Isabel Rodriguez has fond recollections of bougainvillea. Translated in Spanish as “bugambilia,” the vining pink flower thrives in her hometown of San Juan de los Lagos in the state of Jalisco, Mexico.
Rodriguez, who runs a popular Dillon-based folkloric dance program now called Baile Folklórico Bugambilias, was born in Mexico and spent her early childhood there before coming to the U.S. at age 8 with her parents. She grew up in Denver and went to college in Colorado Springs, later moving to Summit County to teach second grade and Spanish at Dillon Valley Elementary School.
But Mexico stayed with her—particularly in the form of folkloric dance, which captivated her as a child from the first time she saw her grandmother’s doll, bedecked in a black, hand-embroidered dress from Chiapas. “It was my dream to become a folkloric dancer when I was in Mexico,” she said. “I thought, ‘One day I am going to grow up and wear that dress and do that dance.’ Then we came here. I felt that dream was taken away.”
But then, in Denver, she got to spend one year learning folkloric dance from a 4th grade teacher. Years later, as a 2nd-year teacher at Dillon Valley, she decided it was her turn to make a folkloric dance program happen for the local community.
That was back in 2012, and even though Rodriguez has since taken a break from teaching full-time in order to raise her family, she continues to run the thriving program, which is currently offered after school to 4th and 5th graders, in addition to an adult group. The school sessions run twice a year and average 25-30 kids each, culminating in performances at the school and other locations like the Silverthorne Pavilion and Breckenridge’s Día de los Muertos celebration.
Most of the dances learned are traditional—each from a different region in Mexico, accompanied by regional dress. “A lot of it comes from the mix of cultures that we had in Mexico, when the Spanish came and brought along their style of music and style of dance, and it infused with what we had already,” Rodriguez said. Dances from Jalisco, for example, feature mariachi music and “charros”—Mexican cowboys in big sombreros and tight pants, who dance with women in big, colorful dresses sewn with ribbons. To the north, Rodriguez explained, the music has more of a polka feel; the costumes are shorter, and the men and women wear boots. Farther south, the dances take on a more indigenous feel and speak to traditional practices—for example, the pineapple dance from Oaxaca, which tells the story of the pineapple harvest.
Last year for Día de los Muertos in Breckenridge, students danced “La Llorona,” the famous story about the weeper. They wore the traditional “reboso”—a long scarf—over their heads, because that is what women do when someone passes away in Mexico, she explained. They followed that with a more animated number that represents the celebration of spirits coming back from the dead and dancing together. For this year’s event, they plan to present a variety of dances illustrating the diversity of folkloric dance. There will be a free dance workshop from 1-3 p.m. November 3 at Breckenridge Theater, followed by Mexican food appetizers, and culminating in the performance from 6:30-8 p.m.
“I learned a lot about Mexican culture,” said Charlotte Hudnut, now in 7th grade, who took part in the folkloric dance program in grades 3-5. “I liked the dresses and the dances.”
Over the years, various teachers and community members have volunteered time and resources, including a parent who had competed in the stomping aspect of folkloric dance in Mexico, who taught the group how to do the footwork and the different varieties of dance. “He was someone in our community; we just needed to create that opportunity for him,” said Rodriguez.
Of course not everyone who takes part in Baile Folklórico is from Mexico, and Rodriguez is sensitive to that, recounting how they danced the “Sombrero Azul”—which is popular in El Salvador—at the behest of students. Faculty members from Peru and Spain have helped with regional dances from their home countries as well.
This year Rodriguez is designing a cultural program, to be taught through dance, for all students at Dillon Valley Elementary School. “The goal for students is to get a taste of culture, but we also want to include life skills like working with each other—a boy and girl dancing with each other and touching hands without there being an issue,” she said.
“Why not? It’s not like girls have cooties or anything,” said 6th grader Clayton Amsbaugh, who took part in the program every year from grades 2-5.
“There are so many opportunities in school to do sports or academics,” his mother Cathy said. “I think it’s a unique need for kids who don’t want to do something competitive but still want to be active.” At the same time, she said, “It shows the value of other cultures we have in our schools.”
“Clayton has always liked dressing up—in dress pants, button-up shirt, and tie,” she added. In the folkloric dance program, he gets to dress up too, but with a big sombrero and a bandana around his neck. “It’s nice how dressy they are for the dances,” she said. “It’s beautiful. The girls in their dresses and boys in their black pants and white shirts—it looks fabulous.”
Often, the performances are combined with a potluck, where community members bring traditional dishes to share. Others have helped by making skirts and headpieces. “I try to get parents and community involved,” said Rodriguez. “It’s a time to connect—not just us with each other, but also parents with their children.”
“My mother used to dance folkloric when she was in elementary school,” said Araceli Gonzalez, who moved to Summit County in 2006 from Chihuahua, Mexico. Araceli started dancing with the adult group in 2015, and her daughters Arely and Vanessa have taken part in the kids’ group. “She is very proud my kids are dancing too,” she said.
“In Mexico, it’s a way of life,” Rodriguez explained. “You learn the culture through dance, and you learn about every different state through dance. It is at every level of school. You can also get a degree in it—you can go to school and study folkloric dance.”
“At one point we had this whole family dancing—grandma, mom, aunt, two granddaughters, and dad,” she said. “We had this multigenerational family dancing folkloric because it is so important to them to be able to see their children doing that, to go back to their childhood.” Another time, after the group danced a polka from Nuevo Leon to the song “Evangelina,” a little boy asked to sign up for the class. ‘“My dad plays that song at home always,’” he told Rodriguez. It was impactful, she said, because “we made a connection to the music—to his dad and where his dad comes from.”
San Juan de los Lagos is a small town but a major site for Catholic pilgrimages. When Rodriguez started returning home, she would see dances in the town plaza, which she accepted as part of her culture without understanding their meaning or origin. Later, she went to Mexico to study her own culture and discovered the meaning behind them. “I want kids to learn about it so they can embrace where they came from—their heritage,” she said. “It will help them embrace their own identity as multicultural in this country, as well as their family’s, so they have that connection with their parents or grandparents.”
She believes the folkloric dance experience is particularly important in the U.S. “I don’t think this would have the same value in Mexico because in Mexico everybody does it,” she said. “Here we are a nation of immigrants.” Describing the school’s celebration of Mother Tongue Day, she recounted how some families from Uzbekistan did a presentation and performance about their culture. “In a way what we do can serve as an example,” she said, so that others feel comfortable to share. “I can’t speak for other cultures, so I want to create opportunities for them to speak about it,” she said.
“We want to support Isabel and her project,” said Gonzalez, whose family helped to fund costumes for the group. “She is a very dedicated woman, and has been working on this project for many years… She donates her time and energy, and if we can help economically to provide—at least with costumes—we are glad to do it.”
Rodriguez plans to reach out to the community for help expanding the program so that more students can take part, especially those who’ve moved on to middle school, several of whom come back to dance with the elementary school students each year. She would like to see the program offered in middle and high school too.
“We live in a very friendly and inclusive community,” said Gonzalez. “As immigrants— I will talk for most of us—we feel welcome in Summit County, and I think it is nice to share with other members of our community our culture. It is lovely to see kids and adults of different countries and different cultures dancing together,” she said. “I think folkloric dance is a good way to bring us together and be more united.”
Photos by Liam Doran and Jenise Jensen