FRESNO — Backstage at the Warnor’s Center for the Performing Arts here, Ariana Ferrer, a junior from Monache High School in Porterville, Calif., was engaged in a critical ritual: spritzing hair spray onto nails embedded in the soles of her dance shoes to keep her from slipping during a barrage of rapid-fire footwork.
It was the last Saturday in February, and Ms. Ferrer and 200 or so other dancers from her school were here for Danzantes del Valle: High School Show Offs, the biggest event of the year for local students passionate about folklórico, the storied dance tradition steeped in the regional cultures of Mexico. In a makeshift dressing room, girls applied lipstick using their reflective cellphones as mirrors. Boys struggled to wedge their feet into pointy boots.
The Fresno High School team preparing for Danzantes del Valle: High School Show Offs.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times Some backstage inspiration.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times
Ms. Ferrer, in a ruffled skirt edged with blue ribbons from Chiapas, prepared to go onstage as her teacher, John Gonzales, cinched waist sashes, rearranged hair ornaments and tried not to fret about 15 costumes that had gone missing. “Chin up!,” he always tells his dancers before a performance. “Chest up! Relax your shoulders! Give 110 percent! And don’t forget that safety pins are your best friend!”
Danzantes del Valle, organized by a coalition of school dance directors and ArteAmericas, a nonprofit Latino arts center, is an annual event with prom-like intensity. This year’s edition featured folklórico troupes from 11 high schools, all from the San Joaquin Valley, a vast agricultural region in the state’s midsection. Here, child poverty rates are high and many workers who spend long days harvesting produce have difficulty putting food on their tables.
Dancers from Sunnyside High School in Fresno at Danzantes del Valle.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times Rehearsal.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times
For the dedicated young dancers who find a community of kindred spirits in folklórico, the current political climate — with its immigration raids and anti-Mexican rhetoric — has only inspired them to work harder. “There are many people who are hating our culture right now,” Jenny Cruz, a senior at Central High School in Fresno, said. “Dancing makes you feel empowered over the hate.”
The program in Porterville, a city about 75 miles southeast of Fresno where roughly 80 percent of students are Latino, is emblematic of folklórico’s new burst of energy. Starting with 85 students over a decade ago, it now enrolls more than 450 — with a long waiting list. Mr. Gonzales, who grew up in circumstances similar to his students,’ directs folklórico at all three Porterville high schools, where cafeterias serve as stand-ins for dance studios with sprung floors.
From left, Joseluis Bravo, 16; Brandy Perez, 17; and Kevin Lopez, 16, of the Fresno High School folklórico team outside their dressing room at Danzantes del Valle.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times A quick huddle in the dressing area.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times
From Guymon, Okla. (pop. 12,000), to big cities like Dallas and Tucson, folklórico is increasingly being embraced by schools as part of performing arts or physical education curriculums. Maria Luisa Colmenarez, president of the nonprofit Danzantes Unidos, a transnational network of dancers, said it is “a declaration that the students are part of the fabric that makes America America.”
In Grand Prairie, Tex., a town between Dallas and Fort Worth, recruiters from University of Texas of the Permian Basin scout gifted young folkloristas the way their colleagues check out football prospects. In the Dallas Independent School District, folklórico “is on the same plane as ballet and modern,” said Rachel Harrah, the district’s theater and dance director, offered at 19 high schools, 23 middle and two elementary schools, with master classes held four times a year.
José Tena, a revered dancer and teacher in Las Cruces, N.M., about 45 miles from the border, put it this way: “The purpose is not to create professional dancers, but to create members of the community who value who they are.”
Dancers from Central High in Fresno.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times The team from the Porterville Unified School District.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times
As the students from Monache High stepped onstage in Fresno — the boys in suede over-pants and red kerchiefs, the girls in skirts that become kaleidoscopic swoops of color in motion — they began “El Sapo” (“The Toad”), exchanging side-to-side hops to a marimba beat. As they danced they also stepped into a tradition in which every bandanna, costume, hair ornament, sash, fan, shawl and pair of boots reflects a specific region of Mexico.
