Eventually the European dance forms became part of popular culture in the northern region of Mexico. By the time of the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century, these dances had become a tool for political subversion and a means of mass communication -- dancers carried news of the revolution through their swirling steps.
Recently, Kansas City's El Grupo Folklorico Atotonilco hired a Mexican expert to teach the troupe dances from the state of Coahuila (pronounced Kwa-weela), an arid area the size of Mississippi just south of the Rio Grande. Maria Chaurand, who founded the West Side company 25 years ago, says the German influence was readily apparent in the new steps her dancers learned. "A lot of twirling," she says. "A lot of turning."
Chaurand founded the dance company in 1979, after the local Catholic diocese broke off its relationship with the Guadalupe Center, a nonprofit social-service agency serving the West Side's historically Latino population. The split threatened the neighborhood's annual festival, but leaders at the center decided to make a go of it on their own, hosting their first Cinco de Mayo celebration. The center's president approached Chaurand about putting on a dance exhibition, so she gathered up some neighborhood kids. They were a hit.
After that, none of the kids wanted to quit. El Grupo Folklorico Atotonilco has grown over the years, and its mission has become as much about anthropology as entertainment and celebration. The dancers have traveled all over Mexico, learning dances and the histories they represent.
"We investigate this art form," Chaurand says. "We go back to our ancestors and learn from them."
Chaurand says the diversity of Mexican folkloric dance still amazes her. In the northern states of Coahuila, Chihuahua and Nueva Leon, where the revolution began, dances are set to the bounce of tubas and accordions. In the southern jungle states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, it's all about rhythm: marimbas, rattles and quickly strummed guitars.
"That's the beauty of our art," she says. "Chihuahua is up more in the desert. Oaxaca is down in the jungles. What would they have in common? It's very different."
This Saturday, her crew breaks out its new numbers at the Latino Summerfest in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. Sponsored by the Hispanic Media Association of Greater Kansas City, the fiesta has its own mission, one that echoes the tradition of those Coahuila dancers. The festival is a fund-raiser for the media group, which offers scholarships to Latino students who plan to study journalism in college.
Chaurand is particularly excited about performing at this event because of its connection with the dances her troupe performs. Just as Mexican dances did at the turn of the century, the recipients of the Media Association's scholarships will one day spread the news to a population that's growing more diverse all the time.