Dallas — We know their swirling dances and splashes of color amid fancy footwork. But dance can serve larger social ends too, and this is why Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico is this year’s ArtCon beneficiary.
Anita Martinez is a Dallas native. Her passion to make her city “the best it can be” has been driving her for seven decades. When the Dallas City Council named a recreation center after her in the ‘70s, for her work in improving lives in the communities of West Dallas and Little Mexico, she was troubled by what she saw: Hispanic children shy and withdrawn. But she had an idea about how to unlock their potential—the same approach that had set her free as a child.
By teaching Hispanic youth about the richness of their culture through the performing arts—Mexican music, dance, and history—they would proudly embrace their heritage. And with improved self-esteem, children would be motivated to stay in school and set higher educational goals. So in 1975, Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico (ANMBF) was born. Now nearly 40 years later, supported by public funds, special grants and private donations, the school continues to work towards its mission.
In recognition of its success, ANMBF has been selected as this year’s beneficiary of ArtCon, an annual fundraiser created and produced by Art Conspiracy, a nonprofit community of artists and musicians who raise funds and awareness for regional programs. The event happens 7-11 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15 in a Trinity Groves warehouse at 500 Singleton Blvd., Dallas.
“ANMBF does so much good in the neighborhood [East Dallas] with kids,” says Art Conspiracy’s Executive Director Erica Felicella. “We had a record number of applications this year but we walked away knowing this is who we wanted to help.”
Martinez grew up in “Little Mexico,” a former Mexican-American neighborhood in Dallas that includes the area bordered by Maple Avenue, McKinney Avenue and the MKT (Missouri, Kansas, Texas) Railroad. Martinez was one of six children raised with a traditional Mexican-American father. While Joe insisted that his bride stay at home rather than go to work, the children’s mother Anita, who Martinez was named after, found a clever way to get around his concern.
Anita, along with her three oldest daughters enrolled in a beauty course at Marinello School of Beauty, and opened a beauty parlor in their living room. Martinez says she cried when she learned she would not be able to take the course because she was too young, but in their home salon her mother allowed her to help with perms. That training came in handy one afternoon when a woman desperate for a perm stopped by while Martinez’s mother was visiting a neighbor. The woman was leaving early the next morning for the sugar beet fields up north and needed a perm right away.
“I told her we had a $1.50 perm and a $3.00 perm,” Martinez says. “I suggested the $3.00 perm because it had more oil and would be better for her hair.” She also figured that there would be less damage if the perm didn’t turn out just right—after all Martinez was there alone and was only 12 at the time.
But her hair looked great and the woman was happy, Martinez says.
In addition to giving perms, Martinez was happy to take on all kinds of chores to earn money for her family including babysitting and running errands for her neighbors. Most of the time she walked to the store and to and from the neighbors’ homes since the family had only one bicycle, which the six children shared.
One day she wondered why the street they lived on, Pearl, was so muddy and not properly paved. When she asked a neighbor about it she was told that if she called City Hall, they could help. So she made the call and was told that if she could get enough support from the residents, the city would pave the street. So 14-year-old Martinez went door-to-door collecting signatures. Soon after, the street was paved.
“That was a red letter day for me!” Martinez exclaims.
PAYING IT FORWARD
One day while taking a sewing lesson at the nearby Baptist Craft Center, she looked out the window and spotted a nun in a beautiful courtyard. She had never seen a nun before and was curious. So Martinez dashed across the street and walked up to Sister Beatrice and began talking with her.
“She told me that they taught school and lived there. Then she invited me to come to school there, but I told her I had to ask her mother.” That evening Martinez’s mother explained that it was a private school and it cost money; money they did not have. The next time Martinez saw Sister Beatrice in the courtyard, she dashed across the busy street again and told her that she could not go to St. Anne’s Catholic School because her family could not afford it. But Sister Beatrice surprised her by saying, “You don’t have to worry about that.” So they found her a clean second-hand uniform to wear and Martinez attended St. Anne’s from the fourth to seventh grade.