Movement and music are vivid partners in folklórico, in which dancers create intricate, energetic patterns onstage that shift and change with lightning speed. The choreography incorporates traditional steps like lazada, which mimics the roping techniques of vaqueros; or, as in Nayarit and other coastal states, aggressive footwork in which men show off their bravado by dancing with machetes, used to harvest sugar cane. Other steps imitate birds, iguanas and snakes, which are walloped with sombreros. Dances from Jalisco, real crowd pleasers, feature dizzying skirt work, in which twirling double layers in riotous colors become presences in their own right.
Flirtation, romance and jostling for a plum partner are prime themes, which makes folklórico a good fit for adolescent dancers. “Folklórico has grown in my heart,” said Michael Herrera, a senior at Lincoln High School in San Jose. “Falling in love, chasing after a girl — for me, that’s kind of how it is.”
Folklórico rose to national prominence in Mexico during the post-Revolutionary period of the 1920s, when several government agencies and institutions began documenting it. The idea was to preserve the dances as living symbols of national diversity, including in public schools, said Olga Nájera-Ramirez, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
In the United States, the Chicano movement of the late-1960s embraced folklórico as a way to promote Mexican identity and push back against cultural assimilation and discrimination. It was then that it gained a toehold at public schools and universities.
The team from Fresno High, posing for a picture before performing.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times The Porterville team performing at Danzantes del Valle.CreditEmily Berl for The New York Times Some of the merchandise for sale at the High School Show Offs. Fund-raising has become a folklórico fixture.CreditPhotographs by Emily Berl for The New York Times
The appeal of folklórico cuts across cultures. Dancers at Fresno’s Central High, for example, have included Hmong, Russian and Punjabi students. Sumith Goyal, a senior whose father is Indian and mother Cambodian, is the Central group’s vice president. But for students with Mexican roots it resonates most deeply. The Central High troupe, for example, is called Danzantes de Tlaloc, after the Aztec God of rain — “because dance is the water that nourishes the culture,” Rosa A. Gonzalez Madrigal, the group’s director, said.
For many students, folklórico is an anchor and a source of resilience. Porterville and environs made international news when its wells went dry during California’s five-year drought. Among the families affected was Ms. Ferrer’s; for nearly a year, they showered at relatives’ houses and Ms. Ferrer sometimes resorted to pouring a jug of bottled water over her head. “It took a toll on us,” she said. “Dance was a relief.”
Many of the parents work several jobs to get by, as Mr. Gonzales’s mother did, and some students miss weekend rehearsals to work in the fields, supplementing family income. The cost of costumes — which can run up to $300 — and special shoes can be prohibitive. Fund-raisers have become folklórico fixtures, with troupes performing at church fiestas, weddings and even casinos to raise money for stock costumes, and parents selling tamales and T-shirts outside packed auditoriums.
Sometimes teachers pick up the slack. Among them is Gustavo Sandoval, a science teacher in Thermal, Calif., where 90 percent of high school students live in poverty, many in ramshackle mobile home parks. Mr. Sandoval and his wife, Gabriela, who works in a school kitchen, subsidize an after-school folklórico program at Desert Mirage High School out of their own pockets — about $11,000 a year. “We want to give our youth something positive to do,” he said.
In Porterville, Mr. Gonzales “made a decision to give it my all,” he said, by using his own seed money to jump-start the program 15 years ago. His sister, Irma Rios, continues to sew many of the costumes.
The principal of Porterville High, Jose Valdez, said that when he’s having a bad day he wanders into Mr. Gonzales’s rehearsals, where the effervescence and joy lifts his spirits. “It gives the students a reason to come to school,” he said. “They’re all in. They perfect their dances for him,” he said of Mr. Gonzales, “because they see and feel his love for what he does.”
At the Show Offs, a group of female folkloristas from Porterville performed “La Bruja”(“The Witch”), a dance from Veracruz in which women in gossamer white dresses emerge onstage, a glass containing a lit candle balanced atop each of their heads.
The ethereal glow suggested the transformative power of folklórico. As Mr. Goyal from Central High, put it: “Even though we stomp really hard, we feel light.”