The Portales Schools Folklórica performs at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe on Jan. 18, 2023. The after school program is for high school and junior high students. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
An athlete and an introvert dance together on top of the New Mexico seal inlaid in the floor at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe.
The circumstances of how they got here is the perfect setup for a high school coming-of-age story.
The athlete suffered an injury preventing him from being on the field, so he found an after-school program to continue movement exercises.
The introvert joined at her mother’s urging, now finding confidence through performing.
But it’s more than the cliche of a limited streaming series.
These Portales High School students are not only expressing themselves through Baile Folkórico, they are connecting to a heritage dating back generations — before New Mexico was part of the U.S. — and participating in a program that is a perfect example of ways the state can meet demand to reform public education and create better outcomes for students.
“It definitely helps keep the stress off from school, because it’s just like a place to release stress and stuff, through like dancing and all of that,” said Samuel Marquez, the athlete turned dancer. “And it’s more of like a different learning style, because you’re going over and learning different dances.”
For Mariam Caudillo, the self-described introvert, the program empowers her. “I feel like our culture is important,” the high school freshman said Wednesday after her performance before the crowds visiting the Roundhouse.
And there may be more funding coming for local school districts to support programs like the Portales Schools Folklórica, a dance program for students at the high school and junior high.
Sen. William Soules (D-Las Cruces) said he wants to fully fund arts, music and physical education across all school districts in New Mexico.
“It’s clear from all the education research that children learn best when we teach the whole child, which means we need to make sure that they’re getting physical education,” Soules said. “They learn better when they get an opportunity to burn off some of that excess energy. And so things like PE and recess are not superfluous education activities.”
He said the same thing goes for music and the arts. “Music in particular supports math learning, because you’re learning about fractions, quarter notes, half notes, third notes — all of those are fractions that absolutely support math. And then teaching the rhythms is part of good brain development.”
Soules, the chair of the Senate Education, also runs the Legislative Education Study Committee which meets monthly between legislative sessions. He said community input during those meetings from parents, students and school staff consistently asked for more after school programs.
“Those were the things that got (students) to come to school every day. … They didn’t see those as extras,” he said. “Those were the hook, if you will, that got them to come to learn the math and the science and the things that some students may find less appealing.”
The budget supported by the LESC would have the Legislature include an increase for fine arts funding distribution that could equal to more than $4.1 million each year, according to legislative analysts. Physical education funding could increase by $8 million annually under the plan.
All of this is a start to meet the goal Soules has to bring back essential student activities shuttered by recession cuts in 2008. Local districts would determine what activities fit their community needs and then go forward with funding.
Since Portales Schools Folklórica is an after-school program, it could also count toward extended learning time instruction requirements, Soules said.
All of these areas are part of requirements for education reform in public school districts under the Yazzie-Martinez settlement. The program in Portales hits the mark on culturally relevant curriculum models, language instruction and targeting at-risk students since both Portales schools are part of Title 1 programs.
And it all came from a community passion in Portales that — with support from students, staff, parents and the local school board — ensured federal dollars came down to fund the dance program.
Jacqueline Cruz is in year two running the program, doing everything from teaching routines, picking music, keeping dresses and suits fresh for performance and keeping tabs on her students’ well-being at home and in the classroom.
Cruz is also a Spanish teacher at Portales Junior High School and sees the benefit of applying what they learn in her language class to the dance program.
“This is interactive. It’s moving. It’s doing. It’s helping those chemicals. It’s helping those synapses. It’s helping so much more than just coming out, putting the dress on and dancing,” Cruz said. “They are building connections or building networking with each other and other people outside Portales.”
She created the program to share what she learned dancing in the Folklórico style growing up in Hondo, N.M.
In one year, she’s grown the program so much that she’s now being asked by surrounding communities for performances or ways to set up their own dance program. The dream would be to have a Folklórico in every school in New Mexico.
“When they come into class, we’re talking about different parts of states in Mexico, and different countries,” Cruz said. “And we’re identifying where each dance comes from. So not only are they learning in Spanish, like their language, they’re learning culture. They’re learning traditions. They’re learning hands-on activities.”
Students must maintain a C average to participate in the program, and Cruz said she’s only had one instance where a student struggled after some poor decisions. She credits the dance program for motivating the student to get back on track.
Between its middle and high school cohorts, the group has 36 students, and 19 students rode the bus from Portales to perform in the rotunda at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. For some, it was the first time visiting the capital city, and the winter weather that finally arrived also provided a new memory for those not used to seeing anything like it.
“I’ve seen so many new places in New Mexico I didn’t know existed,” said high-schooler Nakeisha Johnson. “This is my first time in Santa Fe. I love seeing so much snow.”
Johnson moved to Portales in 2018 with her family from South Carolina. She said she wanted to join because she loves to dance, and her inexperience with Folklórico flipped quickly as she took on learning every routine. She said it’s even helping her stick to learning Spanish, a language she was ready to give up on before she started to understand the lyrics and names of songs that play during performances. Like many of the girls she dances with, the dresses are a major appeal.
“It’s so colorful, like it fits all together,” Johnson said. “The way it sways is just so beautiful.”
And for the athlete, Samuel Marquez, and the introvert, Mariam Caudillo, the program is also connecting them to language and cultures their parents grew up with but struggled to maintain due to the constant rush of everyday life.
Marquez, dressed in his black suit, shiny galas on the side of each leg, wearing a red tie and holding his black wide-brimmed hat, said his dad was surprised when he chose to take on the dance program but very supportive because he is also learning about the culture he only had a vague understanding of as a child.
“History can become lost, and like, culture,” he said. “This can be taken away if no one knows about it. So it’s good to make sure that people know about it. It is a piece of history that should be known by the majority.”
Caudillo started dancing because her mother Natalie Mata wanted to share the Folkólico tradition she learned as a child. The family recently moved to Portales from Colorado and quickly searched for a familiar community.
“It feels good that we were able to move here, and we were still able to connect to people and relate to others and see that we’re not the only ones trying to still live out our culture,” Mata said. “But there’s a lot of people out, still living it.”
At first, Mata said, her daughter wasn’t too thrilled to join, but she changed her tune and found enjoyment in the music.
Mata watched intently while capturing the performance on her cell phone. “She’s gotten out of her comfort zone,” Mata said. “and she’s willing to participate in something that she didn’t feel comfortable doing. But she did it.”
She said she doesn’t think the dance class should replace traditional physical education courses, but Mata supports the school district making it an elective for students.
Her daughter, wearing a bright red Jalisco-style ruffled dress, ribbons with her school colors on the edges of the skirt and along the top, said she is also learning Spanish from the music and getting to know a rhythm shared by her mother and others before.
“I never knew how to dance before. It grew over time,” she said. “I learned a lot.”
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