Arturo Magaña, director of LGBTQ+-supportive Mexican folklore dance group, talks nontraditional representation in traditional dance

Illustration of Arturo Magaña
Alexander Hong/Senior Staff

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As the late evening darkness settled around Telegraph Avenue, bright brass cries out from a side street. There, surrounded by a thick and wild crowd, Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí lit up the dim concrete of Oakland First Fridays’ monthly street festival. In step with the blaring trumpets, founder and director of the Mexican folklore dance group, Arturo Magaña, twirled a tremendous rainbow skirt, slightly sweaty and grinning. On the sidewalk, a makeshift backstage where more skirts hung among the trees planted there, other dancers stood ready, waiting for their cue to enter the fray.

Everything was loud and everyone was whistling or yelling — the joy was palpable. A feeling of community pulled everyone in tightly.

Perhaps this was because it was the weekend before Oakland Pride — where Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí also performed — and Magaña established the San Jose-based group for LGBTQ dancers. Or maybe it was because it’s hard not to smile and feel excited as you pack closer together to watch something so colorful and unrestrained unfold on a street corner at dusk.

Magaña has been dancing for about 20 years since he was 10 years old, so he knows how to hold an audience’s attention.

“(I was) dancing in a heteroconformative role, which (was) beautiful because I was still representing my heritage, my culture,” Magaña said in an interview with The Daily Californian a week after the First Fridays performance. “But as time (went) by, I started developing and discovering my identity. I felt that … I was sort of acting out a role that was not my identity and kind of going back into a closet.”

Magaña laughed at his own joke, and continued, “It felt very weird.”

With the support of his artistic friends, he opened the doors to the LGBTQ group Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí in November 2015. He decided there would be no specific requirement for anyone to join the group, but that all members must be “one hundred percent supportive of the LGBTQ community, of course.”

This decision to include non-LGBTQ-identifying individuals stemmed from the feeling that it would be wrong to “repress their need to support us and to be with us,” in Magaña’s words — in other words, why exclude anyone at all based on their identity?

As Magaña put it, that’s how Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí became “an LGBTQ+ group.” That said, it still specializes in showcasing LGBTQ experiences.

He explained that in the majority of folclórico pieces that are created, there are very defined roles: the masculine role, or the lead, and the feminine role. But in Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí, dancers pair up “female to female, male to male or (in) hetero-conforming couples.”

“We decided to step a little bit out of the box and create some choreography where the men wear the skirt, sort of to make the point that it’s really just a costume. And (it’s) not that I feel like a woman when I wear the skirt, but it’s part of the traditional form and … anybody has the right to do it,” Magaña said. “We wanted to give the dancers the freedom to choose their identity and how they represent it onstage.”

No matter the pairings or the costumes, the choreography is always focused on telling LGBTQ stories.

“In folclórico, you can choreograph a melodrama, for example, like a wedding, like a fight between families or some sort of grand event in someone’s life,” Magaña said. “What I decided to do is put something of (the) LGBTQ community’s story into our shows.”

So Magaña choreographed a wedding between two lesbians. As research for the performance, he interviewed some of his friends who are lesbians, asking why some were choosing not to get married and speaking with others who had married and started families. What he discovered was that the decision has been a “traumatic experience” for many.

“At first a lot of (my friends) were accepted by (their) families as a lesbian, but always sort of with that caution that ‘we do not want to see you with another woman,’ ” Magaña said.

He explained that some of his friends said they were even told it was unacceptable for them to form a family or have kids, “which is such a horrible thing to even think … right?” he said.

He chose to portray this conflict through an aspect of choreography common in the state of Nayarit: a fight or competition represented by tricks with machetes, or knives.

The experience of creating this dance, which is one of his favorites to date, was amazing because he came to “understand the obstacles women go (through) to be accepted, not only by themselves but also (by) their families,” Magaña said.

When asked how he views the community today, Magaña said, “I think that there’s a beautiful movement happening right now here in California and in the U.S., (wherein) we are receiving acceptance, even though there’s so many struggles and so many stories that we need to put out there, like sister transgenders who are getting burned alive or killed.”

This varied acceptance reaches Magaña personally.

“It is important for me to say … (to) my traditionalist colleagues, or … the people that feel that we are insulting the heritage … we’re not here to change history or tradition, we’re only here to add our stories,” Magaña said. “Because we’ve always been part of the stories … It’s just that our identities have never been validated, and that’s what we’re here for — to validate exactly who I am and to let everybody know that I matter.”

But for the most part, Magaña acknowledged that he is not asked why he is wearing a skirt when he performs. He said the audience sees “how beautifully (the skirt) moves, with how much respect (he moves) it, (and) they accept it as an art form.”

Magaña paused. “My hope is that … if someone in the audience is seeing me that way, they look at themselves in their acceptance.”

Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí will perform at Oakland First Fridays on Nov. 1. On Jan. 6, Magaña will open an LGBTQ academy offering classes in Mexican folklore dance.

Olivia Jerram covers LGBTQ+ media. Contact her at [email protected].