By Chelsea Hegge
The sun shone brightly high above the flagpoles next the administration building at the University of California, Irvine. Down below approximately 50 spectators enjoyed the Cinco de Mayo festivities hosted by the MECHA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztla) group of UCI, which at the moment, consists of a Mariachi band. The group waves in time to the music and enjoys the food provided by Mecha nearby. There is a sense of anticipation in the crowd, the Mariachi band seems to have gone over their own time slot and to be now playing to fill in the time gap until the next round of entertainment has arrived. But the crowd continues to wait patiently. Many have come just to see the next performers, something that is revealed by their restless behavior of constantly adjusting themselves and checking their watches. Then all of the sudden a wave of red can be seen marching as a unit down ring road from past Social Sciences buildings towards the cultural celebration. As the group approaches, it is clear they would stand out on campus any other day than today. Their outfits are classic ballet folklorico costumes, representations of the cultural inheritance of Mexico.
Once in view, the dancers now quickly approach the performance area by the flagpoles. Now close up the details of their costumes can be seen. What seemed earlier to be a mass of red is revealed actually to be an array of various shades of red and pink with hints of blue, yellow and green throughout the mass of ruffles on both the men and the women who are both covered head to toe with pants or skirts and long sleeves. Many of the girls wear false hair to fill out their thick buns and layers of colorful heavy eye makeup accompanied by bright red lipstick. The men wear tight black jeans, white collared shirts, cowboy boots and sombreros to complete the look. Their appearance is more suited to a heavily lighted theater stage than a bright afternoon on campus. The brightly outfitted men and women arrange themselves to prepare to quickly start their first routine while their choreographer sets up the music from her ipod with the speakers. The other dancers wait anxiously to begin by reviewing steps, laughing, joking and the girls occasionally swishing their skirts playfully. The music seems to be sorted out quickly and one of the girls steps forward to announce not only the beginning of this performance but their upcoming performance later this month as well. Todays performance will include dances from the styles of Nayarit Costa, Guerrero, and Jalisco. They all then take their places to begin their performance as the first notes of the music waft over the audience.
Ballet folklorico (ballet referring the spanish word for dance in general not classical ballet) is a form of dance created by Amalia Hernandez in 1952 when she created her dance company the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico-originally named the Ballet Moderno de Mexico. The style is based on Hernandez’ study of the folk dances from across Mexico and the melding of them into a more theatrical form. Since the creation and immense popularity of Hernandez’s group, ballet folklorico groups have sprung up across Mexico and the US, just like the club here at UCI. The Ballet Folklorico de UCI has routines that focus on dances from various states of Mexico like many other dance groups. According to the former president of three years, Vanessa Corrales, the dance group has the costumes appropriate to dances from approximately 8 regions of Mexico.
The group has amassed their costumes over the 30 years of its existence, which until recently has been relatively unknown to the rest of the campus. Vanessa, a 4th year biomedical engineering major, recalls how the club was when she joined only three years ago, “It wasn't cohesive. They were just dancing and doing the bit they knew… There was one boy. He wasn't a student. There were a couple also that were just dancers we knew and I think there were maybe 6-8 girls… And we would all kind meet at practice and talk about what kind of things needed to get done but it wasn't like centralized or anything.” However, she and the other three remaining members did not want it to stay this way. Left with the club in their hands, Vanessa, the newly appointed president, and the other members set out about gaining more publicity on campus and involvement with ASUCI. Vanessa said of her goals for the group, “I just wanted to get in and up and running, get as many dancers as possible. I think that was pretty much it. I think performing is the biggest part of our group. I also wanted to start creating a little family of us. To start hanging out more and really be there for each other.” Now the group has grown to have 15 people, 10 girls and 5 boys. They range from first to fourth years and majors as diverse as Chicano/Latino Studies, Biomedical engineerings and studio art. Despite this diversity, they seem to have succeeded in creating this camaraderie. Whether it’s in practice or performance, the members have a comfortable relationship with each other full of support as they try to improve and learn new moves or joking around on breaks. There is a constant witty banter among the most regular members, which elicits laughter even from the shyer members. The choreographer, Daniela Castro, a fourth year Spanish major, agrees that the group has become closer as well. “Now we are all contributing to the strength of the group, its not just two people who are trying to make things work it’s the actual group itself that’s trying to make it work.”
They certainly make the performance work today. As the music plays the dancers move around the makeshift dance floor of the cement ground around the flagpoles. To the unexperienced eye, the moves appear deceptively easy, mere stepping around and swishing. It lacks the apparent difficulty of more acrobatic dances such as swing or break dancing. But the dancing, for the most part hidden under the depths of the female performers skirts, (the male performers have no such luck) is comprised of complicated foot movements and patterns that guide the dancers through the routine. While the women may be able to occasionally hide a misstep under their skirts, they have the additional difficulty of constantly moving their skirts around and having to pay constant attention to the movements of both their arms and legs and making sure they are on time. The skirt, while a blessing in hiding wrong footsteps, is almost a literal red flag indicating mistaken arm movement. The movements are also much more difficult on the body The crowd cheers joyfully as the group moves between the different routines in a smooth transition as if they were all a part of one large piece.
