Giving Thought: The magic of Mexican folk dance
Recently, we’ve devoted this column to individuals working to effect positive change in the Aspen-to-Parachute region. This week, we’re speaking with Paco Nevarez, program director of Aspen Santa Fe’s Ballet Folklorico program, in which students from kindergarten to 12th grade learn and perform the art of Mexican folk dance. A native of Chihuahua, Mexico, Nevarez moved to New York City in 1990 to pursue a master’s degree in chemical engineering, but his dance hobby eventually became his primary focus. He has run the popular Folklorico program since 2002.
Aspen Community Foundation: How old is Ballet Folklorico and what was the original idea for the program?
Paco Nevarez: Aspen Santa Fe Ballet decided to create Folklorico as an after-school program in 1999, mainly for the Latino community. Since I got involved, it’s really been for everybody. I teach Mexican folk dances and traditions to students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The Roaring Fork Valley is a diverse community where everybody accepts each other, and a lot of parents want this for their kids.
Parents sign up online in August, and they commit for the whole school year. At the end of the year, we have the big recital, where the kids get to show off how much they learned. There is a waiting list in most of my classes right now. It’s been very successful. We expanded the program four years ago to Glenwood and Rifle.
ACF: How many annual participants does the program have, and how would you describe the benefits to these children?
PN: When I first came, I had about 60 students, and every year it has been increasing. Now I have 185 students.
We also have a Santa Fe program, and have two teachers that handle those classes. This year 130 students are registered. Overall that’s more than 300 students. I oversee the entire program from here and I make some of the costumes by myself. At recital time, I need to come up with two or three costumes for every child.
When the kindergarten students start, they don’t really know why they’re here. But as they go along, they realize what their bodies are capable of. They learn how to clap once and then stamp twice, how to do it in a structured way, how to mix it up. After a year, they are so proud of what they can do.
I’m a very strict instructor and parents know where they’re putting their children. The students need to come for an hour and really dance. Get fit. Spend their energy. Learn how they can move their bodies. How they can stomp. How they can smile. How they can act and be on a stage. The students who have been with me for many years become the group that travels to perform. There are 35 of them. There’s another performing group for students from 8 to 10 years old.
Aside from the dancing skills, these students have to be responsible and well-organized. We check their report cards to see how they’re doing in school. If parents tell me a child isn’t doing so well, then we help find a tutor or counselor. The big kids especially need to be super-organized with their costumes. They have to organize every single part from head to toe. If it’s showtime and they’re missing something, they don’t perform. Simple as that.
ACF: Please give us a short financial overview. Do ticket sales pay operational costs or do you have to raise funds?
PN: It’s a free program for all of these students. A lot of organizations, including Aspen Community Foundation, Alpine Bank, the Colorado Council on the Arts and private donors, get involved to provide culture to this community. We only charge $25 to attend the recitals, so it’s not much. It’s all from fundraising and support.
ACF: What is the future of Ballet Folklorico? Are there changes or expansions in the picture?
PN: The program is solid already in the valley. We may expand to other communities but right now we’ll focus on what we have. Lately we have started to go international with our performing group. Fourteen of them are going to Costa Rica this month for an international folk festival. Each student will have six costumes for performing. We will celebrate Day of the Dead, and teach the Costa Ricans how we celebrate that day in Mexico.
When these kids go to other countries, they make friends and learn about dance in other places. I say, “Think about your classmates at high school. Who has this opportunity? Yes, kids go on vacation to other countries with their families, but you are going to perform. You are going to dance and express yourselves. That’s special.”
Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.
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Two Rivers Unitarian-Universalist Church, in conjunction with the Roaring Fork Valley’s Interfaith Council and Sanctuary Unidos, is showing a Zoom presentation of the documentary “Welcome Strangers” at 10 a.m. Sunday.