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A Dance of History at Centro De Folklor

Apr 29, 2019 11:00AM ● By Melissa Mendonca

A Story to Tell

May 2019
Story by Melissa Mendonca 
Photos courtesy of Centro De Folklor
and photos by Dakota Lynn Photography

OSCAR HERNANDEZ dances folklorico somewhere between the past and the future. As an alumnus and English teacher at Selma High School, he’s keenly aware of the history of his school. “Little ol’ Selma, in the school system, has been teaching folklorico for 51 years,” he says. It’s where the 52-year-old got his start as a student, and where he continues to develop skills he hopes will be carried into a legacy of dance for many years.

As the founder of Selma’s Centro de Folklor, he gleans the best of what he learned from beloved area teachers Vicki Filgas and Irene Gonzalez, and continuous training with instructors both stateside and from Mexico, and brings the best to his 180 students, ranging in age from 2 to 72. “Many groups try to keep things as traditional as possible as it was done in Mexico,” he says. “We also want to tell our own stories.”

The result is a studio, opened in 2016, that honors tradition but also creates space for modern interpretations and new dances that tell the stories of Mexican Americans and the immigrant experience. The instructors also form a more collective identity rather than revolving around the vision of one person. “I had no background in the business world,” Hernandez says with a laugh. “I had to have quick lessons in marketing.” Gratefully, the team around him is as invested in the studio’s success as he is.

“The majority of our instructors are in education,” adds Hernandez. “Our goal is to train these young dancers to become teachers and instructors themselves. My goal is to phase myself out.” The studio has a formal partnership with Selma High as an industry partner in its Regional Occupational Program. “We get externs who want to teach and learn about the program,” he continues.

The offerings at Centro de Folklor range from a monthly class for 2- and 3-year-olds taught by early childhood education instructors – “it’s pretty popular because there’s not a lot for the age group,” he says – to a comeback class for people who once danced folklorico and want a low-key opportunity to dance again without the rigor of preparing for performance. “It just meets once a week for about an hour and a half. It’s grown and it’s really popular,” says Hernandez. Mixed in are youth classes and a beginning adult class with members from 20-72 years old and a waiting list. “It has great energy and they’re a very tight knit group,” he adds.

Classes revolve around a college schedule, with instructors choosing which region of Mexico to focus on each session. “We try to mix it up so when it’s time for a recital, we represent a lot of regions. We have a very big variety. We’re not just learning dances, we’re learning a world in itself of a region of Mexico, the multiculturalism within Mexico,” he continues. “They’re getting this sense of ‘Wow, there’s much more to this than we thought.’ From state to state, region to region, you never run out of material.”

Complementing the traditional regional study is the group’s Irene Gonzalez Project, which reflects on the experiences of Mexican Americans and Mexicans in the United States. “They’ve pushed the boundaries of traditional folklorico,” says Hernandez. “They add storytelling. We also want to tell our own stories.”

This is important because, as Mexican Americans, “A lot of times we feel like we’re living in two worlds,” he adds. Folklorico helps dancers develop a sense of identity. One of the most beautiful aspects of the dance studio is that on any given night of classes, three generations may be dancing. “It’s pretty amazing,” says Hernandez. “It connects all of the generation with one love. In the comeback class, if they have kids they are in the kids’ classes.”

The group prepares for two big recitals a year, including a holiday event celebrating Las Posadas and an early summer recital. May, however, is a particularly eventful month, with community performances at Selma Raisin Days (May 5), the Folklorico Fest at Abraham Lincoln Middle School (May 15), Selma Arts Center with Los Paisanos de Selma High High School (May 28), and a special performance at Arte Americas in Fresno (May 31).

“When it comes to performances, it’s a family affair,” says Hernandez, noting how both his biological and dance families get involved. The public is welcome is to join in for a look at the past and a glimpse of the future of folklorico in the Valley. •

Centro de Folklor •

2016 2nd Street, Selma • (559) 351-4368

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