Portrait of Connie at her home
Ballet Folklórico de la Raza founder Connie
Benavidez. Photo by Amanda López

When Connie Benavidez’s teenage daughters wanted to learn baile folklórico, a traditional Mexican dance known for its heel stomping and skirt twirling, they found that existing schools had strict age limits. So in 1994, the family started a nonprofit that welcomed everyone—regardless of age or income. Colorado Springs–based Ballet Folklórico de la Raza accomplished the latter by charging just $10 a month. Plus, Benavidez created the dancers’ dresses herself, which often meant stitching until dawn after her shift at Peterson Air Force Base but saved participants hundreds of dollars per outfit.

Now 85, Benavidez has retired but still crafts the group’s gowns, a task that’s complicated by the fact that each of Mexico’s 31 states has a unique design. “Chiapas has a black dress to represent the darkness of the jungle,” says Danae Torres, la Raza’s head instructor, “but it also has bright embroidered flowers to represent the art from the Indigenous people there. Veracruz, on the other hand, is the oldest port in Mexico, so it has a lot of Spanish influence in pearls, gold, and finery.” Benavidez’s favorite dresses to make are from Jalisco, even though sewing a single ruffle on the ribbon-rich frocks can take 15 hours.

After three decades of intricate needlework, Benavidez’s collection now numbers in the hundreds. The Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum even displayed some of her Jalisco designs in 2020 as part of an exhibit on the city’s Latino community. In 2013, a dozen la Raza students, outfitted in Benavidez-made dresses from four Mexican states, performed at President Barack Obama’s second inaugural parade. “For some of the dancers,” Torres says, “it was their first plane trip.”

This month, la Raza students will appear at Cinco de Mayo events throughout the Pikes Peak region. While Benavidez won’t be dancing, she’ll be watching from the crowd. “When you hear people clapping for the kids after a dance, it makes me feel so good and like I’m part of this,” she says. “This is our culture, and I want to keep it going as long as I can.”

This article was originally published in 5280 May 2024.
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara O'Neil
Barbara is one of 5280's assistant editors and writes stories for 5280 and 5280.com.