When my dance group Kalpulli KetzalCoutlique performs, our colorful clothing, or regalia, is set off by a distinctive head piece with feathers of many shapes, colors, and sizes.
Leather ankle-bracelets covered with seeds help our footsteps set the beat for the drum. We move back and forth in unison as the drum sounds fill the air. We carry ximalis and ayacachtlis, which might remind one of shields and maracas.
I've been dancing with Kalpulli KetzalCoutlique for three years. The name of the group means precious mother earth. We call it Ketzal for short. When I first joined, I was just a shy 8th-grader. Initially, I was hesitant to participate with the group during practice. But I finally got the guts to join the circle of dancers.
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Now, I'm a 17-year old junior at Cristo Rey High School in Minneapolis, and part of the Xilones or what we call the young women of the corn. It's a year when we wear identical regalia and older dancers mentor us to help us discover our creativity and talent. When that Xilones year is over, girls make new regalia to express their individuality. My Xilone year helped me gain confidence.
My Dad, Luis Perez, says he can see the changes in me.
"You're not afraid to express yourself and you're not shy any more in front of people," he recently told me. "You're not afraid to speak in public. That's what I noticed. And you have way more energy — and happier, too.
I am happier, and I'm learning a lot. For instance, as part of Ketzal, I learned that my Aztec ancestors preserved our culture through music and dance. The Aztec culture that was kept alive in Mexico has reached the United States. One of our dances honors our tradition of planting and our steps represent the sowing of the land so we can plant seeds.
Ketzal has helped me get a fuller picture of my heritage, something that I haven't gotten in school. My dad agrees.
"We're here in the USA," he told me, "so I was pretty sure they wouldn't teach anything about that in schools here."
Kalpulli KetzalCoutlique has been around since 2001. The group was founded by Susana De Leon with a mission to bring people together as a community through dance. Ketzal is an inclusive group, open to people of all ages throughout the Twin Cities.
But De Leon says dancing is only one aspect of the group's work. Ketzal is more like a family.
"When you need someone to support you emotionally, those people are there for you," she said. "When you need to support somebody emotionally, you also feel useful being there. But it's just not being there, but being there in a cultural way."
DeLeon sets the tone for that support. When not working as a lawyer, she spends time mentoring and encouraging young women like me. She's been a role model for me because of her strong leadership skills. My leadership skills have grown as a result.
"You have transformed into this very strong young woman," she told me. "And I cannot take all the credit because I said you have a very strong family. But Ketzal did help you be fearless in public."
I now recruit new members to Ketzal and mentor girls like 14-year-old Mayela De Luna, who joined the group last year.
At a recent rehearsal, Mayela told me she was shy, like me when I first joined Ketzal, but the members made her feel welcome.
"They also made me feel comfortable around them so I can be myself and just show them who I really am," she said.
That's how I feel, too. And I'm less afraid to try new things, such as performing at Southdale Mall recently with Ketzal as part of Global Youth Service Day.
The organizers of the performance gave us the space and in return we shared some of our culture. With our last dance, we gave thanks for the opportunity to keep our culture alive.
Ketzal really changed the way I live and look at life. How, you may ask, does a dance group change someone and help them grow so much? Well this isn't just any dance group. This is Kalpulli KetzalCoutlique.