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KCUR's Gina Kaufmann brings you personal essays about how we're all adapting to a very different world.

Folklórico dance helped Kansas City women escape a rut. Now they're aiming for the ‘big leagues’

chiefs izcalli 3.jpg
The Kansas City Chiefs
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Grupo Folklórico Izcalli
Grupo Folklórico Izcalli debuted at Arrowhead Stadium last September, surprising even themselves.

A year ago, Grupo Folklórico Izcalli consisted of a few friends dancing in a park to lift the haze of new motherhood. After an impressive first season — including a halftime show at Arrowhead Stadium — they vow to keep doing it for fun, but also to keep getting bigger.

Se puede leer en español. Read this story in Spanish.

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One by one, the dancers of Grupo Folklórico Izcalli pull into a Kanas City, Kansas, strip mall, staying warm in their cars until their teacher shows up with keys to the rehearsal space.

When Annel Alvarez steps up to the door, the women jump out of their vehicles practically in unison, filing into a mostly empty storefront.

On this cold, rainy Tuesday night, nine women in their late teens and early 20s toss off their coats and switch out Adidas for adelitas, also known as botines — leather high-heeled boots with a thick, nail-edged wooden tip, which makes a tapping sound with every step. They're scuffed from serious wear and tear.

Modern-looking T-shirts pair with traditional ruffled skirts as the women stomp rhythmically — and impressively — for nearly two hours to the sound of pre-recorded mariachi music.

These dancers aren't professionals; they come to this space from work or school. And Alvarez, their leader, is just 22, no older than her students. You can tell she's in charge, though: With a long black ponytail stretching all the way down her back, she stands in the front of the room demonstrating all the moves.

Close-up shot of the bottom of a colorful folkloric dancer's skirt. Her white boots are seen below the dress.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Folklorico Izcalli dancers wear the traditional-style folkloric boots in their practices.

Alvarez maintains a gentle expression, but keeps a studious eye on the mirror to be sure her girls, as she calls them, are getting the hang of it.

She calls out commands in Spanish and English.

I need four girls. Uno, dos, tres, quatro. Turn. Pause. Do your gritos. Get a drink of water.

At the end of each routine, Alvarez's 4-year-old son runs giggling between dancers and cheers "Mama!" Dancers take turns playfully scooping him up and setting him back on his chair where he belongs. Each time, the boy squeals with delight.

Grupo Folklórico Izcalli is coming up on its one-year anniversary. In that time, the dancers went from casually practicing dance moves in a park to scoring high-profile gigs — their first season culminated in a Kansas City Chiefs halftime show at Arrowhead Stadium. Now they're gearing up for a second season in an actual studio.

 A young boy twirls on the dance floor. Behind him can be seen the bottom half of several folkloric outfits of women who are waiting for practice.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Four-year-old Adrian is a regular at rehearsals. "He has a blast," Alvarez says.

Alvarez didn't even mean to start a dance troupe.

Between her full-time job answering customer service calls for a factory, and the all-encompassing demands of motherhood, Alvarez saw folklórico dance as a way out of a rut. More than a rut.

"I suffered a lot of postpartum depression," Alvarez says. "I was like, 'I need to go back to something that I really enjoyed doing.' Motherhood takes a lot out of you and you kind of have to be like, 'I need to find myself again.'"

Alvarez knew dancing would help. She'd started learning the folklórico dance style as a small child. Everything about it — the music, the costumes, the movement — felt like home.

"My mom is from Mexico — Durango, Mexico. And my dad is from El Salvador," Alvarez says. "I've never been to Mexico. I've never been to El Salvador."

Still, Alvarez's mom insisted that her daughter growing up in suburban Kansas take up folklórico to connect with her culture. Her instruction early on was strict, but by the time Alvarez was a teenager, she enjoyed practicing more informally, with a small group of friends in her backyard.

"It was just five of my best friends, and it was more of like a hobby for us," Alvarez remembers fondly. "Kind of like our way of hanging out."

Close up shot of a woman folkloric dancer holding the edges of her colorful skirt as she begins to twirl.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Annel Alvarez leads Folklórico Izcalli through a practice in Kansas City, Kansas.

Those were the friends who Alvarez called in 2021 when she had the idea of dancing again. One said yes, and her little sister — still in high school — came along. They worked out together, in full traditional garb, at Osage Park just west of Metcalf.

"We used to practice at a park when it was 85 degrees outside for two, three hours — as long as we could," Alvarez remembers with a laugh. "Our boots are super hot because they're leather. We would be in our skirts, our boots, you know, trying to stay cool."

It didn't take long for onlookers to start asking questions.

"People started noticing us and they were like, 'When are you guys performing?' And we kind of just had a little white lie, you know? Like, 'You'll see us at First Fridays,'" Alvarez explains.

Alvarez got to thinking, though, it might be fun to make that First Fridays gig happen for real.

She called around and ended up booking an actual show on the sidewalk outside Ollama, a Mexican coffee shop on Southwest Boulevard. The dancers gave their group a name and a Facebook page to get the word out.

