Author Archive | Brittany Delany

Mary Sano and the Duncan Legacy

It is a typical Sunday afternoon at the Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing. The sounds of Chopin, Gluck and Schubert provide the soundtrack as a light breeze caresses the drawn curtains, and the setting sun grants all the light necessary as dancers begin warming their bodies for today’s session. As I take in the serenity of the scene, my mind wanders to the history of this great tradition, and my personal connection to it.

Pictured: Mary Sano and her Duncan Dancers Photo by Shigeo Seya

Pictured: Mary Sano and her Duncan Dancers
Photo by Shigeo Seya

Born May 26, 1877 in San Francisco, Isadora Duncan is considered one of the founders of modern dance. Isadora broke from the popular and more rigid dance styles of the day, namely ballet; and developed an original technique centered upon natural and spiritual movement. In her famous essay “The Dance of the Future,” Duncan wrote:

The movement of waves, of winds, of the earth is ever in the same lasting harmony. We do not stand on the beach and inquire of the ocean what was its movement in the past and what will be its movement in the future. We realize that the movement peculiar to its nature is eternal to its nature… The dancer of the future will be one whose body and soul have grown so harmoniously together that the natural language of that soul will have become the movement of the body. The dancer will not belong to a nation but to all humanity. She will dance not in the form of nymph, nor fairy, nor coquette, but in the form of woman in her greatest and purest expression. 1

These words, shared to an audience in Berlin by a then 26 year old Duncan, hinted at the vast impact Isadora would go on to have in her lifetime. Her work would not only revolutionize the philosophy of dance and dance education, but would also affect social progress of her era (particularly the women’s movement). In Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman, author Fredrika Blair notes: “Finally, as Agnes de Mille wrote, Isadora caused the dance to be considered “important and dignified.” Before Duncan, the dance was considered an entertainment. She left it an art.” 2

My interest in Isadora Duncan was sparked by my practice in modern dance. As an athlete and jazz/hip hop dancer at a young age, I had little interest in ballet technique. To find modern dance, which let me roll on the ground, be barefoot and express strength…now this was a movement I could connect to. At Wesleyan University, I assisted dance professor, scholar and choreographer Pedro Alejandro, who wrote about Isadora Duncan. With this research, I learned Duncan’s teachings were invaluable to the legacy of modern dance as a social project. 3

My first encounter with an embodied history of Duncan Dance was at the Mary Sano Studio of Duncan Dancing. On October 5th, 2010, I attended Mary Sano’s Duncan Dance Lecture Demonstration and Performance, part of the 24 Days of Central Market Arts Festival. The studio was beautiful: large windows lined by barres on one side and a studio length mirror on the other; a piano in the corner and a gorgeous wood floor. After screening a documentary film about Isadora, which featured Sano, and her studio, the Duncan Dancers performed a few Duncan repertoire pieces. Their tunics fluttered beautifully and their quality of movement felt light yet grounded. They also performed Perseverance, a number from a larger original work Mary was producing titled Ship of Dreams: Kanrin Maru.

Interested to learn more, I started by doing some research on Mary and her past work. She is a third generation Duncan dancer and has been performing and teaching Duncan Dance internationally since 1983. In 1985, Mary moved to San Francisco to study further with Mignon Garland, who founded the Isadora Duncan Heritage Society. After graduating from Mills College with an MA in dance in 1991, she formed Mary Sano and her Duncan Dancers in 1993, and in 1997, opened her school of Duncan dance. Mary also presents bi-annual dance/music festivals at her studio; the Dionysian Festival celebrating Isadora Duncan’s birthday in May; and the Terpsichorean Celebration on the anniversary of the founding of the studio in November of each year.

In our next meeting, Mary told me her first encounter with Duncan Dance was in 1979, when she took a workshop with Mignon on a trip to San Francisco from her native Japan. She had studied many dance techniques, but had never experienced movement so freeing and inspiring. I learned that Duncan dance came to her at a time when she was looking for a more spiritual and creative outlet after several years working as a model and dancer in Japan.

