Story by Lisa Kay Tate
Colorful swirling skirts, clicking cowboy boots, comic old men tapping their canes, a deer fleeing from hunters, a courtship played out while dancing around a sombrero — these are the familiar and beloved varieties of ballet folklórico found year-round in the borderland region’s festivals and celebrations.
One of this tradition’s most popular showcases is Viva! El Paso, whose 2017 season runs June 16 through July 31 at McKelligon Canyon.
Ballet folklórico is also the star attraction at Fiesta Latina June 16-18 at Western New Mexico University in Silver City.
And the most famous of all folklorico groups, Ballet Folklórico de Mexico de Amalia Hernández, performs June 4 at the Centrol Cultural Paso del Norte in Juárez.
The El Paso region is home to dozens of ballet folklórico troupes, many of them youth programs based at dance studios, with several of the dance companies spanning decades.
Among them is Ballet Folklórico Quetzales, founded 27 years ago by Jaime Carrasco, a graduate of the University of Chihuahua School of Fine Arts.
“For me, the most rewarding thing of working with this art form is that I am able to preserve our Mexican culture and I am privileged to transmit to future generations the joy and pride to feel and represent these traditions in front of an audience,” said Carrasco, who continues to serves as director and choreographer of Ballet Folklórico Quetzales.
He encourages people to “take the initiative to learn a little bit about the Mexican culture” through experiencing a folklórico performance.
“Ballet Folklórico Quetzales performs every Thursday at Delicias del Mar Restaurant and that is a great opportunity for locals to attend and appreciate our traditions,” Carrasco said. “Viva! El Paso takes place at McKelligon Canyon every summer, and is a great venue to appreciate and learn about the history of the El Paso area.”
Viva! El Paso
Viva! El Paso, created by Hector Serrano 40 years ago, has gone through various changes over the years and is now presented through the combined efforts of El Paso Community College, El Paso Community Foundation and El Paso Live. El Paso Community College’s Keith W. Townsend returns as director. The show’s script was written by Tony Award-winning playwright Marty Martin. The music features songs by Jim Ward and Gabriel Gonzalez, with performances by Mariachi Paso Del Norte and EPCC’s Mariachi Real De El Paso. This year’s show also marks the debut of Viva Kids, directed by Margaret Barreras.
El Paso Community Foundation Vice President Kathrin Berg says folklórico dance is an extremely important part to the pageantry of Viva! El Paso because the tradition of dance is “vital to all communities, and folkloric dance is a mainstay in our community.”
Like Carrasco, Berg said these dances help share the region’s stories.
“Every part of the world has its historical moves and dances that tell stories of their ancestry,” she said. “El Paso, with our unique mixture of cultures through the centuries, evolves into our own beautiful stories and dance — and music for that matter.”
Other familiar troupes in the area include Ballet Paso del Norte, Ballet Folklórico Aires Internationales, Grupo Folklórico Valle del Sol, the award winning Ballet Folklórico Orgullo de mi Tierra, Paseo del Norte Churuhiu, San Elizario’s Grupo Folklórico Awiratzi and several more. Las Cruces’s Ballet Folklórico Tierra del Encanto recently accompanied various mariachi groups for a special Christmas performance at the Rio Grande Theatre.
Ballet Folklórico Totec
One troupe that has been actively representing youth in the area is Ballet Folklórico Totec de La Fe, directed by Emmanuel Alfaro.
Alfaro began dancing at age 5, and teaching at age 15. Today, as a dance instructor for La Fe Culture and Technology Center, he works several evenings a week with Ballet Folklórico Totec, which consists of Segundo Barrio area youth ranging in age from 5 years old to high school seniors.
This spring alone, the troupe has performed a dinner show at La Fe Center, “Raíces De México,” participated in parades and hosted their first full performance at Chamizal National Memorial.
Like many traditional folklórico performances, the Ballet Folklórico Totec de La Fe provides not only a journey through the various regions of Mexico, but a trip back in time to the early days of the country’s indigenous people. Dances and styles cover the states of Jalisco, Michoacán, Veracruz, Yucatán and more.
One of the unique aspects of the troupe’s most recent performance is the inclusion of special needs dancers in one of its dances. These youth, some in wheelchairs, performed alongside the troupe’s other dancers.