Soon the final piece draws to a close and the dancer take a bow. But they are not done. Many of the spectators were there just to watch them and now want to congratulate the performers on the success of their show. Their fans young and old flock around them giving out hugs and kissesand snapping pictures from this way and that. But soon they must say good-bye, in about 20 minutes they have another performance back in Middle Earth dorms. So with quick good byes the dancers begin the march back up the hill to the next show. The fatigue begins to show. It was almost a non-stop 15-20 minutes performance and they had to rush there to make just as they had to rush away. But they do not let their exhaustion get in the way of their fun. Their biggest concern about the next performance is whether or not they get a free lunch after (it takes place during Middle Earth’s Pippin Cafeteria’s Cinco de Mayo lunch celebration). They soon arrive at the back lunch room that has been reserved for them to use as a dressing room of sorts. It is slightly chaotic with ruffled skirts, tops and under clothing scattered around and falling out of their bins and spotted here and there with shoes and hats.
The group hasn’t had much time to prepare for this performance. May is their busiest month performance wise with Cinco de Mayo (May 5th), a popular holiday in the US that celebrates a victory of the Mexican army over the French in 1862 which is often confused with the Mexican Independence Day which is September 16. The dancers also have their own end of the year performance later in the month which will take place on May 29. Daniela describes some of the challenges for her working with an amateur group and getting them ready to perform, “It gets stressful and my work depends on everyone else’s. So it’s the effort they put that I have to base my work or like the people, if its new dancers and then we have all those dancers that have danced before I have to find a balance. And then since everyone’s a student they have other priorities so we are kinda like the hobby part so I always have to be fixing everything to them.” This isn’t just hard on her as a choreographer but as a person as well because ballet folklorico plays a very important role in her life. “What you see is the performance, that the part of ballet folklorico everyone’s sees so you see me and my work so I take it seriously. It is personal, sometimes I try to not put my whole heart into it because not everyone can commit to it 100% because of school and other priorities.”
With practiced skill the dancers swiftly change from their previous costumes to the next and are ready with even a few minutes to spare. The lineup will be mostly the same with a few exceptions. This round Daniela will be sitting out. Instead she again coordinates the music and watches everyone else perform with an intent eye, carefully cataloguing everything she sees to make notes for later. This performance stands out drastically from the one only shortly before at the flagpoles. There the dancers had everyone’s attention. Here, because of the additional chaos of people receiving and eating their lunches, people’s attention is divided at best. The ballet folklorico dancers in their costumes stand out in the sea of people of international ethnicities as decidedly Mexican. Just being Hispanic is enough to make someone stand out at UCI as only approximately 13% of undergraduates as of 2009 are Hispanic according to UCI Office of Institutional Research. This number is even lower in the surrounding community of the city of Irvine where only 7.4% of the population is Hispanic. This number compares with a whopping 32.4% of the California population that is identified as Hispanic shows the drastic difference from the rest of the state. The difference becomes even more dramatic when only across town in Santa Ana the number spikes to 76.1% of the population. So at this campus the students in this group do stand out. Not having to stand out from the crowd inside the dance group is one of the things Vanessa loves about the group. “I wanted it to be a safe haven for Latinos. I mean no one really understands unless you are a minority on campus exactly how hard it is to deal with cultural issues, especially when you are dealing with people who are completely different culturally. There's things being in this type of group where you don't have to explain the little things so its nice.” Chantal Rivas, a first year undecided major, also feels that the group has helped give her support at UCI. “Ballet Folklorico helped me incorporate into the UCI campus a little bit better. I came to find a bond with the students involved in the organization. Because most of them know how to speak Spanish, I became more at ease there were more students like me (who had some relevance to Mexico). I like dancing folklorico because I feel like there are many misconceptions about the Mexican Culture, and through dance and music, the culture seems a lot brighter.” Though their culture is a common bond among most of the members, there is one non-Hispanic member, they are all really there because of the dancing. At the end of the day, it is as Vanessa said a performance group. Daniela notes, “For me it is more meaningful in the artistic sense. In the cultural sense, I feel more comfortable in this group than others because we don't deal with politics, or ambiguous issues.”
The performers keep their heads up high. This performance continues fairly smoothly, only a few mishaps (The elastic on Vanessa’s top breaks so it falls down while she is dancing revealing her unclothes for a majority of the routine). Eventually it draws to a close. The dancers take their bows, thank the crowd, then march back to their dressing room once again. Finally, done for the afternoon but not for the day as there is yet another performance that evening, the dancers change back into their considerably lighter street clothes and commence with packing up their belongings. They do, indeed, get a free lunch and slip into the line with the other students to grab their food. After searching out their favorite treats, everyone gathers at one of the many plastic tables dotting the lawn outside of Pippin, Daniela, Vanessa and Chantal scattered among the group. The stress of the performance is gone, everyone seems to have a slight weight of relief off of them now. They are visibly more relaxed with the stress of the three performances removed and hours until the next. As the sun continues to beam down high overhead the dancers don’t look as if they are alone. They have each other.
4 hours of observation of practice
3 hours of observation of Cinco de Mayo performances
1 hour interview with Vanessa
30 minutes interview with Daniela in person and email
email correspondance with Chantal
research from Census Bureau
research from Office of Institutional Research of UCI