An Apprenticeship in Danza Azteca Vestuario and Recortaje
As the first acknowledged U.S.-born female Capitana de la Danza, heading Danza Mixcoatl which she founded in 1992, San Diego-based master artist Mary Lou Valencia participated in the 2009 Apprenticeship Program, working with two apprentices José Alvarez of San Diego, and Maria Ramos from Vista. Both Alvarez and Ramos are apprenticing under Valencia to focus on dance recortaje and vestuario—ceremonial dance regalia which is an integral part of Aztec dance tradition and observance.
In addition to the year-round, rigorous dance rehearsals accompanied by live musicians, which Valencia leads at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park, or outdoors at Chicano Park in San Diego’s Barrio Logan, Valencia has been guiding members from Danza Mixcoatl in the design and construction of their own vestuario at Centro Cultural de la Raza and in her own home studio. Vestuario, according to Valencia, is “considered a visible manifestation of the dancer’s commitment. The colors, symbols and form all represent the knowledge held by the individual dancer.” Working with Ramos, Valencia is guiding her to make women’s vestuario including a penacho (headdress), pechera (collar), maztla (belt) and traje de ceremonia (dress), while guiding Alvarez in making men’s vestuario including penacho, maxtlatl (belt-loincloth), tilma’tli (cape) and leggings and bracelets. Additionally, Valencia is teaching both of them how to make their own recortaje. Recortaje are exquisite decorative elements of the vestuario, and are made from machine-sewn, cut-work appliqué embellished by hand-sewn beads and sequins, which Alvarez and Ramos would sew on their own time between sessions with Valencia. The apprenticeship was designed to yield vestuario for both Ramos and Alvarez in time to be worn for the San Diego Xilonen-Kosoy, a rite of passage ceremony in honor of young women which happened in late August 2009.
Teaching for over thirty years, Valencia humbly considers herself a technician, yet is recognized community-wide for retaining both the depth and the breadth of knowledge, symbolism, lore and construction process in making proper, traditional vestuarios. Over the decades, she “has seen the de-evolution of how regalia exists within ceremony. It is not danza without the penacho.” Her motivation and urgency to make sure correct knowledge is passed on to her apprentices is heightened by her awareness that one day, she may not have the ability to practice or teach danza and vestuario-making. Valencia made it a point to address the totality of the tradition, speaking to her apprentices about danza, “its history, the protocols, ritual, organization and structure. They will learn through oral tradition, about our music and songs, how to plan and execute a ceremony, grantwriting, historical research, and how to include and lead the public in appropriate activities.”
Valencia’s goals for Ramos, Alvarez and ultimately other committed members of Danza Mixcoatl are for them to develop their skill set beyond knowing the dances, songs and rites, and to understand and own the skills to make every required piece of regalia at least once as danzantes, to subsequently understand how to repair regalia as it wears over time, and to learn the appropriate protocol in making one’s own vestuario, including ceremonial progression, appropriate means of asking permission from one’s superiors, how to receive at the altar, and how to design and develop one’s own vestuarios reflective of one’s own personal and symbolic lineage. Valencia notes that Aztec dance is “a structure that [practitioners] integrate in their daily life. Danza forces you to be a part of the community. We never turn anyone away. I want to teach them to own what I give them.” Known as a community mentor, guide and teacher, her apprenticeship with Alvarez and Ramos engages two danzantes who are at different stages with different histories working with Valencia and Danza Mixcoatl.
Alvarez first learned basic Aztec dance skills from Grupo Izcalli founder and Executive Director Macedonio Arteaga, alongside other young people in their teens and 20’s. Arteaga had a history of collaborating with Valencia in various community events over the years, including San Diego’s Dia de los Muertos events, and was able to connect Alvarez to Valencia, based upon Alvarez’s and other Izcalli member’s keen initiative to reach out to Valencia as a teacher. “Her knowledge of the danza tradition,” Arteagea notes about Valencia, “is unquestionable, and we value the teachings she has to offer the community.” Valencia described Alvarez’s pledge to work with her “a very important step in [his] development as a danzante.”
Alvarez recognized in his early life as a danzante that the various components that form the practice, particularly the vestuario, are important parts of a life of the dancer. His hope is that through practice as a danzante, he expresses his commitment “to relearn my roots in an effort to reclaim my identity. It helps me form me as a positive role model.” For Alvarez, his life and practice makes him proud, and gives him the drive to carry the tradition onwards as a teacher as he grows older, planning “to continue on this road and pass down the knowledge to new generations.”
In contrast to Alvarez’s relative new arrival to the scene since Danza Mixcoatl was founded in 1992, Ramos has known Valencia “for a long time,” having first been introduced to Danza Mixcoatl as a supportive and engaged mother who brought her son Christian to danza practice when he was a young child. Christian has grown into a young man over the years as a member of Danza Mixcoatl, offering live musical accompaniment during rehearsals, and being a grounding factor in bringing Ramos into the group as a member. From approximately 2005, Ramos has learned basic vestuario techniques and had participated in different workshops led by Valencia. “My practice plays a very important role in my community because it keeps the tradition alive. It is part of my life I want to continue...to honor my ancestors and my roots.” Ramos wants to apprentice with Valencia “because she can teach me many other advanced techniques in making my dance regalia....I would like to teach young girls and pass on what I have to learn...to teach my grandkids how to make their own regalia so that can teach it to their own kids.” Particularly, she wants to master recortaje because through recortaje, one can put one’s distinct expression as a danzante into it, though the use of energy, color and design. “I don’t know what we would have here, without Mary Lou,” Ramos reflects.
While Ramos has made outfits in the past for herself, she describes her trajes prior to the apprenticeship as “just squares.” Her apprenticeship with Valencia yielded a complete process and outfit, replete with recortaje. Alvarez’s vestuario and recortaje are the first he has ever made.
Valencia took her apprentices through the entire process of making vestuario, from guiding them to pick central thematic concepts in their design elements and symbolic color selection, to sketching designs, to developing full size patterns, fabric selection and developing fabric layer order, basting, sewing and serging techniques, and final assembly.
Valencia says that “Danza Azteca has many facets. The intensity of making regalia represents just that. The skills require an understanding to the commitment, and to the meaning of a danza. A minimum of five danzantes are required to carry one dance in order for the circle to continue, for the tradition to carry on.” For her two vestuario apprentices Ramos and Alvarez, the meticulous process to make their regalia which they dance in during ceremonies becomes a powerful expression of that circle of tradition.
Article and photos by Sherwood Chen, ACTA's Associate Director