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Students 'Experience' Culture, Win Top Prizes In Ballet Folklórico

March 26, 2014
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt
Story By: Amy Barnett

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Students posing in dance dress
Students in Ballet Folklórico have been performing across the state and will perform at Walt Disney World over the summer. They include (from left) Tania Medina, Leticia Castillo, Joyce Ovalle, Santiago Casas, Nayeli Lopez (director), Juan Garcia, Jessica Martinez, Katy Strouse, and Maria Valtierra. —Photo by Brian Blalock


Dancing in a garage studio in Laredo, a 5-year-old little girl found her true passion.

Sam Houston State University Spanish major Nayeli López smiles as she remembers the traditional Mexican music and colorful dresses that inspired her then to become a performer; those same things draw her to the stage today.

“It is part of my culture and it truly brings me happiness when I’m dancing and I see other people smiling and enjoying my performances,” López said. “I feel like it’s a type of service that I’m doing for people.”

Her mother encouraged her to learn to dance what is known as Ballet Folklórico, a Mexican folkloric ballet that originated in Mexico City in the 1950s. Performers began choreographing dances to musical pieces that reflected the culture of various regions of Mexico, thus creating a new genre of dance.

“You will see this type of dance throughout Mexico,” said Charles Heath, assistant professor of Latin American history at SHSU. “There are dozens of regions in Mexico, each with its own traditions, costumes and music. The ladies may wear extravagant skirts and embroidered blouses, while the men may dress in the typical costume of a rural worker, rancher or farmer.

“Some of the dances often start with a type of courtship and tell a story,” Heath said.
“Ballet Folklórico is a very popular art form in Mexico. For example, if you were to go to a sixth-grade graduation in Mexico, the students might perform a folkloric dance, along with presenting the Mexican flag and singing the national anthem. It’s a very visible part of Mexican culture.”

López continued dancing and learning more about Ballet Folklórico when she began her college education in Laredo at Texas A&M International University. She credits a dance instructor there, Sandra Leal, for teaching her about the culture, choreography and dedication it takes to become a great dancer.

When she transferred to SHSU in the fall of 2012, she quickly learned the university did not have a Ballet Folklórico team. Driven by her passion and desire to share her knowledge with others, López knew what she had to do.

“I started the paperwork to become a student organization; Student Activities really supported what I wanted to do,” López said. “I started making fliers inviting people to attend an informational meeting, and people started showing up. We formed a team and immediately got to work.”

You could say López had her work cut out for her. In this new group of now nine dancers, only one other person had ever danced Ballet Folklórico before; most of the others had never even heard of it.

Their overall dance skills, let’s just say, were “minimal.”

“I had no dance experience whatsoever,” laughed Joyce Ovalle, a criminal justice and political science double major who joined Sam Houston Ballet Folkloric last fall.

“Ballet Folklórico was completely new for me, too,” said Katy Strouse, a studio art major who joined the team this semester, just weeks before their first competition. “I love to dance and thought this would be a good cultural experience.”

With the group’s enthusiasm and López’s determination, they wasted no time.

“I started by showing videos of my performances. I knew I had to stay confident and motivational, so I did,” López said. “I had to teach them everything, from what shoes to buy and the proper attire for practices to all the dance steps.”

The dedicated group of soon-to-be dancers began practicing two days a week. They took on the determination of their fearless leader and stayed focused.

“It is definitely a challenge to learn the steps, but Nayeli is always willing to organize an extra practice, help us out individually and really guide us through the entire routine,” Ovalle said. “She knows this is new to us and if any one of us is struggling, she’s going to help us get where we need to be.”

After just a few months of practicing, Sam Houston Ballet Folklórico had its first performance in front of an audience, performing at a private leukemia and blood cancer fundraising event in The Woodlands. Soon after, the group began receiving invitations to perform at other events locally and in the Houston area.

Heath offered one of those invitations when he asked the group if it could help draw crowds to the SHSU exhibit at the 2014 Houston Hispanic Forum, Houston’s largest event promoting educational opportunities to Latinos.

