Dancing like a Folklorist

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Contemporary dancers in the borderlands learn the folklórico dance of Sonora Bronco

Essay by Yvonne Montoya with photographs by Ammi Robles

In the dusty dance studio of Agua Prieta’s Casa de Cultura, we’d just finished a three-hour-plus rehearsal. I turned to master teacher Juan Luis Ángeles Gonzáles, and asked, “Dónde vive baile folclórico en su cuerpo?” Where does folkloric dance live in your body?”

His answer surprised me.

I’d traveled to sister towns Douglas and Agua Prieta to study Sonora Bronco, a style of Mexican folk dance from the state of Sonora, with Maestro Luis Ángeles. I took along three contemporary dancers—Ruby Morales, Steve Rosales, and Emigdio Arredondo-Martinez—Mexican American dancers who perform with my Tucson-based dance company, Safos Dance Theatre. For some, it was their first-time studying baile folklorico; for others, it was their first visit to Mexico, outside of trips to see family.

A dancer sitting in a circle talking with other dancers.
Yvonne Montoya with Maestro Juan Luis Ángeles Gonzáles during the binational dance exchange in Agua Prieta, Sonora.

We wanted to observe the different ways folklorico and contemporary dancers experience embodied learning, and specifically we wanted to understand to understand Gonzalez’s approach. During a three-day exchange of movement and ideas, I hoped to answer my ongoing artistic and choreographic question: What are the contemporary movement aesthetics of Mexican American, Hispanic, Chicano communities who have been living for centuries in what is now the U.S. Southwest?

As a dance artist and a 23rd generation Nuevomexicana whose ancestors the border crossed in 1848, I recognize distinctions between the forms that Mexican American and borderlands contemporary dance artists practice and the traditional and folk forms of the region. I am curious how to bridge those gaps both in my body and in the dances I create.

One of the ways I might do that, I realized, was through an exchange of traditional and contemporary forms. In this case, my dancers and I would learn Sonora Bronco from Maestro Luis Ángeles and his students and share with them some of the contemporary dance forms that we practice—modern dance and breaking.  

Dance is an intangible and embodied form. Physical knowledge, muscle memories, and knowledges that live within the body are shared from teacher to student in hands-on ways, in person, and in real time. The best way to learn dance is by doing. This work called for embodied folklife research. The only way to understand Sonora Bronco in context was to embody the form as taught by a master teacher in Sonora.

Knowing that the exchange of folkloric knowledge was going to happen within dancers’ bodies, I considered different ways to document this intangible heritage, eventually deciding on video documentation and dancer interviews. I interviewed all dancers involved in the exchange at both the beginning and end of the weekend. I invited Agua Prieta-based visual artist Ammi Robles to film exchange—all 11.5 hours of dancing as well as interviews—so we could later reflect upon and remember the dances learned.

After deep reflection on our incredible three-day experience, these are some of the observations we have after dancing and thinking like a folklorist.

 Personalismo and confianza

“Honestly, I’m just really blown away by the giving, so much giving and so much receiving that has happened this weekend. And I think that has a lot to do with the relationship that you Yvonne have built with this place and with the people here. Relationships are extremely important, like extremely important. Just the trust that was fully embodied when we walked in the space and the [sentiment of] ‘this is for you to have’—I am just completely moved by that.” 

– Ruby Morales, Arizona dancer

People practicing dancing.

I first met Maestro Luis Ángeles in 2018, when I was invited to participate in ASU’s Performance in the Borderlands Binational Art Residency “Espacios Compartidos/Shared Spaces.” González and I continued to work together with Las Fronterizas Ensemble, where I deepened my relationship with him as well as the dancers in his company. We stayed in contact throughout the pandemic and talked about the possibility of a dance-specific Arizona, Sonora exchange. When I reached out to him about a weekend of intensive master dance classes in Sonora Bronco, he enthusiastically accepted. We were thrilled to work together and share our different embodied knowledges.

I recognize the importance of personal relationships in my work both as a dance artist and as a dance artist who “thinks like a folklorist.” Personalismo or placing high value on developing and cultivating warm, caring, and trusting personal relationships is a core Mexican American practice, rooted in Mexican culture. Maestro Luis Ángeles and I developed and cultivated a meaningful personal relationship over the course of several years. During that time, we built trust and a sense of community together, which undoubtedly enabled a successful exchange when we finally connected our dancers.

Trust is central to dance practice and collaboration. Without a sense of trust, it can be difficult for dancers to relax their bodies and to access the state of vulnerability needed to truly learn and embody a new form. Maestro Luis Ángeles and dancers held a space grounded in confianza (trust) that allowed for the contemporary dancers to take the embodied risks necessary to learn a new dance form and three new dances in three days. But that level of trust took years to build.

