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Hispanic Children Learn Aztec Dance in 4-H After-School Program

ALBUQUERQUE - Every Wednesday after school, about 20 children from La Mesa Elementary line up to ask Mother Earth for permission to step on her. As drums begin to beat, the children break into a rhythmic White Eagle Dance, a traditional ritual of Aztec warriors.



Three members of the Aztec Dance Group at La Mesa Elementary in Albuquerque show off their costumes during a PTA meeting. The dance class is part of 4-H Share/Care, an after-school substance abuse prevention program. From left dancers are Mario Vargas, 5, Jessica Bolivar, 6, and Roxana Luna, 7. (05/08/2002) NMSU agricultural communications photo by Kevin Robinson

"You got to ask Mother Earth's permission first," said Everett Gomez, 11, a member of La Mesa's Aztec dance group. "I really like this class because I'm learning new things about Mexico and the Aztecs."

The class, which began in March, is part of 4-H's effort to reach out to new audiences with activities that appeal to diverse communities, including Hispanic and Native American children.

"We're promoting the class because it's something that can really appeal to kids in this neighborhood where Albuquerque's Hispanic immigrant population is particularly concentrated," said Shawn Flanigan, a 4-H Share/Care teacher who is coordinating the class for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. "All the participating kids are from Spanish-speaking families, mostly Mexican immigrants, so this builds connections to their own culture, plus pride in their heritage. That's important for developing self-esteem, a sense of community and positive values that help children choose healthy paths in life."

NMSU's 4-H Share/Care program provides substance abuse prevention education for at-risk youth through after-school activities in communities where drugs, gang activity and other risky behavior is prevalent. To help kids avoid unhealthy influences, the program focuses on building life skills, self-esteem, and decision-making and goal-setting abilities.

"By joining the class and learning to dance, the kids are setting a goal that requires perseverance and hard work," Flanigan said. "It also fosters healthy habits like exercise. Hopefully, some of these kids will develop a lifelong love for dancing and maybe continue to pursue it as a hobby."

Mario Vargas Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant with two children at La Mesa, volunteered to teach the class to reinforce a sense of cultural awareness among Hispanic youth. Vargas is a professional dancer who performs and teaches Aztec dance in Mexico and elsewhere.

"I want Mexican children to take an interest in our traditional dances," Vargas said. "That's important because our cultural roots are not an integral part of the educational system here. Our kids are losing a lot of our customs and language, but through dance, we can show them that we have a vibrant cultural heritage they can be proud of."

The class reinforces family unity, Flanigan said. The participating children, who are 5 to 11 years old, are practicing the White Eagle Dance in preparation for two Mother's Day performances.

"The performances are Mother's Day gifts from the children to their parents and families," Flanigan said.

In fact, many mothers are hand sewing colorful costumes for their children.

"I think it's great that they learn dances from our country, and that they learn something about our cultural roots," said Azucena Molinar, who is making a costume for her son. "The class teaches healthy paths. This way, they get involved in something constructive after class so they won't fall into bad habits."

In the class, Vargas teaches the meaning of the Aztec warrior dance and the various movements it entails. But most of the time is spent dancing to rhythmic Aztec music played by Vargas' relatives with a drum, guitar and flute. The children line up behind Vargas and follow his moves as they wind around the room, jumping, twisting and squatting.

"It's really cool," said Alexis Escobar, 11. "We get to dance, and we learn ancient stuff about the Aztecs."

Ray Francia, 11, said it's better than sitting at home watching television. "It's been a lot more fun here. I learned some Aztec dances, and I learned how to ask that lady on the ground to step on her."