I can still remember walking into my hometown dance studio for the first time when I was six years old, where my mom had brought me to decide what classes I’d like to take. As I peered into the various studios, I knew ballet was an obvious choice, having spent that winter in the audience at the local Nutcracker, but something was catching my eye in a small corner studio: a colorful swirling of skirts and stomping noises. After that day, my mom enrolled me in my first ever dance classes: ballet and Mexican folklórico.
Although folklórico may not be a common dance genre to do from a young age, my experience training in a cultural dance style alongside more ‘traditional’ styles showed me how adding that diversity to your class schedule can help you grow into a more well-rounded dancer, both in and out of the studio.
Consider spending time watching or learning a cultural dance style that has informed a style you enjoy.
Cultivating cultural awareness
Folklórico is traditional Mexican folk dancing, and where I grew up in El Paso, Texas, on the border with northern Mexico, it was a common staple in most dance studios. I connected with how much fun it looked like the dancers were all having, with the freedom to yell things like ‘Sí señor!’ and ‘Ándale!’ whenever they wanted, smile widely, and masterfully twirl colorful skirts as their feet pounded out complicated rhythms. It perfectly balanced out the other rules-focused, European style I had chosen to start learning, and even though I am not of Mexican heritage myself, I continued training in folklórico for the next eight years.
Getting to learn the artistic practices of another culture, especially one so ingrained in the region I grew up in, led me to a greater appreciation for the value that the arts, and specifically dance, has to facilitate connection, respect for, and dialogue with others. In those classes, I got to learn more than just the technical skills required for the dancing, but about the history of the states in Mexico that each piece was from, with the varied costumes, music, and dances representing different traditions and stories important to the people of each particular region. The classes inherently helped me form a deeper sense of cultural awareness and appreciation for the communities I was growing up in and ultimately, I realized as I grew older, for people different than me.
Understanding the roots of popular dance styles today
In our current hyper-competitive dance culture in the US, we often see dance as just a physical activity or sport with technical skills to master, separating it from its other functions, such as a form of social ritual or cultural practice. For dancers who grew up in the studio world doing ballet, tap, and jazz, how often have you stopped to reflect on where those styles came from and what cultures influenced the movements you do today?
Dancers could benefit greatly as artists by taking the time to reflect on the styles they do, their origin, and historical/cultural context. Consider spending time watching or learning a cultural dance style that has informed a style you enjoy, such as African dances that make up the roots of jazz, tap, and hip hop styles we do today. Whether the dance style is relatable to your own cultural identity or completely different from your own, learning a dance style from another culture can improve your performance by helping you better understand the root of the movements you do in your other classes.
Dance isn’t just a job or a physical skill, but a way to share the stories, traditions, and values of a particular culture or community.
Staying mindful of cultural appreciation vs. appropriation
It’s important to remember to engage with cultural dance styles from a place of genuine respect and appreciation for the style, especially if you don’t personally identify with the culture yourself, as I found in my experience learning folkórico for so many years. To appropriately engage with another culture’s art, be sure to learn about the style beyond just the steps. Research your teachers and the pioneers of the style, as well as its historic and cultural significance. Acknowledging and crediting those teachers and contexts when sharing what you’ve learned will help ensure you’re engaging in cultural styles with humility and appreciation.
The value of learning cultural dance for any dancer
Because dance transcends borders and language barriers, taking part in what we call ‘cultural dance styles’, whether it be through watching, researching, or learning them, is an impactful and underutilized gateway to connecting with and respecting people of different cultures, deepening your appreciation for movement of all forms, and growing as an artist and a person.
As International Dance Day falls every April, try using that day each year as a reminder to do some research into a cultural dance style that you haven’t explored before. This simple practice can help remind us that dance isn’t just a job or a physical skill, but a way to share the stories, traditions, and values of a particular culture or community, and more than anything, is meant to be shared and experienced.