Enchanting, colorful costumes. Skillful footwork. A high pitch grito (shout). These are the familiar elements that define Mexico’s ballet folklórico or “folkloric dance.” Our July Featured Artist Steven Valencia might add “his inspiration,” too.
This month, we connected with Calidanza’s Artistic Director to learn more about his life-long passion. As the leader of the Calidanza folk dance company, Valencia seeks to advance, celebrate and preserve the culture of Latino, Chicano, and Native populations for generations. And he’s been pretty good at it. He’s worked and toured with some of the best instructors from across the border, choreographed traditional and modern professional productions in and around the Sacramento region, and was even awarded the 2011 Maestro Award from The Latino Arts Network of California for his efforts. What may be the most peculiar thing about Valencia’s success is that he juggles his time at Calidanza with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
Read on and discover what quite literally moves our featured artist below.
Sacramento born and raised, Steven Valencia is a fourth generation Mexican-American, who, from the get-go was involved with ballet folklórico. “My mother encouraged me to explore dance as a way to understand my culture. Folklórico was foreign yet familiar to me. I loved the music and costumes, but I didn’t understand its language (at the time). Dance was also very important in the social fabric of my neighborhood, so I definitely had to be a part of the scene.” Participating at New Helvetia (now Jedediah Smith) Elementary School’s in-school art program got him hooked and led him to a lifetime of learning. Along with minoring in Dance at Sacramento State, Valencia trained and taught with leading folklórico instructors from San Jose to Jalisco; with every lesson finding inspiration, and soon enough, a purpose and mission.
“When studying dance in Mexico I realized that folklórico wasn’t as professional in the States. In Mexico, folklórico companies have grand, theatrical engagements; in the US, folklórico troupes were lucky to be seen at weddings and festivals…folklórico deserved to be taken more seriously [stateside] and I knew I could make [it] happen.”
After years of training, the young dance veteran reestablished his hometown roots and worked as the artistic director and program administrator at Instituto Mazatlan Bellas Artes de Sacramento (IMBA) from 1998-2012. The position allowed Valencia to pursue his dream of developing ballet folklórico in the Sacramento region. Over his tenure the company put on three professional level productions, won dance competitions, and even showcased the art in China. But artistic expression was what he craved.
“I was in a difficult spot. I loved being a part of IMBA, but the dance company was more traditional than I wanted to be as choreographer and performer. I knew it was time for me to forge my own path and create my own company.”
In early 2013, Valencia founded Calidanza, a dance company grounded in tradition but with contemporary movement and subject matter. Along with learning Valencia’s “fusion” choreography, the professional company and its dance academy are taught by artists in residences and guest choreographers. “No production is ever the same. I always try to add new elements and show off folklórico’s diversity in every show.”
Being the artistic director also means meeting with dancers three times a week, planning for upcoming productions, overseeing the company’s budget, AND working on a show’s design. “I’m very hands-on, which leads to a slammed schedule! I am lucky enough to have a booking agent and a publicist that can handle event promotions.”
Through all of his dedication to dance, Valencia has been a Correctional Officer with California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s Juvenile Justice division in Stockton since 2004. “Being a correctional officer inspires me to keep doing what I’m doing with Calidanza. Seeing so many African American and Latino youth behind bars because of the lack of things to do. Youth arts programs are vital: studies show that with them youth do better in life and learn to better manage their time.”
This ethos has led Valencia and Calidanza to perform at local schools as part of Any Given Child, to teach Twin Rivers School District’s children during in-school arts programs and more. Like his mother, Valencia recognizes that understanding one’s culture and identity is essential for guiding youth.
So, how has his dance venture been received by Sacramento? “I feel really privileged with my success. Calidanza has received equity grants through the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission, we’ve worked closely with museums like the Crocker, and have a partnership with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.” But Valencia believes that he’s a lucky one and feels that Sacramento has much more work to do to support the arts community. “Our city is known more for our political scene rather than for our arts. When people think of going to a show or gallery, they immediately think of San Francisco. Sacramento hasn’t solidified itself as an arts destination yet.”
His solution? “Give [artists and arts groups] primers on marketing. For the arts to be viable in this region, we need to know how to reach audiences and to connect with potential sponsors. More networking opportunities or simple marketing how-tos would be helpful.”
During our conversation, Valencia also stressed the need for a medium-sized professional theater in the city of Sacramento. “It is very hard to fill seats and make a profit with the existing theater stock. I always face a conundrum — what do I want more: more bodies in the audience or higher ticket sales?
Watch Valencia’s work on the big stage at these upcoming performances:
These fun facts and teachable moments had to make it into our write up somehow.
C– Creative choreographies
A– Accessible arts programs
L– Lively experience
I– Interactive educational component
D– Dynamic programming
A– Artistic excellence
D– Dedication to the art
All July long Sacramento365 is encouraging readers to create their own local summer adventures, so, we had to ask Valencia how he likes to keep cool in the 916.
“There are so many recreational options in Sacramento, so it’s hard to get bored. I love being by (or in) the water — be it rafting or wakeboarding.”
Here are just a few of Sacramento365’s favorite places to experience Sacramento’s famous waterways:
Interview by Sacramento365’s Content & Social Media Coordinator, Jamila B. Khan.