Since 1975, Gema Sandoval’s Danza Floricanto/USA, which bills itself as “the oldest existing professional Mexican folk dance troupe in Southern California,” has crisscrossed the region, rehearsing and performing in almost any space it could find. But one constant has been the organization’s treasured dance floor. Designed for tap dancers, the moveable floor made up of approximately 30 five-by-five-foot squares can click into place wherever Sandoval goes and perfectly absorbs the strong stomps and hard heel taps of folklórico.
“I have a $15,000 floor that I moved around from all these locations,” says Sandoval. “It was the one thing we took with us.”
It was also the first thing Sandoval, 73, installed when the nonprofit group moved into Boyle Heights’ historic Casa del Mexicano in May. After decades of being primarily “nomadic,” as Sandoval describes it, Danza Floricanto/USA and its associated Floricanto Institute, which trains youth and adolescents in folklórico, had miraculously found a place to plant roots in the middle of a pandemic.
“I feel at home,” says Sandoval, who served as executive director of Plaza de la Raza in neighboring Lincoln Heights and spent two decades teaching at Roosevelt High School just a few blocks away from Casa del Mexicano.
Although the pandemic has put live performances and in-person classes on hold for Danza Floricanto/USA and its institute, the organization’s dance company recently started doing socially distanced rehearsals at the Casa del Mexicano after an eight-month hiatus. The group is preparing for a virtual Christmas concert, entitled “Navidad en el Barrio,” on Dec. 19. (The group also took its annual Dia de los Muertos dance celebration virtual this year, and in years past, the group has performed its annual holiday show at Whittier College’s Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts.)
“A dancer needs to dance,” says Sandoval, who notes that the group is taking precautions by putting limitations on partner dancing, spacing out and masking up. “We’re providing a social distance, which is absolutely contrary to having couple dancing. But you know, this will be commemorated because it’s the COVID year. … I think I’m going to have them wear gloves as weird as that goes.”
A Long Story of Survival
But Danza Floricanto/USA, beloved for its traditional holiday celebrations and distinctive for its fusion of classical folklórico dancing with modern themes of cultural identity and social justice, is no stranger to obstacles, especially during this pandemic. Sandoval credits her board of directors and community support for helping Danza Floricanto/USA survive over the decades and getting through the COVID-19 crisis.
“The community is one of the reasons why we are doing okay. During our move, had it not been that [the board of directors] had just given us such a great fundraiser, I don’t know where I would have gotten the money,” says Sandoval. The annual fundraiser raised $6,000, and Sandoval also took out a $40,000 SBA loan to keep the organization afloat.
The road to finally calling Casa del Mexicano home has been a long and winding one. Sandoval was first exposed to folklórico dancing around age six through community classes in her native Mexico City but didn’t seriously start studying the art form until her college years in the mid-’60s at Cal State Los Angeles. (Sandoval’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 11.) She remembers stumbling upon a folklórico dance class by accident on campus.
“I heard Mexican music in the distance, and that was a real rarity in those days,” she recalls of her college days, which coincided with the rise of the Chicano Movement. “So, I went to see it, and that’s where I found the class. I hadn’t even seen it in the roster.”
She began studying under folklórico dance master Emilio Pulido.
“He was the only folk dance teacher in all of Southern California, so he used to teach at UCLA, at Cal State LA, at USC and UC Santa Barbara in a week,” remembers Sandoval. “He used to travel up and down, so you would get him once a week in your school, and there was such a thirst for feeling culturally fulfilled because it was an upheaval time that we all just took him once a week for two hours. That’s all he could give us truly. … We all took Emilio Pulido. The big difference is that probably, I’m the only one still in the business. Many of them have, they used to say, ‘hung up their braids.’”
Sandoval tells me that Danza Floricanto/USA grew out of a rising cultural movement and group of dedicated folklórico college students from all over Southern California, who would practice together in any studio space they could secure — no matter how far they would have to travel from Los Angeles.
“We all found out that we were in love with folk dance, folklórico. When you’re young, nothing is a real obstacle,” she says. “One of the members at the time used to be a teacher at Oxnard junior college. And so, we used to travel to Oxnard. … We used to travel there once, twice a week. … We would always start like 7:30 p.m. or eight o’clock after [her] class, and then once on Saturday from about three o’clock till we dropped. And we did that for almost a year because we’re all college students until finally one of us became a teacher and we got access to somebody’s auditorium.