“Nayeli and her group showed up in costume and drew high school students over to the SHSU booths,” Heath said. “They dedicated their Saturday to helping SHSU, which showed that they are true ambassadors for our university.”

So when López and her fellow dancers approached the history department, selling baked goods to help fund a trip to Round Rock, for a Ballet Folklórico competition, Heath wanted to do more than just purchase cupcakes.

He spoke with history department chair Brain Domitrovic, who full-heartedly agreed to support the dancers, offering funds from the department to help offset traveling expenses.

Another group of students in dance dress
(From left) Juan Garcia, Joyce Ovalle, Tania Medina, Nayeli Lopez (Director), Jessica Martinez, Lety Castillo, Katy Strouse, and Santiago Casas (kneeling) at the 11th Annual Bailes de Mi Tierra Competition, where the team won, but didn't find out about the win until they got back to Huntsville. —Submitted photo

In February, the group of seven ladies and two men put their talents to the test by competing in the 11th Annual Bailes de Mi Tierra competition in Round Rock.

“Everyone was so nervous. We had never competed or knew what to expect,” said López, who attended the competition as a dance ‘director’ to fulfill competition rules.

As director, she could not perform with her group; only cheer them on from the side of the stage.

“I tried to train them as much as possible. We even did a dress rehearsal,” López said. “But when we got there, I knew they were intimidated, especially after seeing other groups perform.”

The group went into the competition simply hoping to do well enough to receive first division recognition, something López compared to an “A” on a report card; winning the college division of the competition wasn’t even a possibility in their minds.

“I did see a lot of potential in them, and I knew they were going to do well,” López said. “Then I noticed how much the judges really enjoyed their performance.”

López and her team left the competition before the awards ceremony in order to avoid driving late at night to get back to Huntsville.

It wasn’t until López received an email the next day when she learned the unexpected news: Sam Houston Ballet Folklórico did not accomplish what they had hoped for—just receiving a “Division One rating;” instead, they accomplished so much more.

This new group of dancers got the “Division One” they were seeking and won the entire competition among college teams, beating out dance groups known for being “real competitors,” including the teams from the University of Texas and El Paso Community College.

“We are all still excited and feel really blessed and thankful,” López said. “It was really an eye opener and the members realize their hard work and commitment paid off. It was a wonderful experience.”

“It was super amazing to see our work pay off,” added Ovalle. “I think it is really critical that we bring recognition to Sam Houston, and it’s great that we are doing it with folkloric dancing.”

Heath, who calls himself the “adopted sponsor” of Sam Houston Ballet Folklórico, could not agree more.

“I am so proud of their success. They remind us why we got into this business of shepherding youth,” Heath said. “These are great kids who show potential students that aside from the academic component, college should be fun and give you the opportunity to provide service.”

Since their victory, Sam Houston Ballet Folklórico has taken part in the Cultural Night Show, hosted by the Resident Hall Association; the Diversity Leadership Conference, a conference event hosted by Multicultural Student Services at SHSU; and other private shows. The group will be performing at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., this summer.

“We are constantly learning new routines and are fundraising for our trip to Disney, so we are staying very busy,” López said.

López hopes their work ethic and recent victory in a statewide competition will help Sam Houston Ballet Folklórico make a name for itself as a true competitive dance organization, and she hopes she is doing her part to ensure SHSU will continue to have a strong Ballet Folklórico team after she graduates next year.

“I hope I will have passed on as much knowledge as I possibly can so the remaining officers and members are able to keep dancing and keep the culture alive here at Sam Houston” López said.

López, a Spanish major, has dreams of becoming a federal court interpreter after graduation but also wants to join a professional dance group.

She isn’t ruling out owning a dance studio someday either.

After all, it was in a modest neighborhood dance studio where a 5-year-old López first discovered her life’s passion, allowing her to bring a unique piece of culture to Sam Houston State University that no one had before.



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