Carbondale celebrates Dia De los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, on Friday. The Mexican holiday honors friends and family members who have died. Aspen Santa Fe Ballet Folklorico will perform traditional Mexican dances in a procession down Main Street and at Thunder River Theatre. Christin Kay attended a rehearsal, and found that folklorico teaches students to both honor tradition and transcend cultural barriers.
Inside a small dance studio at the Third Street Center, the young students of Ballet Folklorico, both white and Latino, face the mirror at the front. They wear pointed dance shoes with metal taps, but everything is silent except for the voice of their teacher, Francisco Nevarez-Burgueño, or "Paco" to his dancers.
He’s going over the steps for a dance called Los Diablos, or “the devils.” It’s only performed on Dia de los Muertos. It’s a procession of sorts, meant to clear away bad spirits so the souls of loved ones can return to the world of the living.
For Nevarez-Bugueno, Los Diablos is an especially meaningful traditional dance.
"That dance is going to be the connection for all those people who went to another level of energy, I want to say that, and they’re going to come by because we’re going to celebrate them, and they’re going to be with us again," he said.
At Nevarez-Burgueno’s word, his students run to form two lines. When the music starts, they go into character as mischievous devils, stomping along and swinging their arms. They look thrilled to be in dance class, even though it’s after school on a Friday.
Nevarez-Burgueno knows the feeling. When he was a child in Chihuahua, Mexico, folklorico helped him
find a place where he belonged.
"My mom was a single mom who had to work and she put me in an afterschool program, the same thing my kids are doing here," he said.
An instructor became his mentor. Nevarez-Burgueno became so passionate that he started Ballet Folklorico seventeen years ago with Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Dia De Los Muertos this year will be especially meaningful. His former folklorico teacher, the one who inspired him to become an instructor, passed away earlier this year.
He can’t think of a better way to honor her than by passing along folklorico to his students. He’s confident that even the youngest of them, kindergartners, can learn traditional dance.
"I think it’s the best age to start dancing because they start getting how their body works, the stomping, their heads, how they clap, how they snap. And later on, they start getting the steps, and they keep going and start loving it," he said.
That is exactly what happened to student Solana Teitler. She remembers watching Ballet Folklorico practice at her elementary school.
"I would sit in the cafeteria and watch them dance, and I loved it so much. The rule was you could only dance in kindergarten, but I was so excited to join that Paco let me join a year early. So I started when I was 4," she said.
That was 14 years ago. Teitler says there’s more to her love of folklorico than just the steps. She says all the dancers and families in her group are her family.
"It has given me a completely different perspective. Especially as an Angla in our community, I think it’s really important to bridge gaps and it has given me that opportunity," she said.
Angel Romero Najera has been dancing since kindergarten. He’s 12 now. He also says that the best part of folklorico is how tightly knit the group is.
"You’re a family, and you work together. You won’t be left out," he said.
For Dia De los Muertos, the folklorico family is getting a bit bigger. The Los Diablos dance originated in Mexico’s Guerrero region. Some former members of this African-Mexican community now live in Carbondale. They’ve been teaching the folklorico students the dance, and will perform it themselves Friday night.
Solana Teitler says it’s just another example of how the art of dance can bring people together.
"Because our community is so diverse, it’s important that we celebrate all of the different traditions that form it," she said.
Instructor Paco Nevarez-Burgueno says that he’s looking forward to having bystanders appreciate the hard work of his students as they dance by on Main Street.
"The footwork of the kids, the expression in their bodies and the passion in these dances," he said.
That passion will clear the way for the lost loved ones and bring together a community.