The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was one of the last places on Earth that Adriana Astorga-Gainey expected to find herself visiting at any point of her life. Yet, in 2001, she and five dancers from the Pacifico Dance Company, the non-profit dance company that she founded nearly 30 years ago, found themselves in North Korea, as well as in the People’s Republic of China, for a cultural arts exchange program.
“At that time, I was five months pregnant, believe it or not,” says Astorga-Gainey. “I almost didn’t go but my husband encouraged me, and the doctor said, ‘Yeah, you’re good to go.’”
It was a revelatory experience for Astorga-Gainey and the other five dancers who traveled with her as they accompanied the internationally renowned Mariachi Sol de Mexico and performed for captive audiences in both countries. What she remembers most fondly of that experience are the many attendees who spoke to them in Spanish, asked about their outfits and about the traditional dances from Mexico that they performed.
Traditional Mexican dances (aka baile folklórico) are the forte of the Pacifico Dance Company. Astorga-Gainey and the hundreds of dancers who have performed under her guidance have regaled audiences in dozens of venues across the country and the world. To date, the dance company has performed numerous traditional dances from the regions of Michoacán, the Costa Chica (based on the chilena and son afromexicano), Chihuahua, Jalisco (such as the Jarabe Tapatío), Nayarit, and others, with an emphasis on authenticity and professionalism.
Originally from Northern California, Astorga-Gainey moved to L.A. to study at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. During her time there as a student, she also hoped to join a dance group or company to continue the dance training she had developed over the years since she was a child and she and her family would spend their summers driving through Mexico and into Mexico City.
She still remembers, quite vividly, the moment she fell in love with baile folklórico. Her mother took her to see a performance of traditional dance at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), the city’s major cultural center that hosts dance, opera, and other arts events year-round.
“I was on the edge of my seat the whole time and just in awe,” she recalls of her first visit, “and that’s just where it took off.”
Astorga-Gainey began dance training soon after and studied many types of traditional dances at the renowned Escuela de Ballet Folklórico de México under Amalia Hernández. She resumed her dance training every summer when her family took its annual trip to Mexico City until they had to return to the US in time for her to start school again.
“I went searching for an L.A.-based company that, pretty much, would align with what I wanted to do,” she explains, “what my vision was, that had the core philosophies that I've learned during my residency, if you want to call them that, classes I took in Mexico City. It really wasn't easy. I couldn't find much here.”
She eventually found a dance group that she liked and made several friends there who, together, founded the Ballet Folklorico del Pacifico in January of 1992, which eventually became the Pacifico Dance Company. The company survived the L.A. Uprising in its founding year, the Northridge earthquake two years later, and continues to practice and train, via video conference, despite the pandemic and quarantine.
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“We wanted to elevate and bring the art form from its authentic roots and origins,” Astorga-Gainey explains, “but to a professional theater setting, with trained dancers and musicians and unique backdrops. That was our focus, you know, and I knew that I wanted Mexican folk dance, but at a grander scale.
“I wanted to tell stories as it continued to evolve,” she continues. “I knew that I had a strong enough background in folk dancing, but I knew that I wanted it to be bigger and I wanted to be able to tell original stories of culture. I wanted to use the music and the costuming and the footwork that comes with the Mexican folk dancing.”
“I'm open to anything that allows our message, our art, to be seen,” she says of the various stories they interpret through dance. “It's our purpose to continue to instill pride of heritage in people of Mexican descent and to educate them, whether they're Hispanic or not, about the beauty and the culture and the music of Mexico.”
Those stories encapsulate the history of Mexico, its national icons, its culture, and its art as interpreted through dance. Over the years, the group has performed traditional dances in elaborate settings and appropriate outfits to interpret the life of Frida Kahlo, to share the history and religious and cultural importance of the Virgen de Guadalupe, to celebrate and emphasize the important and central role that women played during the Mexican Revolution, and to teach and celebrate the history of indigenous people in Mexico.
Central to these performances is Astorga-Gainey’s philosophy of dance. For her, dance isn’t just something someone does in their free time or signs their children up for to keep them occupied and out of trouble for a few hours per week.
“It’s kind of like playing baseball or soccer or whatever you're given,” she explains. “Your parents want you to play, you want to play, you're excited, you get your uniform, you're excited about putting it on and you're excited about playing and you want to start and a coach starts you and then that's the end of that. The next game comes, and you have some practices, but really, it's about the game and are we winning and your friends.
“That’s how I envisioned what happens in the folklorico culture,” she continues, “and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those folklorico groups, but in my mind, I wanted club ball. I wanted young dancers, to go back to the analogy, young players who want to really come in and develop their skills, who really want to take this to the next level.”
Dance, then, is a serious personal and cultural endeavor and an outlet for cultural expression and celebration that requires rigorous levels of training and dedication. Pacifico typically seeks out dancers of this caliber, those who are not just passionate but have and can build a strong connection with other dancers to create a tight-knit community of like-minded and like-talented individuals.
Jesenia Gardea is one such member at Pacifico. A few folks from Pacifico recruited her to join the company as a performer when she was 19. She was immediately impressed by the scale of everything.
“I was really impressed with the caliber of dancers in the company,” she recalls. “The group that I was with, we would have a recital every year at a high school’s auditorium. We would have performances throughout the community, but I had never really performed in a huge theater like that before with folklorico.”
Gardea took on a larger role at Pacifico in 2016 when she was promoted to the role of Academy Director. As director, she trains children and teens in folklorico dance steps and choreography as well as ballet and yoga. The classes and training are designed to provide the dancers with a balance of exercises that maintain both their strength and their flexibility.
“The company's choreography goes beyond what a traditional folklorico dance company might do,” she explains. “In order for the dancers to be able to execute those movements, training in other genres is imperative.”
The purpose of the academy is to train and develop children and teens into professional dancers with an appreciation for the culture of folklorico and other traditional dances from Mexico. This focus comes at the expense of the amount of performances they can take part of throughout the year.
“It's not for every child because there are other groups that have a lot of performances,” says Gardea. “The parents spend a lot of money on their costumes so that they can perform in them and we don't really focus on that. Our focus really is on the training…it's more of a training facility than very performance focused. We're training them to perform, but they don't have a ton of performances throughout the years like some other groups do.”
The academy begins transitioning the students out of the academy and into the company starting at age 16. They are incorporated into the company depending on their skill level to start learning its repertoire and join the company once they are old enough to do so. Their academy training in traditional Mexican dance styles coupled with other dance styles and exercises prepares them for this transition as well as for the elaborate stage setups used in some of the company’s interpretive works, such as “Mictlan,” “Calacas Clandestinas,” “The Legend of La Llorona”, and “La Mujer Mexicana.”
This approach builds on the company’s other purpose: to promote Mexico’s cultural traditions and inspire awe, pride, and admiration to all who see the performances, but even more so to those who partake in them.
“We see the kids gain so much confidence,” adds Gardea. “We see them gain so much knowledge about their history, about their culture and I feel it makes them more proud of who they are. They're really displaying a beautiful aspect of their culture, something that requires a lot of discipline. I think they feel very prideful about that.”
Find more dances from Pacifico Dance Company here.
The project to digitize recordings of performances by the Pacifico Dance Company and other Southern California dance heritage has been made possible by a grant to the USC Libraries from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Top Image: "Journey to Mictlan: Land of the Underworld" features dancers in colorful outfits creating a vision of a smoky underworld. | Courtesy of Pacifico Dance Company