CLEARWATER — They stood in front of the full-length mirrors and waited for dancing instructions delivered in fast-paced Spanish.
The boys stomped to the beat of the Mexican music playing softly from an iPod in the small studio. The girls, dressed in red, flowing skirts that draped over black Converse and pink Nike shoes, twirled across the linoleum floor.
Standing in front of the group was Mere Pioquinto, a 41-year-old father of four who waits tables and installs floors for a living.
But every Thursday night and Sunday morning, he is a dance instructor. For the past four years, Pioquinto has taught Mexican folklore dancing to girls and boys in Clearwater, and they, in turn, have performed at shows across the Tampa Bay area.
Being a dance instructor was never a part of his life plan. Born and raised in El Olivo, a town of about 250 people in the state of Hidalgo in Mexico, Pioquinto joined a folklore dancing group when he was 7 and performed in several regions of Mexico.
But by the time he was in middle school, the group had broken up. It wasn't until he was 20 years old and living in Clearwater that Pioquinto took up dancing again.
"I had planned to be here six months," he said. "I wanted to work, make some money, and then return to Mexico to continue studying."
But a year passed and he remained in Clearwater, working at a carwash and as a restaurant busboy. He danced a few years with a St. Petersburg Mexican folklore group before marriage and children consumed his time.
However, when a children's summer program run by the Mexican Council of Tampa Bay needed a dance teacher in 2009, he stepped up. At the end of the summer, parents asked him to continue teaching their children.
He eventually formed the nonprofit dance group Mahetzy, which means "heaven" in otomi, a dialect spoken in Hidalgo. The 16 children in the group practice twice a week. If parents can't take them to rehearsals, Pioquinto, who works full time installing floors and part time waiting tables at the Country Harvest restaurant, picks them up. His 14-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 7 and 9, are Mahetzy members. His 17-year-old daughter helps him organize the shows.
Pioquinto doesn't charge parents for the dance lessons, but they must pay for costumes when donations aren't enough to cover costs. The nonprofit Artz 4 Life Academy in Clearwater lets the group rehearse in its studio at 1751 Kings Highway every Thursday for free. On Sunday mornings, they rehearse at the Clearwater YMCA.
With fast-paced steps and lots of turns, Pioquinto and the group rehearsed the choreography for the dance of the Mexican state of Sinaloa on a recent Thursday night.
"It's got a lot of movement in it," Alexis Pioquinto, a 12-year-old relative, said as she swayed in her skirt.
Each state of Mexico — 32 in all — have their own dances and traditional attire. Mahetzy has learned dance routines from about seven states.
For the state of Michoacan, the children dress as viejitos, or elderly men, wearing masks and large straw hats and carrying canes. For Sinaloa, the girls dress in long red skirts and white blouses, and the boys don hats and boots.
Some of the parents stay behind to watch rehearsals. Among them is Alicia Cruz Flores. Her 13-year-old daughter, Citlalli, joined the group about two years ago.
Flores, who works packaging boat motors, said dancing with Mahetzy is a way for her daughter to practice Spanish, conquer her shyness and learn about Mexico — the country Flores has not visited since moving to Clearwater nearly 20 years ago.
"It brings back memories of Mexico," she said.
Ask Pioquinto why he makes time to teach dancing, and he answers quickly: It keeps the kids occupied and away from trouble, he said, and it teaches them about their Mexican heritage.
He added, "Sometimes, society and people who don't know our culture think we only come here to work. … We came to help and better ourselves, and we also have talent. I would like for people to categorize us differently."