Dancing our Gender within Folklórico

A few year back I met up with a friend of my during the Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos conference in Arizona. We talked about our families, and the challenges of teaching dance. At that time her son was two years old and mine was about five years. I told her that my son was taking folklórico classes with me. She told me that she was reluctant to enroll her son in folklórico. Surprised, I asked why. She responded, “what do you do with heteronormativity?” I have to admit, I was taken aback. But then, we had a wonderful conversation.

What is heteronormativity?

According to scholars Berlant and Warner, in Sex in Public (1998) they argue that heteronormativity is this underlined idea that male/female couples are the norm. This permeates our laws, customs, and even our dances (552-558). Yes, in our folklórico dances especially the bailes or social dances of Mexico we represent male/female couple relationships as the norm.

Dancing our Gender

Without even realizing it, many of the dances especially the social ones require men and women as dancing partners. In fact, men often dance with their legs wide apart, have their chest held out, and their torso bent forward to catch the woman in a kiss. Their long, blasting gritos and whistles fill the air as they dance. Women match the speed of the male yet they dance with their legs closer together, must move their arms and wrists in skirt work movements that complement the dance. Depending on the type of dance, women can be told to keep their gaze down to the floor with a shy expression while the man romantically pursues her. We perform specific gender role expectations as we dance. In fact, when we perform the bailes of Mexico we even reinforce heteronormativity—this expectation that men and women are a romantic couple. Very seldom is any other alternative given.

Campobello Sisters: Challenging Heteronormativity

Campobello Sisters in 1930 Dancing Jarabe Tapatio

One famous sister duo to challenge heteronormativity was Nellie and Gloria Campobello.  Nellie Campobello was born in 1900 while Gloria Campbello was born in 1911(Tapía 3,7, 9). In 1930, the sisters were employed as teachers in the National Music and Dance Section of the Department of Fine Arts of the Secretaría de Educación Pública (SEP) (Tortajada Quiroz 276).

According to Frances Toor in A Treasury of Mexican Folkways (1947) Nellie and Gloria Campobello premiered their own version of the Jarabe Tapatío as part of their work with the Department of Fine Arts of the SEP in 1930. Nellie performed the role of the Charro and Gloria performed the role of the China Poblana (Tortajada Quiroz 277). They danced together as a couple. I have to ask myself did Nellie take on the characteristics of the Charro and try to woo her sister Gloria when dancing? Was this female/female version of the Jarabe Tapatío well received?

I found a newspaper article written by Carlos del Rio in the 1930 about the sisters’ dance. Del Rio stated:

​​Nellie and Gloria Campobello discovered the true jarabe and they danced it without fear, passionately. The lack of a male dancer did not stop them. What helped Nellie was her experience with the outdoors, her taste of adventure, her silhouette as an admirable man who pursues, wins, and dominates the woman in a final joy (38). [i]

Well, it appears that Del Rio loved this interpretation of two women dancing the Jarabe Tapatío together. Del Rio was elated that the sisters did not need a male dancer for their duets. According to Del Rio, Nellie did take on the characteristics of the Charro she was described as adopting a behavior that was entirely masculine on stage because she pursued the woman, defeated her, dominated her and then ended the dance joyously.[ii]

There are many reasons why this dance might have been accepted. For example, the fact that they were sisters dancing together might have made it acceptable for them to perform this dance. In addition, it could be that the sisters might not have deliberately danced the Jarabe Tapatío to challenge heteronormativity but it could certainly have been read this way by those in the audience.

Campobello Sisters Performing the Jarabe Tapatío

Challenging Heteronormativity in the 21st Century

What do we do today to challenge heteronormativity? There are a few folklórico groups in the United States and Mexico that challenge heteronormativity. I spoke with Arturo Magaña of the Ensamble Folklórico Colibri whose purpose is “to create an artistic outlet for the LBGT community to express their heritage” (A. Magaña, pers. comm.).  This dance group performs the dances of Mexico with its dancers choosing the gender roles.  In this group sometimes their dancers perform with female/female partners, male/male partners or sometimes they dance with male/female partners.