Our conversation then shifted to Mary’s original dance/theater production Ship of Dreams: Kanrin Maru, set to premiere that December at the Brava Theater Center. This evening length production would include live music, acting, video and dance interwoven to tell the historical tale and contemporary significance of the Kanrin Maru voyage, which brought the first Japanese emissaries to the US in 1860. I attended the performance a few weeks later, and enjoyed the beautiful blend of dance, music and storytelling.

Mary’s class cultivates the connections in the Duncan dancer: harmony with body, mind, spirit and environment. One of the first lessons I learned was to move from the Duncan center and to find fluidity in the dance. The Duncan center, located at the solar plexus, is a core component of the technique, as I have learned in hearing Mary repeat to us: “The center moves your body; arms move as a result. Don’t move your arms first.” This distinction in movement initiation helps me expand my technical practice and sense of flow. I discover the challenge in some basic movements’ simplicity, particularly the Duncan walk. Mary instructs: “Lift from the hip, hip is naturally turned out, heavy leg, relax the knee, point the foot down…” She guides us to take each step at a time and to “connect with the earth” on each foot fall. As we walk across the floor, the pattern becomes a type of meditation. She also provides great verbal imagery, going beyond technical instruction. “Open your arms to the infinite sky” or “feel the warmth of the sun on your body as you gaze at the horizon.”

Pictured: Mary Sano performing 'Rose Petals,' choreographed by Isadora Duncan in 1912 Photo by Atsushi Iijima

Pictured: Mary Sano performing ‘Rose Petals,’ choreographed by Isadora Duncan in 1912
Photo by Atsushi Iijima

When our bodies have become “in tune with the universe,” Mary teaches Duncan choreography, focusing on musicality and performance. She truly emphasizes the importance of listening and understanding the nuances of the music we move to. For example, in the choreography accompanying Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, the hands are cupped and raised gradually up from the ground, in front of the face, and toward the ceiling. I remember Mary’s specific instruction for this passage: “Go through the senses.” This reminder to involve the ‘whole’ self in each piece is an essential ingredient in growing as a Sano dancer.

After studying with Mary for a few months, I began an internship at her studio and gained greater insight into her creative process. I worked closely with the other dancers in her group, most of whom have studied with Mary for over five years. With a strong footing in the Duncan technique and the harmony between movers, each member brings specific strengths to the group, which lend to the creative palette as Mary develops original works.

I am often impressed by the freedom Mary gives her dancers to explore and create their own movement vocabulary when choreographing new works. For example, I learned that for several scenes in the Kanrin Maru production, she allowed the dancers and actors to score their own natural movement into the choreography. She told me that, “by focusing on a grounded interconnection between the artists’ emotions and their environment around them, we were able to fuse Duncan dance technique, traditional Japanese dance, live music and acting in a powerful way.” While her work is based in the Duncan aesthetic, Mary increasingly integrates different artistic and cultural elements such as Noh Theatre, Indian and Butoh dance, and improvisational theater into her work.

Mary, like Isadora, also derives much inspiration for her work from music and poetry. She often commissions new music, and collaborates closely with her musicians on the details of the sound score. This process usually begins with several improvisational sessions, followed by work-in-progress showings to obtain feedback as the piece begins to take shape. Similarly, she will use poetry (often her own) to spur the creation process. In March of 2011, Sano created the piece When Mother Earth Speaks to Us, based on a poem she wrote in the aftermath of the massive Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The piece has a very strong connection to the environment and the persevering spirit of humanity- themes that permeate much of Sano’s recent work.

In late 2011, Mary informed us she would perform the third installment of her Solo Dance Series in Tokyo in April 2012. I hoped I would be able to travel and see the show. Instead, she presented an opportunity: if we were committed to put in the necessary work, we could perform ensemble choreography in Japan. Amber Held, Junko Sodeyama and I embraced this challenge and began preparing for the show.

