The Quest for Aztlan

Roen Salinas Searches for -- and Finds -- Life in Folklórico

photograph by Kenny Braun

"Just dance. Dance, dance, dance." -- El Maestro Andres Segura Granados

Aztlan. The mythical Garden of Eden of los Aztecas where the heron lived. The promised land searched for by those guerreros of ancient Mexico. The place of origin of this once-great civilization continues to be as mysterious as the legend itself. Yet Roen Salinas believes he's in the heart of it. His path to Aztlan began in the backyard of his parents' home. It was there, on the large patio between the swing set and the barbecue pit, that his mother, Maria Salinas, taught her four young children the traditional folk dances she learned long ago in Mexico.

"I did it so they would know their roots," says the South Texas-born Maria Salinas in a soft and gentle voice now mellowed with age. She had never forgotten as a little girl being hit on her hands until they were swollen by the public school teachers for speaking Spanish. "Era como una muda. I couldn't talk because I knew Spanish." The pain of oppression, etched deep in her memory, was something that would shape her life and the lives of those around her.

When the Salinases moved to Austin in the early Sixties, cultural activities in the Hispanic community were almost nonexistent. They, along with a few other families, organized a ballet folklórico group so that their children could take part in the more popular Mexican holidays, such as Cinco de Mayo.

"There was another family that had nine kids, the Rendon family," remembers Roen Salinas. "All nine were in it with us. So when you get enough families with kids, you have a folklórico troupe." He laughs at the memory. "That's how it happened, how it started."

Little did Mrs. Salinas realize she was creating a family legacy of dance that has lasted almost 25 years. Since 1974, when it became Ballet Folklorico Aztlan de Tejas, the troupe has performed for thousands of spectators, nationally and internationally, and won awards for its work.

Wanting the best possible training for her fledgling company, Mrs. Salinas persuaded Mexican government agencies geared to providing cultural and social programs for the community to bring her dancers to dance schools in Mexico. The sister city programs between Austin and Saltillo were being initiated and politicians on both sides of the border were supportive of her requests. It was also the time of el movimiento, consciousness-moving, awakening the spirits of many carnales, stirring their hearts. People were hungry for culture, searching for identity, a link to the past.

"We went to Mexico City to the Academia National de Danza and the Instituto De Bellas Artes," says Salinas. "'Aha! Aqui vienen los Americanos!' It was really for Mexicans' kids. We'd go in the summer and learn all the Curso de Verano Talleres en danza folklórica from all the regions in Mexico and even Central America ó learne everything: the history, the literature, the costumes."

Knowing the costumes was very important. Any folklórico troupe worth its sweat and dancing boots needs good costumes. The young Americanos needed some, so their teacher, El Maestro Marcelo Torreblanca, who created the Academia Nacional De Danza, connected them with the best sources. "We have a set of costumes that are as original as they can get. They don't get more original than that," states Salinas with obvious pride. "Our Michoacan outfits, for example, are from the village of Uruapa in the state of Michoacan. They were handmade specifically for us 20 years ago." The hand-dyed wool skirts have 365 pleats to represent the calendar year. The blouses, richly embroidered, still look spectacular and colorful after so many performances. It's this authenticity and attention to detail that have long been trademarks of the dance company.

But more than the costumes and the exactly duplicated choreography, what makes the company unique is Salinas' deeply felt connection to his ancestry, which shows in his dancing, in the gritos he lets loose onstage, in his overwhelming commitment to the genre. That, too, can be traced to Salinas' trips to Mexico, specifically, to a time when one of his instructors in Mexico took the Americano to see his godfather do sacred ceremonial dance. It was a turning point in the young dancer's life.

The group went to meet El Maestro Andres Segura, elder and leader of the sacred traditional Azteca-Mechica danzantes known as concheros, and the first thing he told them was, "You are under the tutelage of my godson, you have to experience this."

"He felt it was necessary for us to see the spiritual aspect of dance," Salinas recalls. "It was very magical; I was only 12 years old." He smiles. "He touched me very dearly as we were watching them do the ceremony. Here we were, a bunch of Norteamericanos, and I'm sure for him it was very touching to see a bunch of youngsters with a lot of ganas, a lot of poder. It was inspiring for him to see gente de tan lejos taking such an interest in lo que es de Mexico.

"When we were invited to join the concheros and dance with them, that was definitely magical. Something about the sound of the conchas, the ayayotes rattling on the feet, the feathers, you feel the guerrero spirit. That's root culture. Doing it right there in La Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the middle of Mexico City," in the heart of the motherland. "At that point, I realized this is about as deep as it gets, and I'm glad I'm here."

