Sitting watching is Juana Calderon, Cristal’s mother. She doesn’t look much older than Cristal, but there is a gravitas to her presence and the way she and Alberto Medina, the choreographer, exchange notes about the modifications needed for the routine. The music stops. Cristal and her damitas (similar to bridesmaids) and chambelanes (escorts for the damitas to the quinceañera) are starting from the top -- this time with better posture.
Every girl I knew growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, had a fiesta de quinceaños to celebrate her 15th birthday. It’s the age regarded by some in Latin American countries as the magical time in a girl’s life when she transitions from girlhood to womanhood. A long time ago a 15-year-old girl would have learned how to sew and cook and, therefore, was considered marriageable.
These days it is the time when a girl might be old enough to learn how to drive or have her first boyfriend. Instead of ceremoniously exchanging a pair of slippers for her first pair of high heels, a girl now just wears whatever kind of shoe she wants.
When I was deciding how to celebrate my own, I chose to bypass most of the traditional staples of this rite of passage and opted for something less extravagant. As opposed to asking the boy I had a crush on to be my chambelan, I asked my grandfather. I wore a pair of Chuck Taylors decked with ribbons and pearls, and I designed and had my dress made by my uncle’s sister, Blanca the seamstress. I also created my own invitations on Microsoft Paint Brush.
And even though for years I patted myself on the back for doing things my own way, I’ve remained curious of this tradition, especially now that I am so far away from my hometown and from the age of 15.
During my walks on the canal I notice curious onlookers watching the young girls and their entourages as they pose for photos, resembling little wedding cake toppers in their long and colorful ornate dresses. And I watch with nostalgia wondering what song they will dance to for their waltz, and if their chambelan is their boyfriend or if he will be after the party. Girls these days wear dresses of any color, not just pink like they used to.
Medina studied contemporary dance at Centro de Educacion Artística in Queretaro, Mexico. Back in his hometown, the business of quinceañeras is more competitive. Not only are there more choreographers, but it is also common for the blossoming young women to organize their friends and come up with their own dance steps, without the help of experts.
But after moving to Indianapolis seven years ago, the professional dancer found a void in the industry, “I started going to quinceañeras and saw a lot of deficiencies. The children were looking at each other during their choreographies not knowing what was next,” he says.
Soon Medina was placing ads in local Spanish language publications and became friends with various deejays he met through his work as Bettyblue, a drag performance artist. Before long, he was being referred to as the go-to choreographer.
“Right now I am working with three quinceañeras, but during the summer I have a party every week!” he says.
It takes about three months of rehearsing twice a week to nail down the choreography, and sometimes Medina increases the number of rehearsal days when he doesn’t feel the dancers are prepared. He charges families by the choreography and not by the hour, because he says some kids who have trouble learning the dance steps, which requires more of his time. “This is a good group,” he says while Cristal steps into her petticoat so she can practice the waltz component of the routine. She is dancing to Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud.
“At first boys always hate me because they don’t understand the discipline involved in dancing, but later when they learn some steps they begin to identify with me and begin to change their ideas about dance and about good posture,” he says.
There is a group of moms nodding to everything Medina says. One of them explains to me that back in their home country of Puerto Rico, they teach children early on about rhythm. “Whenever there’s a party, everyone dances -- children dance. You don’t see that here,” she says.
She's likely referring to the noticeable difference between an Anglo and a Hispanic party.
Cristal is an American citizen. Indiana is the only place she and her damitas and chambelanes -- who are all her siblings and cousins -- have ever lived in. Medina already sees how this tradition is becoming as local as anywhere in Mexico, “the girls are now choosing everything in English, but still keeping the older traditional aspects like the dress and the crown.”
Many of these girls have a Hispanic parent and a non-Hispanic parent. Hispanics now make up 45 percent of all inter-racial marriages in the country. So it is no surprise that Hispanic traditions are becoming ever more common in the cultural landscape of diverse cities such as our own.
I was fortunate to grow up in an environment that fostered the coexistence of traditions. With my mother being American and my father Mexican, I always understood tradition to be something that reflected the people and not the other way around. And with the changing times it is only fitting that we allow traditions to continue reflecting who we are. We no longer marry at 15. We are not a homogeneous city, and here in Indiana you will find parties where everyone dances -- regardless of heritage.
Likewise, these traditions are just as informed by the city they are performed in as the history they emulate. And so when you see a quinceañera strolling through our most scenic corners of the city, you are not just catching a glimpse of an outdated patriarchal tradition being performed. You are seeing an ever changing rite of passage that means whatever that young woman wants it to mean. Much like the medley Cristal will dance to at her party next week, the quinceañera is the crossroads of here and there, now and then, and a celebration of girls.