After almost four months of intensive rehearsals, I arrived in Tokyo on April 14. We rehearsed with Mary’s Japanese Duncan dance students and the musicians at her studio in Akihabara, a cool Tokyo district famous for its shops for anime and electronics. Mary’s show entitled Dancing Dreaming Isadora premiered on April 21 at the Shinjuku-Kumin Hall in Tokyo. In viewing Sano’s original solos, I noticed a harmony between sound and sight, with references to the natural world. In the scene Fisherman’s Daughter, a video projection overlays Mary’s costume, slightly obscuring the body shape and casting shadows behind her.

Tetsuya Miyata, critic for the Music and Dance Press in Japan, responded to the scene: “The footage was edited by visual effects editor Masao Shigyo, and Sano’s choreography flowed before it with animal-like innocence and grace. Live musical accompaniment, performed by Hideo on Bamboo flute, Izumi Kuribayashi on Violin, and Mamoru Hoshi on Cello and Shino flute, integrated seamlessly with Sano’s movement. While the inspiration for this scene was a visit to China, the work displayed a searching and discovery within Sano’s present state.”

This parallel connection to both the outer world and inner self is at the core of both Sano and Duncan’s work.

From my beginnings as an observer, to a student, intern and then to a company dancer, my experience with Mary Sano and Duncan Dance is one I treasure and continue to nurture. As I develop my artistry in dance, I appreciate Isadora’s impact on dancing generations to come. Mary Sano continues to evolve Isadora Duncan’s legacy as a pioneering artist and teacher.   For more information about Mary Sano’s classes & events, see:

1. Isadora Duncan, The Art of the Dance, edited by Sheldon Cheney (Theater Arts, New York, NY 1928) 54-63
2. Fredrika Blair, Isadora: Portrait of the Artist as a Woman (McGraw-Hill, New York, NY 1986)
3. Pedro Alejandro, “The Enclosed Garden of Dance Modernism: Isadora Duncan
and the Eco-Feminist Social Project of Early Modern Dance.” Paper presented at 5th Annual Hawaii International Conference on Arts & Humanities, Honolulu, Hawaii. January 2007

Curating Performance in East Bay: Spotlight on Four Artist Groups

As most young artists discover, making the art is only half the work. Bringing the art to people involves a particular method to the madness. Commissions, showcases, residencies and co-productions, to name a few, are ways to produce a piece of work. An alternative approach is to independently organize and curate the event. A Do-It-Yourself (DIY), collaborative production model for the performing arts continues to be an effective alternative to getting work produced and is popping up in a variety of spaces around Berkeley and Oakland.

This past summer, I worked with my colleague Sarah Ashkin to host six events via a program we call GROUND SERIES, taking place at the Temescal Arts Center in Oakland. I grew curious about the artists and artist groups who are organizing similar ‘arty party’ events in East Bay neighborhoods. I asked four of these groups: Temescal Arts Center, GROUND SERIES, SALTA and Foundry Nights to each submit information about their group including: what their group does, who they are, how it got started and where it is going. I present their responses vis-à-vis each member’s point of view. While each group holds unique values and aims in their practice, a common goal is building more artistic opportunities.

Photos of The Foundry by Lauren Lofton

Photos of The Foundry by Lauren Lofton


Temescal Arts Center | Leyya Tawil
Temescal Arts Center (TAC) is a performing arts venue and studio space in Oakland.  Technically speaking, we are a modular-space with a sprung wood floor, skylights, heat and basic lighting/sound equipment, with a capacity of 49. Over the past 15 years, we have been host to hundreds of dance, music and theater productions ranging from traditional to experimental. We are also a rental studio for weekly classes (dance, yoga, martial arts), workshops, lectures and special events. TAC is also home to Leyya Tawil’s DANCE ELIXIR.

Leyya Mona Tawil has been Director and Curator at TAC since 1997. Artists Malinda Trimble and Isabelle Sjahsam joined TAC as co-directors in 2011. TAC was founded in 1995 by Leigh Evans (performer and renown yoga teacher). TAC’s early years were cooperatively run by a rotating group of dancers/actors. At the time, the raw space was primarily used for classes and private rehearsals. Around 1997, the cooperative began to rent the studio to outside artists, and also began hosting performance salons. We then began to build a stronger infrastructure for performance rentals: seating, masking, lighting, etc. By the early 2000’s, we earned our reputation as a venue for experimental programming, as well as an accessible space for emerging or fringe artists.

