By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
¿Todos hablan español? the dance teacher asks the ten teenagers gathered in Alejandra Ramos's garage. "Good."
But one of the boys is still shaking his head no.
"You know you speak Spanish, stop lying," fourteen-year-old Alejandra tells him, pointing her finger at the baggy-pants boy, then looking around at everyone else. "Hey, don't play today, don't play today."
Alejandra's fifteenth birthday party, her quinceañera, is just a month away, and she's preparing to dance her way into womanhood. The other teens, all friends and family members, have been given supporting roles and are at her house this Sunday evening to practice.
"Like 'Hi there,'" Jaider says with a wave, explaining how to pronounce his name in English. He quickly pairs up the five boys and five girls, showing them how to hold hands properly and execute the first step.
"Play," Jaider cues a younger kid in the corner by the stereo.
The music starts. It sounds like a slower version of a bride's march: Dun-dun-de-dun.
"Okay, easy, easy, easy, easy," Jaider tells the kids. "Stick out your chest and stand up," he adds in Spanish.
Jaider takes Alejandra as his partner, and he instructs the other couples to follow them in a line down the concrete driveway. Most of the boys sport sneakers, the girls flip-flops. Some have iPods. All have cell phones.
"I'll call you back," one of the boys says into his phone.
"Hang up," Jaider barks, snapping his fingers.
Jaider lets Alejandra go and takes on the female role himself, grabbing the hands of Alejandra's macho cousin from Mexico. The cousin makes a sour face as he prances hand in hand with Jaider.
At quinceañera practices, the boys are usually better students than the girls. "The girls are always too busy looking at the boys," Jaider says.
Like most of the quinceañera clients that come his way, Alejandra's mother heard about Jaider's dance classes through the grapevine that begins in his beauty shop. Now she's watching the practice. In the distance, past the traffic on I-25, the sun is starting to set.
"Otra vez. Another time," Jaider instructs the teens, having them repeat a step. "What a mess."
Alejandra is acting like she's focused, but she's slipped in one of her iPod earpieces while Jaider wasn't looking. Another girl is staring at some boys walking by.
"They don't have money. Always looking at the boys with no money," Jaider tells the girl, then turns his focus on Alejandra. "Quinceañera, spit out the gum. Pay attention."
The first practice finally comes to an end. There will be three more practices on consecutive Sundays, and Jaider will also do Alejandra's hair and makeup on the big day.
"Next week without gum, without cellular," Jaider warns the kids.
Alejandra tells her friends to show up at 5 p.m. the next Sunday -- an hour earlier than she figures they'll really come. A little after 6, when Jaider arrives at the makeshift ballroom in the garage, almost everyone has gathered. Alejandra screams at two of her girlfriends who are wandering off toward some neighborhood boys.
The girls straggle back. Alejandra rips an iPod earphone out of one friend's ear. She isn't playing around this time.
Two boys Alejandra has asked to participate as chambelanes in her dance haven't shown up yet. Jaider spots a group of men hanging out in the street, watching the practice. He walks up to them and puts his hand out, bending his wrist and his knees, waiting for the men to accept his offer to dance.
They smile, but decline.
The music starts. One of the chambelaneshas been in four quinceañeras before, and he learns the moves quickly. But the other boys struggle as Jaider teaches them to spin.
Jaider turns his attention to the girls Alejandra has gathered, her damas.
"Girls, you've got to be more feminine when you turn," Jaider tells them, snapping his fingers.
The shortage of boys is holding up the dance. Jaider returns to the spectators in the street, pleading for a couple of men to at least stand with the damas. Two of them finally do, which allows Jaider to show the group what the dance is like with four couples -- although there are supposed to be five.
The missing teens finally show up at 7:15, when practice is over by Jaider's watch.
Alejandra yells at her friends that they need to be on time. And even though Jaider is leaving, she tells them that the practice will continue. But dancing without their instructor proves more difficult than Alejandra had imagined. The boys quickly move from dance steps to slap-boxing.
Alejandra takes charge.
"You, dance with her," she tells one boy.
"You, take a break," she tells another.
"You get your ass over here. We're waiting for you."
But then her cell phone rings, and all dancing stops when she answers it.
By the fourth week, the final practice, Alejandra has let her hair down and is wearing makeup. Jaider's long black ponytail is even longer now, because he's added an extension.