Ensamble Folklorico Colibri
Ensamble Folklorico Colibri 2019

More specifically, Magaña has challenged heteronormativity within his choreography. So for example, in his version of El Alcaraban from Chiapas. Instead of women/men couples courting each other, he choreographed a love dance between male/male couple. In his choreographic works, Magaña is not afraid to even go a step further. For example, instead of depicting the traditional Nayarit wedding with the female bride and male groom dancing at their wedding reception. Magaña choreographed a full cuadro of Nayarit depicting a lesbian wedding to tell the stories of the LBGT community. Magaña tells me that his work is accepted in embraced throughout California. To my surprise, he says that 99% of the negative reactions come from folkloristas (A. Magaña, pers. comm.).

My Thoughts

I can’t help but wonder why we (folkloristas) are the ones who are the most resistant to challenging heteronormativity.  What are we holding onto? I think that as folkloristas we need to recognize the ways in which we reinforce heteronormativity in our teaching and our dances. It’s essential to point these instances out to our students, to ask questions, and most of all to have conversations and discussions. This is how we grow as folkloristas.

So, I go back to the original question. What do you do with heteronormativity?

Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.

The book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) is now available for purchase on Amazon. It is written by Sanjuanita Martínez-Hunter and edited by myself. https://www.amazon.com/author/gabrielamendozagarcia

Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)
Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)

Works Cited

Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. 1998. “Sex in Public.” Critical Inquiry 24 (2): 547-566.

Del Rio, Carlos. “Nelly y Gloria Campobello-Creadora de Danzas.” Revistas de Revistas: El Semanario Nacional.October 12. 1930.

Magaña, Arturo. 2019. Interview by author: December 13.

Tapía, Minverva. “Nellie Campobello: A Mexican Political Dance Pioneer.” MFA thesis.  University of California at Irvine, 2006.

Toor, Frances. 1947. A Treasury of Mexican Folkways. New York: Crown Publishing. 

Tortajada Quiroz, Margarita. 2001. Frutos de Mujer:Las Mujeres en la Danza Escenica. Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes y Literatura.


[i] This is my translation.

[ii] Later in life, Nellie Campobello served as Director of Mexico’s National School of Dance for forty-five years and directed the Mexico City Ballet. Gloria Campobello is remembered as having been Mexico’s first prima ballerina and taught at Mexico’s National School of dance (Tapia 24, 1, 11-13). The Campobello sisters would become celebrated as prominent dancers, educators, choreographers, researchers, and writers.


Dancing Veracruz

3 Folklorico Findings that Shook Me (Surprised)

I feel that I am always learning more and more about our folklorico dances. I am constantly reading, asking questions, and thinking about new ideas.  Very often I am shook (as my teenage daughters would say) when I come across a new finding.  Here, are a few folklorico findings that shook me!

Theoretical Principle

First off, I like to bring academic theory into our conversations around folklorico dance. In my previous blog called Folklorico Dance as an Invented Tradition, I talk about how oftentimes we think that all the folklorico dances that we perform have a long history. In reality, they are recent creations. Eric Hobsbawn in his classic text “Inventing Traditions” (1983) coins this term to refer to “traditions actually invented, constructed and formally instituted and those emerging in a less easily traceable manner within a brief and date-able period-a matter of a few years perhaps- and establishing themselves with great rapidity (1).”  He notes that these invented traditions are practices with a given set of rules, rituals, that are repeated and that are thought to have a long history but in actuality are very recent (1).  Many of our Mexican folklorico costumes, music, and dances fall under this definition of invented traditions. In my writing, today I continue this thought by adding a few more folklorico facts that really support Hobsbawn’s theory of Invented Traditions.

