Dallas — On Thursday, 80 dancers dressed in swirling reds, yellows and greens kick up their heels to traditional Mexican music. In addition, twirling aerialists will perform daring acrobatics on suspended silk ropes.
The show is Anita!, and it honors Anita Martinez, founder of the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico (ANMBF), and former Dallas city council woman. Under the watchful eye of ANMBF’s Executive Director, Lisa Mesa-Rogers, the show celebrates Martinez’s life and accomplishments with dance and performance. The curtain rises at 7:30 pm on Thursday, April 23 at the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center.
No More Mud
Growing up in Little Mexico ignited an early desire in Martinez to make Dallas “the best city it can be.” Little Mexico is a former Mexican-American neighborhood in Dallas, bordered by Maple Avenue, McKinney Avenue and the MKT Railroad. Being one of six children, she walked to the store because the family had only one bicycle, shared by all six children.
During her walks Martinez often wondered why the street they lived on was so muddy. In no time she discovered that if she could collect enough signatures from nearby residents, the city of Dallas would pave the street. So 14-year-old Martinez went door-to-door collecting signatures. Soon after their street was paved.
“That was a red-letter day for me!” Martinez confesses. From that moment, neighbors turned to her for help.
And with her neighbors’ encouragement and help, in 1969 Martinez became the first woman Hispanic city council member of a major city in the country. She worked hard to bring improvements to her community, and even though she had to deal with discrimination, she got things done. In 1975, when the City of Dallas named a recreation center after her for her exemplary work improving the communities of West Dallas and Little Mexico, Martinez was honored but at the same time troubled by what she saw at the center: Hispanic children shy and withdrawn.
Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklórico is born
Martinez had an idea about how to unlock their potential, the same approach that had set her free as a child: dancing. Years earlier one of the neighbors had taught her and some of the other girls in the neighborhood some swing steps and some ballet folklorico. She loved it. 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 they would clap,” Martinez recalls. Dancing gave her a newfound confidence and appreciation for her culture.
She was convinced that by teaching Hispanic youth about the beauty of their culture through the performing arts – Mexican music, dance, and history – they would be proud of their heritage. With improved self-esteem, the children would be motivated to stay in school and set higher goals.
“Kids need a place to help them perform and gain confidence,” Martinez says. So in 1975 the Anita N. Martinez Ballet Folklorico was born.
What started out as a small group of dancers in a community recreation center has been transformed into the most prestigious Folklorico Company in North Texas, serving more than 50,000 children each year. And the ANMBF is very proud to be one of five permanent dance companies at the Winspear.
Now 40 years later, supported by public funds, special grants and private donations, the school continues to work towards its mission.
Ladies and gentlemen!
Anita! will highlight aspects of Martinez’s life, giving us a 70-minute peak into what has made this woman a legend. The show will feature 80 children from ages 5 to 17, and professional dance artists with the ANMBF Performance Company. Dance segments that highlight aspects of Mrs. Martinez life will include traditional ballet folklórico, representing the regions of Mexico with music and costume.
The show will also feature a modern segment—professional aerialists from Dallas-based Lone Star Circus. Lone Star Circus is the performing arm of Lone Star Arts Center, a non-profit, which promotes circus arts through training, performance and community outreach.
Now in her third year as ANMBF’s Executive Director, Lisa Mesa-Rogers’ role of overseeing the production of Anita! is a labor of love.
“Anita! was born during a creative meeting with ANMBF staff and is written by Al J. Martinez, Anita’s son and directed by Frank Latson,” Mesa-Rogers reports. “We have worked with three choreographers and are using video projections, live vocals, aerialists, and African Drummers/Dancers.
There have been surprises as well as challenges in bringing Anita! to life.
“The biggest surprise has been the work of two Art Conspiracy volunteers coming to help out on our technical team,” she shares. “Erica Felicella and Clayton Smith came along and really helped us navigate the new technical components of the show.”
Art Conspiracy is a Dallas-based non-profit that brings artists together to raise funds and heighten awareness for regional creative programs and cause. The organization also donated $25,000 to ANMBF last year.
Mesa-Rogers says it was important to include all of our company dancers in the show. “We have dancers that are overcoming incredible odds and the stage has become their equalizer.”
The biggest challenge with the show has been securing the funding needed to complete the project. “We are a very small organization and we were really disappointed that we didn't get an underwriter for the show,” Mesa-Rogers admits. “But we were also thrilled that Neiman Marcus donated to help us bring more than 1,000 children to the Winspear Opera House.”
And all the while, her 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 encourages me as I try to widen the impact of our organization.”
Mesa-Rogers says that that although Martinez has seen video excerpts of the show, there are still some surprises lurking. For that, you’ll have to see the show for yourself.
» This story is an updated version of Eunice Nicholson’s longer profile of Anita N. Martinez that TheaterJones ran last year when the group became the recipients of the Art Conspiracy benefit. You can read that full story here.
» Here is a promotional video for this production: