Ballet Folklorico de Roosevelt: Bringing the culture of Mexico to Tacoma kids

As the mariachi music rises, toes tap. Feet stomp. Skirts swirl. Young faces scrunch in concentration, focusing on the intricate dance steps.

The Ballet Folklorico de Roosevelt, made up of students at Roosevelt Elementary School in Tacoma, is getting ready for its next big performance.

“I like to dance,” fourth-grader Csynaii Bushnell said. “I like the movement, the creativity. There are a lot of emotions.”

Fellow fourth-grader Natalia Lopez loves learning new steps that challenge her, while Jennifer Perez-Diaz says she enjoys learning dances that come from all over Mexico.

“I love all the music,” fourth-grader Kaelin Miller added. And like many of the dancers, she loves the long, flowing black skirts edged in the colors of Mexico: red, white and green.

Ballet Folklorico is an art form rooted in the many and varied folk dances found in the regions of Mexico.

Founded in the 1950s in Mexico City, Ballet Folklorico de Mexico debuted under the direction of Amalia Hernandez. The group began assembling the music, dances and costumes of the country that reflect the varied cultures of Mexico, including its indigenous people.

Today, many performing groups are patterned after the famous one in Mexico City.

Jerry Hernandez, a member of the Seattle-based Bailadores de Bronce, is the dance instructor for the Roosevelt group.

The 25-year-old, who now lives in Kent, grew up in California and began dancing in high school. He remembers being kind of shy — much like the lone boy who belongs to the Roosevelt group.

Dancing changed that, both for Hernandez and for his young pupil.

“He came out of his shell pretty quickly,” Hernandez said. “I could tell he really wanted to do it.”

For many of the children at Roosevelt, the after-school dance group provides a boost of cultural pride. Principal Autumn Foster says about half of the children in her East Side school are Hispanic.

“A lot of parents don’t speak English,” she said. When they attend school events that feature the Ballet Folklorico de Roosevelt, “it makes them feel welcome, that we are honoring their tradition.”

The Roosevelt troupe got its start last year as part of a summer program at the school that included academic and enrichment activities. It’s now part of an after-school program sponsored by YMCA and Tacoma’s Broadway Center for the Performing Arts.

Dancing can be both beautiful and educational, says Tony Gomez, education manager at Broadway Center.

Some of the dances’ foot movements are complex, and learning them helps students learn about patterns. Learning musical time signatures can help them understand fractions.

“It’s a process of inquiry that can have benefits across the curriculum,” said Gomez, a music educator and percussionist.

Ballet Folklorico showcases the rich and varied tapestry of Mexican culture.

“Mexico is culturally diverse,” Gomez said. “There are different indigenous influences, deep African influence, as well as the influence of the European colonists.”

Many of the students who dance with Ballet Folklorico de Roosevelt have Spanish-speaking heritage. Other members are African American or Caucasian.

Dancing together can build cultural bridges, Gomez believes.

“The stereotypes,” he said, “are knocked down with dance — and sweat.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo

To see a performance

The Ballet Folklorico de Roosevelt will perform Saturday as part of Broadway Center for the Performing Art’s “Fiesta, Familia, Folklore” event.

They will dance with Bailadores de Bronce, Washington’s leading ballet Folklorico ensemble.

The fiesta will start at 3 p.m. at the Rialto Theater, 310 S. Ninth St., in downtown Tacoma.

For tickets, call the Broadway Center ticket office at 253-591-5894, visit the ticket office at 901 Broadway or go to