For students at St. Mary Star of the Sea School, the folkloric dance group offers more than a chance to perform for school and community events. Ballet Folklórico Estrella del Mar, open to students in first grade and older, offers young people a chance to learn about Mexican culture and heritage. It also offers a social group, and a skill that students can use to join groups when they are adults. Now in its third year, the 53 members of the troupe are all students at the school, or, in a couple of cases, recent alumni who did not want to leave the group. The group is led by Salvador and Michaela Hernandez, Cynthia Ramirez and Jessica DeLuna. All are experienced dancers with children in the school. “It’s extremely important to the school on two fronts,” said Candice Usauskas, principal of the school at 6424 S. Kenneth Ave. “From a marketing standpoint, it showcases our children in a positive way. From an academic standpoint, it not only teaches them some of the traditional dances from different regions of Mexico, it’s providing a social studies lesson and a music lesson while they’re having fun.” Salvador Hernandez, who founded the group with his wife, said that’s what they were going for. Hernandez started doing Mexican folkloric dance when he was about 14, and met his wife in the Mexican Folkloric Dance Company of Chicago. “My whole family was in it before me,” Hernandez said. “My wife started a couple of years after me. We enjoyed our time there, and we made lifelong friends.” While it was difficult to keep up with their dance company obligations while in college, both of them did it, taking advantage of the opportunity it gave them to travel. They went to Ireland, to Disney’s Epcot Center and to the Latin Grammys. They kept dancing even after the oldest of their four children was born, taking him along to rehearsals. He is now in sixth grade. “We brought him to practices with us,” Hernandez said. “We bought him little dance boots, and he would be in the back of the room with my mom, mimicking us.” He and his wife, Michaela, were charmed. "It was a combination of cuteness, and he was good,” Hernandez said. He and Michaela eventually left the group as they had more children. But when the oldest wanted to enter a talent show at St. Mary Star of the Sea when he was in first or second grade, the Hernandez taught him and a few of his friends a dance they could do. “After that, I had a lot of people coming up to me, saying if you ever do this at the school, our kids would be interested,” Hernandez said. The principal at the time was not in favor of starting a dance group, so the idea languished for a time. When Usauskas became principal, she threw her support behind it, and the Hernandezes started the program. “It was perfect, because we wanted our children to learn, and we wanted them to learn in a safe environment,” he said. The school offers space rent-free on Wednesday evenings — a night when none of its sports teams practice, so children can participate in dance and athletics — and all of the adult teachers are volunteers. Families pay a nominal fee each semester to help cover the cost of costumes, which come from Mexico because it is less expensive than buying them in the U.S. It also has a GoFundMe page to help defray costs, and charges admission for some performances. This year’s wrap-up performance was May 11 at Hubbard High School. Hernandez said the troupe is a work in progress. Originally, kindergartners were allowed to participate, but the leaders decided this year to limit it to first-grade and up because the kindergartners simply didn’t yet have the necessary attention span. The group continues to meet in the summer and open to any students registered at St. Mary Star of the Sea for the following school year. It performs at the parish Kermes event in the summer, and over the past year has received invitations to perform at more community events. This year, Hernandez said, the children performed dances from Michoacan, Baja California, Vera Cruz, the Yucatan and Jalisco, among other places. For information about the troupe, visit www.bfedm.org.