Saturday mornings always give rise to endless possibilities. A few Saturdays ago, a friend and I decided to profit from the day by heading to New York City for the 6th annual “¡Fiesta! Celebrating Hispanic and Latin Cultures” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a day of cultural festivities featuring live folk dance performances and various workshops and activities in the large indoor halls and courtyards of the museum. 10 o’clock approached as we found the dinky in its obnoxious new location, making me nostalgic for my station 9 ¾ once sheltered behind trees, and by late morning, we arrived in NY Penn. Some subway switcheroos after, we landed, as two pilgrims, on the sidewalks of the Upper East Side. The giant white steps of the Met loomed before us. Our adventure was about to begin—¡vámanos!
Take off your headphones and imagine this:
A solo classical Spanish guitarra drifted toque airoso across the cool white marble space inside the Vélez Blanco Patio. A crowd slowly gathered for the first workshop of the day. It was a Spanish flamenco dance workshop, taught by four dancers from the Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana troupe. They came dressed in vivid colors in traditional style; one lady in a polka-dotted dress, a taller one, just as lovely, in pink roses. After a brief introduction, the crowd of children and adults alike were all soon doing “palma sordas” and “palma claras”—low and high-pitched claps—to the beat of rhythmic stomping, while turning circles in place and hitting imaginary castanuelas in the air with our fingers, like an army of Carmen’s.
A series of palma claras and encircling arm gestures allowed us to reach new heights as our voices joined in chorus to the “lo le los” of the rose-colored cantante’s voice, as she filled the white marbled Spanish courtyard with her joys and Phrygian sorrows to the liquid notes of la guitarra, this time toque virtuoso. The petite elderly lady next to me expressed her utter contentment with little injections of joy, as she too twisted her hips and her frail little wrists in circular fashion. I eyed the polka-dotted bailarín as she beckoned with her hands, now to an imaginary lover, now to an imaginary sun— there was something gypsy-esque about her: wild, yet contained, she drew shapes and carved forms, tantalizing us with her smiling innuendos. A stomp, clap, and of course a final ¡Ole! signaled to us the end of the first workshop. The audience dispersed slowly, contently.
After sipping a Rosewater Essence and spending 20 minutes out on the Metropolitan rooftop overlooking the city skyline, we wandered the great halls, attended another workshop on Peruvian feather hangings, and finally made our way to the Charles Engelhard Court in time for the afternoon performances. The light streaming in from the large windows in the open hall was just the right tint of afternoon sun, warm with a soft glow that accentuated the colors of the dancers’ costumes as they stood on the side for their entrances. There was a large crowd that sat around the open space, and the verandas on the upper floors encircling the space were all filled. Little children and adults alike watched, captivated, as the Flamenco group from the morning once again took the stage. Next would be an all-female Mariachi band called el Mariachci Flor de Toloache, and a New-York based Mexican dance troupe called the Calpulli Danza Mexicana. Unashamed of unlady-like poses, I gained prime floor real-estate in the front row, up close and personal to the action.
In short, the Calpulli Danza Mexicana was incredible. In long, the expressions of the dancers as they flowed in and out of their beautifully decorated costumes breathed life into ordinary fabric.
Certainly, at times I convinced myself I was in another place and time; perhaps Saturday in la plaça after the morning open-air market, just another wide-eyed child sitting on the steps as the dancers used their circular movements to tell visual stories before my eyes. As the girls fanned their long “china poblana” dresses, I could feel movements that resembled wings as they slid past me, a wooosh and then another. The men, in traditional “el charro” cowboy-like costumes with their famed sombreros jumped, whooped, and kicked the air with a lively and cheerfully arrogant pride. Together, they used their movements to tell the familiar Jarabe Tapatio love story of a woman rejecting a man’s advances until finally succumbing to his arms, as the warm and occasionally fiery bellows of the Mariachi band sustained their passion. Contrasting the fire, the thin wing-like white lace dresses of the Veracruz gave the performance an ethereal quality.
On the other side of the stage, I saw an audience that became as spirited as the performers, injecting “ay ya yas” and shouting “Viva Mexico!” between acts. I saw the dancers and musicians create story after story through steps, gestures, and song—painting on an invisible canvas. Imagine arms becoming brushes loaded with paint, and dresses forming shapes as dynamic as any of my favorite museum paintings. Through mere choreography, dancers became motion, swirls of color, staccatos suspended, smiles caught in the afternoon sun.
This was the epitome of living art.
The thing that amazed me was that this living art, breathing and moving in the present, was descended from past ages; preserved by the voices and movements of its people, it remained as colorful and fresh as ever.
Quite captivated by everything we had seen, my friend and I left feeling strong lingering connections with people with whom we had not even exchanged a word. We even felt a slight pang of culture envy. It was one of those performances that keep you buzzing in your seat afterwards, and long after the stage is gone from sight.
We attended a concluding activity with a slam poetry reading by a couple of poets from the Nuyorican Poet’s Café, a phenomenal and celebrated NYC group that performs and teaches poetry. My favorite, Mahogany L. Browne, read some of her twitter poems and another deeply touching one on “skin”; I also enjoyed Malcolm White‘s poem about education, which started something like this: “Education is freedom, but it isn’t free…”
We left the Met a little after six, and saw as our six o’clock shadows grazed the stoic steps. Smells of hotdogs and shish kabobs pervaded the air, as a vested clarinetist blew a sad melody that sang thinly above the humid buzz of the city streets. Evening wrapped a shawl around the city, and after eating dinner at a chic little Italian restaurant on East 72nd called Via Quadronno, we boarded our train home.
“What next?” we asked ourselves, “Saturday night dancing on the Street”? No. Our vicarious dance through the souls of our Calpulli dancers was enough to sustain us.