An award-winning Bolivian folkloric dance group — started in a local high school and nurtured in any rehearsal space it could find — celebrates its 15th anniversary this weekend with four programs at the ODC theater on 17th and Shotwell.

“We always figured out somewhere to practice,” said Isidro Fajardo, 24, the artistic director and choreographer of Bolivia Corazón de América.

And when they had no audience, “we learned to just stand in front of each other and feel the music.”

“One of my core beliefs in life is that kids should be close to art, and dance is one of the most complete arts that exists,” said founder Susana Salinas. A dancer in her native Bolivia, Salinas started the group in 2000 when she was teaching at Leadership High School in the Excelsior.

“My other belief is that kids should grow up close to their roots, in this case, Bolivian dance,” said Salinas, the mother of two. Her sons, Alvaro and Alberto, were born in Bolivia and California, respectively. “That way they grow up with pride, which helps them to reach more goals in life.”

Alvaro Salinas, who helped his mother in the early years, will be flying in from La Paz to dance with the company this weekend.

The dancers are all children of Latin American immigrants. They studied at Leadership and made time for rehearsals between classes, on weekends and during the summer. Some of them, such as Fajardo, who is from Mexico, have graduated to teach others “to love dance, and most important, to love their bodies and to express themselves,” Salinas says.

When he joined the group 10 years ago as a freshman, Fajardo notes, the majority of the dancers were Bolivian immigrants. Now, they are from throughout Latin America.

“My own training is in contemporary ballet, which has influenced the folklore that I teach, but the Bolivian roots are there,” he adds.

Throughout its history, as today, the group has struggled to find rehearsal space. Nowadays, however, there are new struggles. “The biggest challenge is not just finding spaces or economic resources, but actually keeping the kids involved in a practice that doesn’t use computers or other technology devices,” said Salinas. “Keeping them in the group after they finish high school has been hard, so we are training new dancers all the time.”

Feathers and straw

The artists and teachers work for free. When they win prizes at major festivals — such as the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, where they’ve taken top honors seven times — they use the prize money to travel to Bolivia to buy colorful local fabrics. The dance costumes they create are also used during Carnaval.

“I can find fabric here, but not much,” said Salinas. “Every time I travel to see my family, I come back with bags full of feathers for Sicuri hats [headgear with concentric circles of vivid colors and an outer rim of ostrich feathers], a specific type of shoes called ojotas [leather sandals tied with rope], guayos [a type of indigenous fabric], and straw.”

The group has being invited twice to China’s Beijing Touring Festival. Members held raffles and mounted a crowdsourcing campaign to pay for the airline tickets.

“We were recently invited to Greece, but with no costs covered, so we will probably decline,” said María Alicia Lemus, from El Salvador, whose mother joined the group in 2005.

Lemus, who now helps teaching, said that earlier on, when she had no money to pay for other classes, dancing with the group at Leadership “kept my passion alive.”

The two-hour spectacle this weekend will feature live music by Grupo Ajayu and will present eight different dances from South American country folklore, featuring more than 100 different rhythms.

“The customs, as well as the dances, represent a particular story of Bolivian culture and heritage,” said Lemus.

“Each movement has a meaning,” she said. “For instance, the Tinku is an Aymara tradition in which two groups of men fight each other for the water of the region. The winner manages the water [until the next Tinku]. It is still held in Potosí and represents the fight for land rights.”

Another dance evokes Bolivia’s history of using slaves in the mines.

“One of the dancers (the girl) will represent death, and that is shocking because she is so young, but it is a way to send a message about all abuses that happened in the past,” said Fajardo.

The company expects some 650 attendees at this weekend’s performances. Tickets are on sale at this website.

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