Our curatorial vision for TAC is to support artists that are investigating or presenting work that is both professional and experimental. It’s a great venue to take risks and ask questions. TAC is a particularly awesome space for improvised music, small-ensemble dance, interdisciplinary work and bare-bones theater. Our weekday schedule is tight, so our curatorial ideas manifest by locating/attracting the right artists for performance bookings. Some particularly exciting series have popped up—like GROUND SERIES (performance research on First Thursdays) and what’s shaping up to be a Sunday night experimental music scene. It’s a very exciting time for TAC, which has witnessed the neighborhood transform entirely in the last few years.
To reach TAC:
Rental inquiries:

GROUND SERIES | Brittany Delany & Sarah Ashkin
GROUND SERIES is a meeting place for artists to share, research and connect and events take place at the Temescal Arts Center. Sarah Ashkin and I met as Dance Majors at Wesleyan University. After graduation, we continued to make work together with our dance colleagues Shayna Keller, from Los Angeles and Samantha Sherman, from New York City. As a quartet, we have performed our original choreography from Joshua Tree National Park to Judson Memorial Church. Both Sarah and I pursued internships with CounterPULSE in order to learn more about arts administration to develop skills in curation, outreach, house management and community development. Then at the start of 2012, Sarah and I connected in the Bay Area to pursue our creative practice together. As new dance-makers looking for opportunities to show our work and connect with other artists, we crave a forum that can be both productive and homey. Residencies and site-specific productions were considered first. But when I found out Temescal Arts Center had an open slot for the summer, we were inspired to fill the three months with new friends sharing food, ideas and performance—and so GROUND SERIES was born as an experiment in curation, community building and self-production. For this program, we coordinate artists, manage mailing lists, schedule space, maintain project budgets, connect with local businesses, promote events and oversee volunteers.

We hosted six events this summer and will continue to organize events through the Fall. In June, we kicked off our program with a visual art & music night, including four local visual artists and a local band. The next two events centered around sharing research. I invited specific members of the dance community who are asking similar questions into my ongoing study of “hip hop on the concert stage.” And then, Sarah and I designed a movement class around our shared research —embodied and written—into the effects of capitalism upon the body and social dance. One of our more successful events was a work in progress salon we called “SHOW & SHOW”, which prioritized movement response over verbal criticism. Four choreographers presented a dance excerpt and audience members created a movement response of what they witnessed. Around 25 people participated in a night full of risk-taking, laughing and learning. For me, this event was significant in our programming because we remixed a common model of sharing feedback into another creative and useful format. As the culmination to the summer, we put on a dance performance of three solos and an ensemble piece. For the after show, we booked a DJ and had a great dance party in the space.

Questions we keep asking ourselves as we continue with GROUND SERIES: what type of training and sharing are we interested in? what does our community of movers and makers want? who is our community? how can we make events accessible? how do we make money with events? how do artists make money? who is sharing this impulse for DIY arts curation and can we exchange models?

We want to continue to take risks and experiment with models for gathering people to exchange creative practices.

Facebook page:
Twitter: @groundseries

SALTA Collective | Chani Bockwinkel, Maryanna Lachman, Elizabeth McSurdy, Olive Noire, Mara Poliack, Sarah Pritchard and Brianna Skellie

SALTA is a collective of Oakland-based dancers in the process of starting a new space for dance. It is an experiment in dancers making spaces for dance to happen. We see it as a historical process, something we have all been waiting for.
To build momentum for the project, we have begun curating a monthly performance series. SALTA’s goal in starting this series is to provide a locus of activity for East Bay dancers. Many spaces and performance opportunities for dance are focused in San Francisco and we want to encourage the flourishing of such opportunities in Oakland, with its own localized radical piquancy.

