NANCY RODRIGUEZ IS A SHY, QUIET 16-YEAR-OLD WHO ATTENDS MOISES E. MOLINA HIGH SCHOOL IN DALLAS, TEXAS. WALKING THROUGH THE HALLS OF HER SCHOOL, THIS PETITE, RESERVED GIRL COULD EASILY BE LOST AMONG THE more than 2,100 students around her. But when Rodriguez steps onstage with the school's dance company, Ballet Folklorico Jaguara, she is transformed into a confident, electric young woman: "When I dance, I can express exactly how I feel." Not only has the company given Rodriguez more confidence on and offstage, but she has learned a great deal about her Mexican heritage. "Folklorico has taught me so much about my culture," she says, "and that is the most important thing to me."
"Folklorico is the history of Mexico in dance," says Liz Gallego, an accomplished dancer, teacher, and the founder and director of Ballet Folklorico Jaguara. It's a history Gallego has had to learn herself. She grew up studying ballet and Spanish dance in Loredo, Texas, but never learned any folklorico as a child. Unlike flamenco, which was imported from Spain, folklorico was created in the New World by the descendants of Spanish settlers and native Mexicans. "Until the 1960s, folklorico's mestizo (or ethnically mixed) roots were looked down upon," she says.
Folklorico comes from Mexico's traditional dances, but it is not folk dancing. Instead, it is a theatrical interpretation of dances such as the salsa, the merengue, and the cha-cha. When Gallego was first asked to teach folklorico, she had to learn these dances and more. She studied the classical performance versions at the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico--but, since many of these dances are still done socially today, she also learned a lot from her students. "I'd ask the kids, `Who knows cumbia?' Nobody said they did. But then I'd ask one to bring me a video of their sister's quinceanera [the celebration of a girl's 15th birthday and coming of age]. I'd watch the guests dancing, find one that did the step really well, and learn it. Then I'd go back and teach it to the class, and they'd say, `Oh, I know how to do that!'" Gallego wants her students to understand that the traditional dances are still a part of today's culture. Her students learn both the basic social steps and the more formal interpretations used in folklorico performances.
El Negrito de Batey (The Negro from Batey), a carnival dance from Veracruz, is an example of how the traditional is made theatrical. The dance is based on an old style of merengue. For it, the folklorico dancer wears a beautiful white organza costume based on the authentic dress worn by the Mexican ancestors who created the dance. Gallego explains that these earlier people were poor and probably would have worn much plainer dresses without all the lace and organza that dancers of today wear. "Folklorico teachers must walk a fine line. If the dances are too authentic, they are no longer interesting to an audience. But if they are too theatrical, you are no longer true to the traditional."
Gallego and the students in Jaguara hope audiences will find their dances as informative as they are entertaining. The company does many of their performances for Molina High School, which is 85 percent Hispanic. The majority of those students have ties to Mexico. Combined with lectures, performances become tools the dancers use to educate their peers about Mexican culture. Audiences learn about …