Bold red lipstick along with the colorful big dress skirts of whites, reds, greens, and yellows is the first thing that
captures the audience. The skirts seem to flow on and on, and the audience’s eyes are glued to the patterns of the skirts when they’re twirled back and forth.
But if that wasn’t enough to capture the viewers, the Mexican Dance Ensemble in Chicago begins to tap their heels on the floor to make the very distinct sound that makes Mexican folkloric dance exactly what it is.
This dance is a very artistic way of keeping the Mexican culture alive throughout generations. The steps and moves don’t generally change all that much during time but instead get refined.
The Mexican Dance ensemble does just that. They keep the culture vibrant and going and leave nothing but sweat on the dance floor. Their hard-work and determination has led them to display their talents not only in Chicago and the United States, but also worldwide.
From France, Portugal, Spain and Taiwan among other countries, this dance company proudly represents who they are.
However, things didn’t necessarily start at the top for the group. Founded by Samuel Cortez in November of 2001, the group started with 16 dancers, all of which came from different dance backgrounds. Their struggles at first were finding places to practice. They were able to find their first rehearsal space in a car mechanic shop. Although dirty and cold, the dancers were motivated to make it work.
Cortez grew up as a dancer in Mexico. He obtained the opportunity to travel to a few countries to showcase his talents in the dance company he danced for and it was then that he realized he wanted to continue to travel as a dancer.
“I got involved more and more [in dancing] until I realized that there was nothing else for me as a dancer,” said Cortez.
After learning about a school in Colima, Mexico, Cortez decided to further his dance career. He attended the school as a dance major and later got invited to the United States to give a few dance workshops. Once here, Cortez learned about the community and got inspired to help as much as he could.
“I learned that people in this community face a lot difficulties in life because they don’t know how to identify themselves,” said Cortez. “The more I learned about the Mexican community in Chicago I got more interested in helping them feel proud about who they are.”
Although Cortez still holds a daytime eight-hour workday job, he said dancing is more than just dancing.
“With this type of dance and with any type of dance, it’s not just a hobby, it becomes a lifestyle,” said Cortez.
That lifestyle has gathered both young and old to join Cortez’s ensemble. The group has members as young as 14 and the numbers go up to mid 30’s. All the dancers in the ensemble come from different dance backgrounds. Some have danced all their lives and others are learning it for the first time. The Mexican Dance Ensemble is open for anyone to join no matter what background and no matter what age.
Alonso Cortes, one of the other founders of the ensemble, started dancing when he was 12. Although his mom forced him into joining a group, he now appreciates the opportunities he’s received as a dancer.
“At first it was forced upon me, but after a while you meet people and you make friends and I think that’s what keeps you there,” said Cortes. “Before you know it you don’t want to leave it [dancing.]”
Cortes said his favorite part about dancing is when he’s on the stage performing. He said that dancing in front of people showing what he’s learned and showing his Mexican culture is the greatest feeling.
“The applauses are addicting after a while,” said Cortes.
Mirella Borjon is another dancer in the ensemble who joined about three years ago, but overall has danced for about 11 years. She started to dance this style in her high school and has danced ever since then. Her brother, already a member in the high school group, encouraged her to join so that they could represent their Mexican culture.
Borjon hasn’t stopped dancing since then and she loves to learn as much as she can with this style of dancing.
“You can be so many different personalities on stage. From indigenous women to rich women, it’s just a way to express yourself,” said Borjon.
She says traveling the world has been such a great privilege for her. Going around and teaching other people in different countries who don’t know a thing about the Mexican culture is a wonderful feeling, she said.
“It feels wonderful to say, ‘Yo soy Mexicana,’ and we’re here from the United States and we’re keeping our culture alive,” said Borjon.
Borjon is looking forward to passing on the torch to her future children. She says everyone should try it and give it an opportunity, even if it’s not Mexican folkloric, but it could be any type of dance.
Director Cortez said with his ensemble, not only do they dance just to dance, but they also tell stories with some of their creative dance pieces. In order to tell the stories in the creative pieces a little research has to be done, said Cortez.
“We have to do a little research to actually promote Mexican tradition,” said Cortez. “We have to know the real tradition so we could talk about it even in the language of dance.”
Angel Ledezema is one of the newest members of the group and he said he first started dancing because of his mom. He said his mom was a dancer when she lived in Mexico and once she came to this country, she instilled in her children this form of dance.
“I like dancing because it relieves stress,” said Ledezema. “If I feel angry I put more effort into it and I step harder, if I feel happy I smile more, and if I feel sad I could just let it out [while dancing.]”
The Mexican Dance Ensemble is dedicated in what they do. They hold practices three times a week and they perform a few times each month. They’ve performed in places like the Chicago Theater, Pritzker Pavillium, and Athenaeum Theater among others. They’re next big performance stage will be in Turkey during the summer and India later this year.