CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (AP) — Donning black shirts and flowing cotton skirts, with their hair pinned up in bright-colored traditional Mexican braids, a mostly female troupe clacked their dance shoes on the wooden floors of the Northwest Recreation Center.
“Uno, dos. Uno, dos. Abrimos, cerramos. Abrimos, cerramos,” Nallely Sanchez, 21, instructed them, motioning for the young dance group to open and close their arms on each count.
Their parents — mostly the mothers who’d picked out their clothes and made their braids in hues of pink, blue, green and orange — gathered near the door to record their children’s dance practice.
Andrew Bribriesco, president of the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, crouched with a laptop in hand, telling a group on a Zoom call that the Ballet Folklórico troupe was practicing for its first public performance Sept. 18 at Festival Latino at the McGrath Amphitheatre.
“This is a sneak preview,” said Bribriesco, whose daughter, Paloma, is part of the youngest dance group.
“Listos, ya?” instructor Cynthia Salgado, 22, asked.
With that, the elder dance group performed el coyote folk dance from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, then two instructors — Sanchez and her brother, Rodrigo — danced “La Bamba” of Veracruz and four little girls performed el pajarito, a simplified folklórico dance.
The Cedar Rapids Gazette reports that every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday since June, these dancers have met for two hours to practice ballet folklórico, a choreographed traditional Mexican dance that reflects local culture with ballet characteristics such as pointed toes and exaggerated movements.
The “Fuerzas Culturales” group is the first-ever folklórico group in Cedar Rapids, marking a historic moment for the city and local Latino community. It is made up of children with Mexican and Central American roots, who chose the group’s name to capture the strength they see in their cultures.
Sanchez, a Coe College senior who’s danced since age 7, said she first started dancing when she lived on the south side of Chicago with the Back of the Yards neighborhood council’s first folklórico group.
She met Salgado in Chicago in the summer of 2016 when they danced for an after-school program and later attended Coe together, completely by chance.
At Sanchez’s first LULAC meeting last Dec., she said the organization’s leaders discussed low high school retention rates for Latino youth, as many drop out early and opt to work instead of pursuing a college education.
Sanchez said she grew up surrounded by Latino resources in Chicago and was raised with an awareness of her Mexican heritage, and she attended college on a full-ride scholarship because of her experiences there. Seeing little programming for Latinos around Cedar Rapids, she pitched to LULAC the idea for a dance group.
“I was like, ‘I want that for these kids too,’ because I grew up in disparity and I grew up in a lot of violence,” Sanchez said. “I saw that as an opportunity for other kids to grow.”
Having attended a predominantly white institution after growing up in minority neighborhoods, Salgado — from Chicago’s La Villita neighborhood — said there is a sense that the Latino community feels hidden in Cedar Rapids.
“We both have a voice and the power of our voice is so strong that we’re not going to let it not be heard or not use it, especially for these kids,” Salgado said.
Monica Vallejo, vice president of LULAC, has been key to spreading word about the dance group mostly by word-of-mouth. It has grown from fewer than a dozen children to 17 in just a couple of months.
Vallejo said the group used to practice at Delaney Park and now practices out of a garage two days a week and the Northwest Recreation Center once a week. They still are searching for a larger space to host the growing group and accept more participants.
She also wants to raise $5,000 to keep the classes open for all youth, regardless of socioeconomic status, and cover the costs of outfits, shoes and more.
Asela Zapot, whose 10-year-old daughter, Iveth, is part of the group, said she feels she missed out on learning traditional dances when she was growing up. She is proud to see her daughter learn and share in this part of their culture.
“I cannot wait for that day,” Zapot said, referring to the Sept. 18 performance. “I think they’re going to look so beautiful.”
Someday, Sanchez said she hopes to see the dance group morph into a resource center that provides mental health services, violence prevention and intervention, Medicaid and legal resources to any Latino who comes to Iowa and needs help navigating barriers to critical services.
For now, for the first time, these 17 Latino kids have a program tailored to their culture.
Pilar Ligunas Perez, 12, and Alicia Burgos Guzman, 11, both said they were proud to be part of the historic troupe.
“I like to be different than anybody else, having different things and different traditions,” Ligunas Perez said.
The dance “represents who we are,” Burgos Guzman said: “It’s going to be special since we’re the first group doing it.”
Sanchez said she is nervous for the big performance, fearing the kids will be shunned by “people who don’t look like them.” But the children are ready to step into the spotlight and say, “We’re here,” teaching all kids they have a voice as Latinos in the United States.
“It shows these little kids that they have a voice and they are strong enough to teach younger generations and to teach the older generations that it’s OK to be different,” Sanchez said. “It’s OK to come from different backgrounds, because ultimately we merge together and we’re all one.”