Samantha glided across the dance floor. One arm was outstretched, and her head tilted gracefully to one side. ``I can't believe it's happening to me.''
It seemed like the perfect start to a traditional quinceañera—the coming-of-age ritual for Latinas that is equal parts 15th birthday party and debutante ball.
But this was tradition with a twist: The father-daughter dance would abruptly morph into a laugh-filled parody of “Saturday Night Fever.'' And the baile sorpresa (the surprise dance) would be an enthusiastic, fleet-footed rendition from the musical “Grease.”
Samantha is part of a growing number of girls who are helping to create a modern brand of quinceañera s that reflect a new generation of Latina teenagers who are fusing U.S.-American style with Latino roots.
The updated parties keep many of the formal rituals—the presentation of high heels symbolizing entrance into womanhood, the honoring of the birthday girl’s last doll and the crowning of the quinceañera girl. But the centerpiece of the night is now a musical extravaganza performed by the girl and her “court” - ushers, or chambelanes, and maids of honor called damas. Once made up of family and friends, the court now often includes teenage boys who are rented for the evening for their dancing skills.
The musical numbers, crafted by professional choreographers and requiring weeks of rehearsal, range from dance routines set to pop music such as Michael Jackson’s “Thriller'' or more risque spectacles with hip-hop and reggaeton soundtracks and moves cribbed from music videos.
There are costume changes, light shows and sometimes fireworks. The entire event can cost from $5,000 to $100,000.
And at the center of the production is the quince girl, a teenager starring in a show created just for her.
“The movements have gotten more commercial, more like what's on MTV. They want lifts. They want turns. Everything. They want smoke, lights,'' said Erika “Chucke” Peña, owner of Chucke’s Choreography and one of the most sought-after quinceañera choreographers in Houston. “The clients that come here want a show. If not, they would have an aunt choreograph it.''
Alexandria Macias’s quinceañera cost $14,000 and featured a combination musical theme of ``Thriller,'' ``Zoot Suit Riot'' and a salsa remix of Carlos Santana's ``Oye Como Va.''
``I wanted something different, something unique where people would go 'wow!''' Macias said.
The quinceañera tradition goes back hundreds of years, most likely rooted in Mayan and Aztec rites of passage which were blended with the pomp of Spanish court formalities, said Michaela Murphy, an editor at Quince Girl magazine. Each ritual _ the last doll, the waltz, the crown and a special Mass _ represents an aspect of the transiton from childhood to adulthood.
``I'm always struck by how struck the girls are by this, how potent the experience is for them to have this ceremony that's so ritualized and in honor of them,'' said Murphy, who is based in Seattle. ``You are the featured performer. You get to wear the prettiest dress. It really is a dream come true.''
Over the years, quinceañeras in the United States adopted some aspects from their Anglo counterparts at 16. Some girls celebrate their quinceañera s on their 16th birthday, instead of the 15th. Others opt for a new car or a birthday cruise rather than the party.
But the trend of stylized choreography and specially trained dancers popped up only within the last two years, and can be traced to the influence of hip-hop and reggaeton music. Since then, the number of choreographers specializing in quinceañera s has quadrupled, Murphy said.
``The girls really want to put their own fingerprints on this quintessential cultural event,'' Murphy said. ``They think the rituals are cool, but they want to marry it with who they are as contemporary American teenagers.''
One of Peña’s clients wanted to perform her traditional father-daughter waltz to the rap song, ``This is Why I'm Hot.'' She got her wish, but only after Peña found a remix version of the song with a slower, more waltz-like rhythm—and without raunchy lyrics.
``It was very smooth, very nice. You’ve got to be careful because you've got grandmas there. You've got tias (aunts) there,” said Peña. ``They can get very offended if you do something wrong.''
Another Houston choreographer, Erin Flores, noted that many girls want instrumental versions of R&B songs for their waltz or their entrance theme. An R. Kelly song called ``I'm a Flirt'' is especially popular these days, Flores said.
Flores and Peña both rent out chambelanes who are trained dancers. His dancers and choreographers specialize in flips, leaps and lifts.
``People are always looking for something different,'' said Flores, who began by choreographing quinceañera s for his cousins. ``Girls are girls. They always want to outdo their friends’ quinceañeras.''
Alexandria's mother, Terry Macias, welcomed the addition of modern elements to the Latino tradition.
``It’s Mex-Tex—a Latino tradition, with a bit born here. It's wonderful to incorporate both sides,'' said Macias, whose parents couldn't afford a quinceañera for her. ``But some of these youngsters are a little disrespectful, wearing little short skirts. I said we wouldn't do that. It's a special event, definitely a formal affair.''
Both Flores and Peña say they try not to let glitz edge out tradition.
``A quinceañera is only once,'' Peña said. ``It's very important, especially to our culture. I try to keep that tradition alive without it being boring.''
Most of the quince girls want the same thing. They may want to perform like J.Lo, but they dream of being presented like a princess.
``You only get a few moments in life that are all about you,'' Alexandria said. ``I wanted everyone to realize that I'm growing up. I wanted that moment to be about me. And it was.''
Samantha Lynch had long dreamed of being Cinderella. So, when it was time for her 15th birthday, she wanted to bring that fantasy to life—and add dancing that would make her guests stand up and applaud.
Her solution: a dual-themed quinceañera, where she would enter as Cinderella, then shed the gown to kick up her heels as the lead character from ``Grease.''
``I'm always a clown and I always like being the center of attention, so this is my chance to get out there and act the fool,'' Samantha joked a few days before her May 26th party.
The night, which cost about $13,000, would be a fitting blend of the two sides of Samantha's heritage. Her father, who died when she was four, was Anglo. Her mother, Alma Lynch, is of Mexican descent.
During the formal presentations, Samantha was dressed in her ethereal ballgown and her tiara. Her chambelan fitted her with a glass slipper. She received a sash laden with 15 red flowers. Then, she was given her last doll—a teddy bear she has cherished since her toddler days.
A quick costume change later, Samantha and her court of eight couples reappeared dressed as the characters from ``Grease.'' With a quick backwards flip and a wave, Samantha led her entourage in a rousing dance routine that included lots of twisting, hip-shaking and good-humored overacting.
``You're the one that I want ... ooo...ooo...ooo,'' Samantha lip-synched, as she pranced the dance floor in black leotard and shirt.
``It was fun,'' she said, a few breathless moments later. ``I think it turned out exactly the way I wanted.''