“So, it’s been a story of survival for a long time,” says Sandoval, “and we functioned like that for a long time until eight years ago, we were finally able to acquire a space.”
Finding a Home
That space was in City Terrace, where the group converted an old factory into a studio space that held classes, rehearsals and cultural programming. Danza Floricanto/USA was forced to leave that space last July due to rising rent and ended up holding classes wherever it could, including an old mortuary in East Los Angeles, until eventually finding an opportunity to occupy Casa del Mexicano.
As Sandoval tells it, around the end of last year, she heard that Casa del Mexicano was being put up for sale. She approached the property’s overseers, the affordable housing developer East LA Community Corporation (ELACC), about putting in an offer. Ultimately, she convinced the group to lease her the space.
“I asked for a five-year lease because I don’t want to go through this… not too soon again,” she says. Sandoval was determined to find a space in East Los Angeles to continue serving her students who reside in the area. “I really wanted to stay in East L.A.”
Building Strong Bonds
Danza Floricanto/USA is also a matrilineal, multi-generational family affair, with Sandoval’s daughter and granddaughter helping her run the organization and the Floricanto Institute.
“Being a part of the dance company really has shaped my whole life,” says Sandoval’s 25-year-old granddaughter Mimi Rios, an associate director with the group, who jokes that she’s been dancing with the group since “in utero.” Rios values how her grandmother has been a strong female role model in the arts for almost 50 years. “She’s been a real inspiration. Seeing not only a female but also somebody of color, an immigrant, really paving the way for her people in this very difficult industry to navigate through… and we’re getting close to our 50th year, I think, is pretty groundbreaking.
“My grandmother, then my mother, then me... that’s how the power runs through us,” Rios adds. “So, I think that’s really beautiful, that that’s something that she’s been able to pass down to me. And I think it’s been very empowering, growing up in that environment where I know that… women have this power and stability and can make this sort of impact.”
Parents like Elva Quintana, whose daughters Celeste, 15, and Jocelyn, 9, have been taking classes with Danza Floricanto/USA for several years, says she appreciates Sandoval’s efforts to keep folklórico dance accessible and affordable in East Los Angeles. Six to eight weeks’ worth of classes cost about $50, says Quintana, and the group makes costumes and shoes available to students to borrow if needed.
“We hardly have anything in the East L.A. area, or in Boyle Heights or something like that for the children. And we need things like that in our community,” she says, “and with affordable prices. It’s rare to find something like that.”
Quintana also appreciates how the “family bond” of Danza Floricanto/USA has empowered her daughters through dance and taught them more about the customs and traditions of Mexico.
“Their self-esteem, their confidence is really high,” says Quintana. “They’re able to get in front of the public, the school, and perform. That’s something that they’ve taught them, and respect for their culture and other cultures.”
Contemplating the Future
Sandoval dreams of converting Casa del Mexicano into a black box theater in the near future. With the help of her family and community, she’s already had a black coat of paint applied to the space’s elevated stage — though the building’s vivid interior murals painted by Hugo Martinez Tecoatl remain intact — and of course, laid down the dance floor. Sandoval still has to raise funds for stage lighting and background drapery for the space’s 16-foot-tall walls — “I had drapery in my old space, but I didn’t have 16-foot drapes!” she says.
“It seems really exciting coming into this building,” Rios adds of the group’s new home at the Casa del Mexicano, “just because of the sheer space of it. There’s just so much space to do so many things with it. … It’s like a huge part of the community. It’s a historical landmark. And it seems like the perfect place for us to continue our path.”
When asked why she’s stayed in business for over four decades, Sandoval says this: “It’s not a business really, it’s a passion. … I eat, and I dance. That’s what I do. That’s what my life is, and it’s as necessary as air.”
Watch Danza Floricanto this holiday season. Find more information about their "Navidad en el Barrio" holiday show, streaming December 19, 2020 at 7 p.m. More information here.
Top Image: A Cinco de Mayo performance at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. The dancers are performing a dance from the Mexican region of Tamaulipas. | Courtesy of Danza Floricanto