Our curation process is organized around friendship and affinity. Each SALTA member makes an invitation to friends and comrades: Bring what you’re working on. Do something highly prepared. Abandon the plan in the middle of its execution. Hold to it fast and never let it go. Don’t perform at all. Whatever your way, we will all be there [responsible]. Collaboration through juxtaposition, confrontation, emulation, ignorance and/or contingency. Reperformance. deperformance. pseudo-, anti- and total dance. Suck marrow. Blow minds. Incarnate your ‘networkth’. Just be in Oakland with us. It’s okay what happens. The performers communally arrange an order for the evening.

We are currently utilizing a non-monetary exchange model, to both fight the commoditization of dance and to make our shows accessible to all of our broke arty cohorts. Our audience brings food, drink and unwanted clothing or household items in exchange for admission. We set up a free bar and free boutique for all to enjoy. Each performance has taken place in a different venue, with the intent to help broaden and create ties with the community involved. Cutting edge dance art cannot exist in a vacuum.

The first series happened at 2355 Broadway, artist Zach Houston’s space and home to his poemstore. Our artists shifted the audience around for each piece and we kicked up quite a bit of dust! There was some very modern dance, video art, a tea ceremony to the tunes of Bataclan ’72, performances that spilled out onto the sidewalk, someone’s mom joined in. Magic!

SALTA is in the throes of planning a space of our own where dancers can play together. The vision for the space is that a collective of interested parties would each pay for a share of the rent in exchange for time in the space to rehearse, perform, teach class, or otherwise investigate. Performances held at the space would follow the same non-monetary exchange model as the SALTA dance series. We hope to provide an informal context for dancers to show what they have been working on in a setting conducive to conversation, meeting new people and creating community to support each other’s work and research.
To reach SALTA: email:


Photos of The Foundry by Lauren Lofton

Photos of The Foundry by Lauren Lofton

Foundry Nights | Gray Performs
Quarterly arts salon, artist incubator, risk-boutique, or carnival of creativity? Foundry Nights is this and beyond. This quarterly event held in the old MacCauley Foundry in West Berkeley pulls together experimental performance, installation and visual art (and more) that is encouraged to be interactive and risky. It is a night of creativity, community, surprises, libations, inspiration and magic that transpire in our funky industrial warehouse gallery. Our artists come both through our Artists-in-Residence or Matchmaker programs and as over-the-transom independent acts.

We value creative freedom, experimentation, inquiry, testing, mixing, matching, interesting juxtapositions, trial and error, re-evaluating, charging ahead. For this reason, a lot of the work fostered at the Foundry is highly experimental, exploratory, risky, quirky, awkward, thrilling, startling, perplexing, fun for the heck of it, awkward and fresh. This is not to say that more traditional forms are not welcome. The spirit of the Foundry is all about freedom to do what it is you are curious about, always dreamed of creating, or creatively called to do—and having the people, space and resources to help you bring it to life. We are here to nurture the Unknown.

A dream existed. To create a creative wonderland and to curate cross-genre, visceral, high-quality art for audiences, and to provide all the creative resources necessary for artists to dig in,et dirty and make something site-specific and alive—no excuses.

Each of us brings something unique to the force of the Foundry—we three are all artists, curators/producers and working professionals—so we offer both artistic and technical/tangible skills to productions. Ross (creative director; wine manager at Chez Panisse) is visual artist with performance and set building experience. Justin (technical director; video media company owner) is an installation artist and engineer, previously a dance reviewer. Gray (residency director; branding consultant) is former dancer and current writer, performance artist.

Ross hosted gloriously exploratory art parties in their studio. Justin found the gallery space and dreamt big. Gray performed there one day and put her OCD to good use, and the rest is history.

We’re starting small and dreaming big. Already in our first year, Foundry Nights has grown from some friends throwing an art party to a fully-curated, residency-based, (nearly) sustainable community asset. This is where we are now, with expansion of capacity, artist resources and programming upon the horizon.

We are currently accepting proposals for the next round of Foundry Nights. Be an over-the-transom artist, or apply for an awesomely generous residency or artist matchmaker program.

