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Mexican ballet tied to tradition

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John Greenwood

Some of the younger members of Ballet Folklorico rehearse different dances at the Moline Township Hall. This Latino cultural organization has been serving children and adults for a number of years.

MOLINE -- Elena Terronez's eyes sparkle when she talks about Quad Cities Ballet Folklorico. It's not hard to understand why.

``It's like my family, we're so close,'' Miss Terronez, 18, of East Moline, said before a recent rehearsal at Moline Township Hall.

``I couldn't live without it. It's become a part of me. Arnulfo is like another father,'' she said of genial Arnulfo Camarillo of Moline, the group's founder and director.

Miss Terronez has been dancing with the ballet since she was 8, when she said her mother ``forced her'' to join. After becoming interested in boys, she wanted to stay.

``It's the best way to understand our differences,'' Miss Terronez said of the organization. ``People are real prejudiced about us (Hispanics), because they don't understand us. This gives them insight to what we're about. If they understand us, we'll get along better.''

``We as Hispanics can hear some negative things throughout the community about us. This gets the group feeling they can do something in a positive way, working together and showing people the other side of what we can be,'' parent Jessica Munos of East Moline said.

``It definitely becomes like an extended family,'' she said. ``It helps them to be proud of who they are and where they came from.''

The ballet's colorful Mexican dances tell some of the ``history of a people who struggled to get a better life,'' Mrs. Munos said. ``Here's the better life. We're kind of thanking our ancestors for heading us in the right direction.''

``I think it's very important for these kids to learn their heritage,'' parent Vicki Myers said. ``I feel very fortunate. I'm a third-generation Mexican and my son is fourth generation. It's wonderful we have a gentleman like Arnulfo to teach kids these dances.''

Mr. Camarillo is originally from Guadalajara and has lived in the Quad-Cities more than 25 years. A custodian with the Moline school district, he formed the ballet in 1985. It grew out of a dance class he taught at the old Moline YMCA on 5th Avenue.

``People say, you don't make any money doing it, so why do you do it?'' he said. ``To me, it's very satisfying to come here and see children being good citizens.'' Mr. Camarillo said 99 percent of his dancers finish high school and a majority go on to college.

``To make better people, better students and better citizens for Moline, for the state and for the world -- this is my reward. This is the reason I keep it going,'' he said.

``We try to promote higher education and education in general,'' Mrs. Munos said. ``We realize we, as Hispanics, have the highest dropout rate of all ethnic groups. We encourage them when they're young, to expose them to things that are available to them.''

That includes performing at many area colleges, including Augustana, Marycrest International University, St. Ambrose and the University of Iowa. The ballet has Saturday rehearsals at Augustana and weeknight rehearsals at the township hall.

Though it started as just one group of children, Mr. Camarillo expanded it with a second one, to serve kids who wanted to continue through high school. The first group includes kids between ages 7 and 12 and the other has students from 13 through college age. There are more than 55 in both groups combined.

Mrs. Munos agreed that the professional atmosphere at practice shows students the importance of good behavior.

A guest instructor from Mexico demonstrated that discipline, Mrs. Myers said. He didn't speak English and most of the kids don't speak Spanish, but he was able to communicate what he wanted, she said.

Parents, most of whom were not born in Mexico, also learn the value of preserving the country's heritage.

``It's very important for children to keep their culture. If you know where you came from, you know where you go,'' Mr. Camarillo said. ``Many of these children, they are born here in the United States and they don't know nothing about Mexico. People say Mexico is a bad place. We try to teach it is not bad. It is simply like any other country around the world.

``I teach them to be proud about your country, even though you never saw it,'' he said.

Renee Morris of East Moline said she didn't realize when her family joined that Mexico had so many states -- 31 -- and represented such a diverse culture. Most of the costumes, which symbolize the various states, are handmade by the dancers' mothers.

Dances also represent different states. Miss Terronez said they are more difficult to perform than they look.

``There are so many different dances and it's so much hard work,'' she said. ``Some of my friends thought we just stomp our feet and show the dresses.''

``I enjoy the culture,'' Cathy Nino, a mother of five Ballet Folklorico dancers, said. ``I really like the people, the culture. This is a great way for kids to keep their culture going. They learn, they make friends.''

The ballet did more than 50 performances over the past year. Aside from the annual fiesta, which costs just $5 including food and drink, it doesn't charge for any shows. They do ask for donations, which go straight into costumes.

The ballet also has performed at Augie basketball games, Life At Night, the Festival of Trees and the Viva Quad-Cities Fiesta.

Mr. Camarillo's wife, Beatrice, is in charge of costumes, and their two daughters, Karina and Jenny, are instructors for the group. Karina is a sophomore at the University of Iowa and Jenny is a sophomore at Moline High School.

Miss Terronez emphasizes the family connection with the group, noting after she leaves, her 12-year-old brother will continue in it and a 5-year-old sister is eager to join.

Quad Cities Ballet Folklorico will have its annual fiesta June 12 at Moline High School. It plans on performing at Indiana University in September.

-- By Jonathan Turner (February 9, 1998)

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