“I loved the feeling of peace and contentment there.”
During the summers while she attended the Catholic school, she worked as an aid at St. Paul’s hospital. After she finished at St. Anne’s, Martinez attended Crozier High. She was the only child in her family to graduate from high school. Later, after scoring well on the civil exam, she got a job working for the civil service.
As a young girl, one the neighbors taught her some swing steps and some ballet folklórico. She really liked it. Before long, she and some of the other girls would gather and dance in hot pink crepe paper dresses in one of the backyards, which was fenced in. Sometimes when they were performing, people would peek over the fence and watch. Then they would applaud.
“Dancing made me feel happy and l liked how I felt when people would clap.”
Dancing gave her a newfound confidence, which created a desire in her to bring more change to her beloved neighborhood.
MAKING HER MARK
In the 1950s Martinez married her husband Alfred Martinez and the couple began raising their four children. Then one evening she received a call from Candy Strada, a neighbor.
“Candy told me they were having some problems and needed someone to represent them [the Hispanic community].”
Hispanics were the victims of discrimination in those days, but that was not going to stop Martinez. In 1969 she became the first woman Hispanic City Council member of a major city in the entire country—not to mention Dallas.
“There were no districts in those days, you had to campaign all over the city,” she says. “I had the Cub Scouts, the Blue Birds and everyone I knew distributing flyers for me.”
Martinez rallied the people and got their support to help solve some of the problems plaguing their beloved Little Mexico. A medical clinic was needed, because they felt neglected when they went to at St. Paul’s Hospital. Pike’s Park was in disarray. Some of the homes in West Dallas did not have indoor plumbing.
To get the support she needed, she invited the mayor and other city dignitaries to a meeting in West Dallas one evening. As the meeting commenced, the area they were in became pitch dark because there were no lights. “You couldn’t see your hand in front of you,” Martinez says. The group got the message and soon improvements were made.
Over the years she has maintained her passion to make Dallas the best city it can be and the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico has been a big part of it. What started out as a small group of dancers in a community recreation center has been transformed into the most prestigious folklórico company in North Texas, serving more than 50,000 children each year. ANMBF is one of five resident companies at the AT&T Performing Arts Center (along with Dallas Opera, Dallas Theater Center, TITAS and Dallas Black Dance Theatre).
Ballet Folklórico, which translates to "folkloric dance" in Spanish, is a term for traditional Latin-American dance that emphasizes local folk culture with classical ballet characteristics, which include pointed toes, exaggerated movements and highly choreographed arrangements. Ballet Folklórico owes its beginning to Amalia Hernandez who started her dance company in the 1960s with a small group of dancers in Mexico City. Hernandez invited some of the dancers of ANMBF to come to Mexico to study with her in the 1980s.
“Knowing and studying with Amalia gave our dancers a lot of confidence about who they were,” Martinez says.
Each region in Mexico is known for its local dances, and the costumes and the music reflect the cultures of those regions. For example, the dance of Veracruz, which includes a combination of Spanish and Mayan influences, mimics the ocean and palm trees, says ANMBF dancer and choreographer Ruben Soto.
“The dance is very elegant,” he says. “The movement of the women’s arms represent the waves of the ocean and the swaying from side to side represents the palm trees moving in the ocean breeze.” He says the upper body is meant to remain calm while the lower body, which is hidden beneath the dancer’s beautiful flowing skirt likens a hurricane with the quick movement of the legs and flamenco-like heel and footwork. The small, sharp nails on the tips and heals of their shoes and boots—create the unmistakable sound of ballet folklórico.
During the dance the woman wears imported white lace—her marriage dress—and shawls orrebozos, accompanied by fans. Her hair is piled high on her head and is kept in place by a brightly colored blue, yellow and red band. Her partner, who is courting her, wears white cotton pants and a guayabera shirt (a popular shirt also known as a wedding shirt) and red waist sash and straw hat.
