Promoting cultural dance is John Gonzales’ mission

Monache High School beginners performed dances from Nayarit during the Dec. 14 Navidad Folklórica showcase presented by Ballet Folklórico de Oro. Photo gallery:
Monache High School beginners performed dances from Nayarit during the Dec. 14 Navidad Folklórica showcase presented by Ballet Folklórico de Oro. Photo gallery:

John Gonzales – who developed a passion for Mexican folklórico dancing when he was 5 years old – literally crashed into reality a couple of years ago while driving from Porterville to a class at Fresno Pacific University.

A large semi-truck he thought was parked on the side of a country road for a flat tire suddenly made a U-turn and boxed Gonzales and the BMW he was driving.

“It was the day before Thanksgiving,” recalled Gonzales, who celebrated his 46th birthday last Saturday, the same day he walked at Selland Arena and received his bachelor’s degree in child development studies from Fresno Pacific.

His car was totaled.

Other than a sore shoulder, Gonzales came out OK.

“It was a miracle,” he said. “My BMW was totaled.”

Gonzales, probably the most well-dressed folkloric dance instructor in the San Joaquín Valley with his suits and graying but well-groomed hair, recalled that accident as a reminder of his mission.

“God was sending me a reminder of why I’m here and what I do,” said Gonzales, a 1999 graduate of Woodlake High School where he instructed the school’s dance group all four years with help from his mother. The school made sure there was a credentialed teacher on hand for those classes.

Today, Gonzales is in charge of Ballet Folklórico de Oro at the three Porterville high schools: Porterville, Monache and Granite Hills. That means he handles everything from choreography to wardrobe to lesson plans for 400 dancers.

He took the job over from Antoinette Hogan, who started the folklórico program in 1975. Gonzales had 80 students in six classes when he started 16 years ago.

Gonzales also directs the youth group Ballet Folklórico Infantil Orgullo Mexicano, and the alumni group Ballet Folklórico Orgullo Mexicano.

He’d prefer to teach than to dance, although occasionally he will jump in if a group is a dancer short. But such moments are rare.

“Oh my gosh, Gonzales is going to dance!” the students shriek when that happens.

John Gonzales gets his bachelor's degree in early childhood development at Fresno Pacific University from president Joseph Jones on Dec. 15. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA

“I miss being that dancer out there,” he admits, but the spotlight belongs to the students who “are out there trying to showcase what our heritage is about.”

“When I see my dancers performing, I live through them,” said Gonzales.

But, how does he manage 400 students?

He grooms student dancers to become team leaders, with each in charge of up to eight dancers. Gonzales starts his school day with two classes at Porterville High, drives to two more classes at Monache, then wraps up his day at Granite Hills.

He also counts on a support system of parents and volunteers who help with logistics, water and other details whenever the group travels to perform, like it will for February’s High School Showoffs in Fresno.

Rehearsals – like the one for the Dec. 14 Navidad Folklorica showcase, which sold out – take place at Porterville High.

“It just flows,” said Gonzales about overseeing a large group. “I try to coach them in a way that they become the teacher.”

Gonzales picks up dance steps and choreography by watching top instructors. He has never traveled to México to pick up tips from that country’s maestros.

Choreography is his favorite.

“I love creating,” he said. Gonzales must also take into account that up to 48 dancers will be on stage at one time.

“It’s a challenge for me because the flow has to be just right.”

Life hasn’t always been about teaching for Gonzales, whose mother danced Mexican folklórico at Woodlake High. He drifted for a few years after graduating from high school. He graduated from College of the Sequoias (2001) and enrolled at Fresno State.

“After one year, I felt like college wasn’t for me,” said Gonzales, who worked at McDonald’s for five years and learned about management.

Then, he got a job with Tulare County as an eligibility specialist working with troubled youth. Three years into the job, the Great Recession hit and he became a victim of budget cuts.

Within three days of learning about the job opening at Ballet Folklórico de Oro, Gonzales applied, interviewed and got the position. But first, he had to earn his college degree.

He commuted for 18 months to Fresno Pacific for his classes starting in July 2017. Five months ago, he moved to Visalia to be closer to family.

As a dancer, his favorite moment came at Dodger Stadium in 1989 when he performed ‘El Son de la Negra’ with the Woodlake High alumni group for Pope John Paul II.

“It’s the greatest event I’ve ever had!” he said.

For now, he is focused on his teaching.

“If I can give them a memory that will last forever, then I will do it,” said Gonzales.

Complete story, plus more photos: