Folklórico, traditional Mexican dance, bring together four women in Los Angeles. Yesenia and her husband lead Alegría, a successful Folklórico dance group, but Yesenia’s arthritic knee keeps her offstage and restless in her marriage. Sisters Elena and Adriana grew up dancing in Alegría, but bitterness over their difficult childhood has soured their relationship. And Soledad, the group’s costume designer, is determined to open a dress shop in L.A., even though she is in the U.S. illegally.
Tragedy strikes each of these four women, leaving Alegría’s future in doubt. Yesenia tries to reshape her body through cut-rate plastic surgery in Tijuana. Elena’s new marriage breaks up after her baby is stillborn, and instead of dancing through her grief, she lusts after an underage dancer. Adriana, missing her abusive father, chases oblivion through a series of dangerous relationships. Soledad sacrifices her career dreams to bid goodbye to her ailing grandmother, but, trapped on the Mexican side of the border, must risk her life to return to her family, to her passions, and to Alegría.
These four women, bonded by their passion for Folklórico, will learn to heal together, to keep Alegría dancing another day.
1. What does Alegría mean to each of our narrators: Yesenia, Elena, Adriana, and Soledad? For whom is the group a family, a dream, a connection to roots, or a painful reminder of the past?
2. Discuss the symbol of the butterfly in the novel. Why does Soledad love butterflies? What does they mean to Adriana? Why does Adriana choose a moth tattoo instead of a butterfly?
3. What do we learn about Cecilia, Elena and Adriana’s mother, from their conversations about her? What kind of relationship did she have with her daughters? If she were alive, what sorts of challenges might she be facing?
4. Discuss Soledad’s attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. Which attempt seems the most dangerous? What drives her to keep trying to cross, again and again?
5. Why is Adriana only a mediocre dancer, unlike her sister Elena? What motivates Adriana to keep dancing? What finally inspires her to pursue her greater talent for singing?
6. Soledad’s friend Rubén undergoes a very dramatic change in the novel. How does Soledad react to her friend’s surgery? How do Rubén’s reasons for radical surgery compare to Yesenia’s motivations?
7. Adriana tells Elena, “You know, all these months you’ve clung to Fernando because of Folklórico. You’ve danced through him and now it’s time to let your own feet do the dancing.” (462) Do you think Elena was attracted to Fernando’s talent for Folklórico? Or was there a deeper passion between them?
8. Yesenia’s second plastic surgeon tells her, “The most beautiful thing about our body is that it can heal itself.” (434) Why are these words so important to Yesenia? Is Alegría able to heal itself as well? Explain your answer.
9. Although each section is narrated from one character’s point of view, there are many scenes in which two or more main characters interact. Find one of these scenes and imagine it from another character’s point of view. How does this switch of perspective change how you read the scene?
10. At the end of Dancing with Butterflies, all the romantic relationships are up in the air: Eduardo is traveling without Yesenia, Fernando is waiting for Elena to change her mind, and Ben’s crush on Adriana continues. As the four women cross the border in the final scene, why are all the men out of the picture? What is the mood at the end of the novel?