By Paulina Rojas
COACHELLA, Calif. — On a warm summer night the sound of shoes clacking on the floor radiated from the clubhouse at Las Palmeras Estates, a group of low-income housing units in Coachella. The sound was not coming from children running around relaxing during their summer break. This was the sound of young people from the group Sol Del Desierto practicing ballet folklorico.
Ballet folklorico are dances from Latin America that fuse local folk culture with ballet.
Parents looked on as their children perfected their choreography one step at a time. Glimmers of sweat slowly appearing on their faces. Although they were getting tired, they had many reasons to keep pushing.
“It allows you to express a love of dancing and when we compete it is like teaching people our culture and traditions,” said 10 year old Isabel Gomez.
Gomez kept a smile on her face even as her instructor Maribel De Leon asked her to repeat the steps a few times. She held her colorful skirt up, making sure it never made contact with the floor.
Students encouraged one another to do their best. De Leon’s students were doing more than just dancing. Through this program, funded by the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition, the students were able to preserve their cultural traditions while at the same time create a safe space where they all belong.
De Leon who has been dancing since she was seven said that some of her students are shy when they first start dancing but over time they begin to come out of their shells.
“The majority of the children I have were really shy at school, or if they’re starting school they don’t know how to interact with children or their own peers,” she said. “So this is an opportunity to help them grow out of it.”
Gustavo Sandoval, Folklorico instructor at Desert Mirage High School in Thermal points out similar benefits of folklorico especially for young people.
“One of the original forms of community is dancing,” he said. Dancing plays a role in all cultures. Dancing allows us to express our creativity without too many restrictive boundaries.”
“Folklorico often promotes and increases social and creative outlets” he said. “When people come together, it provides opportunities to socialize and share stories.”
Folklorico has provided Megan Richardson with the opportunity to engage in an enriching cultural exchange.
“So, I am the only person in the group that is white. I think it is a great way to learn about culture and learn Spanish, it is really fun,” she said. “I have made a lot of new friends and it is a great way to learn how both (American and Latino) cultures came together.
Megan’s mom, Michelle Richardson, said that folklorico has not only given her daughter to learn a dance that isn’t jazz or ballet but it has also increased both of their understandings of Mexican culture.
“This is by far the best opportunity we have had to learn about the music, all the different states in Mexico,” she said. “I mean we all think there’s Mexico and Baja, we don’t understand all about all the states in Mexico, we homeschool so it really is like a whole immersion program for us.”
Even those that are Mexican or that are familiar with the culture might not be aware of the full diversity that makes up Latin America’s largest country. Folklorico shines a spotlight on this rich diversity.
“There are 31 states and all have their unique style of dance and dress. To say that the Mexican hat dance represents all of folklorico is criminal and is trivializing the enormous contributions that have given Mexican Folklore its richness and flavor unique to itself,” said Sandoval.
“There was dance before the Europeans arrived and there was dance after they arrived. There is indigenous dances, and then there is dance that blend the European dances, indigenous dance and elements from other cultures such as the African culture.”
Back at Sol Del Desierto practice De Leon takes a break to check in with her students and their parents to make sure that none of them are falling behind on their studies.
“If they aren’t doing well in school then they can’t come to dance or practice,” she said. “It is important that they focus on school.”
Before parting she shares some final words.
“You have to dedicate yourself to it, it isn’t easy.”
About the Author:
Paulina Rojas is a native New Yorker, Paulina has spent the past two years reporting on the Eastern Coachella Valley. She joined Coachella Unincorporated in 2016. While it is different from the concrete jungle of Manhattan, she feels right at home in Coachella. In 2014 Paulinagraduated with a journalism degree from The University of Houston and is a member of The National Association of Hispanic Journalists. View her author page here.