Ballet Folklórico teaches culture, history, and Mexican folkdance
Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, Yolanda Sanchez was naturally inclined toward dance. She started dancing at age three. By 6th grade she was assisting her dance instructors in teaching choreography to the rest of her class. This went on until 10th grade, when Yolanda and her family moved to Round Rock.
“At my school in Mexico, if you wanted to dance, you had to buy your own costumes,” Yolanda remembers. While her family could afford some of the older costumes, they couldn’t afford the newer ones; many times, Yolanda found herself sitting on the sidelines during a performance. “I promised myself that if I ever had students of my own, I would provide the costumes to students and allow everyone to participate,” she says.
Today, Yolanda runs Round Rock Ballet Folklórico, a nonprofit dance company that teaches children, teenagers, and adults of all backgrounds, skill sets, and economic levels the art of ballet folklórico. Ballet folklórico, a collective term that encompasses traditional dances from throughout Mexico, can be translated from Spanish as “folkloric dance.
Like classical ballet, ballet folklórico uses highly choreographed dances to tell stories. Different regions of Mexico have different cultures, and the costumes reflect the cultural, historical, and regional context of the dances. When people watch ballet folklórico, they see these influences, and Yolanda teaches her students about them as well. “Through dances, I’ve been able to reach out to the young people and help them become proud of their heritage,” she explains. For example, “just about everybody knows about salsa, meringue, cumbia, so I bring up that if it were not for the African culture, we would not have all of those beautiful dances.”
Round Rock Ballet Folklórico, which Yolanda founded in 1984, now houses seven dance groups and performs throughout the state and country at events and contests. In Georgetown, the groups have danced at Sun City, the Georgetown Library, the Williamson Museum, and the Williamson County Courthouse.
One of Yolanda’s crowning achievements was when she took her dance groups to participate in the Sun Bowl half-time performance in El Paso. More than 200 dancers and mariachis took to the field, transforming it with bright colors and lively movement.
Over the years, Yolanda—now a great-grandmother—has undergone two knee replacement surgeries. These days, when she teaches at Round Rock Ballet Folklórico, she’s no longer able to perform all of the dance moves herself, but that hasn’t stopped her from creating choreography and passionately teaching her students about the dances’ cultural influences.
Kaori Saeki, a 16-year-old sophomore who started ballet dancing at age four, says that ballet folklórico’s cultural connections spurred her to switch from traditional ballet to ballet folklórico at age eight.
“The major difference between ballet and ballet folklórico is that in ballet folklórico you learn so much more culture, and you can really tie into a lot of history, whereas ballet is so known around the world that it’s hard to differentiate,” Kaori explains. “Ballet folklórico is so much more energetic and so much more ‘out there’ than ballet, which is usually considered more serious. I love how ballet folklórico teaches you so much not just about Mexican culture, but also about other cultures as well.”
Caleb Melendez was five years old when he first saw Round Rock Ballet Folklórico perform. Transfixed by the bright, flowing costumes and lively music, he immediately wanted to join the fun. Noticing the excitement on his face as he watched the dancers, Caleb’s mom signed him up for practice the next day; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Caleb—now in 8th grade—is a member of Junior Company, which caters to children ages 10 to 18; and he occasionally participates in Company, a troupe aimed at students who have mastered a higher skill level. Between the two groups, he practices four hours each week.
One of Caleb’s favorite experiences as a ballet folklórico dancer is seeing the look of awe on people’s faces and hearing their surprised delight when they watch the groups perform. “It’s always an adrenaline rush,” he says. “When you first get on stage, you’re nervous, but when you see everyone enjoying it, you realize that this is fun, this is great. It pushes you to go above and beyond what you usually do in practices.”
Caleb’s ultimate goal in ballet folklórico is to tour with one of the major folklórico groups, like Ballet Folklórico de Mexico. “It would take a lot of practice, dedication, experience, and lots of stamina and love for the dance itself, and hopefully I have what it takes,” he says. “I know I’ll be able to reach my goal with the support of Mrs. Sanchez and the rest of the group.”
Yolanda proudly agrees. “I’ve seen how dancing really brings out confidence in people—especially kids. It’s an awesome feeling to know so many people and see them being proud of who they are and proud of their heritage.”
Round Rock Ballet Folklórico is open to anyone, regardless of skill level, cultural heritage, or economic level. To view a schedule of upcoming performances and practice schedules, visit www.roundrockballetfolklorico.org.