Ramon Silva Ruelas was born in the little village of Ayotitlán, Jalisco, México and immigrated to Salinas, California, in the ’70s in time to graduate from Alisal High School. Today he holds an MFA in dance from UC Irvine, and is the leader of Tonatiuh – Danzantes del Quinto Sol, a nonprofit, Salinas-based dance and cultural group he founded 25 years ago.

The outfit’s name roughly translates to “movement of dancers of the fifth sun.”

Growing up, Ruelas’ family couldn’t afford the colorful outfits, shoes and accessories to participate in Mexican folklórico dance. He describes dance as an “essential” part of his life, but wasn’t able to formally train until he attended Hartnell College as a young adult. So it’s been his mission to make sure local kids, especially from East Salinas, can dance regardless of ability to pay, a calling for which he’s receiving the Arts Council for Monterey County’s Champions of the Arts award for volunteer.

“Anyone who joins our group finds a second family,” Ruelas says.

That second family counts about 200 adults, teens and kids, who not only learn the dances, but also history, geography and anthropology.

Some call the dance form “ballet folklórico,” but Silva calls it “folklórico dance” because he doesn’t want anyone to think they are formally trained in ballet.

These are folk dances, developed in different villages and states in Mexico, characterized by stomping, tapping and spinning movements, the men in wide-brimmed hats, the women in long-hemmed dresses that they fling about like wings. One of the most iconic examples is the “Mexican Hat Dance.” The dances differ depending on their region of origin. The accompanying music can be anything from brass orchestra to mariachi strings and trumpet; in the north, it’s sort-of Country-Western accordion, in the south, it’s marimbas and xylophones.

Ruelas focuses on capturing the nuance of each style: “When we take it onto a stage, we make sure we’re representing correctly the movements, choreography, outfits. We can’t just make it up.”

If the female dancers have flowers on the left side of their head, they’re single; right side means married. White lacy dresses are native to Veracruz. If they twirl their skirt high up over the head, it’s from Nayarit.

Ruelas says learning the dances and being part of this artistic community imparts self-esteem, connection, health. What does he get out of it?

“Satisfaction that our traditional arts are going to continue in future generations. And joy of seeing my students succeed in dance and their lives as a whole.”

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