Love of dance has for centuries been an integral part of the lives of the Spanish people, especially in Northern New Mexico. Refugees who fled their homeland during the Polish Revolution in the early 1790s and other European settlers in Mexico introduced many traditional dances from their home countries. These included Viennese waltzes, Polish Varsovianas, French cutilios, the Scotch-German schottische and European cuadrillas. In 1844, when Mexico declared its independence from Spain and France, a law was passed that required the performing of these dances, as well as other European traditions and customs, to be discontinued. However, since Northern New Mexico was at the farthest extremes of the Mexican territory, the dances continued as part of village life.
The European customs and culture had found their way here through the Camino Real from Mexico and up the Rio Grande Valley. Dancing was one of the customs to celebrate bautismos, weddings, fiestas, special community events, and most often, the end of the work week.
A special group of people that practiced these dances, with some local modifications, originally met with friends and family at alternating homes, rolled up carpets and moved furniture for violinists and guitarists to have room to play for rooms full of people. Friends and relatives would meet at alternating homes to dance and top the evening off with food and drinks.
This group is considered the informal start of an organization formed in 1948, called La Sociedad Colonial Espanola, to teach and preserve these dances for future generations. Later, “de Santa Fe” was added to the name. This year, La Sociedad Colonial Espanola de Santa Fe celebrates its 75th anniversary.
Through the decades, the organization has been invited to perform at fiestas, county and state fairs, the State Capitol Rotunda, the Governor’s Mansion, and at special historical events. These have included the 400th anniversary of the Camino Real, the 400th anniversary of the founding of the City of Santa Fe, the 300th anniversaries of the founding of the City of Albuquerque and the Fiestas de Santa Fe, and the 100th anniversary of New Mexico’s statehood. In 1999, the Coloniales accompanied the Santa Fe Sister Cities Committee on a trip to Spain where they danced at Palacios, Santa Fe de La Vega and at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid. The Coloniales also teach the dances to students throughout Northern New Mexico.
The State of New Mexico recognized the organization’s cultural preservation accomplishments by presenting it with the State’s outstanding Cultural Award. The Mayor of Santa Fe has also proclaimed April 3rd as the Dia de Los Coloniales.
Coloniales members range widely in age, with the oldest in their 90s. They say they not only enjoy the responsibility of keeping traditions alive but also receive personal benefits from the socialization and exercise. Members are often heard to claim, “People say they don’t dance because they are old; we say they are old because they don’t dance.”
Although the Coloniales have danced before an estimated 40,000+ persons worldwide, the audiences that have been among the most receptive and appreciative are the residents at long-term care residences and nursing homes. Since many of the residents are immobile, it is rewarding for members to see them smiling while bobbing their heads and moving their feet as if dancing.
When not dancing, the Coloniales are not couch potatoes. Many are active in arts and crafts, in their churches, and in other social, and community events. Some of the members have even participated in and/or received gold medals at the Senior Olympics, including at the national level.