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JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – The music changes, but the look of concentration on the faces of the black-clad students remains a constant. They attack dance routines ranging from reggaeton to K-pop with energy and glee just the same.

“They are good on all the different genres, but our core is the folklorico,” says Judith Montes de Oca, the dancers’ teacher and mentor. “They know the Tarahumara Indian dances, regional Mexican and traditional music from Jalisco, Chiapas, Yucatan and Veracruz.”

Montes de Oca is proud of her Mihtotiani dance troupe. She highlights her students’ first- and second-place finishes in dance competitions in Tijuana and Chihuahua and beams about invitations they received to perform in regional fairs and official events. She mentions honors in the Special Olympics only in passing.

“Inclusion is very important – working with them and knowing they can do a lot of things. (The dances) help with their development, their self-confidence, their physical balance,” Montes de Oca said. “They travel without the parents to events. Most of them are self-sufficient. They go to school, some have jobs. They practice sports like cycling and weightlifting in addition to being in the dance group.”

The 25 members of Mihtotiani were all born with Down syndrome or other “different capabilities” in the words of their teacher. She refuses to call their medical challenges disabilities amid a positive learning environment where the point is to make the students proud of their achievements.

According to Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information, the country had 7.2 million people in 2020 with one or more physical or mental disabilities. More than 700,000 had Down syndrome or other mental health conditions.

Mihtotiani came together 16 years ago at the behest of parents of children born with Down syndrome. The current group of students range in age from 8 to 46.

Mihtotiani dance group members hold hands during dance practice. (Border Report photo)

Montes de Oca said the dance therapy not only helps the students’ self-esteem and provides physical exercise, but also helps them develop their social skills.

“Once we get to know each other, once they feel included, we see how they show us their real capabilities. Our job is to make them feel part of something special and let them (flourish),” she said.

The group’s name loosely translates into “dancers who bring joy” in the Nahuatl Indigenous tongue. The word has morphed over the centuries in Mexican culture into mitote, or raucous noise. No matter, the teacher says, as long as the dancers feel the joy of a job well done and the audience recognizes their achievement.

To learn more about the group, visit their Facebook page.