TOWN 'N COUNTRY — A few minutes and a closed door between them and the main event, the girls giggle. The boys horse around. The birthday girl paces.
This isn't just a birthday party. It's a milestone some call a quinceañera, and the celebration must be perfect. That's where Maribeti Caballero comes in.
There's the grand entrance of the court — the birthday girl's friends paired off into couples. A ceremony. The dances. Then dinner.
Caballero makes sure it all flows smoothly. Sometimes it's easier said than done.
Minutes before their entrance, some of the teens break into the Hokey Pokey. Caballero doesn't let the impromptu dancing distract her from focusing on the details.
"Who needs me to fix their tie?"
Before the group heads toward the ballroom, the girls line up on the left and the guys on the right.
"Gum," Caballero says. "Gum."
She holds out a hand, palm up, under each chin. "Swallow it if you're not going to give it to me."
As a quinceañera choreographer, fixing ties and catching gum are part of her job.
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Two weeks earlier, Caballero counted as the court danced in the Navarro family's living room: "One, two, three, four. Left, right, left, right."
There were only two practices left before the court would dance in front of nearly 300 family members and friends to start the celebration of Yesenia Navarro's 15th birthday.
Caballero, of Northdale, had started meeting with the Navarro family at their Town 'N Country home in February. Yesenia's quinceañera would be in July.
In Hispanic culture, Caballero said, a girl's 15th birthday is revered like a sweet 16 and celebrated like a wedding. Some refer to both the girl and the party as a quinceañera.
"Parents are mentally preparing themselves for the young lady to be a young woman. She is going to start driving. She is going to have boyfriends whether they like it or not. She's coming into her own," said Caballero, 45.
And it takes a lot of work.
There's a hall to book, invitations to send, a ceremony to plan. Dresses to buy, tuxes to alter and a limo to rent. The family makes the plans; Caballero makes the plans go smoothly, she said.
In the months before the party, she spends a lot of time with the quinceañera and her friends.
"I end up being like the kids' best friend for three months," Caballero said. "The girls are all going through their thing, the guys are all going through their thing. I (say), 'Trust me, boy, I've been there' or 'Trust me, lady, I've been there.' I'm kind of like a teenage bartender without the liquor."
Every time she choreographs a quinceañera, she gains a new family. The kids treat her like a big sister, she said, and she teaches them to dance.
Caballero shook her hand in the air like a fan while the court practiced danzon, a fan dance. "If you have fans in your hand, I want to see them move!"
She smiled while she watched. She loves her job, she said.
It started about five years ago, after Caballero had a mild stroke. Her doctor told her she shouldn't go back to work — at least not in retail, where she had worked for 25 years. So she quit her job as manager of a women's clothing store. Too stressful, she said. Instead, she worked as a nanny, watching babies, until she got the call.
A friend, whose daughter was soon to turn 15, remembered Caballero's little sister's quinceañera, which Caballero had choreographed. The friend asked her to choreograph her daughter's party, too. After that party, the calls kept coming. Now, Caballero calls her business Baila Con Maribeti, or "dance with Maribeti." She said she has had clients throughout the Tampa Bay area.
Caballero's sister, Meliza Caballero, 25, keeps in touch with friends from high school who were part of her quinceañera.
"We'll sit around and reminisce sometimes," she said.
Her sister was, and still is, a fun choreographer, she said. If she doesn't know a dance that a court wants to try, she'll find it on YouTube and learn it. She takes ideas and makes them come to life.
At quinceañeras, courts often perform several dances — traditional ones like waltzes, salsas and merengues, and modern ones like reggaton and hip-hop — before the guests hit the dance floor. The boys hoist the girls up, spin them and catch them. The girls and guys learn to switch dance partners mid song without skipping a step.
"She really does love what she does," Meliza Caballero said. "It's incredible to watch her in action and see the finished product."
Maribeti Caballero has choreographed Mexican quinceañeras, Dominican quinceañeras, Cuban quinceañeras — each of which has different music and traditions. She has done quinceañeras with themes like Cinderella, The Phantom of the Opera and Havana Nights.
She said choreographing gives her the chance to dance — which she has loved since she was a kid — and to be part of the kind of quinceañera she didn't have.
"Do you know that I had it planned and I didn't (have it)?" she said.
Shortly before her bash, doctors diagnosed her grandfather with cancer and instead of something elaborate, she opted for a small party at home, where she could spend time with him.
"But now," she said, "I have one every other weekend."
At the parties, she makes sure the court is where it needs to be when it needs to be there — posing for photos, making an entrance, cutting the cake.
And before it all, she calms the quinceañera's nerves backstage, while the court waits to dance.
• • •
"Smile!" Caballero says. "If your cheeks hurt by the time we cut the cake, you've done your job."
Every tie is straight. Nobody is chewing gum.
"Deep breaths," Caballero says.
A couple at a time, the court crosses the stage into the ballroom at the Event Factory on W Hillsborough Avenue.
Caballero has to step back to let the kids do what she taught them. She sneaks off to the side. When the music starts, she keeps count quietly.
And the quinceañera dances.
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 269-5301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.