FINDING FREEDOM IN BEAT AND SONG: A Conversation with Gabriela Shiroma of De Rompe y Raja

DeRompe_34_Alexander Reneff-Olson : Rapt Productions

De Rompe y Raja, Photo by Alexander Reneff-Olson, Rapt Productions

Gabriela Shiroma stood before her students with a stern but dedicated expression. Her gaze panned from left to right, as the dancers moved together to the beat of the music. Shiroma turned her body to face forward and held onto two pieces of fabric, which she lightly placed on either side of her hips—one red, the other white—pañuelos that are part of the Zamacueca baile. The students were eagerly learning a choreography.

I was sitting atop a pile of chairs against the wall of the La Peña Cultural Center’s theater space; a spectator and a Peruana wanting to jump in and join the dance. It was an incredible sight: Peruvians and community members from different parts of the world dancing together for their love of Afro Peruvian music and dance.

This was my first glimpse of her teaching before our interview for this article and I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride in watching her work with care and detail. This is what happens in the world when Peruvians find each other outside of their country; especially when they are practicing the Arts.

The fabrics moved front and back, side to side, and twisted over their heads before coming back down swirling around their spinning bodies and every now and then, a bounce would make their hip rise up ever so slightly. I am more familiar with the Festejo style of Afro Peruvian dance, Zamacueca was a treat to watch. The beats are inviting and familiar to my ear. The red and white pañuelos, colors you will find on a Peruvian flag, flailing about to the rhythm of the music. Shiroma is a mighty presence in the middle of the dance floor. The participants waited for her instructions, but did not remain silent. The space seemed to invite a productive chatter between student and teacher, and student and peer. They were varied people in race and age, from young children to elders. They were all dancing side by side, and all helping each other to find the rhythm together.

“Necesito que escuchen!” she said over their chatter, I need you to listen. Her presence was hard to ignore. Shiroma returned to her iPod and repeated the song. She did the steps again, making sure to point out the transitional points in the choreography. “Ya, miren!” she warned them to pay attention.

A young student walked forward and asked in Spanish, “Do you mean this movement? Remember you showed us this one last week,” she said with her Peruvian accent and demonstrated the steps. “That’s the one,” said Shiroma, “here it is again.”

She gracefully draped the white fabric in her right hand over her left shoulder and moved her feet to the poundings of the cajon and the singer’s fierce voice coming through the speakers. She shifted her hands, allowing the fabric to flow freely—movement that started at her wrists and pushed through her fingers. The students followed and together they reunited with the choreography, twisting their pañuelos over their heads, shifting their weight from one leg to the other. Though the dancers were focused and graceful, these moves also carried weight and power.

Afterwards, Shiroma and I stepped into the backstage lounge area of the theater for our interview, while the next class began; it was being led by musician and dancer, Peta Robles. Sitting in the back room I could tell Shiroma had her students in her mind. The next class was practicing Hatajo De Negritos, a dance to be performed in December both in San Francisco through the Rotunda Dance Series and in their annual dance fieldtrip to El Carmen district in Chincha, Perú. These events will be discussed later in the article. We settle into our seats, and I ask if she remains traditional with her dance steps or if she allows room for improvisation?

“I work almost always with traditional steps. Sometimes I have to adjust for certain students, but I stay traditional.”

For twenty-eight years, Gabriela Shiroma has been an Afro Peruvian dancer and for the past twenty-five years she’s been teaching the form to a dedicated group of students that allow her to express her love and dedication of her Afro Peruvian roots in Chorrillos. Numerous times our conversation was interjected by an artist stopping by to say hello, or student making sure they say their proper farewell to their teacher, a kiss on the right side of the cheek—a Peruvian custom. One student stood beside us to update Shiroma on her life. Shiroma responded with a comedic and stern voice — “Ven a clase!” —to remind that student to return to class because her presence is important.

As a child, she remembers living in Chorrillos. A district in Lima populated mostly by black Peruvians. She grew up in the world of beats and song, and studied Afro Peruvian dance with Gilberto Bramon at a very young age. The music was everywhere; with her family and in the neighborhood. Shiroma explains that learning to dance Afro Peruvian styles was “Everything I wanted in life.”

