By Erika Webb
There are some young people in Deltona whose dances are fit for a queen and king.
The Hispanic American Youth Group was selected three years ago to perform in Melbourne on March 30 at a VIVA Florida 500 celebration of Ponce de Leon's discovery of the state.
The event was hosted by Royal Order of Don Juan Ponce de Leon Historical V Centennial Committee.
Expected in attendance were King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia of Spain.
HAYGD (pronounced "Hay God") Founder and Executive Director Maritza Avila-Vazquez said judges selected the organization as the event's Multicultural Folkloric Youth Group for the authenticity and diversity of their folkloric dances.
The three years between auditioning and performing for the committee have not been complacent ones for members of HAYGD.
"Every time they have an event they invite us," she said. "We have to make sure we look better than the last time, so they don't change their minds."
HAYGD was formed in 2003 after Ms. Avila-Vazquez and a friend left another organization and wanted to do something new.
"We thought, why not start a youth organization about culture?" Ms. Avila Vazquez said. "So we sat down and came up with a name. People think we're a dance group, but we do more than dancing."
"I was the founder but without the help of the people who volunteer, I would not have been able to get this far with the group -- our director, Julio Holness; the president, Nelida Santana; vice president, Rachael Aquino; and the rest of our volunteers, Joanne Foster, Ivette Delgado, Iris Orellana and Jeesline Rosado."
HAYGD gives scholarships to graduating seniors for college, and conducts workforce tours to help youth explore their options beyond high school and college.
"We take them to different companies to see how companies function," she said. "We took them to the Hispanic news station, Telemundo, to see how weather is reported, how reporters get their stories together for the news. We took them to the Orlando Sentinel to see how it works, how the paper is put together."
Brighthouse Networks and Jet Blue sponsor the group during Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15-Oct. 15, and Ms. Avila-Vazquez said Brighthouse also hosts workforce tours for the members.
"It's to give them an idea as to what's out there, to give them some idea of a direction for when they graduate from college," she said. "Recently, we took a tour of the (county's) emergency (management) building."
Presently HAYGD has about 20 members, but Ms. Avila-Vazquez said the number fluctuates and has exceeded 50.
They meet twice weekly on Mondays and Thursdays from 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m. at the Nick Pizza Inc. building on Deltona Boulevard, which also is home to Youth Explosion for Christ and Deltona Against Bullying.
"Our main focus is on cultural dances, but we also have a choreographer to teach hip-hop and other dances. We keep it family (friendly) so families can sit comfortably with family and watch," Ms. Avila-Vazquez said.
A new group endeavor is the human video in which Ms. Avila-Vazquez said members "act out (real-life) situations, like bullying."
Recently they created a video depicting others rescuing a victim of bullying.
"It's all run by the kids themselves," Ms. Avila Vazquez said. "They have their own president, their own choreographer. We just sit back and let them run it. They're teaching themselves, learning leadership. They're very united and close to each other. It's like a family tie."
Membership is open to children eight and older. As long as they're in school they're eligible, Ms. Avila-Vazquez said. Many of them, even as college students, opt to stay involved. One older student who has been with HAYGD for over five years is now a youth coordinator for the group.
"We don't have experienced instructors. We teach what we learned from our parents and grandparents," Ms. Avila-Vazquez explained.
The culture is not just limited to Hispanic culture, she added.
"We got a request from the Sons and Daughters of Italy to put together an Italian folk dance so we've been working on that. I'm hoping other people see we want to cross the Hispanic cultural line. We want to teach all cultures," she said.
During the first week of April, members are responsible for producing a research project, including a paper they write on a particular country. They were directed to find a folklore dance for that country and create a costume in which to perform the dance.
Ms. Avila-Vazquez said the adults have no involvement in the project beyond viewing the finished product.
"Sometimes they work alone. Sometimes they work in a group of four," she said. "It's our way of giving them incentive for a big field trip."
Field trips, like one planned for a visit to the nation's capital, are always educational and include visits to historic buildings, museums and other destinations that foster broadening the students' cultural horizons and learning about the past.
HAYGD also will be traveling to Tallahassee this month to participate in the Puerto Rico Day celebration.
That is, if they can get transportation.
Ms. Avila-Vazquez said many parents of the group's members are single and working.
"They help by driving when they can, and they help with fundraisers, but they can only give so much," Ms. Avila Vazquez said, "especially with something like this."
She said the organization is seeking donations from businesses and community organizations, and looking for grant writers willing to donate their time.
"We are a 501c3 so anything donated is a tax write off," Ms. Avila Vazquez said.
For information, call (386) 956-6293 or visit haygd.org.
As it turned out, the king and queen were unable to attend the event.
King Juan Carlos is recovering from back surgery he had on March 3.
"I told (group members) even if the king and queen weren't able to make it to the U.S. for health reasons, you'll show them you were chosen to perform for them," Ms. Avila-Vazquez said. "You should be proud."