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Grupo Folklórico de UCLA grows family through teaching traditional Mexican dances

Grupo Folklórico dances behind Pauley Pavilion on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The group practices dancing to traditional Mexico folk music and puts on performances for local organizations. (Axel Lopez/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Emily MacInnis

February 7, 2020 12:13 am

Students walking by Pauley Pavilion after sundown can often see dancers tapping and swinging their feet to the rhythm of Mexican folk music.

For the dancers, members of Grupo Folklórico de UCLA, the activity is a way to promote Mexican culture and teach traditional dance styles to fellow UCLA students while building a community through the group. The group holds practices from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

“Folklórico,” referring to Mexican folk dance, means “folkloric” in Spanish. The genre encompasses a broad range of dances, as each state in Mexico has its own kind of folk dance and accompanying dress. For example, dance from the state of Veracruz tends to be flamenco-based, involving complex footwork and women wearing long lace-covered skirts reminiscent of Spanish and Cuban fashion. In Jalisco, dances tend to be more rhythmic and based on mariachi music, while its dancers wear sombreros and brightly colored dresses.

Founded in 1966, Grupo Folklórico teaches its members various folk dances from around Mexico. They have performed dances from Jalisco, Veracruz and Sinaloa, among other states in Mexico. Besides weekly practices, the group also performs at various events on campus and around the greater community, such as its annual Fiesta Mexicana show at Royce Hall.

When Manuel Orozco-Barrillas began commuting to UCLA in his second year, he struggled to find a sense of belonging on campus. However, he found a home in Grupo Folklórico.

“It got really boring in that all my day was waking up, coming to UCLA, just doing work, then going back home to eat and sleep,” he said. “I just couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Orozco-Barrillas, a third-year biology student, said he enjoys learning about the different dances and styles from different regions of Mexico. While he had no experience with dance prior to joining the group, he said he likes the challenge that comes with learning to dance.

“It’s been really hard, which is what I enjoy – the challenge of it,” he said.

Group members are able to learn more about their own culture as well, said Rosario Ordaz, a member of the group. Joining the group allowed her to learn about the costumes and dances specific to each region in Mexico and how they reflect the culture of each state.

“It feels really good to learn about your own culture because even though we may have family from Mexico and those specific states, we may not know exactly what the footwear, dances or dresses are like,” said the fourth-year psychology and Spanish language and culture student.

Orozco-Barrillas said the group is welcoming and open-minded, which gives him something to look forward to when commuting to campus.

Because the group is so large – over 100 members this year – he is still meeting members of the group at this point in the year, he said.

“I get to meet new people, get to talk to people, and not just be by myself all day and the weekend,” he said.

Dancing together also builds camaraderie within the group, Orozco-Barrillas said.

“It’s kind of fun to joke around with people and say, ‘Oh hey, you suck at the dance? Yeah, me too,’” he said. “We all learn together, and we’ll help each other.”

Grupo Folklórico performs several times each year for up to 900 people. Ordaz said she enjoys performing with the group because it gives her a chance to represent the Latino/a community.

In addition to dance, Grupo Folklórico aims to promote Mexican culture and teach folklórico outside of UCLA. Some members volunteer at Palms Middle School in Los Angeles to teach its students folklórico.

Orozco-Barrillas said he volunteers at Palms Middle School because he hopes to become a teacher after he graduates, and working with the students there gives him experience working with children.

First-year history student Aylin Ramirez said she thinks Grupo Folklórico keeps Mexican culture alive and allows students to experience it, both for students whom it reminds of home and for students who are interested in learning more about the culture.

Being surrounded by other students of Mexican descent makes her feel as though she is part of a community, Ramirez said. She said she sometimes feels alienated in her classes, as many have few Latino/a students.

“Being in Grupo makes me feel like I’m understood because (there are) so many people of Mexican descent (who) understand my struggles,” she said. “If I ever feel a certain type of way, I know I can always count on some people there to just go to and be like, ‘OK, this is why I’m here.’”

Like Orozco-Barrillas, Ramirez said the group is especially welcoming to beginning dancers. The group frequently holds socials to build a stronger sense of community among its members, she added.

“They don’t judge you if you don’t understand something right away or if you feel isolated. They really try to focus on making you feel welcome,” she said. “We get to know people better and we make them feel like a family outside of just dancing.”

While the majority of members are of Mexican descent, the group is not exclusive to students of Mexican or Latino/a descent, Ramirez said.

“If you feel that you want to express yourself creatively in a really positive environment, they’re more than welcome to take anyone,” she said. “It’s an open environment for anyone.”

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Emily MacInnis
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