“Ballet Folklórico Nube de Oro!” calls director Erik Diaz, prompting two lines of dancers to spring onto the floor. They whistle, coo and wave as they assume their positions throughout the room. The women, in black T-shirts and long red skirts (typical practice attire), move to form the outer two rows as the men, in simple athletic wear, take the inside. 

The crowded studio (1103 North B St.) is steamy due to the constant movement of the 34 dancers, from age 12-25, in the advanced group of the Ballet Folklórico Nube De Oro. 

With a bow, the dancers take off, moving in a circular pattern as the men stomp and the women wave their skirts. Parents and younger siblings line the back wall as fans whir in an attempt to combat the growing heat. Traditional music from the Jalisco region of Mexico blares, combining with the whistles, shouts and echoing stomps of the dancers. The floor vibrates with the sheer force of the dance. 

Just as suddenly as he began the dance, Diaz cuts the music, and the dancers look up, startled.

“Have fun, smile,” he shouts as they file back to their starting lines. “You guys look dead.”

The scene repeats itself, but this time, the energy is palpable. One of the most radiant smiles belongs to freshman Athenea Godinez, who has performed folklórico, the traditional Mexican dance that emphasizes local folk culture, for seven years. 

On March 1, the group performed during halftime at a Sacramento Kings game. 

“Every year it’s more demanding for the dancers and for me as a director,” Diaz explained beforehand. “The audience there is not mainly the Latino community, so they expect more and more every year. We always want to look synchronized. We have to project the whole feeling so that the people who go to watch basketball can get into it and say, ‘Oh, my God, we really like this!’” 

This year’s dance, from the Jalisco region, is the most popular, Godinez said.

Each dance represents a region in Mexico, according to Godinez. The regions are reflected in the dancers’ costumes. All of the dances are elegant and involve complex skirt work.

“For Jalisco, it’s a lot of ribbons and long skirts,” Godinez said. “But for a region like Chihuahua, it’s more of a princess (dress). It’s short, but also really flowy.

“I like dances from Chihuahua most just because they’re really fast. We do a lot of turns (that) make the skirt look really pretty.”

Godinez began dancing folklórico through an after-school program at her previous school, the Sacramento Language Academy. There, she learned about her current group through a friend. 

While she now loves the dance, she said she hasn’t always.

“When I first started, I was forced to continue by my mom, so I didn’t really like it,” she said. “I moved to the intermediate class and stayed there for a while because I didn’t put much work into it.”

But when Diaz first saw her dance, Godinez said he knew she had potential.

“He talked to my mom and was like, ‘I really think she can do better,’” Godinez said. “So he moved me up (to the advanced level). And he really started pushing me and forcing me to work harder, and I’ve gotten a lot better.”

 Godinez (right) and a fellow dancer pose in Durango costumes at the state Capitol. (Photo courtesy of Godinez)

Godinez said she began to love the dance once she joined the advanced class. 

“In the intermediate class, I didn’t really like my teacher, and I didn’t like what we were learning,” she said. “She didn’t put me in any of the dances. It was kind of boring. But once I moved, it was a challenge for me.”

Godinez is now glad her mom encouraged her to continue dancing, she said.

“It caused us to fight a lot when I started, but I’m glad she pushed me,” Godinez said. “It’s just something I love now.”

Karen Pulido, who has danced with Godinez for six years, said her growth has been vast. 

“Out of nowhere, she just popped into the advanced group,” Pulido said. “And from there she grew dramatically.”

Pulido said Godinez’s styling — how she becomes a character — is the strongest aspect of her dance. 

“Sometimes she puts on a flirty character, sometimes angry,” Pulido said. “And she knows how to play those roles really well. I love her turns, her little smile, the way she moves with skirts and with partners.” 

Diaz, who has directed the group for three years, said Godinez is now one of its strongest dancers. 

“Like other young kids, they start off shy, not having strong coordination, maybe struggling to be on time or wear the appropriate clothes,” he said. “With her, every year and every month there’s something new. She is getting mature, (learning) more sequences, being more professional and working a little harder than before. 

“Why? Because she understands now that (her dance) is something strong.” 

Her class practices three days a week for two hours a day, but Godinez said the sessions increase in frequency and duration when the group prepares for large performances. Practices, according to Godinez, are the hardest part of dancing.

“My instructor wants the best from us,” Godinez said. “When we can’t make it or we’re goofing off, he’ll get mad. So we really have to stay on top of everything. Every dance is hard to learn, but it just takes practice.”

Godinez said dancing folklórico has taught her the value of hard work. 

“If I really want something, I have to work hard for it,” Godinez said. “If I want to perform at the Kings game, I have to really push and do the best I can.”

The group’s performances range from private parties and events to large dance festivals, including the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and El Festival de los Danzantes, an annual convention at California State University, Fresno, at which her group has performed for the past three years.

“There we learn different styles and new regions from different teachers,” Godinez said. 

Her group, which has almost 200 members, has gained popularity due to its performances with famous Mexican singers, according to Godinez, including Steeven Sandoval, Aida Cuevas and various mariachis. 

Godinez’s group has also performed alongside other folklórico organizations, including the Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company in Los Angeles and Generaciones Dance Company in Stockton. 

“We’re like a big family. There isn’t competition. I get to meet new people from around the world.

—Athenea Godinez

“We’re all like a big family,” Godinez said, noting that this is one of her favorite aspects of the dance. “There isn’t competition. I get to meet new people from around the world.” 

She said seeing different cultural dances, particularly Indian, at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is also very interesting.

Godinez added that the size of performances depends on their location and the style of the dances.

“If it’s close, (Diaz) will try to put more people in (the dances),” Godinez said. “The parents usually drive, or we carpool. But it’s a big community, so we all help each other out.” 

However, she said performances can become difficult when they interfere with school or homework.

“There are times where (performances are) during the week, which is challenging,” Godinez said. “My siblings help out and drive me places. When we do performances, we’re there for like five hours. So it is a lot of work for my family.” 

Despite her love for folklórico, Godinez said she has wanted to try other forms of dance. 

“A few years ago, when I didn’t really like it, I wanted to try ballet, but my mom didn’t let me,” Godinez said. “Recently, when we went to Los Angeles (we learned that the Grandeza Mexicana Folk Ballet Company) has a mandatory ballet class before their folklórico class to incorporate it into the dance. Our group is thinking about doing that.”

As for her future in folklórico, Godinez said she isn’t sure if she will continue past high school, depending on where she goes to college.

Originally published in the March 17 edition of the Octagon.

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