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Minutes before Gema Huizar Ríos steps forward, she feels the familiar bundles of nerves and butterflies in her stomach. Although she has performed with her dance troupe dozens of times before, she still feels anxious in front of a crowd.
As she steps onto the stage, the music begins and a surge of energy wipes away her nervousness. She lifts her vividly colored skirt and begins, her steps following the traditional Mexican folk dance known as ballet (or baile, Spanish for “dance”) folklorico.
Huizar Ríos is part of Latino Network’s dance troupe Ballet Folklorico Corazones Alegres. The group began in 2015 after Latino Network received a grant to launch arts and culture projects for the Latino community in Portland and surrounding areas. Currently, the program has 80 members ranging from ages 6-18 participating across four groups.
Corazones Alegres performs at cultural events such as Cinco de Mayo and Día de los Muertos, giving Latinos opportunities to learn and share their culture. The program aims to preserve Latino culture and expose youth to Latino heritage.
Huizar Ríos was forced to join the dance troupe by her mother when she was in the seventh grade. Being naturally reserved and shy, Huizar Ríos was extremely nervous about her first day at dance practice.
“I remember crying because I didn’t want to go, but I ended up falling in love with it on the first day,” Huizar Ríos said.
Now, the 17-year-old is entering her senior year at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Washington, and has dozens of performances under her belt, each increasing her confidence.
“Before I was in the dance group, I could’ve never been in front of hundreds of people. I’ve gained a lot more confidence,” Huizar Ríos said.
Huizar Rios’ family hails from Jalisco and Monterrey but she was born in the Pacific Northwest, more than 2,000 miles away from the place where generations of her family have called home. Being one of the few Latino students that attend her school, it is an even greater challenge to find a place to feel truly connected to her history and culture. Corazones Alegres is one of the main ways that she keeps her traditions alive.
As she approaches her final year as a member of the dance troupe, Huizar Ríos realized how integral ballet folklorico has been to reconnecting to her roots. Through Corazones Alegres, Huizar Ríos and other fellow Latinos get to experience pride in their culture and learn the discipline of dance. With each step, they are engaging in an activity that has been at the core of Mexican culture for hundreds of years, helping to keep those customs alive in the Portland area.
“I was really disconnected with my culture,” Huizar Ríos said. “After I joined [Ballet Folklorico], I fell in love with Mexican culture, the music, the traditions. … I want to spread my culture, especially in Washington and in Oregon.”
Program coordinator Sofia Domínguez handles one of the most important roles for Ballet Folklorico — raising money to keep the program accessible to low-income families. From instructors, costumes, food and transportation, Latino Network ensures the program stays affordable for its participants, charging a monthly fee of $40. That fee enables low-income families to participate in a tradition that is an essential aspect of Mexican culture. Latino Network strives to expose youth to Latino heritage, which may have been neglected or forgotten.
Domínguez knows from firsthand experience the importance of keeping traditions like baile folklorico alive. As a former folklorico dancer herself, she later passed that legacy on to her daughters who learned their history through dance.
“My daughters would have not learned about the real meaning of Dia de los Muertos, Cinco de Mayo and other traditions if it were not for dances,” Domínguez said.
Domínguez also has seen the impact that ballet folklorico has had on families with undocumented parents. Oftentimes, their children are unable to visit their parents' home and lose their bond to Mexican culture.
“The culture from Mexico gets lost, especially the Spanish language,” Domínguez said. “This type of art is really teaching kids about our culture.”
A long tradition
Folkloric dancing traditions began in Mesoamerican indigenous cultures, with regional dance traditions in every Mexican state. One, like the widely known dance of Jalisco, the Jarabe Tapatío, depicts the story of a courtship between a man and a woman, he dressed in a traditional charro suit and she wearing the China poblana outfit, which includes a colorful embroidered white blouse, long skirt and shawl.
Folkloric dance as it’s known today was first started in 1952 when Amalia Hernandez founded the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, which incorporated the traditional Mexican dances as well as modern techniques of ballet and theatrical performances. It continues to be one of the most revered dance companies in Mexico and inspires hundreds of similar dance troupes and companies to follow the stylistic vision of Hernandez, including Latino Network’s Ballet Folklorico dance troupe, and others in Oregon, including:
- Ballet Folklorico Mexico En La Piel Academia (formally known as Ballet Folklorico Lo Nuestro), a company based in the Forest Grove School District, serving elementary, middle and high school students from western Washington County. m.me/BalletFolkloricoLoNuestro
- Ballet Folklorico Ritmo Alegre, a dance troupe based at Central Medford High School. 541-261-5566; [email protected]
- Ballet Papalotl , based in Portland, boasts one of the largest repertoires of any regional folkoloric troupe. 971-235-5340; [email protected]
- Casa de la Cultura Tlanese, established in 2004 in Salem to share Mexican culture through dance. 503-689-0389
- Cosecha Mestiza, based in Woodburn, presents Mexican folkloric dance along with live music. (503) 780-3740
- Gabriela Guerra/Ballet Folklorico Academy in Beaverton recently performed in that city’s 10 Tiny Dances performance. (971) 217-1217; [email protected]
- St. John’s Ballet Folklorico, serving North Portland, has two groups: kindergarten through middle school, and another for those in high school, college and beyond. Classes are free and open to beginners or experienced dancers. (503) 858-0959; [email protected]
- Youth Ballet Folklorico, a program of Centro Cultural de Washington County, offers classes to children between the ages of 6 and 8 at their center in Cornelius. 503-359-0446; [email protected]