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Traditional Folk Dance Group, Sumak Ayllu, Keeps Ecuadorian Culture Alive

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

Culture, art, and family intertwine in the Ecuadorian folk dance group Sumak Ayllu.

Sumak Ayllu was founded four years ago by former couple Angel Miguel Guallpa and Jessica Quizhpi. Upon the end of their relationship, Angel has taken up sole responsibility as the head of the group. It just so happens that Angel is my uncle, my mother's younger brother.

Sumak Ayllu is a traditional Ecuadorian folk dance group based in Orange, NJ. Sumak Ayllu means beautiful family in Quichua, an indigenous Ecuadorian language. They keep the tradition alive by dancing to folk genres such as Cayambe and Chimborazo. They perform all over the tri-state area from their home county in Jersey to Connecticut. Each of their dance numbers can last up to ten minutes. In honor of my Ecuadorian heritage and Hispanic Heritage Month, I observed their practice and interviewed some of the dancers.

The following are all of Sumak Ayllus's dancers who participated in the interview.

Leneni Quinatoa, a 7-year-old student with 2 years of folk dancing experience

Margarita Cosquillo, a 36-year-old hairdresser with 30 years of folk dancing experience

Johanna Lliguicota, a 12-year-old student with 1 year of folk dancing experience

Jennifer Tubon, a 15-year-old student with 1 year of folk dancing experience

Edison Zhanga, a 31-year-old restaurant worker with 6 years of folk dancing experience

Luis Dutan, 46-year-old Costco employee with 6 years of folk dancing experience

Alan Tenecela, a 15-year-old student with one month of folk dancing experience

Mary E. Tenecela, 46-year-old maid and nail tech with 6 years of folk dancing experience

Lucio Macancelo, a 35-year-old construction worker with 8 months of folk dance experience

Marlon, an engineer with 6 years of folk dancing experience

The following are all of Sumak Ayllu's dancers who were not available to participate in the interview.

Maribel Lema

Sandra Peralta

Maite Navaz

Gabriella Morocho

Erik Quinatoa

Betty Veleca

Jessy Morocho

Because Sumak Ayllu does not function as a business, all of the dancers are there entirely of their own volition. Despite working or going to school all day long, these dancers put aside their exhaustion and attend dance practice every Wednesday and Friday.

When asked why they decided to join Sumak Ayllu, the unanimous answer was simply the love of dance. They're committed to the group not for a paycheck or renowned recognition but the humble art of dance. I observed this in even their youngest of dancers, Leneni.

The day I observed their practice, the idea was that each dancer would speak to me for a bit and fill out a questionnaire I created before they began dancing. Leneni ran in with his father, following behind, excited to start dancing. When told to stop to speak to me, Leneni was anxious to dance and could barely stand still long enough for the conversation. In the end, Leneni's father, Diego, had to complete the questionnaire on his son's behalf. Such young enthusiasm to upkeep the culture and traditions of a country that he may not remember or have ever visited shows how deep this love for folk dancing truly runs.

Some dancers mentioned joining this group for the people. After all, Sumak Ayllu takes its name seriously, attempting to create a familial environment for its dancers. At the end of practice, the day I visited, Angel and some other dancers had planned a small birthday celebration for Margarita. They acted like they were about to rerun the dance and instead played happy birthday on the speakers and brought out a birthday cake to her surprise. Everyone gathered around, first-day dancers and I included, and sang Happy Birthday. The best part about it was that her birthday was the day before, not even that day, and everyone still felt it necessary to celebrate as a group.

Not only do they all love to dance, but they are particularly passionate about this specific form of dance. Living on a different continent, some born here, some not, everyone wants to keep their Ecuadorian culture alive. They want to upkeep, preserve and bring awareness to Ecuadorian traditions.

Edison describes it as "my way of always keeping Ecuador in my heart."

Johanna describes it as "rescuing the culture of my town and their traditions."

Although many of the group's original dancers are long done and replaced by new ones, Sumak Ayllu has become very successful. None of the dancers, including Angel, get paid, and any money raised with performances goes back into the group. The traditional attire required for performances is costly. Costuming is crucial because it is not just about lavish beauty. Each genre of Ecuadorian folk dance has different traditions requiring different costuming. New costumes are needed to expand their repertoire and accurately represent their culture.

When the group started, each dancer had to purchase their costume. However, now, Sumak Ayllu has achieved enough success that performances can pay for more costumes for each dancer.

The dancers attribute the group's success to constant practice, humility, outstanding choreography, unity, and shared love for dance. Luis believes it is because every person involved is responsible for their role within the group. I witnessed this firsthand during their practice.

Dancers instantly split up between men and women. They practice individual steps repeatedly amongst themselves without much direction on what to do. Angel focuses on individually teaching any newcomers just joining or anyone struggling with any particular steps. Then the men and women reunite to run the entire routine. Everything is very lighthearted. Mistakes are laughed at, not scolded then they are fixed. Despite the relaxed nature of the practice, everyone is attentive and involved. They want to be there and put in the effort to make the group successful.

There is no question about what message Sumak Ayllu hopes to spread with their art. They want to keep Ecuadorian traditions, culture, music, and dance alive.

Mary says, "We should never let our culture die and should always remember who we are and where we are from."

Marlon and Alan want people to remember to do what they love regardless of what others may say.

Angel hopes that one day the group will travel and perform in their home country of Ecuador. However, there are always obstacles to maintaining a voluntary dance group.

"The hardest part about maintaining the group is keeping dancers; they get tired of dancing and leave."

The smallest the group has been is 6 people in 3 pairs, and the largest it's ever been is 24 people in 12 pairs.

Despite any struggles and obstacles the group may have endured, Sumak Ayllu still goes into every performance wearing their vibrant and elaborate costumes, with the love of dance and tradition in their hearts, ready to spread culture and awareness for Ecuador.

Keep up with Sumak Ayllu on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube.

*All interviews with minors were conducted with parental consent

*Most interviews were originally in Spanish, and answers have been translated

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