Claudia Tiffany Rodriguez, 21, showcases her passion for ballet folklorico, history, art and beauty with every performance.
Rodriguez, a Texas Christian University theater major, began dancing ballet folklorico when she was 5 years old. Since then, she’s traveled from one dance company to another, city to city and from maestro to maestro, or teacher to teacher.
“My mission in life is share the art and beauty of folklore because a lot of people see folklore at Cinco de Mayo festivals or Dia de los Muertos, but in reality, folklore back in Mexico, you see it all over the place,” Rodriguez said. “It literally means ‘dances of the people.’”
Rodriguez has studied under Amalia Viviana Basanta Hernández, the daughter of one of Mexico’s world-renowned ballet folklorico choreographer Amalia Hernández. The TCU student’s interest extends beyond the stage, however.
Every movement, vocal, instrument, design on the vestuarios, or dresses, and song has a meaning, Rodriguez said. One of her goals is to discover everything about ballet folklorico and its many styles and meanings.
“When I share it with family or friends, they’re like, ‘Oh, I just thought you were dancing just to dance and I didn’t know there was an actual meaning to it.’ But it’s huge on meanings,” Rodriguez said. “It’s pretty cool because I’m learning on my own and I’m being actually advised by an actual dance instructor.”
Rodriguez began her journey at age 5, dancing at La Gran Plaza’s Ballet Folklorico Azteca de Fort Worth, then at Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church’s now-defunct ballet folklorico program from 7 to 10 years old. After her mom became pregnant, she took a two year hiatus.
She returned to the art form at 12 with dance company Ballet Folklorico Mexico Lindo in Northside. Now, she is an independent dancer — something she takes great pride in.
“You see your own personal growth because based on my experiences, I’m like, ‘OK, if this didn’t work, how can I change that? Or how can I make it better for students as well?’” Rodriguez said. “Growing up I didn’t really know the history. I didn’t actually know the history when it comes to folklorico. Being on my own has helped me be more aware of myself.”
The dependency on a team, she said, doesn’t appeal to her anymore. Now, she takes her time researching styles, regions and the vestuarios of each region independently. At TCU, she has taken fashion classes, sewing classes and music classes to be able to hone her craft.
“We also have to know how to teach music and musicality. When it comes to folklorico, there’s the costumes. So I’m taking an introduction to costume design class. I’m learning how to actually sew,” Rodriguez said. “I want to learn every aspect. It’s because I’m a whole team in one.”
In 1952, Amalia Hernández, dance teacher and choreographer at the Mexican Academy of Dance, formed the dance company known as the Ballet Moderno de México. With only eight members at the beginning, this small group began presenting choreographies created by Amalia herself. In this first experience as an independent artist, she debuted her well-known Sones de Michoacán (Melodies of Michoacán) with indisputable success.
In 1958, the Mexican Department of Tourism took notice and asked Amalia Hernandez to take her show on the road.
In 1959, her company was invited to perform at the Pan-American Games in Chicago. She organized a tour in which the 50-member company adopted the name Ballet Folklórico de México. Among the most successful pieces performed were Los Hijos del Sol (Children of the Sun), Antiguos sones de Michoacán, El Cupidito, Fiesta Veracruzana, Los Quetzales, La Danza del Venado (Deer Dance) and Navidad en Jalisco (Christmas in Jalisco).
Currently, the Ballet Folklórico de México has performed over 5,000 times and has been honored with more than 200 awards recognizing its efforts.
Ballet Folklorico has ties to indigenous ritual dances — dances involved acrobatic moves and colorful costumes adorned with jewels, gold, and flowers. It also made use of masks, rattles, drums, wind instruments and songs.
During Spanish colonization, colonial influences stemmed from religion and saw Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and Basque cultures represented.
Source: Vanderbilt University Center for Latin American Studies
Currently at TCU, the dance department does not offer any specialized courses on ballet folklorico, Rodriguez said, but she wants to change that. Rodriguez spends hours looking through a copy of Trajes de Danza Mexicana by Rafael Zamarripa Castañeda and Xóchitl Medina Ortiz, a book describing all the wardrobe and vestuario meanings, which was given to her by a teacher who received a copy from the authors themselves.
She plans to study for a master’s degree in ballet folklorico and earn a license to teach from Guerrero, Mexico, at the Escuela Superior de Danza Folklorica Zitlalkiahuitl — she travels to Mexico for three weeks every summer and after four years, she will have earned her license.
The only university to offer ballet folklorico in Texas is the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley — it’s a 32-student organization. Rodriguez hopes to change that. First, by advocating for college courses in Fort Worth and then, by advocating for it to become a major.
“I’m pursuing this as a career. This is not just a hobby to me,” Rodriguez said. “I want to do this professionally and learn everything about it.”
Rodriguez’s mother, Claudia Villareal, said she used to dance ballet folklorico in Monterrey, Mexico, when she was in primary school, but never thought it could be what it is today.
“She is doing what I didn’t do as a young woman,” Villareal said in Spanish. “I used to dance for small festivities, but through her I realized how much ballet folklorico has grown. You can go to university for it now. When she was young, there were very limited opportunities.”
Villareal is proud of her daughter’s commitment to the art. It’s been a huge inspiration for her. She wants to make it a career, she said.
“Claudia wants to learn her roots, and I sit here surprised because she has never even lived in Mexico but she carries that pride in her roots here in the United States,” Villareal said. “It’s such an exciting thing.”
Furthermore, Villareal emphasized how difficult the journey will be for her daughter to open doors to ballet folklorico in Fort Worth, but not impossible.
Rodriguez’s father Jose Rodriguez, a cabinet maker, tasked himself with aiding his daughter with everything. He takes her to gigs, pays for vestuarios and supports her in everything.
“It’s been very heavy to keep with it sometimes. Taking her to places to perform, paying for dresses and everything. She does it for the love of the art,” Jose Rodriguez said in Spanish. “It’s not easy, but I would do anything for my daughters.”
At home, Rodriguez sleeps on a small futon — in her room, she has a small stage where she practices her dances, her parents said.
“She doesn’t want a bed. She wants a stage,” Villareal said. “It’s such a joy seeing her progress.”
Villareal said that ultimately she wants her daughter to be happy and in a field that she’s passionate about and not a career she will be miserable in.
“I want her to make all her dreams come true. It has cost her a lot and thanks to God, every time we see her perform she is better and better,” Jose Rodriguez said.
Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.