of vaqueros, Mexican cowboys, and their cattle. Jose is every bit as exacting with the dancers’ movement as his counterparts are with their costumes, rehearsing about 10 seconds of the dance over 30 minutes to get the steps exactly right.

Grandeza Mexicana, once again, at the Ford.

Grandeza Mexicana, once again, at the Ford.

As their name implies, Grandeza Mexicana is about the grandeur of Mexican tradition, not as a monolithic entity but as a vast mix of ethnicities and cultures that continue to grow and adapt in LA. Company dancer Ignacio Delgado-Hernandez tells me that what sets Grandeza apart from other Mexican folklorico groups is an influence from contemporary dance. This influence allows the company to not only preserve tradition but also evolve it. Their focus on youth is a testament to this. 

Based in the heart of South LA, GMDA’s power as a validating presence for young people is not lost on me. Youth classes and adult rehearsals alike are conducted in an easy blend of English and Spanish that values and affirms both languages. The heavy, opulent costumes of traditional folklorico allow the youth to envision themselves in new contexts, as characters that have no doubt as to their worth and place in the world.

This, I think, driving home, is the spirit of the company. It’s about sharing living traditions between generations, traditions that affirm the grandeza, the greatness, within everyone.

Un Gran Atardecer features youth dancers from Grandeza Mexicana Dance Academy (GMDA) and takes place on Saturday, June 13, at 6:00 p.m.  This Ford on the Road event will raise funds to support the professional development of GMDA’s dancers. Come early for pan dulce, aguas frescas and treats.