A Community Beat

By Mariana Espinoza

For many people, community recreation centers are the place where many dancers take their first classes, such as ballet and creative movement, to name a few. In Grand Prairie, Texas, the same holds true for Ballet Folklorico dancing. Recreation and Events Supervisor Chris Ginapp describes the magic of Ballet Folklorico as “a story of how lives are changed.” He has witnessed firsthand how the sounds of a dance from Veracruz, Mexico, have helped a 15-year-old boy living with autism dance to the shared beat of his community—a beat of tradition and culture. Ballet Folklorico teams at Grand Prairie Park’s recreation centers have continued to gain popularity over the years, earning the admiration and respect of the entire community.

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For some families, dancing Ballet Folklorico has become a family tradition. From performing at city-wide special events to competing in state competitions, the dancers work in teams to learn and share in the traditions of culture and dance. The ballet, which features dances from different regions of Mexico, is not only a form of education and entertainment, but it also connects people to culture in a city where approximately 44 percent of the population is of Hispanic or Latino descent.

A Beat For All
About three years ago Johnny Almazon went with his mother to his sister’s Ballet Folklorico classes. His family had no idea of the life-changing events that would occur. The classes were offered to all ages, genders, ethnicities, and abilities. Johnny, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of 18 months, was present at all of the classes, but remained very reserved. Then one day, as the tune from Veracruz was playing, he began to dance and kept dancing. “Johnny went from being a spectator to a dancer,” Ginapp notes. “It was amazing. He always arrived excited to practice.” Now Johnny exhibits greater self-esteem, and his mother notes that he is performing better in school. She credits it all to his participating in dance class—a form of dance that encourages leadership roles and strengthens self-esteem. Ballet Folklorico dancing has touched the hearts of many children and families, including the story of Johnny. Ginapp writes that “Johnny has bought more awareness of children with special needs,” and “as much as the students have been a true gift of friendship to Johnny, without realizing it, he has touched their lives too.”

The dance teams call themselves “Almas Unidas” and “Amor A Nuestra Cultura,” which translate to “United Souls” and “For the Love of Our Culture.”

Amor A Nuestra Cultura’s team dances at the Charley Taylor Recreation Center. This team learns Latin American and Mexican Folklorico and strives to provide an opportunity for everyone to learn the dances. The Almas Unidas team dances at the Tony Shotwell Life Center and promotes teamwork and leadership, and is committed to creating lasting friendships. Over 100 youth and teen folklorico dancers visit the recreation centers four times a week.

In 1990, Lupe AdelCastillo formed Amor A Nuestra Cultura, hoping to teach her daughter about their culture and heritage. The team has integrated a learning environment that includes teamwork and practice, but also emphasizes the importance of education and study habits. The Almas Unidas Dance Team, a group more recently formed, also places strong emphasis on leadership because both teams not only are creating dances, but future leaders.

Don’t Miss A Beat
While the Ballet Folklorico classes in Grand Prairie are successful, hosting folklorico classes at the recreation centers sometimes present challenges. In multi-use facilities, there is not always space to accommodate the growing number of dancers. As the numbers grow and the dancers perform at more events and competitions, they require more practice time. Aside from these limitations, recreation center registration fees do not cover team travel to competitions, the cost of costumes, and even an opportunity for instructors and dancers to attend professional-development conferences. In Grand Prairie, many youth hope to dance in high school and even go on to dance in a collegiate program.

The parks department has been creative in expanding the programming to other recreation facilities to meet the growing popularity of the classes. Staff members have taken particular note of class needs in regards to flooring, mirrors, and storage space. The recreation center staff works closely with the dance teams to meet those needs. For example, on Wednesday evenings at the Taylor Recreation Center, there is a lobby full of sewing machines with relatives sewing costumes while dancers rehearse. Rod Hayes, Manager of the Shotwell Life Center, understands the importance of practicing for competitions and really helps his team find space to practice at other recreation facilities. In addition, staff members help to refer the teams for performances at city functions, which might result in a donation or sponsorship for the teams. Having great instructors and encouraging parental involvement have been the keys for the program’s success.

A Winning Combination
Because of its commitment to arts in the community, Grand Prairie has since changed the department’s name to the Parks, Arts & Recreation Department. Over the past few years, the city’s recreation centers have been awarded three Arts and Humanities Awards from the Texas Recreation and Park Society, including recognition for their dance programs. The dance teams have additionally won numerous awards competing throughout the state of Texas. The Ballet Folklorico classes are open to beginners, intermediate, and advanced dancers. They especially enjoy performing to the live music of Mariachi groups!

Mariana Espinoza is the former Sr. Recreation Supervisor for the City of Grand Prairie, Texas Parks, Arts & Recreation Department. Reach her at mespinoza@gptx.org.