Mexican Folklorico: A Tourist’s Primer From a Dancer’s Point of View

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If you are taking a cruise that stops in Mexico and you enjoy performing arts, be sure to take excursion that includes a Mexican Folklorico Dance performance.

I have to admit I am a little biased in recommending Mexican dance performances, as I studied and performed with a troupe in Arizona for 5 years.   During that time I probably learned more about Mexican art and culture than I have during any of my trips to Mexico.  My hope is in sharing my experience with this art form,  I can inspire you to attend one of these shows and appreciate them more thoroughly during your cruise visit to Mexico. I’ve utilized a combination of videos of my troupe’s performances and performances by other groups that exemplify the fun and energy of this art form.

Mexican Folkloric Dancing

Living in the Southwestern United States for most of my life has exposed me to the heavy influence of Mexican culture on our region.  I lived in Texas in both San Antonio and the Dallas Ft. Worth area, where Mexican food and Mariachi Music are very popular.   In the Mercado and Arneson River Theater in downtown San Antonio, tourist and locals enjoy Mexican Folkloric Dance performances.  Festivals throughout the Southwest highlight the historic cultural ties between the US and Mexico. San Diego, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Tucson, and Phoenix all have major events that feature Mexican folkloric dancing.

In 2003, my husband and I enjoyed a spectacular Folkloric performance on the Celebrity Mercury during our evening in Acapulco.   I was enthralled with the festive music and costumes. A few years later,  I enrolled my daughter in a Ballet/Tap class at a studio in Sierra Vista, Arizona, at Alma Dolores International Dance Center.   After seeing the exciting and fun performances by dancers in the Folklorico class, my daughter and I both decided to sign up for the Mexican dance class.

Over the next 5 years our class learned dances from many different regions of Mexico.   Along the way we learned a lot about Mexican culture  and the unique traditions practiced and brought to life by each state.     Here’s a look at a few of the popular regions and their dances through the the eyes of an American dance student.

National Dance – El Jarabe Tapatio

The Mexican Hat dance is known as the National Dance of Mexico.   This was one of the first dances we learned in our classes and always performed as a finale in our group presentations.     Traditionally, the dance is a courtship dance preformed by one or more couples, but in our class we only had a few boys and young men, so we often performed the dance as a ladies’ chorus, sometimes with a few featured couples.   In a professional show, you will always see it performed by couples.    The song, El Jababe Tapatio, is a medley of popular folk songs from several different regions including Jalisco, Yucatan, and Michoacán.     In our class we performed the dance in our Jalisco dresses, but in professional companies it is usually performed in the highly adorned red, white and green China Poblana costume which is covered with sequined appliques that represent the heritage and history of Mexico, often the eagle holding the snake from the Mexican flag.   The men’s costume is usually the traditional charro costume, but sometimes you’ll see the peasant version substituted with the serape and straw sombrero.

Jalisco

The costumes and traditions of Jalisco are often generically associated with all of Mexico, and most folkloric performances, in any state include at least one dance or song from this region.   The Mariachi music, popular across Mexico originates from this region along with the charro costume worn by musicians and male dancers.    The costume features  the traditional  “Big Sombrero”, and coordinating embroidered or otherwise embellished high-waisted pants and bolero jacket.   The ladies’ costume consists of a double circle skirt trimmed with colorful ribbons topped with a ruffled prairie style top and peplum.   Popular songs performed by Mariachis and dancers include El Son de Galviancillo, Las Alazanas,  and La Negra.   All three songs and  the dances preformed to them feature high energy rhythms and percussive steps to those beats.  Here is a look at all the dancers from the littlest beginners to adults,  from my troupe performing to a medley of Jalisco songs with El Jarabe Tapatio as the finale.

These dances were among the first I learned as part of the dance troupe.  The steps include a combination of heel stomps (Co), toe taps (Ti) and whole foot stomps (Pa).   In class we’d learn the steps by calling out the names in combination and singing the rhythms out loud.   We also had to eventually combine these steps with arm and skirt movements.    As with many Mexican folk dances the ladies hold their skirts and move them along with the music.   This creates a fluid floating element that contrasts with the precised staccato steps.

