This week, Dr. Olga Nájera-Ramírez, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, CA premiered her film documentary on the historical development of modern Mexican folkdance. Danza Folklórica Escénica traces the history of Mexican folklórico through the life of one of its pioneers, Rafael Zamarripa. Though I was not able to attend the grand premiere—with special guest Maestro Zamarripa himself !—I did go to a screening at the UCSC anthropology department.Nájera-Ramírez has been investigating folklórico since the 1970s as an undergraduate student at UCSC where she first encountered it. She met Zamarripa in 1976 and studied with him for three years at his school, Escuela del Artes Plásticas de la Universidad de Guadalajara. As a graduate student, she set out to research the history and practice of the genre and was shocked to find that there was nothing available other than small “recipe” booklets. She decided to rectify that. In 1989 Nájera-Ramírez published one of the first scholarly articles on folklórico. Last year, the University of Illinois Press published the first anthology of essays on folklórico, Dancing across Borders: Danzas y Bailes Mexicanos, co-edited by Nájera-Ramírez. This new documentary film, directed and produced by Nájera-Ramírez, represents the culmination of decades of research and finally provides a comprehensive explanation of the complex history of Mexican folklórico.
Rafael Zamarippa, the subject of the film, is a sculptor and painter of some note as well as master, devotee, and innovator of Mexican folkdance. Performing first with Amalia Hernandez’s famous Ballet Folklórico de Mexico, he left to explore a different direction for the form. His concern for the roots of dance in folk culture lead him to do his own field research, gathering information through video and interviews. Mexican folk dance takes many forms from the indigenous religious danzas to the secular bailes derived from European social dances. His research became the foundation of his choreography and provided inspiration for his lighting design and costuming.
While Zamarippa maintained the “ambiance” of the folk traditions, he was not afraid to innovate and demand technical proficiency from his dancers. He is credited with being one of the Fathers of modern folklórico and with creating a canon and setting standards for dramatic narratives. Today he is developing technical drills for footwork, arm positions, and placement of the torso to prepare the dancers for the wide range of movement that will be required of them.
Nájera-Ramírez also explains the role of folklórico in Mexican identity politics. Of particular interest is the role it played here in the US through the Chicano Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s. For Mexican-American young people struggling to find an identity, grupos folklóricos came to represent their Mexican heritage. Interestingly, while Chicano artists began to express their politics through music, literature, and mural painting, the dance remained politically neutral. I hope this is a topic Nájera-Ramírez will develop in her future writing.
Dr. Olga Najera-Ramirez is to be praised for her own contributions to Mexicanand Mexican-American scholarship. I am very proud to say that Olga was my dissertation advisor at UCSC and I am grateful to her for introducing me to Mexican culture and to the field of folklore. I also owe a debt of gratitude to my former SJSU student, Itza Sanchez. Her explanation of the varieties of folkloric dance in Mexico together with Olga’s writings on the politics and history of folklórico brought this complex history to life.
Danza Folklórica Escénica has not been released to the public yet but Olga is in negotiations for a broadcast on PBS. I will keep you posted.