SAN JOSE -- Aztec and Native American dancers in blazing, feathery regalia ushered in the Year of Two Rabbit with thousands of spectators at a city park under festival perfect skies this weekend.

"I think this is largest Aztec dance festival in the country now," said Mapache Ruiz, a vendor of Aztec dance clothing and accessories. "I've been to some in Arizona, New Mexico, New York and San Jose's must be the largest."

No one or group actually keeps tabs on the festivals or on how many people have resurrected the ancient dance genre that was nearly wiped out after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but the consensus among dance groups is that danza azteca is growing much like it's northern cousin, North American dance. That tradition grew from small, private pow wows on reservations to larger ones at public and university venues often open to the public.

"We tried very hard to make this free to the public," said Tamara Mozahuani Alvarado, a dancer with the Calpulli Tonalehqueh group, which organized the weekend event at Emma Prusch Farm Park in East San Jose.

She said 3,000 to 5,000 attended the two-day event, which featured dancers from as far away as a Zuni Indian group from New Mexico, and others from the Pacific Northwest and Mexico.

Mexican masters

Every group danced on a vast lawn grown healthy and dark green from recent rains. At the very center was a fire, and around this sacramental spot gathered the drummers, singers and flute players. The dancers spread out and moved around in the form of a large ring, to the delight of spectators sitting on lawn chairs or blankets and glued to one spot.

The occasion was Mexica Ome Tochtli, the Year of Two Rabbit according to the complex Aztec calendar. Mexica is what the Aztecs called themselves.

By most accounts, Aztec dance was introduced in California in the mid-1970s by a handful of Mexican masters invited north by Mexican-American students and arts leaders who were resurrecting mariachi music and folkloric dance at the time.

It took longer for the indigenous dance to take hold, but it appears to be perched on the cusp of a breakthrough with Latino youth in the Bay Area.

"I fell in love with it immediately, " said Veronica Villa, a 19-year-old San Jose State University student. Introduced to Aztec dance by her godfather, she said she also found it to be a healthy alternative to rough and racy themes found in pop and hip-hop music.

"It can be ignorant and demeaning," she said of pop and hip-hop. "Through danza azteca, you can learn more about your heritage and grow as an individual."

Reviving traditions

Jairo Luque, a 25-year-old student at Humboldt State, was shopping for a drum at a booth run by a company named Soy Danzante, or ceremonial dancer in Mexica context.

"Awareness through Aztec dance is the big thing," Luque said. "So when you have that opportunity, let's learn more about our culture."

As Aztec dance is re-introducing old traditions, many of the dancers are adopting their Mexica names imbedded in the ancient calendar according to the birth time and date. There was the vendor Mapache Ruiz and a flute-maker, Adam "Mazatl" Mendoza.

However, it apparently takes some time before young dancers grow into the new-found aspects of Mexica custom.

Alvarado, director of the School for Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, danced for more than 10 years before she attained her Mexica name in a special naming ceremony. Her name, Mozahuani, can be translated into English as "she who merits her accomplishments." But in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, it means something less individualist and more group oriented, as if the name is a call to serve her people.

"What it really means is that I shouldn't complain about the work I have to do," she said with a knowing smile. And then she moved through the entrance and into the ring, where she melted into a throng of moving, circling dancers.

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767 and follow him on Twitter.com/JoeRodMercury.