When second-grade teacher Isabel Rodriguez took a job with Dillon Valley Elementary, she was surprised to find that the school did not have a folkloric dance program.
“I’m from Mexico, and when I was little, I did folk dancing,” she said. “When I came to this school, seeing that it was dual language, I thought there would be something like this already in place. I saw that there wasn’t, and I thought, ‘OK, well, we need to get this started.”
Rodriguez spoke with two other teachers from Spain about having a class where they could teach the students dances from Mexico and Spain. The two instructors agreed to work with Rodriguez, and the three started Dillon Valley’s folkloric dance group.
All voluntary group
The dance group meets once a week on Thursdays after school, and it’s entirely free for students to attend, thanks to a lot of volunteer hours from teachers and parents. The class is open only to Dillon Valley students.
“I think we’ll keep it that way because it’s so popular,” Rodriguez said. “We have 40 kids in the class right now and only three teachers. I think after our performance, we’ll have a lot more kids come in, so I think to open it up to the community would be overwhelming.”
Rodriguez said the program was started in November, and students had their first performance at a Cinco de Mayo assembly in front of their peers on Monday, May 5.
“This year, because it was the first year, we focused on Mexican folk dancing from the state of Jalisco, which is where I’m from; we started with what we know,” she said. “I came to this country when I was 8 years old, so I was really young, and I missed a lot of these traditions from not being in my own country, but I was lucky enough to go to a school where a teacher offered a class like that so I was able to participate.”
Being a teacher herself now, Rodriguez said it’s really important for kids who are not able to be in their native country to learn about these traditions.
“Our population here is so diverse and there are so many people from Mexico,” she said. “I would also like to get dances from the other countries that are represented in this school because I know we have people from Guatemala, Salvador, Columbia, so eventually that would be my goal.”
Learn language, learn culture
Lynn Krystopa is an art teacher at Dillon Valley, and her two children, Madeline, 10, and Matthew, 9, have been attending the school since they were kindergartners and learning Spanish in the dual-language environment.
“I thought if they were learning Spanish, they should learn about the culture, as well,” Krystopa said. “They’ve learned (about) dance and the clothes, working with other kids, and the dances are primarily taught in Spanish, as well. They can practice hearing it and speaking it, and at the assembly, they were learning about where the dances came from, which parts of Mexico.”
Krystopa said it’s important that her children learn about the world and know there are other things out there besides what’s here in Summit County. She wants to open their eyes to other cultures, other languages and other people.
“I think it was important for the native Spanish speakers to see kids who don’t speak Spanish at home participating in an event that they see as a cultural event for them,” she said. “I did the dance, as well, and the kids seemed very excited about that, as well, to see someone who is a non-Spanish speaker, not from Mexico, being involved in learning the dances.”
Charlotte Hudnut, 8, dances in the folkloric group and said she’s learned a lot but mostly “it’s just fun.”
“They had a celebration called Cinco de Mayo to celebrate that they won the war against Spain and France,” she said. “It’s really fun because you get to learn a lot of things that you may not have done in your country.”
Charlotte has been attending the classes since the beginning, and her mother, Kate Hudnut, said she is very grateful for the free activity.
“The teachers will talk in Spanish and then in English,” Charlotte said. “When she announces something, she’ll say it in English and in Spanish. … It’s really fun because you get to take breaks and do other things with it, you can do other dances and watch other kids do it. I like it because the teachers have really long skirts and they were really cool and they weren’t all the same; they were different. You get to see all your friends and stuff, and they always give you really good snack.”
Making friends in other grades, from fifth down through preschool, has also been a highlight for Charlotte, who as a third-grader dances in the group with the “bigger kids.”
“There’s three teachers — two of them help the littler kids, and one helps the bigger kids. They’re like that small,” Charlotte said, describing the preschoolers and holding her hand a few feet off the ground, “and they’re like, aw, they’re cute.”
Costumes, parental support
Rodriguez said the skirts and other elements of the costumes are a big part of folkloric dancing.
“In Jalisco, we have a huge culture of cowboys, which we call charros, and Jalisco is known as the birthplace of mariachi, so that’s what the boys wear, the sombreros, the traditional clothing that a Mexican cowboy from Jalisco would wear,” she said. “The girls — it’s also part of the charro and charrita culture — skirts are really big. You dance and it’s really a skirt show, that makes the dance really great and the steps that make the noise when you dance.”
Charlotte said it’s fun to twirl her skirt, which is white with dark blue and light blue stripes.
“It’s a really long skirt with a T-shirt that has a little ruffles on it,” she said. “We wore a little bun with a hair thing.”
“We had to take it home and practice a lot of twirling at our house for a few days before the show,” Kate Hudnut said of the skirt, going on to explain the headpiece. “It’s meant to be like an extension of her hair. We made it out of yarn that was the color of her hair and was braided with ribbon that matched her skirt.”
Rodriguez said the group had a lot of support from the parents making the costumes.
“Three moms participated in making the whole thing — the skirts, shirts — every parent came in and made their headpiece for their daughter,” she said. “We did a bake sale on Friday and all of the parents participated by bring in something to sell or helping to sell. We have snacks before we start dance, and parents bring in snacks for different weeks. Everybody is so supportive, the parents, the kids who have been showing up to every class, and they are so excited about it every time.”
Moment to shine
The kids love the dancing, Rodriquez said, especially performing.
“I like it because you can see other people perform, and last year, they turned off all the lights and some people danced with lanterns and stuff and I thought it was really cool,” Charlotte said.
“At first, I met with the moms and said, why would a class like this be important to you? And all of them said, this is what I did when I was young and lived in Mexico, and I want my kids to be a part of that, to learn that part of our culture,” Rodriguez said. “They said Dillon Valley is dual language but it’s missing a lot of culture, so this is a really important piece that will bring that culture out.”
The group started with more than 40 participants, and Rodriguez thought maybe kids would stop coming after a while and she and the other teachers would end up with a small group, but the folkloric dance program has proven to be so popular that there are consistently around 40 kids at each rehearsal.
Students, parents and teachers will perform one more time this school year in a talent show on the last day of school, presenting different dances from Spain, Rodriguez said. Krystopa said her daughter, Madeline, is a fifth-grader and is hoping to come back next year as a middle-schooler and participate
“All of the kids who participated were all being risk-takers in going to rehearsal and learning something new and performing it in front of almost 400 people,” she said of the all-school assembly for Cinco de Mayo. “I think that was great for all of them.”