Later, when she moved to the Bay Area, she was introduced to other dance community members like Annette MacDonald, at the time the African-Caribbean Dance Professor at San Jose State University of California; the late Susan Cashion, a Stanford University Professor of traditional Latin Dance; and Shiroma had the pleasure of meeting the good people at Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts where she explored more Afro-Caribbean dance styles. This dance community thread eventually led her to bring Afro Peruvian dance to her new home.

After searching for the beats in other dance styles, Shiroma found herself craving Afro Peruvian dance in the San Francisco Bay Area. Before De Rompe y Raja, the prominent Peruvian dance styles existing in the Bay Area were Andean traditional dances, like el Huayno; this dance is usually accompanied with a quena (Peruvian flute), and Shiroma adds: “Let’s not forget the culture from the coastal part of Perú! The Afro Peruvian music. Where was this?” she exclaimed. “The cajón, the black voice—I come from a black neighborhood called Chorillos, I inherited those traditions.” Thus the company came into existence in 1995, making space for this style of music and dance to emerge in San Francisco.

Our interview continued:
Where did the name “De Rompe y Raja” come from?
“It’s usually applied to a fun hip place,” she answered, “When a Peruvian says, este lugar esta de rompe y raja this means, this place is off the chain.” It’s a typical way to explain to others that if you’re looking for a good time, you’ve come to the right place.

What draws people to be part of Afro Peruvian dance classes?
“The music! The drums!” she says without skipping a beat. She shrugs her shoulders as if this is the most honest and obvious response. Then a pause. She takes a moment and sinks into her center, giving it more thought—“It’s the rhythm, the beat, the cajón. It’s our heartbeat.”

What kind of connection is that?
“You have to find your own rhythm. Find your rhythm within the dance. It’s a coordination with sound and body,” she said and smiled as if holding in a secret.

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Gabriela Shiroma, Photo by RJ Muna

I saw a video of a show called Las Lavanderas online. It was dance, it was live music, it was theater. Is storytelling an important characteristic of the company (1)?
“Yes. People are drawn to stories. This performance was written by Victoria Santa Cruz, and she was an Afro-Peruvian heroine.

Unfortunately we lost her about a month ago. Dance and music are important elements in storytelling. As long as we’re honest with our movements and song, we can cross over to other cultures and show them where we come from.” She continued to explain that even though the language might be different, these different worlds could have a connection through music and dance.
You seemed to really enjoy this performance.

“Yes, in fact we are making a second iteration of it called ‘De Vuelta Al Callejon,’ as a tribute to Victoria Santa Cruz. It will premier in September 2015. It will be a collaboration with all artists of the Peruvian community and sponsored by the Consulate General of Perú in San Francisco…”

That’s exciting! The story continues. Why do you feel that these stories are important to tell?
“These are performances of where we come from, who we are. People like Eva Ayllón, Susana Baca have a place to come to, now that their voices are here in the states. That didn’t exist before,” explained Shiroma (2).

De Rompe y Raja also participates in cajoneadas, which is where large groups of people come together to play el cajón and beat on the drum so as to create one rhythm from many. This past June 7, 2014, the company participated in the first cajoneada ever done in the United States. The event was called Celebration of Afro Peruvian day–160 years of the abolition of slavery. It was open to the public with no experience necessary. Shiroma preoccupies herself in building community with anyone who learns to love Afro Peruvian dance styles: Festejo, Lando, Zamacueca. In the process of taking in the dance, the person is also moving through the history of where these dances come from. “It’s been a lot of work,” she admits, “but people are starting to realize there is more to Peruvian culture.”

Supporting the work and mission has been San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. “World Arts West has always been a support, they’re great. I have nothing but good memories with them. I’ve been doing work with them for nineteen years now (3).”