Veracruz

Chances are, if you nothing about Mexican music or culture, your are familiar with one of the most popular songs from this region thanks to 1950’s pop star Ritchie Valenz and his Top 40 hit “La Bamba.” The song originates from the the Gulf of Mexico/Caribbean state of Veracruz.   The traditional Veracruz music, Son Jarocho,  combines Spanish Seguidillas and Fandangos.  The instruments include several different types of guitars  and a 39 string harp.     Cuban and other Caribbean influences can be found in the costumes which include the Guayabera (4 pocket white shirt) for men and a white dress similar to ones popular in many Caribbean countries combined with an embellished apron and Spanish fan.

If you attend a Mexican Folklorico performance in Mexico, the dancers will most likely perform the percussive La Bamba Dance. You’ll hear the influence of Spain and Cuba in this courtship dance where two of the dancers tie a ribbon together using only their feet and then display the love knot. A distinction that the Veracruz style dances have from many other regions in Mexico is that though the skirts are held by the dancers, the arm movements are much more simple and flowing. The dancers do not raise their arms higher than their shoulders and hold them extended for much of the dancing.

In our class we learned several dances from Vera Cruz during my second year.   The white lace and chiffon costume was perhaps one of my favorites that we wore.   At competition one of the Broadway dance judges mistook our performance to the Veracruz song  “Tilingo Lingo”  for Spanish Flamenco, which is pretty understandable considering the percussive rhythms and the Spanish fans.

In addition, we did learn a dance also from Vercruz featuring slow soft steps.  In “La Bruja”  we balanced lit candles on our heads as we moved slowly, “bewitchingly” around the stage.   The dance was meant to recreate women coming to the sea to meet their men returning from fishing.   Sometimes this dance is performed under a black light to simulate the glow of the moon on the white dresses.

Norteno – Mexican Polka

The music in the Norteno region, or Northern Border region of Mexico is heavily influenced by the German, Czech, and Polish settlers in Texas and other border areas.   States in the Norteno region include Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and both Baja Californias (North and South).   Germans who came to Mexico brought their accordions, the saxophones, and bass guitars.     All these influences converged to create Mexican Polka music.   The costumes vary slightly from state to state but generally have strong “Cowboy” and “Rancher’s Daughter” influence.   Both men and women sometimes wear cowboy boots and hats for performances.  Generally the skirts are shorter, mid calf or just below the knee to allow for more freedom of movement and flexed toe style cowboy kicks.   Often the movements mimic the motions of working cowboys and kicking horses.  Though this music and dance dates back to the frontier days, social polka dancing in the Norteno region of Mexico is still very common.

We learned several of these high energy dances in our class and performed one particularly vigorous polka at a National dance competition.  The competition features traditional American dance styles like Ballet, Tap, Jazz and Lyrical, but also has a Folkloric category in which we competed.   We were the only adult group folkloric number entered, and they put our number in the middle of a 1 hour group of lyrical dance numbers.   I’ll never forget the standing ovation our group received, not so much for the quality of the dance, but more for the exciting energy of this type of dance. Norteno music seems to put everyone into a festive mood.

Chiapas

When you hear a wooden marimba, a xylophone like instrument, and see the ladies wearing a beautiful multi-colored lace dress. you are probably watching a Chiapas performance.  The dress style, very popular in tourist shops around Mexico, features a peasant style ruffled top and full lace skirt.  Both the top and the skirt are embroidered completely with 4 inch diameter flowers in an array of bright colors. Generally the dresses sold in gift shops have a more streamlined skirt, but the professional dance version is usually a double circle skirt. The dance most often associated with this dress is Chiapanecas, which is another one of those tunes that is often confused with the Mexican hat dance.   Dancers often invite the audience to join in with them on the sets of double claps in the song.



