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Ballet Folklorico Nahuatlan Highlights Tradition

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Posted: Friday, May 18, 2018 3:33 pm

A passion for traditional Mexican dancing has led to a program which has endured through the years. Mar Vista High School teacher Daniel Topete has headed the Ballet Folklorico Nahuatlan at the school for 21 years. In fact, May 4 marked the 20th anniversary of the founding. 

Topete was first introduced to ballet folklorico in fifth grade. He and his family had recently moved to National City from Tijuana and he attended El Toyon Elementary. When the talent show was coming up a friend who had moved from the state of Chihuahua suggested they perform a folklorico dance from his state. “That was my first experience with foklorico,” recalled Topete.

It wasn’t until 10th grade that he was once again recruited to do folklorico dance. His sister who was in middle school had joined a folklorico club but there weren’t enough boys in the group and asked him to join. Topete was attending Sweetwater High School then and there was no folklorico club at his school, so he decided to join. “I did it for a few months,” said Topete. 

The third time he tried the dance turned out to be the charm. While a student at San Diego State University he attended a quinceñera at a church and the folklorico teacher at the party asked him to join the church club. Topete agreed and stuck with it continuing to dance with the club for five years. The coach recognized his talent. “He gave me the liberty to do choreography and I was the leader of the group. I was finishing my bachelor’s and starting my credential; it was hard to continue and I stopped for two years,” he recalled. 

The hiatus did not last long because when he was hired at Mar Vista High School to teach Spanish, the principal knew Topete was a dancer and asked him if he was interested in teaching a folklorico class that students could take for credit. When Topete started teaching folklorico, at the time the students could use the credit for either art or physical education but things have changed over the years. This past August Topete started working on a P.E. credential because it is now required for the folklorico to have that credential. 

Topete, who teaches Spanish III and IV, teaches both beginners and advanced folklorico classes. When Topete started teaching folklorico he and his brother Ricardo, who is also a teacher at Mar Vista High School and teaches AP Spanish Literature, created the name and the logo for the group. They settled on the name Nahuatlan in 1999. He explained the word nahua means “water” in the Aztec language and atlan means “land of.” So they combined the two words to call the group Land of the Water. 

Currently, Ballet Folklorico Nahuatlan is a class that students can take for credit and it’s also a club that meets after school.

“Here in Southern California the interest in folklorico has grown. I’ve heard there are only two districts in the area that offer it for credit, the Sweetwater Union District and Escondido,” said Topete.

Topete explained that folklorico is a dance with male and female students that perform typical dances of certain Mexican regions.

“Every region has a specific color for dresses based on the weather, like light colors for warmer climates,” he explained. “The region of Vera Cruz has a strong influence from Spain and some of the sequences are like Flamenco. Other dances, like the ones from Chiapas and the Yucatan, the dancers don‘t wear shoes and they are more mellow dances. Those from Baja and Northern Mexico are more elaborate and have stronger footwork with some influences from Poland and Germany with polkas.”

Although some of the more popular dances are for Jalisco and Vera Cruz, Topete looks into dances from other regions to give the audience something they have never experienced before. “I do a variety of different regions so the audience can see the different traditions which also means different dresses and songs played with different instruments,” he said.

Because Topete tries to give the audience a broad view of the dances from various regions the costumes are not easy to find. While costumes from Jalisco can be purchased in Tijuana and even in San Diego, costumes from San Luis Potosí, for example, are not available locally and Topete often has to fly to those areas to buy costumes for his students. Topete explained that for boys, the costumes are simpler and often all they need are white shirts and black pants, but the hats are very specific to the regions. Because the school doesn’t pay for the costumes, students have to hold fundraisers. Dresses can be expensive, said Topete, and can cost around $150 to $200 each.

The Ballet Folklorico Nahuatlan often showcases its dances in Imperial Beach. The group recently performed at the Mother’s Day Event at the Boys & Girls Club. Topete estimates his students perform as much as 22 times in a year.

“Every year we have a district folklorico concert and we get together for two days. My students enjoy it so much and they meet other students who are also dancers from other areas,” he said.

There are currently 81 students involved in folklorico. Students can start as freshmen and don‘t need to have previous dance experience to participate. About 80 percent of students who start as beginners usually continue to the advanced classes. If they don‘t need the credit they usually continue dancing with the club. Some of Topete’s students have continued to dance after graduation and he knows of one student who went to Colombia to perform. Topete is always recruiting since dancers are always graduating and moving on.

Between 2003 and 2010 Topete’s students participated in the USA National Competition which takes place in Los Angeles. Mar Vista dancers received first and second places over the years. “There was no money prize but it was for the reputation,” he said.

The group also received banners that were placed in the gym.

What makes his students interested in folklorico? “I think they want to continue their attachment to their culture. They hear their parents listen to music from Mexico and want to continue the tradition and keep the connection,” he said.

Often students tell him they became interested after they saw a performance at the assembly. Others want to join because their parents did folklorico with Topete years ago. Students also notice the dance group is close kit. “It’s like a family. We have a picnic in the park at the beginning of the year so the two groups can meet,” he explained. 

Ballet Folklorico Nahuatlan will perform at the Women’s Club Fiesta May 20 at the YMCA Camp Surf and at Dance with Kids in the new Mar Vista High School gym on May 23 at 5 p.m. for all elementary school students in Imperial Beach.

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