No matter where you go in the world in any given point in history, people are dancing. Some have to do it secretly but they dance. Some movements and steps are particular to a specific region. Other styles are more popular with individual age groups. Certain dance forms can cross cultural boundaries, recognized and practiced throughout the world.
If people wish to express sorrow or loss, observe a holiday or celebrate an event in their family or community, they dance. Some people dance for the sheer joy of living in the moment. DANZA! Amalia Hernandez and El Folklorico de Mexico (Abrams Books For Young Readers, August 22, 2017) written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh is a tribute to a singular woman dedicated to creative declarations through the art of dance.
Amalia (ah-MAH-lee-ah) Hernandez was born in Mexico City in 1917, and everyone assumed she would grow up to be a schoolteacher like her mother and grandmother. Even Ami (AH-me), as everyone called her, expected that.
This changed when she and her family were on a vacation. A group of dancers performing in a town's square caught her attention. That is what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Her mother was happy with Ami's choice but it took her military-minded father a little longer to help her with her dream.
A studio was built in their home and she had the best ballet instructors, performers themselves. When she was twenty-two Ami watched some dancers from the United States who came to her city. She was fascinated with their modern style of dance. Now she was studying two forms of expression.
She was a dedicated student using her talents to their fullest. Ami became a dance teacher and a choreographer. When she was thirty-five audiences cheered for one of the dances she choreographed. It was a reflection of her earliest memories of dancers. This was the spark which ignited a fire in Ami which never died.
Again a student, she went out among the people in their villages throughout the regions, learning their dances and noting the traditional dress they wore. With her imagination and knowledge of ballet, modern dance and her people Ami choreographed a remarkable style of dance, uniquely her own. She and her company of seven other dancers became a sensation.
From eight they grew to fifty. Their costumes and stage scenery were dazzling. They danced in tribute to all people of Mexico, past and present. By the time she was forty-four they were known internationally for their performances and awards. At the age of eighty-three Amalia Hernandez passed away but her dance company, El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico dances on several times a week. They have never stopped in more than fifty years. Her gift is still giving.
As readers delve into the narrative penned by Duncan Tonatiuh they find themselves transported to the near past. We get swept up in the dreams of a little girl watching them grow as Duncan includes pertinent milestones and accomplishments. He also brings certain aspects of her parent's lives into his retelling by referring to the handling of the company as her father would do it and how she finishes her career by opening a dance school and teaching as her mother and grandmother did. Here is a sample passage.
Audiences loved the folkloric ballets, and Amalia's dance company quickly became very famous. In 1954, they performed on the Funcion de Gala television show. They danced on the show every week for more than sixty weeks!
There is dignity radiating from the front of the dust jacket on this title. Amalia Hernandez stands ready to perform, head held high as two other dancers holding instruments are captured mid-step. The festive backdrop suggests the dance to be one of celebration. Study their faces. They are full of passion and determination. To the left, on the back, is a list of other books by Duncan Tonatiuh with praise paragraphs from professional reviewers along with lists of awards.
The book case is a replication of an expansive, breathtaking interior image. A line of dancers in a variety of costumes are dancing from right to left. Their stage is a map of the world, rounded. Along the arc at the top are notable monuments found in places around the world. On the right in the sky is a crescent moon. On the left in the sky is a brilliant sun. The opening and closing endpapers are a pattern of a pair of shoes and a hat.
Each picture within the pages of this book hand-drawn, then collaged digitally not only shines the light on Amalia but on the beauty of the dances in Mexico. They highlight the people and their clothing within the context of a special setting. Some of the visuals span two pages, others on a single page. The attention to detail is superb indicating a great deal of research on the part of Duncan Tonatiuh. The facial expressions on the people and their body movements lead you to believe they could come fully alive and perform at any minute.
One of my favorite of many illustrations is for the performance of La Gran Tenochtitlan. This is a dance based upon Mexico's pre-Columbian past. On the top and bottom of the page Duncan has drawn an ancient pattern. Beneath the top is a blue sky with wispy clouds. Along the top of the stage surface, shown like wood flooring, are pyramids. Two of the dancers are facing left and two are facing right. Two are clothed in costumes representing birds and the others appear to be spotted like leopards. All are caring instruments in both hands. This must have been marvelous to watch.
Assuredly DANZA! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico written and illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh pays homage to a memorable woman and her culture but it also serves to inspire readers to use their gifts and to believe in the power of dreams. This is one of those books which need to be in any classroom studying the people of Mexico or their language. For not the first time and certainly not for the last time, I can't help but think Where were books like this when I was in school and college studying the Spanish language? I highly recommend this title.
To learn more about Duncan Tonatiuh and his other work please visit his website and blog by following the links attached to his name. Duncan was interviewed on the PBSNewshour on November 2, 2016. The Google Doodle for September 19, 2017 celebrated Amalia Hernandez's 100th birthday.
Be sure to visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to view the titles selected by other participants in the 2017 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.