Ballet Folklorico
Ballet Folklorico. Courtesy photo


Along with its many classroom merits, the district is flush with extracurricular opportunities in the arts, including the Ballet Folklorico program for students in grades 3-5.

To get students at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District out of their desks and out of their shells, all it takes is a little Ballet Folklorico.

Along with its many classroom merits, the district is flush with extracurricular opportunities in the arts, including the Ballet Folklorico program for students in grades 3-5. Now entering its fourth year, the dance classes teach the technical side of the art form, while still allowing for budding dancers to unleash their energy.

“When kids are moving … they really generate excitement in their day,” said Tom Whaley, SMMUSD’s Visual and Performing Arts director. “There’s so much (of the day) that we have kids sitting at a desk, on a computer, and now they’re getting up. They’re touching, they hold hands, they interact with each other.”

Whaley runs the program along with Ballet Folklorico Director Julio Bustos, who brings a trove of experience from Teocalli Cultural Academy in Fresno. The two first collaborated by bringing professional Folklorico troupes to the district’s “Magico Mexico” festival at Barnum Hall, which captured the attention of a diverse group of students.

Ballet Folklorico translates to “Folkloric Dance” in Spanish, and is a collective term for traditional cultural dances that combine local folk culture with ballet trademarks such as pointed toes and exaggerated movements. The dance form means different things to different regions; as Mexico, the Southwestern United States and Central American countries each offer their own interpretations.

Bustos says that the dances he teaches are inspired by rhythms worldwide, adding flavor from Native American, African-American and European influences.

“They’re doing something fun, and they’re too young to know that this is Mexico, or that is (other cultures),” he said of the program. “I think that’s why they can relate to it.”

Typically used to classes geared towards the high Latino population centers of Fresno, Bustos has noticed a more diverse crowd during the first few years of classes in Santa Monica.

“One of the things that was a pleasant surprise to me was the number of parents and students from other ethnic groups that wanted to take these classes,” he said. “I felt really good that the community seems to be integrated and open to other cultures.”

Whaley was “always struck” by Ballet Folklorico, commending the dance form for not being “gender-based” and giving kids the chance to wear “flamboyant” and “flashy” dresses. He has been at the forefront of introducing new classes into the Visual and Performing Arts program, which he says could be “arguably the best in California.” The next goal for the Folklorico program is to extend past elementary age and create a pathway for middle and high school classes.

Not just learning technique, Whaley notes that the students are using the extracurricular as a teaching tool of togetherness.

“When you are in a performing group, it’s bigger than yourself,” Whaley said. “If you show up late, if you’re not ready with your part, you’re not executing it right, there’s a balance of supporting each other but also holding each other accountable for the good of the group. That really helps kids understand their role in a larger purpose. Just like we do in many things, in sports, in the classroom and learning … it just adds to that, but in a fun way.”

Ballet Folklorico classes in the 2023-24 academic year are being taught at Edison Language Academy each Monday and Wednesday, McKinley Elementary each Wednesday and Friday, Will Rogers Elementary each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as Roosevelt Elementary each Monday and Wednesday.

Whaley is also at the helm of Mariachi classes, offered at Edison each Tuesday for all 5th grade students in the district. In the fourth year of operation, students can learn to play instruments like violin and guitarron en route to a winter performance alongside the Folklorico dancers. The Mariachi program also holds middle school classes at Virginia Avenue Project and high school classes at Santa Monica High School as a dual-enrollment course with Santa Monica College.

Thomas Leffler has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Broadcast Journalism from Penn State University and has been in the industry since 2015. Prior to working at SMDP, he was a writer for AccuWeather and managed...