"I remember that day vividly," Alvarez says. "It was so scary. Folklórico is a lot of conditioning and you need to leave your shyness at the door. You can't be shy. I'm a very shy person. But once I put my dress on, my shoes, my braid and I'm in full glam, I'm a whole different person."

Two women stand in a rehearsal space. The one at left is stretching her left arm across her chest. The other woman is adjusting the waistband on her skirt.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Folklorico Izcalli members Julia Vega, left, and Abigail Aguillon warm up before a recent practice.

Their energy was infectious; after the show, the Grupo Folklórico Izcalli page on Facebook started receiving messages from other young Mexican women in Kansas City asking how to join up.

"We got a bunch of performances and most of the girls here," Alvarez says. "Everybody else came from Facebook or Instagram."

Mostly they got booked by churches and elementary schools, but as the group got better and better with every biweekly practice, Alvarez had a vision: dancing with her girls at a Chiefs game. She launched a full-on campaign to make it happen.

"I reached out to everybody — Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, the manager of the Chiefs," she says. "I also did the survey on their website, the fan experience survey that they have. And I said, 'Hey, this is not really a survey, I didn't really go to see the Chiefs, but please, just take a look at our picture.'"

Alvarez heard nothing for about two weeks but shrugged it off, reminding herself that a Chiefs game was a pretty ambitious gig to chase less than six months into the group's existence. "It was absolutely a long-shot," she admits.

Then Alvarez got a phone call.

"She's like, 'Hi, I'm Diane from the Kansas City Chiefs.' And I was just like, 'What? Can you say that one more time?'" Alvarez couldn't believe what she was hearing. Someone had forwarded one of her emails to the correct person, who did in fact want Grupo Folklórico Izcalli on that football field.

Tight shot of a folkloric dancer's chest who is wearing a T-shirt that reads "Grupo Folklorico."
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Paired with traditional skirts, these t-shirts worn for rehearsals show the youth and edginess of the dancers.

"I asked her so many questions," Alvarez says. "I was like 'Do you promise?'"

Typically, Alvarez tries not to get hung up on perfection. She doesn't want her dancers stressing out about the precise angles of their gestures or ending a spin flawlessly, in absolute unison. She wants them smiling and looking like they're having fun. "That's what the crowd wants, too," she says.

But in the week before that halftime show, Alvarez admits she became a task-master.

"We practiced every single day for about a week. Every single day, hours of practice, for a minute and a half song," she explains. "That's the only performance that I've told the girls, 'We have to be almost perfect.' I was very strong on them."

Even then, it didn't feel real.

"We didn't believe it until we were parking at the Arrowhead Stadium. We were being taken into the tunnels and kind of going out into the crowd —" Alvarez trails off, picturing the moment again. "You just, I can't believe they even play in that big stadium."

chiefs izcalli 1.jpg
Alejandro Olivares
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Dancers marked their spots on the football field before the crowd showed up for the game. "We were in shock," Alvarez says.

When Grupo Folklórico Izcalli made their big debut at the September 26 halftime show, during a game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Alvarez didn't leave anyone out.

"I took every single girl, whether they were with me from the beginning or whether they were with me for two months, I took every single one of them," she says. "I wanted them to all experience what it was like to be, you know, like they say: in the big leagues."

Alvarez felt that she and her dancers truly belonged in this space. Until that moment, these second-generation women watched their parents and grandparents carry out traditions.

Now they were the ones doing it. And yes, they honored the traditional style, but with one major difference.

"Usually a folklórico group is with men and women. But it's a lot harder to get men to join a folklórico group because that's not what our generation is wanting anymore," Alvarez says plainly. "People would come up to me afterwards and say, 'But you don't have charros. You don't have guys. How'd you do it?' I mean, we just did."

Proudly stepping out onto a giant football field, in a packed NFL stadium, wearing faldas and botines, the Grupo showed off their culture for people in Kansas City and beyond — thanks to televised sports broadcasting.

"The next day we woke up and we were all over the news," Alvarez recalls. "We were all over the news in other countries. We were on the morning news in Mexico."

Women wearing colorful folkloric dresses rehearse in front of a large mirror with a bright light shining in front of them.
Carlos Moreno
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KCUR 89.3
Members of Grupo Folklórico Izcalli rehearse in front of a large mirror inside a modest rehearsal space in Kansas City, Kansas.

Alvarez started renting rehearsal space a few months later, in February. Her girls are now getting ready for their next big performance on Cinco de Mayo.

Alvarez insists this isn't another job. These dancers are her family, and she's still doing it for the same reasons she started: to forget about whatever's bogging her down at home for a couple of hours, by doing something that makes her feel like herself.

Don't worry — Alvarez is already setting her sights on the next big thing for her girls.

"Have you heard of Canelo?" she asks. "He's a Mexican boxer, and for his entrances, he has a folklórico group perform with him, and I would like to reach out to him and see if he would like us to be part of his folklórico group."

"I think that one for sure is a long shot and I tell the girls, 'I promise by five years we'll be performing with him. I promise you," she says with a smile. "Because I promised them the Chiefs and I did it. We did it."

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.
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