Alfaro said this group of special needs dancers, who call themselves Estrellitas de Dios, has been a blessing to his own dancers as well. He explained to his dancers how much many people take for granted, including being able to get up and get a drink or water or walk across a room on their own. To be able to be on stage and be part of the performance is tremendously rewarding for youth who might not be able to feel the freedom of dance. Some of them perform accompanied by their parents.
“You see these kids and it just brings a lump to your throat,” he said. “Having them as part of the program is like a present to the community,” Alfaro said. “It is a gift.”
Seventeen-year-old dancer Valeria Alfaro (daughter of Emmanuel) has been part of Ballet Folklórico Totec for a little over a year. She said one of the greatest things about performing with the group is it has helped her overcome her shyness.
“To me the most rewarding thing about Ballet Folklórico Totec de La Fe is I’ve come out of my shell,” she said. “I was always very shy, very isolated.”
Alfaro feels she will be able to use what she learned performing when she attends St. Mary’s University in San Antonio after graduation.
“Now, I’ve got the confidence to perform in front of people,” she said.
At the Chamizal
One of the most popular year-round venues for ballet folklórico is the Chamizal National Memorial. Recent performances included Ballet Folklórico Paso del Norte directed by Rodolfo Hernandez. The troupe was founded in 1978 at El Paso Community College, and has been a part of the area’s folklórico landscape ever since, representing the city in performances and events throughout the southwest including New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Their recent performance, “Huapango 2017,” showcased the dances and culture of Veracruz.
According to information on the history of folklórico from Chamizal National Monument, El Paso has always been one of folklórico dance’s most active representatives.
“On the U.S. side of the border, ballet folklórico was popularized in the 1960s and 70s, specifically in Los Angeles and El Paso, two cities with large Hispanic American populations, as a way to promote pride in Mexican cultural heritage and to enhance self esteem,” it states. “Today, many young men and women in the Sun City, and throughout the nation, enjoy learning, practicing and performing ballet folklórico.”
Inspiration for youth, artists
In the case of his own troupe, Alfaro said the kids themselves have learned to be responsible for their own performance, not only on stage, but backstage by getting their own costume changes ready between dances, and being respectful of other performers.
“We have these kids out there from Segundo Barrio learning about their cultures, and being taught these traditions,” he said.
In addition to La Fe’s youth, folklórico dance is now often taught at area grade and high schools, as well as through both UTEP and El Paso Community College.
Alfaro said, although he feels academics are important, it is also vital to help these youth maintain an appreciation for the arts. This is one of the many reasons he said he remains dedicated to working with Ballet Folklórico Totec de La Fe.
“The arts teach our children about our community’s beautiful history and honoring each other’s heritage,” he said. “Mexico’s indigenous and European-influenced dance traditions have a powerful role in modern ballet folklórico performances. Our kids are learning how that powerful history is relevant to their self-esteem and their identity today.”
The tradition has also been an inspiration for visual artists, as well, including El Paso artist Candy Mayer, who has featured these dancers in various works.
“All artists are drawn to the vibrant colors of the beautiful costumes and the movement of the dancers,” Mayer said. “I love all the details of the women’s dresses and have used them in my Día de los Muertos work ... dancing skeletons are so much fun!”
The stories that last
Like most forms of dance, folklórico not only paints a picture of the look and sound of a region, it tells its stories.
Jaime Carrasco, founder and director of Ballet Folklórico Quetzales, stressed the importance music plays in the Mexican culture.
“The music involves a lot of aspects of our culture, the different instruments that are played, the style, the region they belonged to, and especially the lyrics; they all recount a different story every time you listen to them,” he said, “and every single time you hear that music is a new journey and learning process.”
Alfaro explained knowing the significance of each story is as much a part of learning the dances as the steps themselves.
“With folklórico, there is so much significance behind each story,” he said “Not only do I share the dances and the movements with my students, but the history behind it.”
He said people who might not be familiar with folklórico dance might wonder what some of the visual symbols mean. What does the man in the mask have to do with the fishes in one dance? Why are the women carrying pineapple in one dance, and balancing bottles on their heads in another?
Alfaro said everything in folklórico isn’t just there for decoration, there is symbolism and a storytelling aspect to it all.
For example, he described the significance of the dances like Jarabe Tapatio, known often as the Mexican Hat Dance. This dance may seem familiar to audiences, but its meaning may not be as well known to everyone.
