Members of Los Danzantes de Pacific perform for Dolores Huerta during a visit to University of the Pacific. The group has exposed many to the traditional dances of Mexico, but the members face some challenges as as some of their peers don't share their appreciation for the folk dance.
Sharing Heritage through DancePacific Folklórico group helps keep rich Mexican tradition alive
While most college women are wearing jeans and a halter top as they dance to the latest pop music hits, Erica Ruiz is donning colorful, embroidered dresses and twirling to mariachi music.
The music and outfit that Ruiz wears is part of a typical folklórico performance. Folklórico is a style of dance that reflects Mexico's heritage and history through a fusion of intricate, choreographed steps.
Raised in Stockton, Ruiz said she enjoys performing folklórico because it pays tribute to the culture, history and people of Mexico, which is where her family originated. "It's a way to connect to my own roots," she said. "It's also a way to educate the community about the beauty and diversity of Latino heritage."
The 21-year-old Ruiz is one of a dozen Pacific students who make up Los Danzantes de Pacific, the University's first folkloric dance group. In the past few years it has existed, Los Danzantes has played an integral role in exposing the campus community to folklórico while helping keep the art form alive - although it has not been easy.
The style of dance involves costumes, music and footwork that many of today's youth find foreign and awkward - even those with Mexican ancestry. Members of the group have faced strong resistance at times when trying to get others to embrace folklórico.
Not long after joining Pacific's group, Ruiz invited a friend to a practice. A few minutes into the session, he turned to Ruiz and said the style of dancing was embarrassing and left. "It was just sad to see him, being a young Latino male, not know anything about his roots," Ruiz said.
Despite the experience and similar ones like it, Ruiz remains undeterred. Now in her second year with the dance group, she continues to perform folklórico, determined not to let the tradition die. Holding on to one's heritage is too important, she said.
"It's a part of you," Ruiz said.
Roots traced back to Aztecs
Folklórico debuted as a performance art in Mexico in 1952. Each region of the country is known for a handful of characteristic folkloric dance movements, some of which trace back hundreds of years to Aztec rituals performed in pre-Hispanic Mexico. Although the style of dance slightly differs depending on the region, the basic steps remain the same throughout the country.
The dance movements and song lyrics that accompany folklórico usually reflect every day people or historical figures like war heroes Pancho Villa and Juana Gallo, and significant moments in Mexican history, such as major victories during the Mexican Revolution. "Folklórico is a living representation of the varied history of Mexico," said Pacific Spanish Instructor Lorena Becerra, who founded Los Danzantes de Pacific. "It represents the many customs and traditions that embody the richness of Mexico's culture."
Formed in 2009, Los Danzantes has gone from entertaining faculty and staff at campus barbeques to performing at some of the University's most high profile events, including Pacific's Latino graduation ceremony, its Latino Heritage Month keynote lectures and the region's largest financial aid workshop.
Pacific's folkloric dance group has also entertained prominent Latino leaders, including former Mexico president Vicente Fox and his wife Marta Sahagún de Fox, labor activist Dolores Huerta, and Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, Mexico's consulate general in Sacramento. This past fall, Los Danzantes partnered with a community folkloric dance group to hold its first public concert, which included performances of traditional dances from several states in Mexico.
Keeping the tradition alive
Through performances of various folkloric dance movements, Los Danzantes has helped keep alive a tradition that embodies the essence of Mexico, passing on a dance style that has been passed down by families for generations.
Becerra's grandfather introduced her to folkloric dancing when she was just a girl with ribbons in her hair. One hot summer day he took Becerra and her two older sisters to a park in Modesto to see a Mexican ballet folkloric dance ensemble. She instantly became mesmerized by the footwork and bright, ruffled skirts the dancers wore and soon started taking lessons herself.
Throughout more than 25 years of folkloric dancing, Becerra has studied under certified dance instructors from Mexico and beyond and took over a Modesto-based youth dance group, Grupo Folklórico Mixtlán. "Dancing folklórico has become an integral part of my life," said Becerra, who received a bachelor's degree in business and master's degree in education from Pacific. "It has helped me connect not only with my heritage but also with dancers from all backgrounds and ethnicities who are dedicated to mastering the art form."
Although she has been teaching folkloric dancing since she was a teenager, Becerra has found it challenging to share her love for the craft. A handful of Becerra's dancers in Modesto and at Pacific have shied away from joining or continuing to perform.
Becerra recalled a 13-year-old dancer who possessed enough talent and grace to pursue a professional career. But the young dancer stopped showing up for practice and never returned shortly after inviting a couple friends from school to one of her performances. At the performance, they laughed at her and questioned why she enjoyed it.
"That peer pressure caused her to think 'maybe it's not so cool' to do this type of dancing," Becerra said. "It planted a seed of doubt."
Losing a talented dancer is always disappointing, Becerra said, but she has not let it discourage her from introducing the art form to others. She continues to teach folklórico and recruit new dancers with the help of Ruiz and other members. Both her Modesto and Pacific dance groups have grown substantially over the years, attracting dancers of Mexican heritage and those of different ethnicities.
Pacific senior and Los Danzantes member Ashley Wilscam said she recently joined the group out of a love and appreciation for Mexican culture. "I enjoy the fact that even though I'm not from the culture, I can share it with others," said Wilscam, who is part German and Cherokee. "Maybe others may be more inspired to learn about it, and see what I found beautiful about it."
To learn more about Los Danzantes de Pacific, or to inquiry about joining the group, contact Lorena Becerra at (209)946-2938.