Her Love of Folklórico Was Born in Commerce – Now She Shares It On a Larger Stage
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
When former Miss Commerce Kareli Montoya watches a folklórico performance she doesn’t just see the delicate, colorful dresses or the striking black shoes — what she sees is the history of the pueblo from which the dance originates.
Montoya takes in every detail, from the colors of the costumes to the dancer’s handling of her skirt, to the rhythmic tapping of the shoes, and asks herself, ‘Is it right?’ Is the performance historically and culturally accurate?
Folklórico means dance of the pueblo, of the people and must therefore be a true portrayal of those people, says Montoya, whose first lessons in the colorful and energetic dance genre were as a child growing up in the city of Commerce. It was during her classes at Bristow Park that she would find her passion for dancing folklórico, and the history behind every dance.
Her passion has grown to be much more than a part-time hobby, and now, at just 24 years of age, Montoya directs her own professional folklórico group, Ballet Folklórico of Los Angeles, and has performed with some of the best mariachi groups at top venues.
Being historically and culturally accurate is just as important as dance technique, Montoya said.
“You can’t even call it traditional unless you are in the pueblo and the people dancing are from the pueblo,” she said. “Once you put it on stage, it’s a show;” it’s ballet folklórico.
Finding the Passion
Montoya has always been drawn to the traditional, beautiful costumes reminiscent of old Mexico, with their colorful flowing skirts trimmed with ribbon and lace. At the age of seven, before she started dancing folklórico, she dreamed of performing the escaramuzas, the Mexican equestrian sport where young women perform choreographed routines while on horseback, wearing traditional Mexican dresses similar to those used by folklórico dancers.
“My mom said ‘you’re crazy,’ so she put me in [folklórico] classes instead and I stuck with it,” said Montoya, reflecting on the wise decision made by her single mother to redirect her interest.
She credits Commerce’s inexpensive recreation programs for making that possible, and for helping her to find her true passion. “My mother could not afford to pay for dance for six children,” said Montoya. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be dancing now.”
Maria Viñegas grew up during the beginning of the folklórico movement in East Los Angeles and was Montoya’s first dance instructor. According to Montoya, it was Viñegas who instilled in her the importance of learning the history of the dances she performs. It’s a practice that still motivates her today and which she is now trying to pass on to her students and the members of her dance group.
Montoya’s talent as a dancer was noticed early and by age 12 she was dancing with the East Los Angeles College adult folklórico group led by instructor Benjamin Hernandez, who she calls one of the “pioneers” of the folklórico movement in the United States.
Music was also an important part of her life and by day she played in Bell Gardens High School’s jazz band and drum line. At night, unbeknownst to most of her fellow students, she was the youngest folklórico dancer at La Fonda De Los Camperos, a now closed restaurant near downtown Los Angeles, famous for its world-class mariachi and folklórico dinner-shows.
“That’s how I started being involved in hardcore folklórico performances,” she said.
Choosing to Pursue the Dream, Or Not
Montoya told EGP her passion to dance was not without its challenges. There were choices to be made: Go to college, get a job, or dance? She tried to do all of it.
She was admitted to Cal State University, Los Angeles, and at first hoped to get a degree in dance or theater, but realizing the importance of a stable income, she opted instead to get a degree in social work.
“People tell you ‘what are you going to do with dance, come on get a life,’” she says now laughing.
While attending Cal State Los Angeles Montoya was crowned 2008’s Miss Commerce.
“They [city of Commerce] helped me out a lot because they helped me perform all over Commerce with my folklórico group,” she said. It made the desire to dance grew even stronger, and with graduation soon approaching, she took another look at her options.
“I started looking into moving to Colima [Mexico],” she said, referring to her interest in attending the internationally known Ballet Folklórico of the University of Colima in Mexico.
“Sure enough, six months later I graduated from college and the following week I left to Colima,” she said, still in disbelief that she was one of the 25 students accepted that year.
“It was like a dream come true, it was like going to the major leagues.”
The training in Mexico was intense and serious: classes started daily at 6:45 a.m. She studied ballet, modern dance, dance history, folklórico technique, folklórico history, as well as lighting and stage design class. There were short breaks to eat, but classes continued until 10 pm.
