NEW BEDFORD — Children in colorful dresses twirled and bowed as accordions and guitars played Sunday at the Day of Portugal Festival in the North End.
The children were all students at DiscoveryLanguageAcademy, where they meet twice a week to learn Portuguese in addition to traditional dances, according to the academy’s director Leslie Ribeiro Vicente.
Vicente said she started the group, called the Discovery Language Academy Folkloric Performance Group, in September and it now includes 20 students ranging from 4 to 13 years of age.
Vicente wanted to start it, she said, to teach students about Portuguese culture and help them understand why they are learning the language.
“If nobody does this it’s going to die, it’s going to be forgotten,” said Vicente about teaching the culture.
The group’s instructor is Dulce Matos, who is also president of the Day of Portugal festival, which also features adult singers, drummers, guitar players, and accordion players.
Originally the group didn’t have as many adults involved, but through Matos and students’ family members, the group began to grow.
“Our Portuguese community is a big community, but at the same time it’s a small community,” said Vicente, meaning everyone knew someone they could get involved in the group.
Juliana Lopes, 12, has been doing traditional Portuguese folk dancing since the first grade and joined the group when it started in September.
“I do it because it’s traditional and it’s nice to be a part of this tradition,” said Lopes, “It’s good to see what our ancestors did.”
Lopes and the other children were wearing traditional attire for their performance, with a twist.
“Costumes usually represent certain areas of Portugal and we didn’t want to do that,” explained Vicente, so instead the costumes represented all Portuguese-speaking countries. The green, red, yellow and black in the children’s costumes represented the flags of Portugal, Angola and Brazil, among others.
The green-and-red handkerchiefs the girls wore wrapped around their heads were traditionally worn for practicality. According to Linda Viera, a grandmother of one of the dancers, women wore them to keep the sun off when they were working in the fields.
Kaleb Pereira, 7, called his costume, that included a black vest, “so awesome,” and said he was a part of the group because, “I want to have fun.”
The dances the group chose also highlighted different Portuguese-speaking regions. The students performed the Chamarrita — a dance with origins in the Azores — the Bailinho da Madeira, and more.
“I loved the movements in the dance and I very wanted to do them,” said Mila Rodrigues, 7, about why she signed up for the group. Rodrigues said that while she was doing the dances she felt “the power inside [herself].”
Vicente noted that the moves the children did during the dances were not just “creative choreography,” but culturally important.
One move in the Bailinho da Madeira where the children are low and looking down at the ground represents the hardships farmers faced when they were forced to use a tool with a small handle as punishment, according to Vicente. The small handle forced the farmers to get painfully low to the ground to do their work.
Vicente said it was important for her students to understand the culture behind these dances and the Portuguese language because, “If you don’t understand the past sometimes you make the wrong decisions in the future.”