A Peruvian Heart on an American Stage: Nestor Ruiz Shares his Passion

By Rob Taylor


I have worked for many seasons at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in varying capacities, and my first interaction with Peruvian dance company El Tunante and the company’s artistic director (and frequent lead dancer) Nestor Ruiz took place within that setting. I have a distinct memory of seeing Nestor in the midst of the quietly precise chaos that is the Festival’s backstage, where up to 80 dancers from eight or nine distinct cultures work together to produce a show that is seamless. I must admit that even in that manic context, Nestor stood out as he sprinted around his company, simultaneously assisting his dancers with last minute costume challenges, giving parking directions to late-arriving musicians over the phone, and rehearsing his own movements.

But when El Tunante emerged from that backstage pandemonium and stepped onto the stage, the transformation was profound. The frantic behind-the-scenes energy folded into the graceful and elegant choreography of the Marinera norteña. The Marinera is commonly called Peru’s national dance, and the Marinera norteña is a variation that came from the northern coast of Peru and has become the most representative form of the dance. It is a series of elegant choreographies between a couple. The male dancer is normally dressed in a Chalan drill suit (or sometimes in a poncho) with a wide-brimmed hat. The female dancer is dressed in traditional clothes, but most importantly, she always dances barefoot.

As they dance, the couple sweeps around the stage, flirtatiously stepping in and out of each other’s space in a complex series of movements that when executed with the precision that El Tunante brings to each performance, appears to have a beautiful simplicity. I love the grace the dancers bring to their performances commingled with delicate playing of guitars and the solid rhythm from the cajón that I am unable to unfold from the movement as it weaves itself around the dancers.

I appreciate the beautiful simplicity of the Marinera norteña for its formal qualities and as a subtle metaphor for the emotional transferences that take place between courting lovers. But I am not Peruvian, and I know that for those who are Peruvian, watching El Tunante can be a profound experience that carries within it the resilient evocation of a place, a people, and a way of life in one’s past that cannot be reached in present circumstances. I cannot tell you what the Marinera means to a Peruvian heart, but I’ve seen people cry and shake and stomp their feet when experiencing that passion El Tunante brings to their performances. I feel there is a specific power to the emotions that are evoked when a Peruvian in America experiences a well-produced Marinera norteña.

1. El Tunante photo by RJ Muna
Photo by RJ Muna

The man at the heart of El Tunante is Nestor Ruiz, who, when met in person outside the context of a performance and in the more constrained hubbub of a coffee shop is somewhat shy and very friendly man with eyes that are the very definition of soulful. He was born in Trujillo, the coastal city that is home to Peru’s National Marinera Festival. It is also home to Club Libertad, a cultural organization dedicated to promoting Marinera both in Peru and internationally. Both of his parents were professional dancers, and by the age of 16 Nestor was also dancing professionally as part of Club Libertad. He decided to devote his life to practicing and promoting Peruvian dance, and was named champion of the National Marinera Festival four times before coming to the United States in 1998. In America, Nestor struggled and hustled to find ways to practice his dance the way any artist must, although the immigrant-artist hustle has an additional layer of challenges. But he quickly found a home at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and their performance on June 3rd at the Rotunda Dance Series marks El Tunante’s 12th appearance at the Festival.

Nestor teaches more now, and is able to rely on his art to provide an income that may not pay all of his bills, but helps fund a performing company. He teaches at various schools and community centers throughout the Bay Area, and as is the case with so many practitioners of cultural specific dance in the United States, most of his teaching is to the children of immigrants who don’t want their children to lose a connection with their home culture. For many second-generation immigrants, their cultural dance forms becomes a cord that connects them to another homeland.

Nestor tells me, “I’ve taught in Peru and taught here. It’s a big change…in Peru, I taught students for competition – I taught students to be champions on the stage.” In the Bay Area, Nestor is teaching dance to young people who haven’t been raised in Peruvian culture. “In Peru they are born into the music. Here it takes time,” he says. “It’s a little bit different, a little bit weird to them at first, but it’s a bridge to Peruvian culture that needs to be built in order for the children to hold on to their culture.”

We discuss El Tunante’s performing history and how he transforms his students into performers. Many of El Tunante’s performances are in Marinera competitions where the emphasis is on skill, precision, and adhesion to form. “For the competition they lose themselves in the intensity of the conflict,”Nestor tells me. “The truth is when the girls and boys start dancing, they are competing, each one is trying to be the best they can be and to show how much they are able do with their feet and their body.”

But for El Tunante, performing for a more general public at events like the Ethnic Dance Festival is something different. “It is
a more emotional thing,” Nestor reveals, explaining that “at the Festival there are people from countries from around the world watching backstage and in the audience, and everyone has come to share their passion. At competitions it’s about being the winner, but at that Festival it is about sharing the passion.”

Nestor goes on to say that when dancers perform at the Festival, “We are building relationships with [dancers from] different countries and culture, and when my dancers are there they realize that this doesn’t happen much, and it makes the experience very special and very emotional.”

Nestor also singles out Ethnic Dance Festival Co-Artistic Director Carlos Carvajal as a powerful influence on El Tunante’s expansion as a dance company. “Year after year as we dance in the Festival, he’s always pushing us to dance bigger, to expand our performance. And when we hear the applause from the audience, that drives us” to follow Carvajal’s direction.

Nestor says that his mission in life is to share the art through performance, but also to perpetuate the art through teaching, by showing the public that the Marinera is a dance form that can be learned and performed by the youngest child to the oldest adult, and can be “something they carry with them through life.” The “eight to eighty” multi-generational framework is common among culture-based dance forms. Nestor and I were joined at our interview by Efrain Altamirano, whose daughter has been dancing with El Tunante for eight years, starting when she was seven. She will be dancing with El Tunante on June 3rd, and Efrain shares that for his family, seeing their daughter grow up dancing the Marinera has been “such a wonderful part of our life.”

It is quite a trick to make this magic happen, the tiring hustle that goes into teaching, and then into building a dance company— bringing a level of extreme passion into every performance. As audience members, we let go of what we think we know and are carried to a place where only the experience of dance is able to carry us. To watch the exchange between dancers in the Marinera is to see an intricate intersection of movement and culture. As the dance ends and music stops and the man and woman on the stage are facing one another, they come together as if to kiss, but the man raises his wide-brimmed hat to conceal that last moment and the lights come down. All that is left is the passion that the dance brought into the space of the performance, and it is very emotional and it’s pretty intense. But for Nestor Ruiz, “It’s my life all the time, I want to introduce the dance form, but I also want to share the passion.”

Rob Taylor is a writer and arts administrator working in the San Francisco Bay Area.