"I really do consider myself an Aztlanteco, a person from the land of Aztlan," which, according to legend, is somewhere in the American Southwest. "I'm a person of this land," states Salinas. "That's why, with my background in all this dance, I feel justified to begin to create my own dance form."

Ten years ago, at age 23, Salinas was one of the youngest artistic directors leading a dance company. He guided the troupe to international prominence when they were selected to represent the U.S. in Europe and Hong Kong at prestigious youth dance festivals. Now, as the executive director of the Aztlan Folk Dance Company ó the name by which the troupe is known today ó Salinas and his wife Driana Gonzalez continue the work of teaching young Chicanos the beauty of their cultural heritage.

"Danza folklórica has a lot of history, a lot of background, in reflecting those common themes that you find in fiestas, the quinciñieras, las bodas, all those kinds of traditional festivities," says Salinas. "We do our traditional material and when we do that we make sure it is well-reproduced. But we want to be creative... create new traditions. I think that folk dances, whether it's Jarabe Tapatio or La Bamba, are dances that tell stories, and what we're doing now is trying to tell contemporary stories."

Roen Salinas, 1976

In one of the company's new pieces, Austin Barrio Sweet, an exquisitely beautiful rendition of a traditional huapango done by Los Lobos is wonderfully choreographed by Salinas. The song, "Saints Behind a Glass," written in English by the band, and the dance, with young women in black bodysuits and short, slender skirts and men in T-shirts and jeans, show the wonderful merging and coming to terms of two very different cultures which Hispanic youth are part of today: American and Mexican.

"I've seen the troupe evolve from a traditional, very traditional folk dance group to one that has taken on other boundaries that pushes folk to the edge," states Gonzalez.

Combining contemporary choreography with traditional steps, retaining the roots, the essential elements of danza and using the vibrancy of dancers moving to contemporary Latino music, Salinas is taking a big leap forward with the dance company. It is work like this that is putting them on the cutting edge of the genre, using it not just to entertain, or educate, but to empower and create changes.

"We're about our culture and I want it to stay that way," says Salinas. "Within the course of a piece, you see a modern interpretation, a jazz step, and the foot-stomping folklórico. But when you take a look at the nature of the whole piece, you will see it is rooted in tradition. Folklórico is a very earthy type of dance, a flat-footed dance form. You really want to grab the earth and let the passion of your foot touching the ground into every physical aspect of your body, your emotion, and your spirit."

"What most people know of folklórico is the foot-stomping and the swirling intrinsic costumes," continues Gonzalez. "I want to see how our younger generation is going to react when they see brown faces and blue jeans on stage. It's few and far between that we see anything (on stage or screen) like that except on Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre, and that's the skirts swirling.

"I want them to see more than the Jarabe Tapatio they see at school on festival days. We are more than just that, more than those festival days. I know all through my school days I never saw a young Latino woman onstage doing something that took me away or that I could relate to. I never saw that when I was growing up. Our dancers are huge role models."

And the role models themselves have drawn much from the company. From Mexico and the U.S., English and Spanish both spoken with equal intensity, the dancers have found a place truly reflective of their culture and their circumstances, a place where they can be creative on familiar common ground.

Nineteen-year-old Kassey Quiroz of Austin had always wanted to dance but was discouraged from doing so through her experiences with classes she took in the public school system. Then she discovered the dance company. "I came here and there's something about it I love," she says. "I love the traditional stuff the most. Vera Cruz, Michoacan, Norteño. I love those dances. It makes me feel like this was once done by my ancestors and I'm getting the chance to show it again to my people."

"I'd like to see more institutions encompass and embody folklórico, because it hasn't been given its proper place in academia," insists Salinas. "It's a very intricate, very comprehensive dance form and one that requires a lot of skill and determination. In that respect, for me folklórico ranks right up there with ballet and jazz and those other genres of dance," like a fine art. "Whether it is a Jarabe Tapatio or a suite from The Nutcracker, I think it all serves a purpose."

While doing a two-year project in San Antonio, Salinas was successful in getting a grant for $150,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to institute danza folklórico as part of the scholastic essential elements course in public schools. Still in place today, it's the only permanent program of its kind in the nation.

But it's not enough. "In folklórico, the most frustrating element I'm faced with, year in and year out, is having to construct dancers from ground zero up," Salinas explains. "It takes on average a year and a half to two years to train a dancer to a level of proficiency where they can be soloists. Most of my students come to me raw, without any previous experience, and I know when they leave we've transformed their lives. It makes it all worthwhile."

