The first time José Luis Baca danced onstage before an audience, he was 11 or 12 years old. He can’t exactly remember his age, but he recalled he didn’t want to dance because of his partner — his older sister.

OK, he was told, then dance with the other girl. She was taller, however. So Baca danced with his sister and didn’t stop.

The stage he and the others dance on these days is much larger than that smaller one in Douglas where he first performed Mexican folklórico with five others, including his sister, Veronica Lopez, and older brother, Eduardo “Lalo” Baca Jr.

José Luis Baca, 29, is director of the family-born Ballet Folklórico Tapatío. The dance troupe began 17 years ago with six dancers who practiced behind his father’s South Tucson shop, Baca Upholstery on South Fourth Avenue.

The group now numbers more than 140 dancers, from children as young as 4 to polished adults who continue to perfect their intricate steps of Mexico’s regional dances. And they still call the upholstery shop their home.

“They do it for the love of the art,” said Baca, who teaches folklórico dance at Sunnyside High School and is married to Jimena Duarte Baca, a fellow Tapatío dancer.

The group has performed across the country and in Mexico, at small gatherings and major dance festivals, winning awards for excellence and authenticity. The group is just of one many artistic, musical and cultural groups in Tucson that survive on the sheer determination of their participants and a handful of sponsors. Baca’s dance organization lives check to check and on the good will of the community.

Next Sunday, Ballet Tapatío dances up to a higher level. The group will host other folklórico groups from California and Mexico, and will also feature the legendary Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán of Mexico in a benefit performance at the Casino del Sol AVA Amphitheater.

Vargas is returning to Tucson after several years of absence. The group, considered the “godfather” of all mariachi groups, had been a regular participant in the Tucson International Mariachi Conference, in which Ballet Tapatío has performed.

Mariachi and folklórico are partners in the dance and music spectacles. The rhythm of the stringed instruments and trumpets drives the dancers’ steps and turns.

The family dance project began when Baca’s parents, Eduardo “Lalo” Baca Sr. and Josephine Baca, decided to give their three children a dance floor.

The Baca children had been in a dance group that dissolved, but the trio continued to dance in the family home.

The constant click-clack of the heels drove the parents a bit crazy, Baca said.

So the elder Baca cleared an unused portion of the back lot at the shop and poured a concrete floor. There the kids could stomp, kick and step all they wanted.

But the Bacas wanted something more. They wanted to further their children’s dance training and open it up to other youngsters.

In 1997, with the help of Tusonans Alberto Ranjel, a musician, and the late Lupe Klein Aviles, they created Ballet Tapatío, taking the name associated with the Mexican city of Guadalajara, considered the birthplace of mariachi music and a major cultural center. To add to Tapatío’s panache, they recruited as the group’s instructor Sergio Valle, an accomplished dancer and choreographer from Guadalajara and student of Mexican dance guru Rafael Zamarripa.

Although José Luis Baca and his siblings will not perform at Sunday’s dance and music extravaganza, it continues to be a family affair. He will direct from backstage, while his brother and sister will assist behind the scenes.

Proceeds from the event will be used to provide scholarships to Tucson high school students, said Baca, who graduated from Cholla High School.

“We want to give back,” he said.

Ernesto “Neto” Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at or at 573-4187.