Puny but professional
August 25, 2005
From the way they move – with professionalism and confidence, the girls fanning their full, bright skirts and tilting their heads in subtle expression, the boys filling out their Charro suits with strong postures and stomping boots – it is hard to believe the dancers in Folklorico Mexicano are all under 18.The dance company is an after-school outreach program put on by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, open to all children in grades K-12 in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. And though most practices take place after school, the commitment, passion and hard work that are so visible in the performances linger long after the last child catches a ride home. The dance steps learned on cafeteria linoleum have helped the children gain recognition and win awards around the state (including performances at the Mexican Consulate in Denver). The steps have also strengthened the valley’s communities while preserving Mexican heritage; they may even propel the dancers’ futures as well.”I think this is one of the programs we are most proud of,” said Jean-Philippe Malaty, executive director of ASFB. “I think it shows how arts can change people’s lives.
“It is an arts program, and the main media is teaching kids dance, but it is much deeper than that.”Beyond the steps, the children learn the culture, arts and crafts and music of the different regions of Mexico. The classes are taught in both English and Spanish, “so it’s a way for the Latino kids to learn English, but also to express themselves in their native language,” said Malaty. “It is also building a bridge between both communities and teaching the Anglo kids about [Mexican] culture. It is a great sharing experience.”Malaty had anticipated the need for Anglo children to learn about Mexican culture, but he didn’t expect to teach Mexican children about their own heritage.”Most of [the Latino children in the program] are born here. Some of them cannot visit Mexico for whatever reason … and they don’t know much about it,” he said. “They are very proud to learn about their culture. I cannot tell you how many parents, both mothers and fathers have come to me crying or teary, and say ‘I never thought I’d see my children learn those dances that I learned when I was a child.'”
Like its dancers, Folklorico Mexicano is still young. It became a full-time program in 2000 with a $250,000, five-year grant from the Colorado Trust. Since then, the program has grown from 10 dancers to a company of 110. Most of that growth has occurred under the leadership of Francisco Nevarez, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, who became program director in 2003.Nevarez’s role is multifaceted: He’s a mentor, cultural benefactor, expert choreographer, costume designer, fund-raiser, translator and most recently the Community Liaison for Basalt Elementary. Malaty calls him “a one-man show.”Nevarez’s beginnings resemble those of his students. He was born in a small town outside of Chihuahua City, Mexico, to a hardworking single mother, and began dancing in an after-school program. “That is why I believe in Folklorico,” he said, “because I started the same way.”At the age of 14, Nevarez began dancing professionally with the Compania de Danza Folklorica del Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social of Chihuahua, Mexico. It was there that he learned a large repertoire of traditional and popular Mexican dances, costume design, choreography, lighting design, set design, and other aspects of staging. Throughout his immersion in dance, however, academic pursuits remained in the spotlight for Nevarez. He earned a college degree in chemical engineering and went on to work at a chemical plant in his hometown. Duly, he expects nothing less from his students.
“They have to come with good grades first to belong to my dance company,” he said. “That’s my own rule. ASFB doesn’t tell me I have to make that rule.” Veronica Ulloa and Jeffer Flores, who have been in the program five and four years respectively, said Folklorico was, “like a little school, except without recess.” Francisco is tough on them, but he does everything. “Thanks to him, we get these cool dresses,” Ulloa said, admiring her elaborate costume after a recent performance at Basalt River Days. Along with education and discipline, Nevarez believes in broadening dancers’ horizons. In 1990 he decided to leave his Mexican hometown for New York City. He planned to pursue a master’s degree and take free English classes, but he was asked by a classmate to teach a folk dance, so the classmate could take part in a cultural competition. The two won the contest, and within a year Nevarez had founded a company: “Mexico: Images and Traditions Folkloric Group.” By 2001 that dance company was named one of the best Folklorico companies in the United States. Nevarez also became artistic director of the Princeton University Ballet Folklorico from 2000-2002.Nevarez feels like a parent to his Roaring Fork Valley students, and will do anything he can to open doors for their future. In June he took three couples to Albuquerque to see professional companies from Mexico and take classes with other instructors. “Now they’re in love with this,” said Nevarez. “Maybe I’ll try to take one couple with me to New York on my next trip … to see other dance companies there, to see other people doing whatever they’re doing. It’s empowering.”
This year the five-year grant from the Colorado Trust came to an end. For a company that seeks to instill commitment and promise in its students, termination was not an option. The ASFB refused to let the children down by shutting down the program.But funding is hard to come by, Malaty said. “The bulk of the work is being done in a cafeteria in Carbondale,” he said. “Many of our patrons do not see the program.”Fortunately, local communities have paid close attention to Folklorico, and are stepping up to safeguard its vision. The program recently received a $25,000 one-time grant for 2005 from Aspen Valley Community Foundation’s Latino Community Investment Initiative. Tamara Tormohlen, director of programs at AVCF, said the organization looks for programs that help local Latinos and strengthen the Latino community.
“We liked that [in Folklorico] there are high standards,” she said. “It’s an after-school program, but you have to meet expectations. It’s not a baby-sitting tool. You need to be there, you need to keep your grades up, the parents need to be involved.”And of course, Tormohlen continued, there’s the artistic side of things.”And have you seen them?” she exclaimed. “They look like professional dancers – it’s amazing … I mean it will melt your heart. It’s beautiful, it’s such an addition to our community.”To supplement the AVCF grant, Folklorico parents have initiated their own fund-raising efforts. Isabel Loya, whose sons Adir and Ivan dance with Folklorico, said the program has taught her boys discipline and responsibility, and has even helped the shy Ivan step out socially. Loya was not about to let Folklorico take a final bow. The parents a potluck dinner and performance in the Basalt Middle School cafeteria. “People kept coming and coming and coming – there were like 900 people,” recounted Nevarez. “Then we had to do a second show because everyone wanted a chance to see.”
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After that success, the parents created a parents association to continue supporting the program.”The parents decided to help, because they love it, they love whatever their kids are doing,” said Nevarez.And if this support continues, “the sky’s the limit,” Malaty said, “because you know five years ago I’d never thought there’d be 110 kids after school every day from 3 to 7 at night, twice a week.”Though he is hesitant to predict the company’s future, he “cannot wait to see when the students are 18 or 17 and are about to graduate, and see what is going to happen. We’d like to come up with some incentive to finish high school and go to college, maybe give them some kind of scholarship or stipend so they could continue their dance study in college.”Nevarez agrees. “I don’t teach them how to dance only, but I want them to be something in their life,” he said. “That’s my goal regarding the kids. Regarding the dance company – I just want this company to be the best company … and I hope God gives me help to continue doing this.”