Residencies include:

  • *Unlimited* (well, near enough) rehearsal hours over the course of eight weeks
  • *Free* artistic and technical consultation with our in-house curators and engineers
  • *Flexible* performance parameters: length up to multi-hour, location: stage/sky/ground/dungeon, medium: test us!
  • *Free* raw materials, as available
  • *Free* & *TOP-CLASS* drinks at the show (after admission)
  • *Unparalleled* retro-chic industrial performance venue
  • *Large, enthusiastic and participatory* audience of 100+
  • *Continuous* dance party from show’s end until the last guest leaves!

Our next FN incarnation, Foundry Nights VII, will be upon us Saturday, November 10 (and FN-VIII in February 2013) – dozens of artists, palate pleasers and a take-no-prisoners art experience.
To reach Foundry Nights: website:

It has been a treat to attend a variety of these ‘arty party’ events and I look forward to seeing these groups grow their programs. I moved to Berkeley in April 2011, and so I feel I’ve only scratched the surface of the numerous East Bay artist groups, makers, movers and shakers.  I share the impulse to independently curate and collaboratively produce meeting places for creative connections.

Creating Space for Hip Hop: A Spotlight on Micaya & SoulForce

Pictured: SoulForce Dance Company Photos by: David DeSilva

Pictured: SoulForce Dance Company
Photos by: David DeSilva

I remember first meeting Micaya backstage when I was volunteering for the San Francisco Hip Hop Dance Fest at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in November 2010. Glamorous in a sparkly cocktail dress and high heels, Micaya greeted her technical crew and volunteers with a friendly smile. Onstage, Micaya rocked the microphone as an enthusiastic emcee. She drew lots of positive cheers from the crowd and encouraged everyone to attend the after party. The mix of dance companies showing work onstage gave me a key snapshot of hip hop’s creative reach.

When I Googled ‘hip hop dance’ on August 25, 2012, 278,000,000 results came up in addition to my 150 personal results. The first four results were a Wikipedia entry, followed by three YouTube videos: “hip hop dance class”, “hip hop dance competition” and “learn hip hop dance”.  The fifth result was Micaya’s San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest (the festival has added International to their title), acknowledged as the first festival dedicated specifically to honoring and recognizing the artistry of hip hop dance forms. This top Google result speaks to Micaya’s success in the international community of presenting hip hop movement on a concert stage.

Micaya | Festival Producer
Hip hop, as a dance form and practice, exists in both social spaces and theatres. In recent dance history, hip hop has garnered more attention from concert stages and art houses. To Micaya’s credit, numerous companies from around the world have performed on a concert stage at her annual event since 1999. In a SF Bay Guardian article honoring the Goldies winners of 2011, Rita Felciano writes about the award-winning SF Hip Hop Dance Fest and Micaya’s impact on hip hop. “She [Micaya] has single-handedly moved hip-hop from the studio and community hall to a proscenium theater, giving it widespread recognition and enthusiastic audiences. Uniquely, she has done so by honoring the art as a social activity and in its more theatrically evolved expressions.” I agree with Felciano’s accolades. In addition to providing hip hop dance companies with a unique opportunity to present work in a proscenium theater, Micaya celebrates hip hop’s social art form by holding a cypher for the dancers on the big stage. Plus, Micaya organizes after parties to keep room for improvisation and community gathering.

Micaya has been putting festivals together since 1993, when she began producing high energy, underground, sold-out hip-hop dance shows in San Francisco’s Mission District. She brings a true passion to her leadership as a festival producer. “To produce a festival, you must love the festival, otherwise it may not be worth it.” she said.

