Knee pain becomes part of the gig when dancing flamenco, a traditional Spanish dance. This pain ultimately pushed Rodolfo Mendez, a dancer who performed on the cement floors of clubs in Spain for nearly nine months, to move from center stage to the wings in 1978 and create the Ballet East Dance Company in East Austin.
Mendez has served as the company’s artistic director and taught folklórico dance to kids for nearly 40 years. This is the third year that Ballet East is performing “Bajo La Luna” (“Under The Moon”) for its spring showcase. The show is a collaboration between Mendez, the Ballet East Folklórico dance group led by choreographer Miguel Marroquín and the UT Mariachi Ensemble led by Ezekiel “Zeke” Castro.
“I ultimately wanted to bring the arts back to my community,” Mendez said. “I work hard so these kids don’t have to pay for anything because they can’t afford dancing shoes when they are $65 a pair.”
A native Austinite, Mendez joined the Peace Corps after attending the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance in New York City. Mendez spent three years in Costa Rica and Chile, during which he created an outreach program using theater and dance as a medium to develop communities. Mendez said he has always had the energy in him to use dance to help kids to realize their full potential.
Mendez’s adolescent and young adult students, some of whom he has taught since they were in elementary school, will perform Jalisco and Guerrero during “Bajo La Luna.”
The show’s dances were choreographed by Marroquín, a former dancer at La Compañía Nacional de Danza Folklórica and Amalia Hernández Ballet Folklórico in Mexico. Marroquín said he has worked with Mendez since he moved from Mexico City to Austin in 2014.
“I see these kids as how I used to be,” Marroquin said. “Most of them are from low income families, not with many resources, as I was growing up. I see these kids and I see myself. It is the first time that I am working with children, and it is pretty rewarding because I am teaching them but they are also teaching me.”
Alongside the folkloric dancers, the UT Mariachi Ensemble will be playing pieces as directed by their maestro — anything from “La Bamba” to “Alma Llanera.” Castro, who has plans to retire this year, has had a whirlwind of a career. From building the mariachi program from the ground up in Austin Independent School District to leading a group of mariachi players from Travis High School to Washington D.C. to play in the 4th of July parade, Castro said he not only loves getting young people to accept mariachi music but to love it.
“When you love mariachi music, you develop a passion for it,” Castro said. “My goal is for these kids to understand not only the music but the history of mariachi so they can appreciate it as much as I do.”
Castro has worked with Mendez for a number of years and said he loves performing in East Austin because it is where he grew up.
“I am very proud that I grew up in East Austin,” Castro said. “Playing at the Pan American Hillside is my way of paying back to the people that have supported me … I never understood it, but I think I understand it now. We are Hispanic, and we have to support each other.”