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Sharing Cultures in the Colorado Valley

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Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s Folklorico Mexicano program

By Lisa Traiger

Alexandra loves the chance to travel and see new places. Iris loves to meet new friends from other towns. Sisters Solana and Tavia love to wear the wide-flounced skirts and make a statement, loud and clear, with their feet.

As members of Folklorico Mexicano, a dance program for kindergarteners through high schoolers sponsored by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, these children are being taught more than traditional dance steps. Ask Francisco Nevarez, the program’s director in the Aspen area. They’re learning about culture and history, about perseverance and hard work, about friendship and sharing. Folklorico Mexicano is more than an after-school dance class. It’s a life class. But don’t tell the kids, up to 130 of them in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado, home to Aspen and Snowmass, playgrounds for the rich and famous.

In the valley, in towns surrounding these wintertime resorts, resides an increasing population of Hispanic workers who have joined the service economy as construction workers, gardeners, and housekeepers to the rich and pampered. They commute from Carbondale, Basalt, and Glenwood Springs. But who’s watching the kids while their parents are pulling 10- or 12-hour shifts?

Nevarez by day serves as community liaison to the Hispanic community at Basalt Middle School. At 3:30 p.m. he changes his shoes and becomes a teacher, instructing his willing charges in the traditional dances he learned as a child growing up in northern Mexico. At 14 he danced with a professional folkloric company in his home state of Chihuahua. After coming to the United States 17 years ago, he founded a company, Mexico: Images and Traditions Folkloric Group, in New York, which was made up of adults and children from the community.

In 2002, when Nevarez arrived in Aspen, the snowy mountains and vast valley reminded him of his home terrain in Chihuahua. That first year he taught after-school classes in Mexican dance to about 25 or 30 kids; the next year, 70. In 2006, under Nevarez’s direction, the troupe traveled to the third Las Vegas International Folk Dance Festival, where it received four first-place awards for best group, best production, duo, and trio. Last season Nevarez had about 130 children under his tutelage. In fall 2007 he started with 80 and expected that number to grow. They dance a minimum of six hours weekly and perform in local festivals, at church and community events, and in theaters a dozen times a season.         

Aspen Santa Fe Ballet director Jean-Philippe Malaty took a break after a rehearsal in Santa Fe, where the 10-member troupe is based, to explain the company’s commitment to the Folklorico Mexicano program. “We are a ballet company, but we are also an organization rooted in our community. We looked at our community and decided it was time to break down the barriers.” A former dancer who had had his fill of ballet company lecture/demonstrations in school gymnasiums, he expresses disdain for the typical arts-in-education assembly: “Too many times a company tries to push its product on the children with little or no success. A lecture/demonstration at 8:00 in the morning is not going to develop dancers or even audience members. A lot of organizations develop in-school programming simply to get the funding.”

Malaty worked backwards: “We have a large Hispanic community and we looked at what they needed.” He’s not worried about serving the ballet company’s artistic goals. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet—which emerged in 1996 from the Aspen Ballet Company and School, founded six years earlier by Bebe Schweppe—is unique among arts organizations for sharing its resources among two communities that are a six-hour car drive away from each other—on a good day, when mountain passes are cleared of snow. Malaty isn’t looking to develop future ballet dancers from the Folklorico Mexicano program. That’s beside the point. “We’re trying to teach these children their culture, develop pride in their background. While many of these children were born here, their parents are from Mexico. We try to teach them that Mexico is a very rich culture with European and Native American influences; every region of the country has a beautiful costume and a story.” Maybe, Malaty continues, some will grow up to attend ballet concerts, or send their own children to dance classes. But more important and more immediate, he wants to instill pride in children and teach them about their cultural heritage.         

As members of Folklorico Mexicano, these children are being taught more than traditional dance steps. They’re learning about culture and history, about perseverance and hard work, about friendship and sharing.

