Ballet East Dance Company is nearing its 40th anniversary. In 1978, Rodolfo Méndez founded the company with the goal of bringing dance to underserved communities in East Austin.
Méndez, the artistic director of the organization, was born and raised in East Austin. He began dancing when he was 10 years old and continues to dance today at the age of 70. His passion for the performing arts has allowed him to dance nationally and internationally, in Off-Broadway shows and with travelling dance companies.
During the Vietnam War era, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica where he helped develop performing arts outreach programs. Inspired, he returned to Austin and has since then worked with Latino and African-American youth in hopes of instilling confidence in them through dance.
“I enjoy seeing them learn stuff and seeing them perform,” Méndez said. “I think that performance is the best therapy for these kids because it shows them how to go out in front of people and not be afraid.”
Ballet East Dance Company provides free dance classes for middle and high school students. However, Méndez does not turn away anyone who expresses interest in folkloric dance. Participants are provided with the shoes and dress associated with the traditional Latin American dance. Several grants such as one from the Texas Commission of the Arts allow the company to offer free classes, provide the attire needed to perform and pay the advanced dancers who perform at city events.
Enrique Garcia, 10, began taking dance classes at Ballet East last year along with his three brothers. He feels that listening to the traditional music and learning the dance steps is a way of connecting with his culture. When he grows up he hopes to be a teacher or an artist to bring the arts to other children.
“In school I can hardly move,” Garcia said. “I really like to dance because I feel free and happy when I’m moving.”
Miguel Marroquin, a former dancer with the Amalia Hernández Ballet Foklórico de Mexico, has been instructing the beginner and advanced classes for the past three years. Like many of his students, he began dancing in middle school except he did so unwillingly because he was shy but slowly began enjoying it with the encouragement of a teacher.
Prior to moving to Austin, Marroquin toured with several companies and taught professionals folkloric dance steps. Ballet East Dance Company was his first exposure to working with youth.
“In Mexico I had never seen outreach programs like this one, relating to the arts at least,” Marroquin said. “It was not until I came to dance with the kids that I understood what he (Méndez) was doing and said ‘wow, I love this idea.’ I think it is of great help to the community. To help kids who would have more than likely not have had access to something like this and put it in their reach is something fantastic.”
The dancers are currently preparing to perform at the Día de los Muertos event on Oct. 21 at the Mexican American Cultural Center.
A changing East Austin and the future of Ballet East Dance Company
East Austin was once a bustling Latino and African-American community, housing a significant number of Austin’s minority families. Mexican and barbeque restaurants, barber shops, laundromats and churches lined the streets. Today, only a few of those shops remain. Instead there are cat cafés, food trucks and vintage furniture stores.
“Austin has just gone on, it has changed tremendously,” Méndez said. “Even the art world here is not the way it used to be 20 years ago. There was a lot more dance.”
Méndez has given thought to retiring. Upon retiring, the dance company would be no more because his lawyer has recommended not passing it on due to legal reasons. He’s found himself saying “this is the last year,” for several years now but has not yet been able to go through with it because of the children. However, he does believe that this next year will be the company’s last. He is proud of the dance company, instructors, students and himself.
“Now I go to the grocery store and they (former students) always come up to me and say, ‘remember when I took foklórico from you? Can you teach my little kid?’” Méndez said smiling.
To further give back to the community he plans to leave everything, including his house, to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund.
Some students in the advanced group have been dancing at Ballet East for over five years. Many followed in the steps of their older brothers and sisters. They look up to Méndez and value the relationship they have with him. Méndez cares for each one of them and encourages them to work hard not only in dancing but also in school and other sports. He oftentimes picks up students who do not have rides, provides food and drinks after practices and takes them on excursions.
Marisol Piedra was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. She has been dancing at Ballet East since she was in 6th grade. Last spring, she graduated from Eastside Memorial High School and despite a busy work schedule she makes sure she is available for each practice and performance. She hopes to pursue a dancing degree to be able to teach in the future. Jokingly she said she would happily take over the dance company for Méndez.
“He never asks for anything in return. Just for us to always work hard, practice and show up,” Piedra said. “If it had been a paying program my mom wouldn’t have let me do it. It’s helped me a lot.”