By Toni Tresca
If you’ve been to a cultural event in North Denver, you’ve probably seen one of Grupo Tlaloc Danza Azteca’s energized dance performances.
On Nov. 1, the group held its annual Dia de los Muertos celebration at La Raza Park, in the Sunnyside neighborhood where performers shared their culture with their community in a family-friendly event. Grupo Tlaloc Danza Azteca is a multi-generational Mexica/Azteca dance group dedicated to preserving and nourishing their ancestors’ ancient knowledge.
The group was founded in 1980 with the permission of an elder from Mexico, who planted the seed of “La Danza” (the dance) and taught the rituals to people in the United States. Carlos Castañeda is the leader of Grupo Tlaloc Danza Azteca and enjoys educating the public about Aztec culture.
“Once I joined the group in 1984, I started traveling with them and loved learning about the history of the dance,” Castañeda said.
Castañeda has led the dance troupe for more than 30 years and is passionate about preserving his people’s traditions.
“They don’t teach about our history and culture in schools, or if they do, it’s all negative,” Castañeda said. “This group educates dancers and the general public about the beauty of this culture.”
The group hosts several major ceremonies that are open to the public, including the massive summer solstice ceremony known as “Xupantla.” These activities, however, are only one aspect of the group’s work.
“What the public sees are performances of our dances,” Castañeda explained, “but the group’s real work happens at weekly rehearsals, where we teach our members the discipline of the dance circle.”
Their practices are held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays at the Globeville Recreation Center. These rehearsals are open to the public and welcome people of all ages and cultures. While anyone is welcome, learning the steps and designing the ceremonial outfits takes a significant amount of time and effort.
“Everything you get in the group, you earn,” Castañeda said.
After proving their proficiency in the group’s ritualistic dances, members can earn different accessories for their clothing, including a rattle, seed pods for their ankles, and a ceremonial outfit with a headdress.
“It’s very empowering to earn the pieces of your outfit,” Castañeda said. “People put their prayers and hearts into the creation of their outfits, which is so much better than just buying them premade.”
It can often take months to learn the dances and over 40 hours of labor to create their wardrobe; yet, Castañeda finds that this work brings participants a lot of pride and helps them feel the music’s rhythm when dancing. The group performed at a Dia de los Muertos event they co-sponsored with Servicios de la Raza at La Raza Park.
“I am very interested in teaching people what the Day of the Dead is actually about because it has been so commercialized and confused with Halloween,” Castañeda said.
The holiday is about more than just spooky iconography; it is an important day of remembrance that keeps the memories of past family members alive. The festival included a march to the Troy Chavez Peace Garden for a blessing, which was followed by a dinner at Escuela Tlatelolco with mariachi music, dancing, poetry, and storytelling.
If people would like to get involved with the group or attend future performances, Castañeda encourages them to check out Grupo Tlaloc Danza Azteca’s website grupotlaloc.org. Any donation given to the group goes directly back into the group and helps with purchasing the materials.
“The public is always welcome to come and watch practices or performances,” Castañeda said. “But by helping out the group, you are keeping cultural and spiritual practices alive.”