For dancer Claudia Ayerana, an El Paso native now living in Austin, knowing the troupe accepted dancers on any level was an incentive to join the group. "I've always liked dancing; my mom put us in folklórico classes in a cultural center in Juarez when I was nine or 10 years old. But it wasn't until now that I was part of a professional group. I think what I like the most about it is that I walked in pretty much a novice and Roen said, 'Do what you can, keep working.' It's made me more open, more confident, performing in front of people."

Even though several Austin public schools have a ballet folklórico program, not all do, and because of his expertise, Salinas is in demand to present workshops to students. But being Director of the Mexican American Cultural Center and involved in other community activities leaves him with little time to perform, present lectures, and teach. As a result, he decided to put together an educational video series on folklórico dance steps and choreography that would help teachers in their classrooms.

After securing city funding and on the advice of a city arts commissioner, Salinas gave local filmmaker Hector Galán a call. "Hector, not knowing what he was getting into, said yes to the project," recalls Salinas with a mischievous glint in his eye. "Dance is nowhere close to the line of work he does as a documentarian. But I think he understood the value and far-reaching impact a video like this would have.

"Kids in classrooms nowadays are still learning about the one-sided record of the Alamo. We're hoping that by showing some familiarity they'll begin to challenge, not just their way of thinking, but a system that needs to be more open to their needs and their expression."

Galán has won awards and accolades from across the nation for such important films as Songs of the Homeland, about Tejano music. "It was something so new to him, he didn't know all the variables involved, and I've never done a project like this before," admits Salinas. "He and his staff put in endless hours and ten-folded the contribution the city made."

Roen Salinas and Nora Lopez

The first video, taken from footage taped last fall when the company performed Aztlan Folklife Sweets at the Dougherty Arts Center, is a short piece called Quest for Aztlan. Galán, true to his excellent editing style, pulled the heart, the soul, of the ancient story out of the performance and in the process reflected the emotion and inspiring beauty of the dancers.

The video has received high praise from academics when it has been shown recently at several educators' conferences. A favored section of the video featured zapatiado, traditional fancy foot stomping but done in a modern way ó without music, without indigenous garb, in a line. "Our own Riverdance," exclaimed one Latina conferee.

"That someone like Hector Galán would actually want to do something on our group ó it shows we've come a long way," smiles dancer Amy Valdez, age 19. We've worked really hard, and it's finally gotten us where we want to be."

At the Santa Cruz Center for Culture, an old storefront on East Seventh Street that Salinas purchased and converted into the company's home and performance venue, the dancers have been practicing many hours every week in anticipation of their two-week run of performances next month. Boleros, tangos, polkas, zapatiado, modern expressive, and swing are run through with passionate commitment by the 12 members of the group.

This year's production features the debut of a new and original work entitled Land of the Feathered Serpent. The ballet recreates the legend of the fourth sun's demise and how the Feathered Serpent was called on by man for assistance. As a result of the battles done by the Feathered Serpent, the fifth sun was born, the sun in which we live today.

Building on the energy of the company's contemporary work is a danson called Bolero. Danson has its roots in the turn of the century and its influences in European music. Bolero is a love story full of desire and intense emotions. The dancers deal with issues of how women are valued in society, how they nurture, and how machismo plays a big part in Latino culture.

"Now that we are evolving as a dance company, I'm in awe of what they can do," says Gonzalez. "I'm in awe seeing brown faces doing what I saw most of America doing. What it's done for me is given me positive reinforcement. The feeling that I can go anywhere and do anything. And I want more people to feel that way."

"While we have folks with us, it's the beauty of combined spirit that really leads to magic, and I always say that magic happens here with the dance company," says Salinas. "I really believe it and that for me is the soul of dance. I think there's a saying that goes, of all the art forms, dance is the most fleeting. It's not a mere reproduction of life ó it is life."

Eighteen-year-old dancer Edger Sepeda, from Monclovio, Mexico, clearly feels the same as his mentor. "Para mi es mi vida. Gracias a Dios tenemos un director que nos comprende."

"There's a very common thread in dance in that movement can create energy," says Salinas. "So when you get a collective body of people moving together and focusing on common work, audiences can't help but feel that positive, focused energy. It takes their spirit away. As long as that magic happens, that's how long I'll be in dance. Who knows what the bill collector says, but I will be dancing. It's a way of life."

The Aztlan Folk Dance Company will present Aztlan Folklife Sweets '98 May 1-9, Fri & Sat, 8pm, at the Santa Cruz Center for Culture, 1805 E. Seventh. Call 478-9717 for more information.

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