Atop a nondescript parking ramp among doctors’ offices in Fairfax, people of all ages gather to keep Bolivian culture and tradition alive through music and dance.
Alma Boliviana, a dance troupe that will be among those performing at the Falls Church Memorial Day Parade, has over 100 members that meet twice a week to learn and rehearse traditional Bolivian dances and perform at festivals, parades and showcases around the region.
Daniela Senzano, a leader with the group, has been dancing for 18 years. It is her way of staying connected to her homeland.
“This is our way of connecting and making sure our culture gets passed down to the next generation,” Senzano said.
Senzano leads the ‘tobas’ dance, one of the three types of dances Alma Boliviana performs. The tobas dance, which the group will perform at the Memorial Day Parade, is performed at festivals across Bolivia and originated with city folk who learned it from the Tobas people of the Bolivian Amazon.
“It’s very jungle-like,” Senzano said of the tobas dance and corresponding music. “You can hear the jaguar roaring in the music; it’s very fierce.”
Each dance, tobas, tinkus and caporales, has a distinctive ‘traje,’ or costume, that the dancers wear. For tobas, the traje is a two piece with a large feather headdress.
“We bring all the outfits in from Bolivia,” Senzano said. “They take a couple months to come in.”
As the leader for the tobas dance, Senzano teaches steps to her dancers and signals when to change steps, aided by a whistle.
Misla Pohren, another dancer in the group, has been dancing for 12 years. She came to the United States from Bolivia as a teen and said dancing brings back childhood memories from her home country. Pohren met her husband, Jeff Pohren, through Bolivian dance.
“He’s from Iowa,” she said of her husband. “But sometimes we joke that he’s more Bolivian than I am because he knows all the dances and the language.”
Their two young children were among the many kids at the rooftop rehearsal.
“This is a very family-oriented group,” Misla said. “I want my kids to know about their mom’s home culture.”
The communal ties were evident with aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and extended family all in attendance together at the rehearsal. Elder members of the group were selling traditional Bolivian food for the dancers to enjoy during breaks, which is one of the ways the group brings in money.
Alexandra Vadaurre, another dancer, said dancing is a way to express Bolivian culture.
“There are a lot of people here that would have never danced back in Bolivia, but it’s a way to connect to our home.”
Alma Boliviana, which is in its 32nd year, is part of a larger organization that represents Bolivian cultural groups in the Washington, D.C. area. The Pro-Bolivia Committee, founded in 1988, has 19 affiliated dance groups.
Lucio Villazon, the president of Pro-Bolivia, said he sees performance at local events as an important part of the committee’s mission. He also affirmed the importance of keeping traditions alive.
“It’s our way to spread the culture and socialize between people,” Villazon said.
Alma Boliviana performs at ten parades throughout the area and even participated in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in 2011. They have participated in the Falls Church Memorial Day parade for fifteen years.
“We love performing at the parades because we can see how much people are enjoying it,” Senzano said. “Sometimes the little kids like to dance with us and we love it.”
Jeff Pohren said dancing has a cathartic effect for him.
“Everything goes away,” Pohren said.
His wife and dance partner, Misla, echoed his sentiment.
“It’s that rush you get from performing.”