The most recent collaboration between the organizations will be on December 5, 2014. De Rompe y Raja will be closing the 2014 Rotunda Dance Series, organized by World Arts West and Dancers’ Group, with their holiday performance, Hatajo De Negritos. The dance is choreographed by both Shiroma and Robles. Joining the group of artists is going to be master musician and dancer, Miguel Ballumbrosio—he will serve as the leader of the hatajo.

Hatajo De Negritos is a traditional ceremony celebrated in El Carmen in Chincha, Perú. The ceremony involves carrying La Virgin of El Carmen on a pedestal while singing and dancing to traditional songs. The ritual is woven together by the Indigenous Peruvian, Spanish and African cultures to celebrate Christmas as a community.

Later in December, De Rompe y Raja will be taking this performance to El Carmen to perform with the community. These December performances will allow for a little bit of Perú to be within the walls of San Francisco City Hall, and because De Rompe y Raja is a Bay Area dance group, they will be taking a little bit of the San Francisco spirit with them back to Perú.

Shiroma thrives in this type of cultural exchange.

“Performance is where we come from, it’s who we are. It’s freedom. Slavery is expressed in some of the songs, but dancing the songs was like being free. And there are many forms of slavery in our lives today. Not just slavery in the history books, but also a slave to your desk job, to your problems with a partner, to stress— you name it. This music brings you to life, it comes at you. You want to feel it and dance it.

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Peta Robles teaching class, Photo by Rosa Lisbeth Navarrete

In Chorillos, we are all types of people. In Perú, we are all types of people with various backgrounds. This is what makes us a pueblo.” Her words are like waves; sometimes smooth and sometimes like rough water that crashes against the rocks.

“These separate worlds are united in a dance. The (Afro Peruvian) dance liberates the movers body—be it a Peruvian body or not—into a moment when the only way to express your freedom was through dance.”

We sit across from each other feeling the weight of this history. I imagine the journey of Afro Peruvians in Perú, their fight for freedom, and the respect and responsibility that comes from teaching that history behind the movements and song.
I ask what else she would like to share with the readers.

“If you want to come and take a dance class, just come and join us. You know, our dance stems from the liberation of black people in my country. It’s dance liberation! Peruvians are an open people. You should not be scared of the music or dances. Join us! Es sabroso!”

See De Rompe y Raja at the Rotunda Dance Series on Friday, December 5, 2014 at 12noon. Free and open to the public. Go to dancersgroup.org/rotunda for more information.

Gabriela Shiroma has a Bachelor’s degree in Creative Arts from SJSU. Shiroma majored in African influences in Latin America. She has done research and fieldwork in West African countries (Ghana & Togo) and Hispanic Countries (Spain, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay & Perú). She learned the dance in Peru? from Gilberto Bramon, Abelardo Vasquez, Daniel Paredes, Aldo Borjas, Rosa Guzman, Julio Casanova, Grupo Mamauca and Lalo Izquierdo. Shiroma has been honored many times by the Peruvian Consulate and Peruvian institutions who admire and support, work and determination in promoting Peruvian folklore. She is currently working on her new production “De Vuelta al Callejon” a (Musical) tribute to the great Afro Peruvian Heroine Victoria Santa Cruz.

De Rompe y Raja is a cultural organization that promotes and preserves the legacy of Afro-descendants from coastal Perú. It was founded in 1995 by Peruvian musicians and dancers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Footnotes:
1. The video referenced is De Rompe y Raja’s arrangement of Las Lavanderas, based on the works of afro peruvian folklorist Victoria santa Cruz & Peru negro Cultural association about the life of black women in the “callejon.” the performance took place at la Peña Cultural Center in 2009.

2. Famous women vocalist and musicians from Perú. Eva Ayllón is singer- composer. Susana Baca’s contribution to music has earned her the title of minister of Culture in Perú.
3. For more information on san francisco ethnic Dance festival, World Arts West visit worldartswest.org.

Please note that most of the conversation between Gabriela Shiroma and myself was in Spanish. This article is a translation of our exchange. This interview took place on October 18, 2014.

PUBLISHED December 1, 2014

POSTED IN In Dance

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