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Cloggers, Sikhs, Mariachis and More Unite for 45th Annual Texas Folklife Festival 

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click to enlarge Dancers from Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka (top) and Ballet Folklórico de San Antonio - CHUCK CRUSE
  • Chuck Cruse
  • Dancers from Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka (top) and Ballet Folklórico de San Antonio

Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka

Even though she’s a San Antonio native, Rene’e Park is often called upon to teach the traditions of her family’s home — Hawaii. “We actually practice more of our traditions here in San Antonio, or ‘off the rock’ as we say, than we would in Hawaii,” Park said. “A lot of people that move here from the island, they start a family here and say ‘Auntie, come and teach our kids hula.’ You need to.”

Park wears many hats, but one of them is directing Hula Halau Ohana Elikapeka, a dance troupe and school. The group’s performances are a mashup of Polynesian cultures. They range from contemporary Hawaiian dances called auwana — a type of Hula — to Tahitian drum dancing, to others based in Maori and Samoan traditions. 

Its roots stretch back to the late 1950s, before Hawaii was even a state. Park’s mother Elizabeth left Maui to serve in the Army. She eventually landed at Fort Sam Houston, where she met Rene’e’s father. 

“In her unit there were several other Hawaiian girls who came. Not only were they women, but they were all very dark-colored in skin and they talked a little different than the mainland people,” Park said. “So my mom vowed then that … they were going to be here. They were sent here on a mission to spread the aloha.”

Since then, spreading Hawaiian culture has been the family business. In addition to dozens of dance performances each year, Park and her family also run a Hawaiian restaurant and catering business, dance classes and a floral shop specializing in leis.

The troupe, which numbers a few dozen, is mostly comprised of local Hawaiian families. Some of its members were on stage before they were out of diapers. That’s what keeps it together after so many years, Park said, and what perpetuates old traditions that might otherwise die out. 

“That’s what it’s all about — keep moving on to the next generation so they’ll learn,” Park said. “Sometimes it gets a little overwhelming, because we think ‘If we stop, what’s going to happen?’”


Lebanese Folk Dancers of St. George

The dance troupe from St. George Maronite Catholic Church has performed in San Antonio since the mid-1960s. A former dancer in the group now serving as the director, Deborah Mery Fernandez has enjoyed watching different generations of dancers, including her children and grandchildren, come through the church and learn, preserve and share the tradition of Lebanese dance, known as dabke. 

“It’s been woven into our lifestyle,” Fernandez said. Along with the art of dance, St. George will feature Lebanese cuisine, including shish kebobs, tabbouleh, baklava and mint tea.

click to enlarge JAMIE COUCH KRAUTZ
  • Jamie Couch Krautz

Mariachi Las Alteñas 

All-female mariachi groups aren’t the norm. But they were even more uncommon when Valerie Vargas started Mariachi Las Alteñas in 2002.
Vargas plays the violin and leads the 10-piece ensemble. She’d played in a professional mariachi group in high school, then founded Las Alteñas in 2002 after she graduated. Since then, the group’s lineup has stayed constant. They’ve been at it for a while now, but the allure of playing music they’re passionate about to a live audience doesn’t get old.

“To have a following and a fan base here in our own home city, it’s always an honor to be able to perform on stage and do a show and get people excited about mariachi music,” Vargas said.

Vargas and the other players are still finalizing their setlist for the festival. The group plays a mix of traditional and contemporary tunes, both in English and Spanish. They’ll play classics, but throw in “At Last” by Etta James or “Orange Blossom Special.”

In addition to appearing all over Texas, the group has also played at the Hollywood Bowl and on Good Morning America. It’s a sisterhood — and one that sometimes gives them an advantage in a competitive industry.

“There’s some people that would think that female mariachis aren’t as good as male mariachis or can’t do the same job,” Vargas said. “When you’re in a female mariachi, you can perform songs that are written more for male artists to perform ... and also perform the songs designed for females. It gives us a little more of a broad, wider range of music we can play or interpret.”

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