Micaya  |  Dance Teacher
Hip hop’s four defining elements consist of: breaking, MC, DJ, and graffiti. Furthermore, Micaya upholds hip hop’s 5th element “knowledge”.  Micaya’s weekly dance classes are loved by her students. And she gives students and up and coming local talent a chance to perform at her annual June festival Mission in the Mix. One of her dance students Elena Ruggiero notes: “I love Micaya’s class, because of the diverse amount of people in her class. She has company members, first timers and committed regulars.. She wants people in her class to have a good time, but also expects them to work hard to achieve her choreography’s potential. Micaya also keeps her students on their toes by mixing a variety of dance styles and musical varieties of hip hop so no two dances are ever the same. Sometimes you get to rage and get out some aggression, while at other times, you slow it down and dance from your heart. Her choreography stems from emotional roots, which allows you to give a part of yourself, rather than just copying the steps.” A winner of the Bay Guardian’s Best of the Bay 2012 for dance instructor, Micaya has earned a great reputation as a hip hop dance teacher. Known for creating a welcoming atmosphere where you ‘Come in, leave your ego at the door and learn’, Micaya has cultivated a large following of dance students. Currently, she teaches at Dance Mission Theater and ODC in San Francisco and ROCO Dance Studio in Marin. Her advice to fellow dance teachers: “Remember to teach, not perform for your students.”

 Pictured: SoulForce Dance Company Photos by: David DeSilva

Pictured: SoulForce Dance Company
Photos by: David DeSilva

SoulForce  |  Artistic Director, Micaya
Hip hop dance, a cultural movement originating in the 1970s in New York City, continues to grow as an art dance and choreographic form, attracting a diversity of cultural perspectives. Borrowing elements from popular culture, acrobatics and multiple dance techniques, hip hop dance can offer performance a versatile, athletic approach to movement. Micaya’s company SoulForce express this fun, positive dimension of hip hop dance. In their performances, SoulForce shows joy, musicality, and a range of dance styles. Micaya started SoulForce in 2001. “I think I have always wanted my own dance company” she said, “The idea of having dancers to play with and create with makes me very happy.” Described as “witty, dramatic and emotionally nuanced” by Dance Magazine, SoulForce brings together dancers of diverse backgrounds to create inspiring works on stage.

SoulForce performs each year at the San Francisco International Hip Hop Dance Fest. In 2005, their piece “Break the Cycle” opened with an evenly spaced standing group of dancers, their feet spread shoulder width apart, their arms relaxed by their sides, their costumes decorated with American flags. An audio sample began of President George W. Bush’s voice: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee, I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee, that says ‘Fool me once (pause) shame on (pause)… shame on you (pause) You fool me, you can’t get fooled again.” The dancers responded to the pauses in the audio by isolating gestures of their hands. They placed one hand over the heart, returned hands to relaxed position, repeated the placement of one hand over heart, then brought one hand to a forehead salute. This opening scene illustrates Micaya’s sense of humor and sharp attention to the power of subtle movements in unison. The next section of the piece had a remixed version of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, and was danced by a trio. They performed a fusion of dance moves: balletic leg articulations, jazz barrel jumps, waving, bboy/bgirl footwork, threading, freezes, and contemporary inversions. With the choreography constantly shifting quality and direction, the dancers showed off a skillful range of dynamics.

The following year at SFIHHDF, SoulForce presented ”All Things Love…Lust, Romance, and Betrayal”, which opened with a sensual female duet in the center spotlight. The dancers sequenced rolls and slides reminiscent of contact improvisation. They arrested their momentum into provocative shapes: a backbend kiss, a double straddle pose. Next, six dancers danced on low roller chairs, their chests popping, body parts rolling, and toes tapping in tandem with a sexy R&B song. The dancers manipulated their chairs with finesse: one dancer rolled the object with his foot to land in a chair freeze. Then, a dancer stood up on the rolling chair, the group rolled him downstage and caught him in a front dive at the end—their movement perfectly syncopating the landing with the drop of the beat. Another dancer, with support of the group, used the rolling chair as a platform to stick a freeze! The athletic dancers showed strength in musicality by attacking fast, crisp movements to match the alternating beats.