Equally significant is sharing this rich culture with the Anglo population. Karla Teitler’s two daughters are huge fans. The girls, Solana and Tavia, tried ballet classes when they were younger, but they weren’t all that interested or impressed. When they saw the colors and swirls of the skirts and heard the rhythms of Folklorico Mexicano, they were hooked. “My children go to a school where they are a minority,” notes Teitler, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Crystal River Elementary, which her girls attend. “This program allows them to see other children’s culture and background, and it helps us as parents break down cultural barriers and interact with other parents.”

Nevarez also appreciates the mix of Hispanic and Anglo students he teaches. Though Anglos number only about 10 percent in the program, he is adamant about including anyone who desires to dance. When he instructs, he teaches dances using both Spanish and English, which is perfect for the Teitlers, who are being raised in a bilingual household. It’s also great for Ivan Loya, 11, a sixth-grader who also plays soccer. Loya enjoys the exercise and friends he has made in Folklorico Mexicano. He also gets to reinforce his Spanish, which he speaks at home, while practicing English in a non-academic setting. It’s equally effective for children of Spanish-speaking immigrants, who hear their mother tongue and English side by side. Anglos, too, pick up Spanish words—derecho, izquierda, vuelta en circulo—right, left, turn in a circle.           

While parents pay only a $25 annual registration fee for their children and shoes and costumes are provided on loan from the company, they and the children must commit to attending rehearsals and performances. But that’s not all; parents are expected to help in some other way, with costumes, driving, concessions, fund-raising, or as extra hands backstage. And the children, too, must make a commitment to maintaining good grades. The program costs the ballet $140,000 annually, according to Malaty, much of it for costumes and transportation. But with funding initially from the Colorado Trust Foundation and now from a consortium of Aspen-area funders, Folklorico Mexicano continues to grow. A sister program six hours away in Santa Fe has just begun its second year.

Christian Kingsbury, Basalt Middle School’s principal, loves the program and the work Nevarez does, during school and after. “Folklorico Mexicano really gets kids hooked into the school, working hard, being part of a team,” Kingsbury says. “These are elements that help kids succeed in school and later on succeed in life. They show up and they work hard.”

Nevarez, or Paco, his nickname among the children, is a tough taskmaster. The children rehearse from 3:30 to 7:00 p.m. twice weekly and meet on Saturdays when a performance nears. The day report cards arrive, the students must line up to show Paco their grades. And if he’s not happy, they don’t dance again until their grades come up. He’s been known, he admits, to call a teacher to get the full report on a slacking student.

Iris Flores, 12, is in her fifth year with Folklorico Mexicano. A seventh-grader born in Veracruz, Mexico, but living in Aspen, she relishes the time spent dancing with friends. “It keeps me connected to my culture,” she says. “I want to keeping dancing at least until I finish high school.”

Tivo Loya, from Carbondale, has two children in the program, Andy and Ivan. “I think it’s a really good program for kids to do after school,” he says. “It keeps them away from the video games.” As a youth Loya too was a dancer in a folkloric company back in his native Mexico. Today he drives his kids 15 miles, some days across snowy passes, for rehearsals. A painter, he pointed to a recent graduate of the Aspen Santa Fe program who used his experience performing with the award-winning dance troupe to enhance his college application. It’s something he hopes will help his children one day as well.

Malaty is proud of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s growing prominence and increasing critical acclaim on stages across the country, but he believes in his heart that Folklorico Mexicano may ultimately be his company’s most important contribution. “We have zero crossover in our folklorico program and our ballet program,” he notes, “which shows us we were right in our approach.” Folklorico Mexicano wasn’t intended to create ballet dancers, and since its founding in 2000 it hasn’t.

Nevarez appreciates the way the children from different towns across the valley and different cultures across the border can dance so easily together in school cafeterias and gymnasiums and onstage. “When we have a performance,” he says, “I tell them, ‘You’re not from Basalt; you’re not from Carbondale; you’re not from Aspen. You’re not Americans; you’re not Mexicans; you’re not Salvadorans. You’re all Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico Mexicano.” And they are.

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January 2008
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