Ballet Folklorico Estrellas de Mexico of Walla Walla wants you. And you and you and you.

The folk music dance group is open to all children, said co-founder Brissa Perez, and the only expense is procurement of the swirly skirts, ruffled blouses and charro-style jackets. 

Sometimes, however, outfitting a child with the traditional folklorico costume can be too high of an economic bar. Girls’ dresses can cost up to $100 and that’s why Brissa and her co-founder — and mother — Flor Perez look for ways to help families with the expense. The group charges no membership fee and fundraisers are being planned to lessen the financial burden of getting fancy, so to speak.

Mexican folk dancing, Brissa pointed out, is about family above all else.

“Families play a big role in our community,” she said, explaining it takes equal parent commitment as that of the dancers to endure the long practice hours and the travel for performances.

Perez, 22, said she began dancing as a preschooler, continuing off and on throughout childhood. When she went off to Washington State University, Perez continued to educate others about the history and importance of the art of the medium.

There’s a lot to teach. 

Mexican folk dancing is rooted on the country’s ancient history and has developed in numerous versions based on the area of the country. Take the western state of Jalisco, known for mariachi and ranchera music. Jalisco was colonized by the Spanish for an extended time, which still influences the culture today. 

The famed “Mexican Hat Dance,” featuring women in ranchero dresses with brightly-colored ribbon and men in large sombreros and pants with silver studs, is done by nearly all folklorico groups, Perez said, noting the music is loud and energetic, peppered with rhythmic stamping or tapping of the feet. 

“When performers dance to live mariachi, it is the best feeling and performance you can ever witness and dance.”

Another crowd pleaser is “Danza de Los Viejitos,” developed in Michoacan, Mexico, and known to exist before the Hispanic culture, when it was a ritual to give honor to “Old God” or “God of Fire.” 

Male dancers are dressed in white for this dance with wooden shoes on their feet and wearing colorful poncho-style garments called serapes. They also wear masks representing elderly faces. In Ballet Folklorico Estrellas de Mexico, these parts are played by children. Audiences are delighted and amused by the dance, Perez said.

Northern Mexico brings a familiar sound to American ears. The area was settled by Germans in the mid- and late 19th century, and they brought their polka dancing along. Now, Perez said, “those dances are polkas in Spanish.”

Before the European influences, folklorico was uncommon in the Mexican culture. But colonization forced indigenous people to find ways to secretly preserve their own culture, and folk dancing was reinvigorated as a tool to retain a Mexican national identity, according to a report by Rebecca Cantú for Harvard University.

After the 1910 Revolution, ballet folklorico blossomed as a result of the dramatic changes that occurred in Mexican society, Cantú reported.

The folk dances become history lessons to both dancers and audiences as Perez continues her quest to show the rich foundation of the art. 

Offstage, the new college graduate is determined to use folk dancing for so much more than entertainment at events. To create awareness of the group, Perez has made a Facebook page as a recruiting and teaching tool. She’s began filming YouTube tutorials to help the curious and newcomers understand the dance movements. She and her mom have given children leadership roles, including social outreach, costume creation and fundraising.

More importantly, it has given the Perez women a way to not only give children skills and confidence, but to also discuss mental health issues. The topic is under-discussed in the Latino community, but in the hours the Perezes spend in practices, a lot of conversation around tough subjects can happen, Brissa

said.

“It’s really opened my eyes, and my mom’s, how open the kids are starting to be with us. It’s really important to break down the mental health stigma, especially with boys.”

Newly armed with college majors in political science and Spanish, and a minor in criminal justice, Brissa is also determined to make a dent in a cultural wall — the patriarchal Latino society that can prevent women from feeling free to be expressive.

“It’s hard for women to be themselves; we’re trying to free that up,” she said.

In one instance, Flor and Brissa have selected a dance traditionally done with male dancers; their version will be all girls, Brissa said.

“I’m really excited to break that gender stand.”

The list of possibilities seem endless under the company’s vision statement: “Empowering youth from all walks of life.” 

Brissa said she is working toward offering scholarships to senior high school dance students, and gain nonprofit status. None too soon, either. A year after starting up, the company has grown from 10 to 50 participants, and they recently took top honors at Weston’s Pioneer Days and Dayton Days parades.

Ballet Folklorico Estrellas de Mexico will next perform at Umatilla, Ore., Landing Days parade at 10 a.m., June 22.

On June 29, the dancers will be at Washington Park at 1 p.m. as part of the annual Children’s Day Celebration, noon to 4 p.m.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.

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