Dance to the Heart

For many people, a home does not have to be a physical place. Instead, it’s a feeling.

Inside Amy Navarrete’s dance studio Ballet Aztec, it’s easy to tell that this place is home for many who enter.

The purple-colored walls at the entrance are decorated with pictures of past performances. The studio has a small waiting room filled with homemade food for the parents to eat while they wait for their aspiring dancers to finish practice. In front of the table is a bright baby pink wall with a rectangle-shaped window where they can peek at the children.

The other side of these walls is the actual studio, where these young dancers begin their journey into Folklorico.

And that’s where you’ll find Navarrete, who teaches with a spirit of discipline and honor.

Her practices always start with a soft melody music warm-up. She explained that doing this helps the children let out whatever stress they had during the day so can focus solely on learning the new routines.

Navarrete has been a ballet Folklorico dancer for five decades. She started dancing when she was 5 in Jalisco, Mexico. When Navarrete was 12, she moved to California with her family in search of a better future. Even though she had left her country behind, she retained the roots of being a Mexican.

Navarrete noticed there wasn’t much Mexian culture represented at her school, which prompted her to start a ballet folklorico club. Navarrete said she has always held a strong sense of dedication in teaching others the values and traditions of Mexico the only way she knew—through dance. This later prompted her to open the dance studio.

Throughout the years Navarrete has been teaching, she could see how, through dance, her students have gained confidence. Navarrete recalled a young girl who was a great dancer, but her shyness made it difficult for her to really enjoy the performances.

“The amazing part is that she never wanted to smile,” Navarrete said, “No matter what I did to her, what I would bring her, what I would give her, she didn’t smile while performing.”

With the encouragement from Navarrete and the other teachers at the studio, the girl eventually began to smile during performances. She blossomed into one of Navarrete’s best dancers. Now 12, she dances with the older and advanced group.

“She dances with her entire soul and heart,” Navarrete said. “It’s because of her determination to really learn and also to let go of that shyness. Once she’s on stage performing with the rest of her peers, she’s a really happy and joyful person.”

As with any dance genre, learning the steps is the most challenging part. However, for these young dancers, many of whom started as the same time they were learning to walk, it is second nature. With each new dance, Navarrete shows the meaning and the symbolic value of each movement.

Destiny Estrada, a 14-year-old middle school student, has been dancing since she was 5. For the Estrada family, dancing is a tradition passed on through generations, including her grandmother, Graciela Estrada, who was a dancer in her hometown of Aguascalientes, Mexico.

“When I dance, I feel more connected to my culture,” Graciela Estrada said. “I dance because it shows a different side of me that I don’t get to say every day.” 

Now living in Burbank, Graciela Estrada brings her granddaughter every Friday at 6 p.m. to Ballet Aztec to watch her Destiny perform the same dances she performed in Mexico.

“I can’t help but feel happy when I see her dance,” Graciela Estrada said. “I feel so proud of her when I see how much work and love my granddaughter puts in every time she dances.”

Special Needs Educator Maria Eugenia Garcia said that the art of dancing can help children mature cognitively, socially, emotionally and physically. She explained that the research on its effectiveness has only recently started to be appreciated.

“For us to learn language and math, we need to know the patterns and the sequence,” Garcia said. “So, dance also helps children to learn those sequences through learning the steps of a routine.”

Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia, the editor of Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910), explained that the history of Mexico is intertwined with dance. Mendoza-Garcia, is a ballet Folklorico dancer as well.

Mendoza-Garcia said the importance of dance is it articulates Mexican culture and preserves its history.

“Dancing tells you who we are as a people,” she explained. “There are stories that are passed down in history and then passed down from one generation to the next through movement. These dances are ways of remembering our ancestors through embodied movements, through our dancing.”

An analysis by Ed Morales published in 2018 in the Washington Post reported that young Latinos who were raised to assimilate into American society during the crucial developmental years have a strong urge to connect to their ancestral roots when they get older. Many of these young Latinos struggle with how they identify culturally, which causes emotional distress and brings deep insecurities that hinder them from moving forward with their future.

That is why Navarrete puts a great emphasis on teaching her students to be proud of their heritage.

“We, as a community, have to defend our language. We have to defend our food, our dance, or music,” Navarrete said. “The only way we’re going to do that is to start by the root. And the root is the children.”

Navarrete said that she wants her students to be able to recognize that they are ambassadors when they perform—ambassadors of the Mexican culture and its rich history.

By opening Ballet Aztec Navarrete hopes that the studio is not only a place of dance but a place of community. Familia. A home away from home.

“I opened the doors as a gift to the community, and I want everyone to feel welcome, appreciated and respected,” Navarrete said. “I wanted them to have that space where they could come and say, ‘Oh, I am a folklorist. I belong to a ballet Folklorico,’ and to say it with pride.”

To hear what the Pierce College Community thinks about Folklorico dancing, listen to the audio package by staff member, Juliet Allahverdi