Susan Cashion, a former Stanford University dance director and a key figure in the development of the Mexican folkloric dance movement in California, died Aug. 29 after being struck by a commuter train in Palo Alto. She was 70.
The Santa Clara County medical examiner's office ruled her death a suicide.
The Pasadena native spent more than three decades teaching Mexican, Latin American and modern dance at Stanford and founded or helped found a string of folkloric companies in the Bay Area that inspired similar organizations up and down the state. In 1969, Cashion and longtime partner Ramón Morones co-founded Los Lupeños de San José, which in its heyday in the 1970s enjoyed a reputation as the elite folkloric dance group in California, on par with professional companies in Mexico.
As a faculty member at Stanford, Cashion advocated for the study of other non-Western dance forms, such as Afro-Caribbean, and the recognition of ethnic dance as both an art form and a cultural practice.
She also helped establish the first national organization of Mexican folkloric dance groups, the Asociacion Nacional de Grupos Folkloricos, which holds annual conferences. In 1980 Cashion received an award from the Mexican government "for significant contributions to the culture and teaching of Mexican folklore in the United States of America."
Cashion committed to modernizing and preserving folkloric dance at a time of social change and Mexican American cultural affirmation.
"The whole movement of ballet folkloric has coincided with a cultural revolution," Cashion told the San Jose Mercury News in 1994. "It is part of the awareness of one's own heritage. Dance is so beautiful and passionate you don't need the language to understand it."
Susan Valerie Cashion was born April 20, 1943, in Pasadena. She went to UCLA to study modern dance, but her life took an unexpected turn when she traveled to Mexico to study Spanish.
There, a traditional Mexican dance performance in Guadalajara captivated Cashion. She changed her studies to Mexican and Latin American dance and ultimately devoted her UCLA master's thesis to Mexican dance.
While researching in Guadalajara, she met Morones, who was studying painting at the University of Guadalajara and dancing with the university's folklorico dance company. The meeting sparked a decades-long romance. When Cashion enrolled at Stanford to pursue a master's in anthropology, Morones joined her.
At the time, professional Mexican folkloric dance companies in California were few and far between, with folkloric essentially limited to couples at the family and church level. In founding Los Lupeños de San José, Cashion and Morones engineered a modernized, professional company that translated folkloric dance into a performance genre, marked by sophisticated choreography. They also opened the group to non-Latinos.
By the time of her death, Cashion's name had become well-known among the now-widespread folklorico dance groups throughout the West and Southwest.
"She was very dedicated in the authenticity of the folklore and promoting and touching as many dancers as possible," said Ana de la Tejera, secretary of the Asociacion Nacional de Grupos Folkloricos and founder of Ballet Folklorico de Riverside.
Cashion and Morones planned to retire to Cashion's ranch in the Jalisco state of Mexico. But in 2011, Morones was shot and killed on the ranch, reportedly during an argument with an employee.
After Morones' death, Cashion returned to the Bay Area and became co-artistic director of Los Lupeños.
Upon her retirement from Stanford in 2007, Cashion founded a nonprofit organization called the Cashion Cultural Legacy, dedicated to preserving and archiving Mexican dance and culture. The organization funds a U.S.-Mexico exchange program for dancers and choreographers and now awards a scholarship in Morones' name.
She is survived by a brother, Michael.