Learning by listening and doing

“Maestro did say … ‘We don’t do it by counts. We don’t tell you how many times you are going to do the steps. We listen to the music and the music tells us when we are going to change the step and the music tells us when we are going to the next movement.”

– Ruby Morales, Arizona dancer

Maestro Luis Ángeles expects dancers to learn by doing. Although he demonstrates some movements and gives corrections, the primary way dancers learn Sonora Bronco is by doing the steps themselves. Over and over again.

For me, this meant quickly learning the basics of the footwork and repeating what I learned. With each repetition I closely watched the movements of Juan Carlos, the baile folklorico dance company member with whom I was partnered, to pick up the detailed intricacies of the form. I noticed other dancers received similar guidance and feedback from their partners, which was helpful since Maestro Luis Ángeles gave no clear breakdown of the steps.

The more we danced, the more we picked up on the nuances. This resulted in a greater embodied experience for us. Rather than thinking about counts or the precision of steps, we were able to focus on the music and let it guide our movement.

It was also an exercise in stamina! Sonora Bronco is a very cardiovascular dance form and dancers need excellent conditioning to perform this dance to its fullest. Per Maestro Luis Ángeles’s teaching methods, repetition is how dancers learn the form—training the mind and muscles for memory and stamina. For us contemporary dancers, this way of learning required us to use our skills as both visual and embodied learners.

A still from dancers practicing the Bronco Dance.
Yvonne Montoya learns the traditional Sonora Bronco.

Put on your dancing shoes

“I wasn’t expecting the footwear to be the way that it is. I was expecting it to be like a chancla or something, but no. These are boots, and these boots have steel on them, and they are heavy, but they feel very powerful to be in.” –Steve Rosales, Arizona dancer

“If I had been better conditioned to wear the shoes, maybe it would have been a more smooth transition into the style.” – Emigdio Arredondo-Martínez, Arizona dancer

In general, contemporary and modern dance is done barefoot, while baile folklorico is usually done in heeled shoes with small nails pounded into both the toe tip and heel. For Sonora Bronco, dancers wear boots. Learning the dance meant we wore boots many hours a day, which was the biggest notable difference and adjustment for the contemporary dancers.

Other embodied differences I observed included how body weight is held and shifted during Sonora Bronco. Oftentimes contemporary dancers would take extra steps during transitions because their weight was not on the correct leg. We faced similar challenges with jumps, a dominate feature of the dance. Coordinating footwork with the position of shoulders and upper spine was also new for us.

Learning new forms requires dancers not only to rely on body knowledge they already have but also to let go of some of their pre-established training to let in something new. Because of muscle memory, the contemporary dancers’ bodies would unwittingly rely on previous dance techniques. For example, I noticed at first dancers would draw on familiar ballet moves and positions while trying to do Sonora Bronco steps. In time, dancers were able to override these muscle memory challenges to embody the folkloric dance.

I’m curious about this kind of muscle memory and how it can shift and be “retrained.” Perhaps knowing where and how we remember movement and dance in the body says something about how intangible forms of heritage are stored and shared. I look forward to continuing this exploration in future dance exchanges and collaborations.

Dancers sitting in a circle, sweaty after rehearsal.
Dancers from both sides of the border built connections and relationships through their dance exchange.

Dónde vive baile folklorico en su cuerpo?

This exchange built cross-border connections and relationships between dancers from different genres and artistic practices. At the end of the third day, dancers exchanged contact information along with intentions to come together again. In May, we made good on that intention and gathered in May at Dance in the Desert, an ongoing gathering of Latinx dancemakers that I founded in 2017. There, they shared classes in baile folklorico Sonora bronco, breaking, contemporary, and more.

The dances of La Estampa de Sonora Bronco continue to inspire my work. For my current project, “Stories from Home,” I am creating a duet called “Cómo eres,” which uses contemporary and Sonora Bronco dance to represent a borderlands love story.

Speaking of love stories, during our Sonora Bronco exchange, when I asked dancers, “Dónde vive baile folklorico en su cuerpo? Where does folklorico dance live in your body?”

I heard, In my chest. In my core. In my legs and my feet and my arms.

But the most striking response came from Maestro Luis Ángeles: “En mi corazón.”  

Yvonne Montoya is a Tucson-based mother, dancemaker, and the founding director of Safos Dance Theatre. Her work is grounded in and inspired by the landscapes, languages, cultures, and aesthetics of the U.S. Southwest. She was a 2021 SFA Plain View Fellow.

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