Every year, Alajuela celebrates April 11 – the anniversary of the Battle of Rivas, when, legend has it, native son Juan Santamaría gave his life to save Costa Rica – with parades, speeches by the president and mayor, a holiday mood, and the Baile de la Polilla, or Moth Dance.
That seems like a funny name for a street dance that attracts people from all over the country to this Central Valley city northwest of San José, but there are very good reasons for calling it a moth dance, besides the fact that the night and the music draw people like moths to the lights. This year, Alajuela’s big municipal band provided the traditional big band sound.
The Baile de la Polilla goes back to 1967, when the dome of the cathedral was badly in need of repairs and there was no money to fix it. Three of the city’s leading citizens, civil engineer Enrique Soto, Guillermo Villegas and Alvaro Torres, came up with the idea of a dance around April 11, but for the older generation.
“Young people didn’t have money back then, so we counted on an older crowd,” said Villegas, 76, who still attends the annual street ball.
“That first year it was held in a hall across the street from the cathedral, and we charged ¢1,000 (now $2), a lot of money at that time,” he said. “And to appeal to that generation, the band played music from the ’40s and ’50s, Glenn Miller style.”
According to Villegas, it was called the “moth dance” for several reasons.
“Polillas are small moths or winged termites, the type that come out of closets and hiding places around this time of the year, when the rains are about to start,” he explained. “But polilla also refers to an older person who is doddering or not always with his or her full faculties.”
It is, shall we say, a politer form of a common expression in English for an older person – geezer.
That first dance was such a success that the city of Alajuela decided to include a Baile de la Polilla as part of the annual civic celebrations for Juan Santamaría Day.
The dance is held outdoors at the SantamaríaPlaza, free to all comers. Though it still attracts a huge number of the gray-haired crowd, it’s also popular with young people and entire families. Once the music starts to play, everyone gets into the mood, swinging, swaying, hopping and resembling, in some ways, moths.
The dance is centered in the plaza under the bronze eyes of Santamaría’s statue (TT, April 11), and the surrounding street is blocked off to accommodate the crowd.
With so many people squeezed in, it’s a wonder anyone can move at all, much less dance. Even out on the fringes of the crowd, where there are more dawdlers than dancers, there is swinging and swirling to good old-fashioned music.
At this year’s dance, a traditional borracho dancing alone with his beer can was one with the crowd.
One woman danced with her grandson and her cane, and young parents danced with small children on their shoulders.
Those without dance partners formed groups, and many just foot-tapped, hipswayed and arm-swung to the music. The crowd kept coming from all directions to be part of this big family frolic, which began around 7:30 p.m. and went on until 11.
Also in attendance, but high overhead, fluttering around the lights as if they knew it was their dance, were some real moths.