When Gloria Garza-Wells moved from Tucson to Chandler a few years ago, she felt a bit of culture shock.
The history teacher had grown up immersed in Latino culture, dressing in colorful dresses and learning traditional Mexican folk dances.
She had the benefit of having mentors in Tucson who taught her the value of preserving their artistic heritage.
But Garza-Wells had a difficult time finding the same creative outlet in the sprawling Phoenix metro area.
“I felt kind of out of place because I had nowhere to go for dance,” she said.
This prompted her to form a nonprofit in 2014 that would educate younger generations on the customs of Latino culture.
Five years later, the Instituto de Folklorico Mexicano now has a dance studio in Chandler and teaches up to 70 students from across the Valley.
The dancers range in age from toddlers to teenagers and regularly perform throughout the year.
Late October is a particularly eventful time for the group, as it’s asked to perform at Day of the Dead festivals all over the Valley. The Mexican holiday pays tribute to the recently departed through building altars and elaborate parades.
At a recent celebration in Mesa, Folklorico’s dancers donned long dresses, pinned flowers to their hair and pasted their faces with skeletal makeup. At one point during the performance, dancers balanced candles on their head as they twirled and side-stepped across the stage.
Garza-Wells said everything her dancers do is rooted in history and they pride themselves on their meticulousness.
“That’s really big in the folk community that we have to be authentic and we have to be accurate,” she said. “We can’t stray from the original.”
Cynthia Ramirez, the nonprofit’s assistant director, said they help some dancers make their costumes, teaching them how to cut patterns and do basic sewing.
Students have a greater appreciation for their outfits when they see the work that goes into constructing them, Ramirez said.
Like Garza-Wells, Ramirez is a transplant from Tucson and felt out of place when she first moved to Ahwatukee.
”I felt lost,” she said, adding she didn’t connect with any of the local dance groups.
Ramirez’s parents immigrated to the United States from Mexico, making her a first-generation resident. She had danced throughout her childhood, learning all the customs of traditional folk dance.
But many of the student dancers in Folklorico Mexicano are third- or fourth-generation residents, Ramirez said, and bits and pieces of their culture get lost or forgotten over time.
And there’s much to learn when it comes to Mexico’s folk dances. Each of the country’s states and regions has its own style of dances that have different origins and carry specific meanings.
“Every dance tells a story,” Ramirez said, “There’s so much heritage attached.”
“Our culture is often seen in a negative light,” Ramirez said. “This just promotes so much positivity.”
“My goal for this group is to have dance just be a small branch on the tree of a bigger umbrella,” she said.
Instituto de Folklorico Mexicano offers a variety of dance classes in Chandler and Queen Creek. Information: folkloricoaz.com.