That’s all folk

Elizabeth Bynum

Last Sunday, the auditorium of the National Museum of Mexican Art was filled to capacity, with young families and older couples chattering eagerly before the the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago’s performance of Tardeada del Corazón. Stepping onstage, director of the company José Ovalle asked if anyone in the audience did not understand Spanish. After only two hands were raised, Ovalle proceeded in his native tongue, “Mexico is exactly at the center of the world,” he said, though he was talking about more than geography. For the dance company, Mexico is a prototype of cultural mixing–a place enriched with a panoply of people, customs, and histories. This diversity is best seen, they believe, through the country’s folkloric dancing, which is cultivated on la rancha, in community spaces, and in the home.

To resounding applause, the music swelled, and seven dancing couples emerged on stage. The women were outfitted in vibrant reds and greens, with skirts that billowed wildly as they flitted around their white-clad partners. Clearly recognizing the dances, the crowd joined in the performance from their seats, clapping along and raising their voices for the more exciting moments. Audience member Madison Barragan, age 13, noted, “This is the type of dance I am learning to do.”

The performance encompassed styles from various regions of Mexico, showcasing the jarocho and the characteristic Guerrero chilenas. Most of the dances were narrative in structure, detailing romantic conflicts, a rowdy bullfight, or the struggle of the Mexican Revolution. Still, crowd favorites were the numbers featuring the company’s youngest dancers–elementary school children who moved nervously about the stage. Ovalle’s commentary between dances called on viewers to recall the past that these dances record, as well as their continued importance. He called upon the audience to “teach these dances to your children” for the sake of imparting an important part of their heritage, no matter how many miles away they might be from its roots.

Though the message of the afternoon was one of Mexican cultural memory, the stories and the dances carried something more universal. With discernible European musical influences, a fusion of African rhythms, and broad, relatable narratives, the dances communicated a history that anyone could engage with. Fortunately for all of us, the company, which is made up entirely of volunteer dancers, performs regularly in the area, bringing Mexico much closer to the South Side.