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A Legacy of Dance: A Folklorists Journey Through Mexican Traditional Dance

A Legacy of Dance: A Folklorists Journey Through Mexican Traditional Dance

Some people go through life placing one foot in front of the other, unaware of the musical potential that’s hiding underneath their shoes. Tap dancers know it, flamenco dancers know it, the Irish step dancers know it—and Maria Luisa Colmenarez most definitely knows. 

Every step she makes sends a message and she wants everyone to hear it. 

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Colmenarez, 62, is the Executive Director of ‘Danzantes Unidos,’ an organization that seeks to promote Mexican folkloric dance and offer support to dance companies, teachers and students. She is also a lecturer at San Jose State University and together with her husband runs the group ‘Alegría de San Jose,’ which is a support team for other companies and young dance directors. 

In Mexican folkloric dance, shoes are important tools of the trade, creating the sound associated with the art. Photo: Lorena Garibay

Colmenarez has been involved in the world of folklore since she was a small child. She is a first generation Mexican-American who was born and raised in Sacramento. Her parents are both from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, which is one of the richest regions in the country in terms of culture, languages, textiles and gastronomy. Her father arrived in the 40’s as part of the bracero program and both of her parents were active members in the local community.

“My family feels that it’s important to not just remember where you came from, but also to share that. In each of our careers, my siblings and myself, we’ve gone on to some kind of work where we share something that’s important to our passion,” she said, adding that it’s not all to do with folklore but that there is generational passing on of culture.

Both of her parents instilled in their five children a deep pride for their heritage and culture even though they were all so far away from Mexico. It’s a pride that can be seen as Colmenarez shows off her brown silk rebozo (a traditional shawl) from Santa Maria del Rio, a town renowned for it’s beautiful rebozos. 

“It takes three days to weave by the women who are not just weaving all day. They’re taking care of the kids…they have to prepare the meals. They have many other chores to do. It’s another additional seven days to make all of these knots,” said Colmenarez, pointing out the detailed work at the ends of the rebozo.

Maria Luisa Colmenarez, the Executive Director of the Mexican folkloric dance organization ‘Danzantes Unidos,’ shows off texture design in traditional dresses. Photo: Lorena Garibay

Colmenarez remembers the road trips to Oaxaca and Veracruz that the family would go on when her dad wasn’t working in the old Libby, Mcneill and Libby Fruit Cannery that later shut down in the early 80’s.

Her parents then went on to work for the school district and they became political and educational advocates. She admits that at first her parents were unsure of her decision to choose a career in folk dancing instead of pursuing a more stable path. Colmenarez pushed on ahead anyways and at the age of 14 she was being paid to teach professionally. 

“I always had support starting with my own parents. My dad, maybe more than my mom, was disappointed that I didn’t pursue a safe path or healthy income,” said Colmenarez who had studied to become an engineer. “But I was good at what I did and I was able to get support through grants…finding work was never difficult for me as an instructor.” 

It was through Mexican folk dance that she met the “man of her dreams,” her husband, lifelong dance partner and Stanford educated physicist, Rudy Garica. They have had the opportunity to tour with Linda Ronstadt and were recommended by Ronstadt to be extras in the 1995 film A Walk in The Clouds. Colmenarez can be seen dancing in the grape crushing scene in which women crush grapes barefooted. They were also asked to consult for the 2017 Disney film Coco.  

“Being asked to consult for the film Coco was a huge validation for us, for all the years of work that we’ve done. Someone recognized the work that we were doing in San Jose for Day of The Dead,” said Colmenarez.

“Being asked to consult for the film Coco was a huge validation for us, for all the years of work that we’ve done. Someone recognized the work that we were doing in San Jose for Day of The Dead.”

Both her and her husband have retired from performing but they continue to teach and dedicate themselves to their current projects. For example, the Danzantes Unidos Festival, which after two years of in-person postponement due to the pandemic, will be held in Fresno on April 8-10.

“Danzantes Unidos is a wonderful experience because it’s a networking experience. It’s bringing together people who share in this passion for folklorico and for dance, but bumping it up a level and showing them what they can do next,” said Colmenarez. 

Diana Garcia Colmenarez is Colmenarez’s daughter and is inspired by all the years of hard work that her parents have dedicated to the preservation and investigation of Mexican folkloric dance. She wants to see her mothers work preserved and for it to continue long after her mother passes on. 

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“Something that I definitely learned from my mom is what it takes to not just be there for other people, also how to create something and how hard it is to pass something on,” said Garcia Colmenarez. “It’s not just inspired me but it’s informed so many dancers how they can care and maintain the projects that they’ve put so much passion into.” 

Colemenarez hopes that through her work as a ‘cultural artivist’ she can inspire young dancers and those interested in folklore to take the lead. She wants to continue to mentor young women and help them reach their potential in folklore. She urges women to “unmute themselves” and to take into their own hands whatever it is that they want. 

She continues to be inspired by women and cultures from all over the world. Before her father passed away, he did genealogical research and discovered that their family has Japanese ancestry. Her two children learned Japanese and their family traveled to Japan to experience the culture. 

Colmenarez draws comparisons between the Japanese Obon festival—a celebration of remembrance for those who have passed—and Day of The Dead. Her family participated in the San Jose Obon festival that was held in July and performed traditional Japanese dances with the community. Her son, Luis Xavier Garcia, helped orchestrate a musical arrangement with the song ‘Remember Me’ from the movie Coco. 

“They wanted to use the music from Coco…and choreograph an Obon dance around that …and to include mariachi elements,” said Colmenarez.

She encourages her students, some of whom are not of Mexican descent, to bond over the similarities of their culture and folklore. However, she believes that people should try to avoid the homogenization of cultures and should instead focus on the preservation of each while acknowledging each other’s uniqueness and importance. 

Maria Luisa Colmenarez’s class puts her lessons in action and dances. Photo: Lorena Garibay

“I love when they start comparing cultures or finding commonalities. My hope is that we don’t wind up homogenizing each of our cultures. That we respect that they are different and celebrate those differences as well as what we have in common but definitely to not try to make adjustments to our work to be something that we are not.”

El Tecolote turns 52 this August!