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Petaluma teacher keeps the colorful folk dance tradition of Ballet Folklorico alive

Clockwise from left, Natalia Valencia, 9, left, her mother Marquelia Valencia, Alondra Garcia, 7, and other members of Ballet Folklorico Ireri practice together, in Petaluma, California, on Thursday, August 16, 2018. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)

MEG MCCONAHEY,

Maria Serrano admits that some days she is bone tired, working three jobs, seven days a week. But when she’s dancing, all her cares fall away.

“I’m very exhausted sometimes. But as soon as I put my finger on the music my stress just ... whooooosh,” she said. “I hear music, and I can’t not move. I say I have music in my blood.”

Serrano is particularly charmed by the traditional music and dance of her native Mexico and is determined to pass that on to a younger generation, growing up far removed from the pueblos and cities of Mexico where their parents and grandparents came from. She heads up Ireri Ballet Folklorico, a Petaluma dance studio dedicated strictly to teaching the folk dances of Mexico.

“These kids, they are born here,” she said. “They are American kids. But they can learn our traditions, our culture. That’s the most important thing to me, that our culture doesn’t die. I want to just keep it going.”

Hers is one of many groups throughout Sonoma County that teach or perform Ballet Folklorico. But Serrano is the rare teacher who has been professionally trained in the art. And her Petaluma school, held in the community room of Logan Place, a low-income housing complex on Petaluma Boulevard North, is ultra-low fee — only $3 per class — so virtually any child can afford to attend.

Serrano said she does it as a community service and for a love of the dance. Of her 28 students, she has only three boys, but never stops hoping more will join. Students range in age from 3 to about 16. Serrano even has some mothers who are taking classes with their daughters because it looked so fun.

Miriam Soto has been bringing her daughter, Emily, 7, to classes and said she’s itching to start herself. She did it for about a year when she was a little girl growing up in Sonoma. Now, she wants Emily to have the same experience. Her youngest, Mavis, is only 2, but already has her own practice skirt and loves to pretend she’s joining in.

“I wanted them to learn the culture. All the regions in Mexico have their dances, with certain dresses and their own history, and they’re learning about them,” she said. “I also like it because it helps them crack out of their shell so they won’t be so shy around people.”

Miriam Reyes of Petaluma said her daughter, Amber, 7, was afraid to speak to other people before taking up Ballet Folklorico.

“After she started to dance she changed. Now she’s really happy all the time. If somebody is sad she’ll hug them and say, ‘Don’t worry. Do you want to play with me?’ ”

Part of the allure of Ballet Folklorico, also known as Baile Folklorico — baile means dance in Spanish — are the costumes, many consisting of brightly colored, ruffled skirts with beautiful trim that they spread out like peacocks as they fly about the dance floor.

Ask how she feels when she’s dressed up, with the requisite makeup and fancy headpieces, 12-year-old Daphne Garcia declared, “Confident.”

Alondra Ojeda, 14, has been taking lessons since she was in kindergarten. She said she has traveled to Mexico and seen regular people in the villages wearing the clothing similar to the outfits she wears for dancing. She loves that — the fact that it connects her to her family elders.

“My mom will sometimes ask, ‘What if you couldn’t dance?’ And I say I would cry. It’s part of me now.”

The costumes can cost more than $200, which can include hats, hairpieces, chunky-heeled tap shoes and headwear. But Serrano also has a massive stash of costumes she keeps in giant waterproof tubs in her backyard for the girls who can’t afford their own.

Growing up in the state of Michoacan, she started folk dancing when she was only 6, and took to it so easily, she was teaching it to other children for money by the time she was in junior high. She saved as many pennies as possible.

Her parents insisted she study something practical and sent her to secretarial school, which she hated. But in 1986 she took first place in a local dance competition. One of her close competitors, a young man, told her about a school in a neighboring state where she could study Ballet Folklorico intensively for a college degree. To her parents’ dismay, she left home, using the money she had saved from teaching to finance her way through the program. She graduated in 1989. In the early 1990s she emigrated to California with her husband and settled in Petaluma, where she raised a daughter, 24 and a son, 17. She now has a 19-month-old granddaughter who already is a budding dancer.

Serrano over the years taught at various places, from Novato to Santa Rosa Junior College to St. Vincent’s Church in Petaluma. About five years ago she decided to open her own school. She makes no profit. Most of the money from student fees goes toward music and costumes and other expenses. She supports herself by cleaning houses and doing choreography for Quinceaneras, the big 15th birthday parties favored by many Latino girls to mark their transition to womanhood. Serrano teaches the waltzes that are a key part of the celebrations.

Each of the 32 states in Mexico have their own folkloric dances, music and costumes. Serrano knows thousands of them, and maintains an encyclopedia of recorded music for choreography. The girls will study a different group each year, representing different parts of Mexico.

The group performs at fairs, baptisms, quinceañeras and other events. Each show is one hour of nonstop dancing, with multiple costume changes they have to pull of in five minutes. They have to keep track of each accessory, including handkerchiefs and rebozos, or scarves, and make sure everything is placed perfectly and according to tradition.

“I can honestly say I don’t care how many hours I work,” Serrano said of her work, which is really a calling to preserve her culture. “Every time when I do it I enjoy it. I’m so happy to see their happy faces and every time we perform I see the progress of each one. I do this from my heart.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocratcom. On Twitter @megmcconahey.