“Traditionally it is a very significant moment when your dad hands his hat off to you,” he said. “These hats are passed down through generations.”
Through the progression of the dance, when the man tosses his hat down on the ground, he beckons the lady to step on it. This symbolizes his wanting her to be part of his family and life as she touches his own family’s precious heirloom.
There are many other familiar dances with stories behind them, including each Mexican state’s own heritage. Veracruz shows the influence of Spanish, African and Caribbean styles, while the charro and cowboy traditions are more prominent in Jalisco.
“There is cultural meaning behind every dance step, every piece of a ballet folklórico dancer’s regalia or dress,” Alfaro said. “Every movement has a purpose that connects us to our roots and history.”
Every dancer, director and choreographer has his or her favorite dances, including Carrasco, who lists the dances from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua among the ones he most loves.
“The Chihuahua polkas because they are intricate and a challenge to any dancer,” Carrasco said. “And of course the traditional Jalisco dances, nothing beats the feeling of hearing the first notes of the ‘Son de la Negra’ with the mariachi music.”
Among Alfaro’s own favorite dances is the one he often performs himself, La Danza del Venado.
“My own dance is the ‘Deer Dance,’’ he said, and explained he takes a great deal of pride in making sure it is done right.
One of his greatest compliments, he said came from one of his own bosses at La Fe after seeing Alfaro perform this dance.
“He told me, ‘when you do this dance, I don’t see you dancing. I see the deer,’” Alfaro said.
More than anything, however, Alfaro said the most treasured thing about passing down the tradition of folklórico dance to newer generations is simply how much they enjoy it.
“The most rewarding thing to me,” he said, “is when I see them smile.”
Behind the dance
The international popularity of ballet folklórico goes back to 1952 when dance pioneer Amalia Hernández founded Ballet Folklórico de México in Mexico City. She died in 2000, but the ensemble still performs throughout the world, and has appeared often in El Paso and Juárez. The June show in Juárez is part of a tour celebrating the 100th anniversary of Hernandez’s birth.
Hernandez talked about the power of folklórico to reporters during a 1991 tour:
“The power of the native dance, the power of these influences that have come into our days, this is what makes the folklore so rich. Not just steps, it all has a meaning,” she said. “(The) sound of the bells, the masks, the dances in the churchyard, the social festivities—it’s a beautiful environment, a beautiful feeling with all that happening. And the religious dances (have) tremendous devotion—the people are entranced, they are dancing in heaven.”
One of the most intriguing aspects about folklórico dance are the stories behind each popular regional dance. Here are some more popular dances seen at many folklórico performances and the story behind a few of them:
• La Danza del Venado. The “Deer Dance” was created by Mexico’s Yaqui Indians. It represents a deer hunt, with the main dancers in masks to represent the hunters, and antlers to depict the deer.
• Jarabe Tapatio (Mexican Hat Dance). The Tapatio is this courtship dance’s most popular version and originated in Guadalajara. In the most common version, a man expresses his love for a woman, who at first rejects him. He places his sombrero on the ground, and when she picks it up to place it on his head, their mutual romantic interests are confirmed. This is considered Mexico’s official dance.
• El Baile de Los Viejitos. The Dance of the Little Old Men. This dance was first created to mock the Spanish upper class, but is now just done in good fun. The dancers wear exaggerated “old man” masks, and carry canes. They start by shakily hobbling around, the eventually burst out in energetic, coordinated moves.
• Huapangos and Jarochos. These dances from the Veracruz incorporate the rhythms and sounds of Spanish, African and Caribbean music. Dancers wear snowy white costumes, and their intense footwork often brings to mind that of flamenco dance. One of the most famous jarochos is “La Bamba,” where dancers often tie large ribbons into bows with their feet as a symbol of their love.
• Flor de Piña (Pineapple Dance). The dance originated in the city of Tuxtepec in the state of Oaxaca. Female dancers stand in a line and move in sync with pineapples in their hands or on their shoulders. At the end of the dance, the pineapple, a symbol of life, is presented to a mother or other member of the audience.
• Dance of the Machetes. This dance comes from the state of Nayarit, which was once part of Jalisco. Men dance and clang together machetes to make a spark. Women dance through arches of the machetes. It represents a time when the Moors had conquered Spain, and influenced the region’s music and dance.
Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications