Growing ballet folklórico club teaches culture, history and community connection

MARFA – Mexican folk dancing took center stage Monday evening in Marfa, where students from Marfa schools danced ballet folklórico in the streets in front of the county courthouse in celebration of Cinco de Mayo and Mother’s Day.

Friends, family and neighbors of the students brought out their camp chairs and set up in the middle of Highland Avenue, as students danced and sang. The young women twirled their brightly colored skirts and the young men danced along in step. The performance was the culmination of the ballet folklórico club’s fifth year, and despite challenges of remote learning, the club is bigger than ever.

The group is led by teacher and coach Arturo Alferez, who brought the program to Marfa after having taught it at Sul Ross State University and Presidio ISD. “When I came to Marfa, I got to see the school district and some of the student programs that were available, and at the time, the only thing we had was band and art, but we didn’t have anything on the dance side.”

He asked Superintendent Oscar Aguero if he could put together a student organization for the dance style, believing it would fit well in Marfa and help connect the school with the broader Marfa community.

The evening of choreographed dances on Monday included girls and boys ensembles, and even a few swords being swung when a trio of boys took the stage to dance.

With kids tied to their phones and tuned into the latest in pop culture, Alferez tries to help students see that ballet folklórico was once popular in the culture of another era. To him, “It is important to me to teach the culture behind it.”

“It’s a very cultural connection, but it’s not just that,” Alferez said. “When we dance a song, there’s always history behind the song, behind certain steps and movement; there’s history why the girls’ dresses are long and the boys dress in their gala outfits.” The coach is also the U.S. and Texas history teacher, and with each dance, he tries to infuse the lessons with a deeper understanding of its history.

Along with the dancing on Monday, Lesly Torres and Ummi Chanez sang a duet, and Chanez gave two solo performances. “I was nervous, and then the fact that the mic cut off in the middle of it, I was scared,” Chanez said after the performance, where a technical hiccup momentarily stalled her song. Chanez handled the moment with grace, finishing the performance strong, as the audience cheered her on.

“I tell my students, I want you to perform without worrying,” Alferez said. “There’s a technical difficulty, but what brings a smile to me is after the performance seeing their smiles, seeing how happy, how cheerful they are that they performed.”

Along with building the confidence in his students, he says it’s about the community too. “I hear stories that so many people were taking pictures and happy to see us, and that’s what they’re doing, they’re spreading the joy through dance and music. Seeing that smile, parents hugging them, that’s the end result I want to see.”

Chanez’s mother, Elizabeth Gutierrez, had many smiles and hugs for Chanez after the performance. “It’s always great to see my baby singing,” she beamed. “Here with our community, it’s so great.”

Between performances, Superintendent Aguero thanked the community “for coming out and supporting another wonderful activity our students are able to participate in,” as well as thanking Alferez “for bringing a beautiful part of our culture.”

For the final dance, senior Gaby Soto joined in, and from the crowd, her mother Sulema Reyes and teacher’s aid Bridget Orr cheered her on. On seeing her daughter dance this Monday, Reyes said she was proud and “super emotional.”

Alferez’s plans to use folklórico to connect the community and school are continuing to grow. After Monday’s performance, the coach said more students have asked to join the club. But it’s not just teens who are eager to be dancing ballet folklórico.

Some Marfa parents who attended school in Mexico remember dancing folklórico as part of their curriculum, the coach said, and have asked him to start a group for adults.

“I think that’s going to be my next project, having an adult group to help us out with some of the performances of the kids,” he said. “It’s all about making connections and bridging the gap between our school and our community.”