Sinaloa

When we made our most recent cruise to Mexico we were greeted at the pier in Mazatlan by a big brass “Oom-Papa” band.  I was taking Mexican dance class at the time but we had not yet studied the music and dance of Sinaloa.   I had no idea what this music was and why they were playing it in Mazatlan.   It turns out that the “Banda” music dates back to the 1800’s when Mexicans wanted to emulate the European marching bands popular at that time.   It wasn’t until the 1940’s when this music came to be commonly associated with Sinaloa.   Up until the 1970’s Sinaloa had no state form of folk dance, so choreographers took the basics of the Jalisco style and then incorporated their own twist.    The arm movements and steps are very similar to those used in  Jalisco, but the new choreography emphasizes the more percussive nature of the music. The female dancers usually wear either a double circles style skirt and peasant blouse trimmed with calico ruffles or the more modern version that features hand painted images of icons of Sinaloa. These dances are often staged as part of carnival celebrations or staged versions may include a carnival themed finale.

Nayarit

The dances we learned from Nayarit are some of my favorite dances. The music, played predominantly string instruments, is a recreation of historic songs. Though the costumes are representations of early 20th century Nayarit fashion, and men’s skill with the machete’s represents the historic agricultural significance of the area, the dances are really 1970’s theatrical creations. Our class was exhausted after only a few minutes of the intensive work with the skirts that moves beyond the shoulder height of the Jalisco dances, to all the way behind the top of the head. Another challenging element of these dances is the men’s juggling of machetes. In our class, the two young men would go outside for about half the practice time and just work on tossing the safely dulled, but real, machetes. This is a video of our troupe performing these dances. The state of Nayarit is located just north of Puerta Vallarta where a few new resort hotels have gone up in the last few years.

Other Dances You Might See:

Folkloric groups may also present some other popular dances which include traditional indigenous dances like the Yaqui Deer Dance which tells the story of the struggle between good and evil or the Aztec dances which date to pre-Columbian times. Many of the Aztec dances were performed as part of their ritual and celebrations to honor the gods.

Another folkloric “dance” you might see is the The Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers). The ritual consists of dance and the climbing of a 30 meter pole from which four of the five participants then launch themselves tied with ropes to descend to the ground. The fifth remains on top of the pole, dancing and playing a flute and drum. According to myth, the ritual was created to ask the gods to end a severe drought. Although the ritual did not originate with the Totonac people, today it is most strongly associated with them, especially those in and around Papantla. Originally a pagan ritual, many of the performers today are Catholic and perform the ritual to honor Christ or the Virgin Mary.

If your repositioning cruise or trans-Panama Canal cruise visits Oaxaca Mexico, you might choose a folklorico show that recreates the festival of La Guelaguetza. This festival boasts some of the most spectacular costumes in all of Mexico, with each costume and dance representing a different indigenous tradition. The men often wear elaborate per-columbian style headdresses, and the women wear both dresses and tunics and a variety of spectacular head pieces.

Excursions and Performances:
When booking an excursion that includes a folkloric dance performance look for the key words in excursion description such as: Mexican fiesta, Mexican Folkloric Ballet, Folkloric Performance, Folkloric Dance.

The “Papantla Flyers” perform for cruise tourist in Mazatlan, though their high wire act hails from Veracruz. We very much enjoyed this show in Mazatlan which featured La Bamba, a teen age trick roper, El Jarabe Tapatio, and the high wire spinning dare devils. Here is a link to our Gallery: Mazatlan 2006

On that same cruise the Antonio Ramirez Folklorico Spectacular came on board in Acapulco and performed one of the best folkloric presentations I have ever seen. The costumes were particularly spectacular if not always completely authentic. Here are some of the pictures from that performance.

List of some of the ports with folkloric performance excursions:
Lereto
Ensendada
Cozumel
Huatulco
Mazatlan

Ships that go to Pacific Mexico:
Carnival Inspiration
Star Princess
Crystal Symphony
Zaandam
Disney Wonder
Carnival Spirit
Sapphire Princess
Oosterdam
Carnival Inspiration

Ships that Go to Caribbean Mexico:
All major cruise lines.