This is the story of Marcela Hernández, a director, teacher and dancer at Alma Llanera, a dance academy in Orocué, Colombia, and her daughter, Mariangel Tumay. Photographer Juanita Escobar began documenting the story of the dance troupe in 2020 — the adversities they faced during the last two years and how the performance brought them together as one big family.
Marcela Hernández was one of many vulnerable children in Villavicencio, Colombia, in the 1980s. When she was 11 years old, she remembers an aunt telling her, "this girl develops and gets pregnant."
"That's what they are expecting from me," Marcela recalls, so she fought to pursue her dreams and paddle against the current.
Marcela learned she could overcome any stereotype and follow her dreams as a dancer. She lived and worked in Villavicencio and Bogotá. When her career as a dancer reached its peak, she traveled to Orocué, along with Gersi, her dance and life partner, to start a journey as dance professors of children and young people — she felt it was time to teach and share the values and knowledge that had helped her build her career. On March 2, 2007, she started her dance academy, Alma Llanera.
Rivers, stories are formed in the body, feelings travel, travel, play, become sweat, touch, the other. They share the paths that each one carries attached, without realizing it, everything comes together, swirls, bursts, like the river, like the breath that becomes increasingly silent.
The gaze, on the other hand, intensifies its brightness, the heart stirs, haughty, like the smoke that rises vertically until a breeze twists it, turns it, changes its course.
This is the story of a rising star. A rising with a name: Mariangel Tumay, a 13-year-old girl who flows like a river, grows like a crescent moon, she increases her strength and shining in the distance. The dance school of her mother, Marcela, also grows. The talents of the young dancers who make up the group grow, the opportunities to be — and to be in Orocué — grow.
El Llano, Orocué
At the shore. The Llanero and Sáliva groups live in Orocué.
The Indigenous group, Sáliva, has always lived the vast plains of the Orinoco in Colombia and Venezuela and, today, a large part of their population lives in the savannas, villages and hunting grounds of the municipality of Orocué.
The Meta river, located between eastern Colombia and southern Venezuela, is the largest and most extensive river in the Colombian Orinoquia, coming from the Andes Mountains to the Orinoco River.
The pandemic and gender-based violence
Marcela said the dance has helped her students to find their passion and be more disciplined. "Karen was one of the first to enter the academy; she changed a lot — she was very rebellious," Marcela says. "At school, she was always the last one, and then she started to improve, academically; she started to be more polite, calmer. Now she is doing very well at school — the way her attitude shifted surprised me a lot."
"In a town like this, there is a lack of opportunities. It is a cliché, but the truth is that a person who does not know the outside world believes that it is normal for a girl to get pregnant at 12 or 13 years old. And the abnormal has become normal: Here, it is normal to rape — that a 40- or 50-year-old guy takes a 12-year-old girl and rapes her — and you hear comments like, 'She asked for it'?
"I say that, in the education of girls and boys, there is a very deep deficiency: They are not taught values such as respect and self-respect. That's why you see so many 11- or 12-year-old girls living with men or with boys their own age, forming a family without even knowing what a family is or what the responsibility of having a child is."
"What COVID unleashed, more than usual, is teen pregnancy. There are a lot of pregnant girls now."
"In my class, there is a girl who had to repeat ninth grade because, in the middle of the year, she got pregnant."
"For the girls, the pandemic was more difficult because they became housewives, so they were the ones who took care of their siblings, who made lunch, who did the cleaning. On the other hand, culturally, boys don't face the same expectations. A boy could be on the phone and get up at the time he wanted, and that was it. ... Very few parents are those who equally demand the same responsibilities for boys and girls.
"My students even say that I am something of a feminist because I demand the same from men and women — (because) I don't just look to the girls to organize and do the cleaning."
School and online learning
"My daughter, Mariangel, she is very resilient," Marcela says. "Since she was a little girl, she has always been used to the tough — the demands, the sudden changes, the movement. She had a hard time at school during the pandemic because she felt stuck, in a certain way.
"One thing that eased things out were the rehearsals, because at least she saw her friends and danced three times a week. I tried, as much as possible, to keep her busy — she rehearsed bandola, she rehearsed harp, she read books, she was busy all the time..."
"What should we do? Motivate the children to study. What I really want is not to train the dancer in llanera culture. I am interested in the person, to train people who are more human, who are more sensitive to the things of the world, because I feel that there is a lot of insensitivity.
"I want to form empathetic human beings; let's put it this way: that dancing helps them to create certain habits, that they are fulfilled, that they are disciplined, that they set goals, that they have a meeting place, that there is a family."
Dance classes and the pandemic
"We were practicing a choreography when the pandemic hit, so we were locked up and had to suspend classes. The kids were in hiding for eight days, each one at home ... It was the panic of the virus.
"About 10 days later, the children began to call me, saying they were bored, that they were desperate at home. They didn't know what to do, so they flew away, we gathered in the courtyard and rehearsed.
"When people started to hear the noise of the zapateos, the police called me, they stopped here in front of the house and we kept quiet."
"In Orocué, nothing else was happening other than the dance shows — what was 2020 Orocué was completely dead, dead, dead — dead in all senses.
"At the end of 2021, we went to Villavicencio, to the International Joropo Tournament; then we went to Yopal, where we won the dance award! In November 2021! It was a very gratifying trip and award after so much pandemic and isolation."
Puberty during the pandemic
Mariangel participated with other dancers and musicians in the Valledupar festival in March 2022, where she won first place for youth folkloric queen. She danced, sang, played harp and bandola. She was joined by two other dance couples, including her parents, Marcela and Gersi. She reflects on the difficulties of the pandemic isolation for an artist in a rural community.
"THE PANDEMIC?!!! EXHAUSTING!!!"
"One of the biggest problems was the study — it was too horrible because, first, we didn't learn anything; second, here is a town where the electricity was out all the time, so we couldn't even enter the virtual classes. Sometimes, the computer was blocked. The cell phone, too. Or the professors simply didn't give the class. The signal was very bad. The internet, too. There was a lot of difficulty, and sometimes we had to stay up all night doing some guides that I think that not even the professors reviewed because they were too long. In fact, during that year, I was sick all the time with vomiting, like a kind of migraine, as if stones had fallen on my head. No! I could not!
"About halfway through 2021, when I started attending classes, I realized that I could not see the board — I had damaged my eyesight from looking at the screen so much. I spent a lot of time at the computer, and now I wear glasses."
"Dancing is what I enjoy the most, it's what I learned first and what I've been doing since I was 2 years old — not only joropo, but other types of folkloric dance: cumbia, merengue, salsa, mapalé. Dancing, I have gone to Cartagena, Barranquilla, Ibagué, Guayabal de Síquima, Tunja, Tocancipá, Cachancipá, Villavicencio, Yopal and Valledupar.
"I also want to study anthropology or archeology.
"Many of the girls in the village have the idea — or they have been taught the idea — that they are only good for having husbands and children. They have no aspirations. They don't have an open mind."
* This work was supported by the Magnum Foundation, with a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.