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Monte Alban keeps Mexican culture and tradition alive through folkloric dance

Early on a Saturday morning in a parking lot behind the family-run business of El Pachuco, shouts and spirited cries were exchanged between folkloric dancers and their families in the audience as they performed dances from different states of Mexico. “Dancing helps keep Mexican tradition and culture alive because with dance we express our customs, traditions, and feelings of the communities,” said Maestra Fe Canseco de Perez, director of Monte Alban, a non-profit folkloric dance company based in Fullerton. Established in 2003, Monte Alban has helped performers learn and appreciate the art of dance, both in practice and performance. While the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected Monte Alban and continues to affect them, they have persevered and have kept dancing, adapting to the times.

Monte Alban Folkloric Dancers.

Fe, a Fullerton resident who works as a dance teacher for All the Arts for All the Kids, explained that Mexican folkloric dance is the bodily experience of cultural traditions, which can be represented by anyone, not necessarily a dancer. Originally from the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, she named her dance group Monte Alban after the most important archaeological site of Oaxaca. She started the group because she wanted to help kids. “I wanted to help them maintain a positive focus in life so they wouldn’t get involved in negative activities such as the gangs I would see outside apartments,” Fe said.

Fe got involved with Folkloric Dancing after suffering an accident in gymnastics. “That made me go back to what I had done as a young girl, something I had always liked,” she said. “Here in the USA, I got involved with dancing to be close to my daughters and seeing kids playing something that was not to their benefit outside the apartment, made me want to do this. I have been dancing and giving classes for 40 years.” Fe enjoys the feeling of seeing a child’s delight when learning a dance step or achieving the steps to an entire song. She loves watching the children on stage, showcasing what they have learned and believes dance helps their health, both physically and mentally. Through the dance classes, Fe can help the children and their families with different problems they face.

Monte Alban Folkloric Dancers perform.

Monte Alban has performed numerous dances from at least 15 of the 32 states of Mexico in different theaters, from the Fullerton High School Auditorium to Fullerton College Auditorium to the Muckenthaler Cultural Center to Pearson Park Amphitheater to the Anaheim Center for the Performing Arts at Servite. Monte Alban has also performed at several community venues in support of various organizations, including churches, libraries, retirement homes, Downtown Fullerton, and Olvera Street in Los Angeles as well as city parades.

“We practice a minimum of three months before one of our own groups’ performances,” Fe said. “As the performance approaches, we work up to eight hours or more in one day, depending on the type of event. Prior to the pandemic, we performed six to eight times a year. Since the pandemic, only once.”

“We lost our dance studio because we did not have the financial means to pay the monthly rent,” Fe said. “We couldn’t count on all our members to gather sufficient funds, so we had to let our studio go. The children were afraid to take dance classes, and many did not like the online classes, so the group began to disintegrate.” However, Fe kept her members motivated and engaged by finding a way to have them develop another art: drawing and painting. Bringing the two different art forms together, Monte Alban had contests—everything from holiday arts and crafts to kite decorating contests. With this, the class became more enjoyable on Zoom for younger members.

Fe Perez with kite contest winners Hailey Sotelo, Reylinda Estrella, and Jeena Rodriguez Reyes.

Fortunately, the folkloric dance company was able to find a new rehearsal area for their members at a private parking lot owned by El Pachuco, a family-run business that sells and rents classic zoot suits. Now, with pandemic restrictions easing, Monte Alban is having live classes again. This time, they are dancing outdoors with due respect to social distancing as well as other pandemic precautions. The group currently has about 50 dancers. Their most experienced members have learned around 100 dances. Performers do not make their own costumes, but on occasion, they hand-make their accessories.

“Our costumes are very important because with them we make known the state or region to which it belongs, taking into account its traditions,” Fe said.

One Saturday morning in October, I was lucky enough to be invited to a special performance by Monte Alban behind El Pachuco. All the Arts for All the Kids dance instructor Christina Garner kindly put me in contact with Fe Perez, who then set up a special show for both of us, featuring all the current members of Monte Alban. When Christina and I arrived, we could see a group of performers lined up in rows in a spacious section of the parking lot, dressed in their beautiful black and red costumes, practicing. Some were wearing t-shirts with the Monte Alban logo, and all were wearing matching masks.

Christina and I were warmly greeted by Fe, who happily exclaimed, “Everybody is excited right now!” She motioned for us to briefly stand on one of the “tarimas,” raised platforms the dancers use for their footwork, and we all exchanged greetings before the show started. The dancers performed numbers from Jalisco, Chiapas, Campeche, Veracruz, and Puebla. The music and the movement of the performers changed depending on the dance. Families and friends of the performers stood in the shade, watching, and exchanging “gritos.” These shouts and spirited cries are meant to express happiness, joy, and encouragement to animate the dancers in their performances. There are distinctive “gritos” for different regions of the country, such as the trill from Veracruz or the shouts of mariachi performers.

I learned that Folkloric dance isn’t just for children and teenagers, it’s for entire families. Parents take part in the festivities as well.

Monte Alban folkloric dancers perform.

“All the dances that you see here are done by Maestra [Fe Perez],” said an adult member of Monte Alban after the performance. “Everything’s done by her. That’s why we offer this space because a lot of us can’t afford to pay. Our kids want to dance. We want to dance, and if the children can’t pay or the parents can’t pay, she doesn’t charge them. If they have the love of dance and they want to dance, Maestra is more than willing to help them. Her love for dance is so big that she wants other kids to be able to enjoy it, and to be able to do what they love as well.”

Monte Alban celebrates Day of the Dead by creating an entire show in honor of the occasion. “We have participated in parades,” Fe said. “We celebrate by making sugar and paper skulls, and creating ‘Altars’ for the dead, educating others in the history and celebrations of Day of the Dead.”

Monte Alban is a registered 501C non-profit group and receives additional support from the Estrella Family Foundation, a non-profit based in Fullerton serving local needs. High school students looking for community service hours can volunteer to help with homework tutoring or small group activities for children during company rehearsals. Monte Alban is also looking for assistance with grant writing for arts funding from city, state, or federal sources. Interested members of the community can support Monte Alban by helping them in their search for an affordable location for indoor studio space, especially as the cold rainy winter months approach. They are also looking for secure storage facilities for their large costume collection. If anyone is interested in helping, please contact their administrative secretary Veronica Kraus by email at vckrause@gmail.com or by phone at (714) 883-4661 regarding tax-deductible donations or further information. Interested readers can also visit the Grupo Folklorico Monte Alban Facebook page for information about upcoming events and performances.

To see a video of Monte Alban folkloric dances visit my YouTube channel HERE.