By Laura Latzko
Ballet Folklorico Quetzalli brings culture to Arizona
When Vanessa Ramirez was a child, she sat with her mother and watched ballet folklorico dancers rehearse at a gym. This experience sparked a passion in her that led to a career in dance that began when she was 7.
As an adult, she founded the Chandler-based studio Ballet Folklorico Quetzalli, now in its 10th year. The studio will celebrate its anniversary on June 16 with a carnival-themed show with ballet folklorico dances from different states in Mexico.
The studio’s dancers, who range in age from 3 to 46, will perform with Mariachi Sonido de Mexico and Banda Sinaloense La Llega Finix.
“The older ones definitely have more intense footwork and skirt movements, and there’s choreography across the floor and doing different shapes,” Ramirez says.
The company regularly performs around the Valley at events like Chandler’s Mariachi and Folklorico Festival and its Parade of Lights, as well as the Phoenix Zoo’s Dia del Nino event. The group has also brought its style of ballet folklorico dance to Disneyland.
Ramirez started dancing in California and continued with a company in Tucson after moving to Arizona. She hadn’t danced for quite a few years when she was enlisted to teach a recreational dance class in Chandler.
She never envisioned she would make a career out of dance.
“I think back now, and I never planned for this,” Ramirez says. “This just kind of came to me, and obviously the universe knows this is my passion. This is what I love, and I was missing it at the time.”
Ramirez says running the studio has been meaningful.
“I don’t know how I can even put into words just how special it has been to share these past 10 years of my life with such amazing children,” she says.
“The children have taught me about myself, about life, about really appreciating one another.”
Of the six girls in her original class, three are still with the studio.
“It has been wonderful to watch them grow and develop not just as dancers but as these incredibly strong young women,” she says.
“They are pursuing all these other things in their lives, but they are still committed to dance and their team.”
Some families have had multiple children take classes at the studio over the years. Original dancer Kateri Parra started at age 7, and her younger sister joined a few years later.
The studio has grown to include more than 80 students in beginning, intermediate and advanced classes.
Ramirez continues to be the primary instructor, but following an ankle injury this year, the studio’s future was in jeopardy. However, parents and students stepped in to help.
“I think really having that sense of family, of support, is wonderful, something that just really stands out throughout the years with Quetzalli,” Ramirez says.
Grizelda Celaya, one of Ramirez’s adult students, recently began teaching beginning-level company classes.
Celaya has danced with Ballet Folklorico Quetzalli for four years, but started ballet folklorico dance in junior high and took ballet, tap and jazz classes in elementary school. Although she had stayed in shape, getting back into ballet folklorico as an adult was a challenge.
“With that style of dance, there are so many regions and styles within those regions that I didn’t know of when I danced before,” Celaya says. “There was a lot that I hadn’t already learned, but the stuff that I did, I had to brush up on.”
Now she has a different approach because of a deeper association with the history and meaning behind the dances and costumes.
“The difference would be knowing the significance behind the costumes more than I did as a child, but the excitement is still there, and I think I feel like a kid when I put them on,” Celaya says.
In her classes, Ramirez tries to instill in her students important values and skills, including poise, accountability, time management, responsibility, confidence and public speaking.
Parra has applied the skills she learned at the studio to her roles as National Honor Society president and cheerleader.
Dancing with the studio has allowed Parra to teach dance to kids from low-income families.
Ramirez regularly travels to Mexico for conferences to learn new dances and brings them back to her company.
“As instructors, as choreographers, I think it’s our duty to do that research so that we aren’t disrespecting who this belongs to and the story this is telling,” Ramirez says.
Ramirez says, through dance, her students connect to their cultures – just like she did.
“I never really knew where I came from, where my family came from or even what it meant to be from Mexico,” Ramirez says. “It was always sadly something to be ashamed of rather than something to honor and respect, and dance taught me what my culture is. Dance taught me how beautiful it is and that I should be proud of it and proud of my parents and ancestors.”
Parra agrees. Through dance, Parra feels a bond with her grandmother, who danced ballet folklorico as a child.
“It made me feel closer to her,” Parra says. “That’s my inspiration, and that’s why I keep dancing. I know that she wants me to keep dancing. When I’m dancing, I have a little bit of her in me.”