With intense focus and tiny droplets of sweat running down their olive skin, eight little girls twirl around in their multi-colored skirts of pink, aqua blue and purple inside the dimly lit girls’ gym at the Jefferson Center on the corner of S. 14th street.
Mariachi music begins to play from a mini speaker set at the front of the gym. The girls align themselves for their next dance. And in one semi-fluid motion, Folkloric class has begun.
Ballet Folklorico del Big Country: Alma De Nuestras Raices has started each class the same way – with instruction, repetition and dashes of fun along the way. Known for their unique style and smiling dancers, Ballet Folklorico del Big Country has established its name among many members of the Abilene arts community including at the Fiesta at the Paramount celebration downtown.
Joyce-Martinez Sledge, an ACU alumnus, started the community dance group in 2015 with many initial motives in mind; one of which included the need for expression of Latin culture in a predominately Anglo community.
“Ballet Folklorico is an art,” Sledge said. “When we created this group, we wanted to attach ourselves to the arts community. We knew the culture part. It’s our history, it’s our heritage. But, people weren’t seeing it as an art. So, we decided to focus on it more. It takes discipline. It tells a story for every region and state in Mexico. From the clothing, the music and everything, we really try our best to connect it to people here.”
Ballet Folklorico is a term for Latin folk dances which emphasize individual states within Mexico. With pointed feet, exaggerated turns and highly technical choreography, Ballet Folklorico has gained popularity across the Southwestern United States, Central and South America. Recognized by some fancy footwork like the Jarabe Tapatio, a regional dance from Jalisco, Folklorico dancing has allowed various cultures to watch Latin history unfold in just a few quick steps.
In the middle of the group, one navy skirt twirls precisely on the beat. Beads of sweat run down her scrunched-up face as she intensely grabs her skirt by its sides.
Kyleigh Duboise, nine, is one of the more advanced dancers of the younger division. Although she is nearly silent during class, her drive for perfection is clearly shown.
“I like dancing because it can be challenging sometimes,” Duboise said. “I wanted to join it because when they came they said they really needed more boys, and so they asked my brother and I said, ‘What about me?’ and they let me join too.”
Duboise said she enjoys all aspects of Folklorico; well, almost everything. Like many folklorico dances, many routines require a male partner. For Duboise, this may be the awkwardest part.
“Yeah, I don’t really like the boy parts of the dances,” Duboise said. “One time, one of my friends told me that she didn’t want to dance with a boy, and I didn’t either.”
Although the group is comprised of more female dancers, Sledge said the group was created with the intention of providing a more inclusive dance group where anyone who is interested in learning can join – regardless of one’s skin color, religious affiliation or amount of Spanish fluency.
“When we started, we said ‘This is ballet. We need to make something so that other people can join,'” Sledge said. “There was a group here before that would perform on Cinco de Mayo and a couple of other times. So, I was a part of the Hispanic Leadership Council and I presented to them ‘Hey. Why don’t we create a group where anyone can join? It doesn’t matter what your race is, what your religious affiliation is, or even their ethnicity. If someone wants to learn it, they can be a part of it.'”
During class, each girl is instructed and shown the next series of steps. One by one, each dancer is brought to the front alongside their instructor, Christina Gonzales, as they practice zapateados – a heel stomping motion from the region of Veracruz.
“Do it a little slower, mama. Remember to stay with the beat and to not go too fast,” Gonzales said as she lightly holds each dancer’s hand. “Let’s do it again. Everyone ready? Five, six, seven eight.”
Suddenly, the music changes. It’s time to learn a new dance. More experienced dancers get paired up with the younger ones. Gonzales begins to count off again.
Gonzales has been dancing since she first saw a folklorico group perform at the St. Vincent Pallotti Catholic church in Abilene. Remembering how graceful and full of life each dancer looked, Gonzales knew she wanted to be a part of it.
After years of working on perfecting the craft and working two jobs, Gonzales said she is so grateful for a group like this. For Gonzales, dancing has become her space.
“So much of our heritage is taken away,” Gonzales said. “We are taught to all in line and kids need to know their past to know their future. It’s good to know so much more than just the dance. The dance is just the beginning of it. It’s where the dance comes from, each dance has a story, and it teaches kids where we come from.”
Rooted into Gonzales’s head is the idea that Folklorico can remind people of how Mexico is a “melting pot” comprised of many stories, ethnicities and ideas.
“This is a good way to teach people their history and that anybody can do this,” Gonzales said. “Folklorico is so complex. We tell kids and parents that you won’t be good at every state dance. Some are more technical while others are more fluid. And so we remind the kids to just practice and to push themselves to get better.”
After the third run-though, Gonzales calls everyone back to their designated dot marked on the gym floor. A few remarks about their last performance are mentioned and just like that, class is dismissed.
Running out the door, eight girls slip off their skirts and run into the mazed halls of the gym.
Sledge said she is amazed to see how far the group has come. With nearly 20 sponsors, this all-based volunteer dance group has surpassed Sledge’s expectations.
“We are going to do some things with the Abilene Philharmonic, and that’s just a huge break for us,” Sledge said. “This group has really shown Abilene what it can do, and now we have the opportunity to give back to the community. We have just been so blessed, and we want to keep this up. We have a great group of volunteers, and you know, we all get along. This is just a blessing.”
In a decrescendo fashion, the humming lights flicker off, the giggles of girls disappear and the festive music abruptly stops.
Calmly, Sledge closes the door to the gym and helps her kids settle in as one bright pink skirt hangs inside the black suburban.
“It’s important for people to know where they come from,” Sledge said. “Latin culture is very important for kids and the community, so that’s why we do it. We keep it alive.”