Six months into the training, however, she faced a crisis of sorts; whether to continue her dedication to dance or pursue “a real career.” She had just learned she was accepted into USC’s Masters in Social Work program.
“I cried and I threw a tantrum,” she said. “But I eventually came back.”
But in the end, the power of dance ultimately won out.
Dancing It On Her Own
Montoya’s time in Colima had profoundly changed her, so much so that when she returned the groups she previously danced for were “just not the same.”
With “no other place to go,” she decided to form her own group and Ballet Folklórico de Los Angeles was born. “I just decided to do my own thing because [companies, cities and private parties] were calling me and asking me to dance for them. So I thought, why not start my own dance group.”
It wasn’t long before her new group was getting calls for gigs at big venues.
The hobby was now officially a full-time career.
Ballet Folklórico de Los Angeles performance with Mexican singer Paquita la del Barrio at the Nokia Theater in 2012 caught the attention of the Ford Amphitheater and the non-profit Star Entertainment, which hired her to produce Mexican-style concerts.
Out of state jobs and performances at bigger venues, like the Greek Theater in Los Angeles and Disneyland, began to roll in.
But it wasn’t until she was performing during a recent Clippers half time show that Montoya realized she had turned her passion into a career.
“I thought, ‘I’m crazy, I can’t believe I’m doing this,’” she said. “It has always been my dream,” she says she told herself last November when she decided to leave her social work days behind and open a dance studio in Alhambra. To further her career, she plans to attend Cal State Long Beach to work towards a Masters Degree in Theater Design and Costuming.
Her dance group has 28 members, 14 women and 14 men. They practice four days a week, and each session includes an hour of conditioning to ensure they are in shape for the rigorous demands of their performances.
The dancers are paid and therefore expected to act like professionals, says Montoya.
Montoya makes all the costumes and says because there is little variation in size the dancers are motivated to stay in shape to avoid having to buy their own dresses, which could run hundreds of dollars.
Being True to Folklórico When You Are In Charge
It was while she was studying in Mexico that Montoya started to see dance as a Mexican native would.
“I feel a lot of the groups here [in the U.S.] don’t know the history, they just do it, put it on stage because it’s fun and the parents like it because their kids are in it,” she said referring to some of the productions she has seen.
Every region has their style based on the climate and the influences of their unique culture and those factors dictate the footwork, the costume and the music, she explained.
When you’re in Jalisco [Mexico] there could be four different dancing styles that vary by the social classes, she told EGP.
“Even if you are in one state, the northern part is very different from the southern part,” she adds. “It’s very important for dancers to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
That, she said, is what distinguishes her group from others. “Yes, the dancing is cool but you have to know the why before you perform.” Our dancers are passionate about who they are and where they came from, and it shows in their dance.
Many of the dances performed by Ballet Folklórico of Los Angeles are based on dances from the Mexican revolution in the early 1900s. Montoya finds that time in history fascinating — women were fighting along side the men — so a lot of her group’s dances deal with that part of history.
The music they dance to is always performed by a live mariachi group and these days it’s usually Mariachi Garibaldi de Jaime Cueller that accompanies them. Many of their performances are choreographed around a particular theme, explains Montoya.
The group has two dance concerts scheduled in May.
But unlike most of their performances, the group’s appearance at the Ford Amphitheatre on May 31 is not based on a particular region, but will instead pay homage to charreada, or the Mexican rodeo, in a way fulfilling the long ago wish of 7 year-old Montoya.
The guys will be roping on stage and the girls will be dressed as escaramuzas, with hats and whips, she said, obviously excited.
“When I was a kid I always wanted to do that [escaramuzas], so now I’m doing it in my own way,” she said. “I’m telling my story.”
Upcoming Performances by Ballet Folklórico de Los Angeles
Citadel Outlets in Commerce
John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
“Fiesta Mexicana” XII featuring Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano
A tribute to Mexican composers Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Manuel Esperón and Juan Gabriel.
Cost: Tickets start at $57 for adults and $36 for students.
For info, visit fordstheatre.org
May 1, 2014 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.