POJOAQUE — One by one, kids begin filing into the Pojoaque Wellness Center with vibrant hoops around their shoulders.
As powwow music starts to play, the children erupt into movement: One girl steps inside a circle, flipping a hoop over her head while pulsing up and down to the beat of a drum; another links a set of hoops together behind his shoulders and extends his arms like a flying eagle.
For dancers with the Lightning Boy Foundation, the transcendent power of the hoop — a symbol of the never-ending circle of life — is not only a way to express themselves and their culture, it’s a way to honor the late Valentino Tzigiwhaeno Rivera, an 8-year-old hoop dancer from Pojoaque Pueblo who died in 2016 following a car crash.
Since the intertribal group’s inception more than three years ago, the organization has gained statewide and national attention for its dedication to continuing Valentino’s legacy by empowering Native youth through hoop dance. Today, organizers and dancers agree that every practice and every performance are proof the young boy’s spirit lives on.
“I definitely see his energy,” Felicia Rosacker-Rivera, Rivera’s mother and the organization’s founder, said during a recent practice. “They’re doing something for a higher purpose … having Tino as the person who brings the group together.”
Valentino’s mom said the boy fell in love with hoop dancing when he was 4, recalling nights her son would hop down from the dinner table between bites of food to spin hoops around his arms. Both she and her husband, George Rivera, agreed the boy’s passion and energy were “not normal.”
Studying under the Ohkay Owingeh-based world champion Nakotah LaRance and his father Steve LaRance, Valentino — known to his family as Tino — excelled quickly. At his first world championship competition, his mother said, he was the only “tiny tot” 5 and under to perform with all five hoops and complete a full routine. By the time he was 6, he could do a 7-minute plank and was led to perform on stages around the globe.
But Tino’s love for dance was taken from him much too soon. In 2015, Tino was riding in a car that was T-boned in Española, breaking the boy’s neck and injuring both his spinal cord and brain. For more than a year, the boy fought for his life, but he died just a month after turning 8 years old.
Rosacker-Rivera said that leading up to her son’s death, medics asked Tino what kind of legacy he hoped to leave behind.
“He wanted to be remembered as a dancer,” she said. “He wanted his sisters [8-year-old Paloma and 15-month-old YsaDora] and his family and his friends to have access to dancing just like he did.”
For that reason, founding the Lightning Boy Foundation — named after Tino, whose Tewa name, Tzigiwhaeno, means lightning— only made sense.
Though Tino and several other kids in the area had danced with the Pueblo of Pojoaque Youth Hoop Dancers, Rosacker-Rivera said to memorialize her child’s “inclusive spirit,” she knew she’d need to cast a net beyond her own community.
“We wanted to make it available to more kids in more pueblos and tribes,” she said.
With the help of the LaRance family, the Lightning Boy Foundation became a nonprofit in 2017 and has expanded dramatically in recent years. Just this season, Rosacker-Rivera said, the group nearly doubled from 13 to 24 dancers, ranging from tots to young adults. Four former world champions teach the kids and six tribes are represented.
Additionally, “We’re dancing at more venues with bigger crowds,” Rosacker-Rivera said. “We’re definitely more visible than we ever were.”
One focus of the organization is to ensure there are no financial barriers that restrict kids from participating, Rosacker-Rivera said. The organization hosts numerous fundraisers — its biggest is this weekend — that cover the cost of each dancer’s regalia and travel.
“The gear you need, the travel you need, the cost of the classes … to get the kids who want to be there and have the motivation and have the talent, I don’t want [money] to be a factor,” Rosacker-Rivera said, noting one goal is to get every kid to the world championship competition in Phoenix each year.
While there is no expectation or pressure 0n kids to win awards or become professionals, Rosacker-Rivera said the dancers push themselves to grow.
“They all know how difficult it is, how hard you have to work, and the desire you have to have to progress,” she said.
George Rivera agreed, adding he’ll often show old videos of Tino dancing to the group as an example.
“We pass that on: Dance as hard as Tino would be dancing to get to that next level,” said the former Pojoaque Pueblo governor.
For the kids, pouring their hearts into the dance can be life-changing.
“If I’m having a bad day, I put on some powwow [music] and feel better. … This feeling of hope going through your body is relief,” said 16-year-old Pojoaque Pueblo dancer Josiah Enriquez, who placed second in last year’s world championship.
Shandien LaRance, an instructor for the group, said the discipline helps show “all these Native kids they can do more, they can be more. … It gives them a positive outlook on their life and their culture.”
And most important, it brings them closer to Tino.
“We do hoop dance to honor him. I dance for him,” said 10-year-old Apaolo Benally of the Navajo Nation.
“When I dance, I sometimes feel like he’s with me,” agreed Enriquez. His spirit “is in every single one of us.”
Just like a hoop, without a beginning or an end.