News Column

Dancers honor tradition at every turn

June 10, 2014

By Karlene Ponti, Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Wash.

June 10--WALLA WALLA -- History and culture can be stated in words, but they can also be expressed through music and dance. The beauty of traditional Mexican dance tells many stories as inspired dancers swirl in colorful costumes.

Norma Arceo, one of the organizers of Ballet Folklorico, helps people of all ages learn about and experience the classic expression of dance.

Arceo began dancing at an early age.

Ballet Folklorico's next performance will be at the Multicultural Arts Festival, which takes place 11 a.m.-6 p.m. on Sunday, at Pioneer Park.

For more information about the event, click here.

"My parents put me in a dance group when I was 6," she said. "I just loved it."

The group disbanded when she was 11. She was saddened, but determined to continue dancing when she was older -- "Once I got a car and my license," she said.

"The girls had kept the music and outfits and my sisters still had their outfits. I started with four girls -- we would dance for hours."

She was 17 at the time; she's now 23. In those six years Ballet Folklorico has blossomed and grown.

Arceo describes herself as shy, but dance was something that brought her creative expression out in an unreserved way. And it is something she can do for a living.

She now works as a dance instructor for the Walla Walla School District, teaching students at Garrison and Pioneer middle schools. She also works with her family business and attends Walla Walla Community College,

Ballet Folklorico is open to both boys and girls, and participants don't have to be of Hispanic heritage. A passion for dance and willingness to practice are what's important. There is currently one boy in the group.

"It's open to anybody. I don't like to say 'no' to people," Arceo said.

Denying someone has a ripple effect of negativity. She much prefers the ripple effects of joy, love and enthusiasm that come from the inclusiveness of saying "yes." So she's very inclusive about everything, teaching in both Spanish and English.

The dance group has several divisions, sectioned by age: elementary school, middle school, high school and adults.

"The moms were interested. Now we have six moms involved," Arceo said.

The adults have as much fun dancing as the younger ones, she said. Right now the dancers' ages range from 4 to 53 years old.

The full group numbers about 30, and they actively participate in the process of selecting dances and learning experiences.

"They come up with songs," said Arceo, who appreciates the group effort.

The dance experience is important for participants of Mexican heritage, she said. The traditional dance keeps Hispanic young people attached to their culture.

"They're keeping in touch with their roots," Arceo said. "It's so sad to see a Hispanic child lose track of their heritage."

For the dancers who are not Hispanic, Arceo said, it's an opportunity for them to get a closer look into the culture.

And for those watching the dancers perform, it provides joy.

"This month we performed at three nursing homes. We got compliments from the staff saying the residents enjoyed it so much," Arceo said.

The group is doing a new song now, a very joyous piece of music, according to Arceo. That's the way to end a performance, she said -- with joy.

Ballet Folklorico first performed at St. Patrick Catholic Church, then at other churches in the area. Arceo got a call from the staff at Coyote Ridge Correctional Center in Connell, and took the older groups to perform there for the staff.

This year the dance group is really taking off, with even more performances and more requests for appearances. In past months the group performed at the Spring Fling in Pioneer Park, as well as the Walla Walla Fair & Frontier Days parade.

"In November, we did our first show at the Power House Theatre. We were on an actual stage and the dressing rooms were like things you see on TV," she said.

She checked out the venue a couple weeks before they were to perform.

"I was thinking: 'They are going to love it,'" she said.

Dancers have to buy their own outfits and they must have the skirt and shoes to rehearse in. Practicing in the shoes worn for the performance is very important. It's much different from practicing in sneakers or other casual shoes.

Arceo said participants don't have to be athletic -- just see what they can do, and says it's a joyful experience to watch the dancers in their colorful costumes.

"It's a good workout," she said. "It takes work, time and practice."

Karlene Ponti is the U-B specialty publications writer. She can be reached at 509-526-8324 or


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Source: Walla Walla Union-Bulletin (WA)

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