ANMBF executive director Lisa Mesa-Rogers says most of the materials, including the cotton, lace and beading needed to make the hand-made costumes, come from Mexico. One dress can weigh up to 12 pounds and cost between $400 and $500. The men’s costumes range from $200 to $400. The shoes they wear, which are specific folklórico shoes, cost anywhere from $65 to $125.
THE FUTURE IS NOW
It takes a good deal of support to keep the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico running. Now in her third year as ANMBF’s Executive Director, Mesa-Rogers has added modern and additional ballet classes to the school’s offerings. She says it’s important to offer a variety of dance, especially as students audition beyond the doors of the ANMBF academy.
ANMBF student and dance teacher Alyssa Rubio began dancing at the school at age 3. When she was asked to perform a one-minute solo as part of her audition at Southern Methodist University, she says she was ready thanks to the ballet techniques she learned at the school. “Dance teaches a confidence level that you then get to share,” she says. For Rubio, being part of ANMBF has given her many opportunities to perform, including at the Winspear Opera House. Because of ANMBF, she says the connections she’s making are endless.
Another student, 12-year-old Alissa Machado, admits she wasn’t really interested in doing much, including sports, until she saw some ladies in “some really pretty dresses and makeup.” Since she started attending classes about a year and a half ago, she says that dancing makes her feel free. “Anytime I am upset I just dance it out.” Dancing makes Machado feel happy and proud when she performs. “I feel that the audience likes me.” And as a result, she is happier, studying hard and focusing more on her education.
There is no doubt that Mesa-Rogers is thrilled about ANMBF being selected as this year’s ArtCon benefactor.
“ArtCon represents a new audience for us. They came in and really got to know us,” she says. “Because they are working artists they had a special appreciation for who we are. They understand the communities we touch and are so aware of the impact Arts organizations can have on the lives of, especially children, and how art—in our case dance—brings families and communities together.”
She also admits this opportunity came at a critical time for the organization. “This year has been disappointing in that some of our long term funders have chosen other ‘focus’ areas for their dollars. There is a huge disparity in funding dollars for cultural organizations—especially Latino organizations in Dallas.”
ANMBF currently has 175 students in their dance academy and 600 in after-school programs. Their dance company has more than 100 performances a year at various festivals and events, along with shows at the Latino Cultural Center and the major concert for Cinco de Mayo at the Winspear Opera House, where they also have school performances for about 4,000 children annually. Next year’s performance will be about Martinez herself, in celebration of the company’s 40th anniversary.
And all the while, Mesa-Roger’s adoration for Martinez remains steadfast.
“One thing I have learned is that although we are her namesake, it has never been about her,” she says. “Anita has been the most gracious and grateful person I have ever met. She is tough and determined and she has encouraged me as I have tried to widen the impact of our organization.”
DEFENDER OF DREAMS
In 1994 the school acquired a permanent home when the Community Foundation of Dallas donated an empty fire station on Like Oak Street in East Dallas to ANMBF. While the academy gets by on what they have and are grateful for it, it’s clear they could use more space. The students practice and rehearse in a narrow bay that once housed a fire truck and the closet where their costumes, head dressings, hats and other items are stored is crammed full.
“Kids need a place to help them perform and gain confidence,” says Martinez, 88 and still exquisite with her signature light auburn curls, beautiful eyes and smooth golden skin. She has no intention of slowing down and is still the driving force behind the school’s fundraising efforts.
But raising money, especially for dance, is difficult, admits Martinez. “People think dancing is frou-frou, but it reaches the mind, the soul and the body.”
“We may operate on a shoestring, but I will never, never give up!”
» ArtCon X is 7-11 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15 at 500 Singleton Blvd., Dallas. The event features auctions of art by local, regional, national and international artists; plus food trucks, music by Booty Fade, Son of Stan, The Happy Bullets, DJ Ceepee and, of course, a performance by Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico. General admission tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the Art Conspiracy website. Come find the TheaterJones folks there!
» Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico’s Annual Gala will be at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House on April 23, 2015, where they will also celebrate ANMBF’s 40th anniversary.
» Eunice Nicholson is a freelance writer who lives in Denton and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org