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Southwest Airlines spreads its wings to bring UTPA dancers, Valley culture to nation's capital
Posted: 05/28/2014
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Making connections is a goal that The University of Texas-Pan American's Ballet Folklórico UTPA and Southwest Airlines have in common.

This year the airline industry giant will provide flight accommodations for 15 members of the Ballet Folklórico to travel to Washington, D.C., June 5-7, to appear at the prestigious 2014 National College Dance Festival held at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There the troupe will perform a folk dance suite that showcases the "cowboy/vaquero" culture of the Rio Grande Valley and Texas.

"The dance is 'Nuevo León' (a northern state of Mexico) and very representative of us because it is so close to the border. The music is norteña which includes huapangos and polkas of the area as well," said Mary Muñoz, associate director of special programs in UTPA's Department of Music and Dance.

Southwest Airlines representative Anabell Odisho, a senior specialist of Community Affairs & Grassroots, said the corporation's purpose is "to connect people to what's important in their lives."

"Through our support of UTPA, we are able to connect Ballet Folklórico students to the National College Dance Festival where they can carry out their passion for performing arts and connect the audience with this important facet of the Hispanic culture," she said.

In March, the Ballet Folklórico was selected by a panel of distinguished judges as one of the three best choreographies and performances to advance to the national dance festival during the South Central Regional Conference of the American College Dance Festival Association (ACDFA) held in Austin, Texas.

At the regional conference, the group competed among 40 universities from the states of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Texas and against many different dance genres including ballet, modern dance, and hip hop. Only 12 were selected to perform at the regional concert and then three of those chosen to perform at the national dance festival. The other two South Central region troupes that advanced were The University of Texas at Austin and Sam Houston State University.

"From the 12 choreographies selected to present at the gala in Austin, the Ballet Folklórico was honored to close the concert," said Francisco Muñoz, lecturer/dance program coordinator and the Ballet Folklórico's artistic director. "The audience received our students with an overwhelming applause, before they even performed, and a heartfelt standing ovation at the end."

The National Festival, according to the ACDFA, provides a showcase for the outstanding quality of choreography and performance that is being created on college and university campuses. The Ballet Folklórico, the first dance troupe to showcase Mexican folklórico choreography at the regional level or at the national concert, also advanced to the national venue in 2012.

Mary Muñoz said advancing to the national level speaks volumes for UTPA's dance program which includes a major and minor in dance.

"It gives our dance program a lot of visibility and a chance to recruit. People now know that UT Pan American has a dance program and that it is a good program," Mary Muñoz said.

Jessica Peña, who just graduated May 10, with a BA in dance, said this was the first time she has performed with the Ballet Folklórico at the regional conference and was nervous. But she said the enthusiasm from the audiences was unbelievable.

"They were cheering and yelling...which gave us confidence," Peña said. "Our piece is very joyful - it celebrates culture, family, friends and community. We did not receive one negative critique from the adjudicators, everything was positive...they said things like 'you remind us what dance is about.'"

Peña, who described the high level of technique and professionalism the dances require, said she hopes the Washington audiences enjoy them and appreciate the culture from where they originated. Pena said the tremendous support the dance troupe has received from the University and Southwest Airlines illustrates the value of what the Valley offers.

"Sometimes in the Valley we lack self esteem and think we can't do things as well as in New York City, Boston or Chicago but, hey, we are going to the Nationals," she said.

It is also not the first time Peña has received support from Southwest Airlines. The airline also helped her travel to Boston in the past to participate in the Latino Leadership Initiative at Harvard University. In addition, Southwest has funded other travel by UTPA students including trips by the Mariachi Atzlán to Washington, D.C., for invited appearances at the 2012 Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Festival and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's (CHCI) 36th Annual Awards Gala in 2013.

"Southwest Airlines is giving us a chance to grow as professionals and artists. They make things happen and are changing lives by giving us the opportunity to see other works and for people to see us," Pena said.

The Ballet Folklórico UTPA will perform "Nuevo León" in concerts at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. June 7 in the Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Ticket information is available at The Kennedy Center website.