  • Invention of the Huapangos Tamualipecos

In the summer of 2018, I attended the Asociacion Nacional de Grupos Folkloricos Conference in Phoenix, Arizona. I took a Tamualipas dance workshop with María Teresa Montelongo Ortíz. She gave presentation before the entire membership and told us that the huapango dances of Tamualipas were invented. (Surprise!!)

She said that they were created by Raúl Pazzi Sequera (national grand champion winner Huapango Veracruzano) and Moisés Rodríguez (former dancer with the Ballet Folklórico de Amalia Hernádez). Both men traveled to Tamualipas and created the distinctive footwork sequences that would come to represent the huapangos of Tamualipas. Then, alongside the Conjunto Típico Tamaulipeco which was the official musical group of Tamualipas, they traveled all across the country teaching the dances of the son huapango to the rhythm of the jarana (Montelongo Ortíz 26).  Thus, these dances were an invented tradition created for the stage.

  • Stylization of the Ranchera costume
Ranchera Costume
Ranchera Costume Worn by Dancers of the Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ballet Folklorico

I always thought that the ranchera costume of Jalisco had evolved from the outfits worn by women during the Colonial era. Low and behold, as I am reading through my materials I find out that this is partly true. The costume did evolve through time but the style that we wear today was created by Josefina Gómez and Maria Del Refugio García Brambila also affectionately known as Miss Cuca.[i]  They both designed this costume using oral histories, personal experiences, and a bit of artistic creativity.  This is the story behind the ranchera costume. One day Miss Cuca ran out of espiguilla so instead she bought ribbons to adorn a costume she was sewing. She discovered that the ribbons really complimented the dress. Plus, the ribbons accentuated the movement of the skirt so that it was really highly visible (Chávez Rodríguez 51). This would become the Ranchera dress that we know of today.

  • Innovations in Veracruz Dancing

Many of the zapateado sequences that I had always thought were derived from the Jarochoas/os of Veracruz as they danced during their festivals, were in fact created for the stage by Mario Cabrera Salgado. According to the video Mario Cabrera “El Jaquetón,” Cabrera invented 54 jarocho steps which we use today in our dances. He also was the first person to use white botines when he danced Veracruz. Not only that but he changed the cotton palecate and used a long one made out of satin. He also changed the hat to a more durable one that would withstand our zapateados. Such creative innovations in dance that we still continue to this day.

Mario Cabrera “El Jaqueton”

My Thoughts: These are just three examples of the ways in which folklorico dances were invented for the stage during the 20th century. What other folklorico dances are invented traditions?

Written by Gabriela Mendoza-Garcia Ph.D.

Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)
Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910)

To read more about Mexican folklorico dance, please purchase the book Dancing Throughout Mexican History (1325-1910) by Sanjuanita Martinez-Hunter and edited by yours truly. For more information, click on the link below:
https://www.amazon.com/author/gabrielamendozagarcia

Works Cited

Chávez Rodriguez. Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos Congreso.46-52. July. 2002, Riverside, California.

Hobsbawn, Eric and Terence Ranger, Eds. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983.

“Mario Cabrera: El Jaquetón,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hWF7zrMBnKI

Montelongo Ortíz,María Teresa. Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos Congreso. 26-27. July. 2018, Phoenix, Arizona.

—-.—-. “ Huapangos Tamualipecos” (lecture, Asociación Nacional de Grupos Folklóricos, Phoenix Arizona, July 2018).


[i] In “Ballet Folklórico Mexicana: Choreographing National Identity in a Transnational Context, Olga Nájera-Ramírez  interviews Rafael Zamarripa Artistic Director of the Ballet Folklórico de la Universidad de Colima. He was as one of Miss Cuca’s former students. He says that Miss Cuca earned a degree in Physical Education. She also taught dance at Beatriz Hernández Boarding School. Her dancers would win national titles. She taught at many schools. Her dance group at the Escuela Normal or Teacher’s College was designated the official state representative of Jalisco.