Precision and unison are popular compositional approaches to hip hop choreography. The techniques of hip hop dance encompass a large scope of dances (too many to mention here) as the training inherits and varies elements from the African diaspora, plus it always evolves with pop culture dances. SoulForce Dance Company is skilled at old school hip hop dance techniques such as party dances, uprocking, waving, locking and step, as well as in new style hip hop dance techniques, which involve hard hits, isolations, footwork and social dance steps.  A great example of their fusion style was at the 2009 SFIHHDF in their piece “The Original Breath”, when the SoulForce dancers mixed slow pirouettes with the stocatto stops of a boogaloo. They exhibited a great combination of control, grace and rhythmic play.

When asked about her creative process with SoulForce, Micaya responded “I am inspired by the dancers that are in the room with me. Sometimes I have an idea when I walk into rehearsal, but it usually is not much more than that. Almost all of my choreography with SoulForce is done on the spot with them.” In addition to showing work at the SFIHHDF, SoulForce dancers have been featured in music videos, touring productions, nightclubs, festivals, corporate events, colleges, theatres and commercials.

Audiences can experience SoulForce’s fusion of hip hop and other dance styles at their Rotunda Dance Series performance at noon on Friday, October 5, 2012.

The 2012 San Francisco International Hip Hop Dance Fest will take place at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre from November 16-18, 2012.

For more information, see: | Facebook/Twitter: SoulForce Dance | Facebook/Twitter: MicayaSF

Here’s To Hip Hop: Hip Hop Is Here

From old school movements like the Richmond Robot and Oakland Boogaloo, to Hyphy and Turfing to San Francisco’s ‘new style’ hip-hop choreography, the Bay Area is a hub for hip-hop dance. The scene stays fresh with diversity across communities, keeping this form innovative and accessible.

Hip hop has grown up since the 1970s, when the four defining elements were: breaking, MC, DJ, and graffiti. Not only has hip hop entered the mainstream in multiple ways, from Soul Train to America’s Best Dance Crew but it has also sparked creative and political action all over the world from an underground movement in China to a revolutionary movement in Tunisia. The birth of hip hop is Bronx, New York in 1973. Clive Campbell, aka DJ Kool Herc, pioneered break-beat DJing, by extending the breaks, or the drum beats, of funk records to extend the dance party.

The connection to community is a cornerstone of hip hop as a social project. So many people will often say how ‘hip hop isn’t just music or dance, it’s a culture.’ With this frame and in honor of a few hip hop aesthetics–collage, call-and-response, contrast, and community–I take a larger snapshot of the cultural influence hip hop can play on the artistry and development of the dance. I connected with the artists: Raissa Simpson, Paymenah ‘Bibi’ Khalili, Mark Dan Pablico, Micaya and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. I asked them their influences from hip-hop arts and culture, and where they see it in the future of this community.

Mark Dan Pablico is part of the Funkanometry SF community, an award winning non-profit performance arts organization dedicated to cultivating a diverse community of leaders by providing youth and young adults with high quality dance training and innovative artistic performances. Last season he directed the all-male dance company Project Em and this season he is the Funks SF co-artistic director. “I get influence from the dancers who have passion in dance and are willing to learn different style, not just hip hop,” Pablico says. “I get my inspiration from my personal life, people, arts, experience in everyday life. Dancing is part of my life and I always interpret my personal life into dancing to show the people who I am.” And for Pablico, hip-hop dance does not mean one single dance form. He believes hip hop is a universal word. “It is a combination of different styles from jazz, tap dancing, locking, boogaloo, popping, waltz, etc.,” he notes. “But the most popular is breakdancing. Ever since breakdance, people started to think of dance in a different way–choreography, tricks, performances. I see hip hop evolving from the dancers and choreographers who are always open for a new element of styles.”

Funkanometry SF and De La Femme were my introduction to Bay Area hip hop. De La Femme was the all-female dance company under the umbrella of Funkanometry SF. Bibi Khalili, director of De La Femme, an entrepreneur, designer, producer, dancer, choreographer, stands out in the hip hop dance community as a leader.

Khalili sees hip hop getting incorporated into all aspects of expression. “That’s what I love about hip hop–you can pick up everything and fine tune it.” She stays up to date with fashion with her urban accessory boutique MishMash, featuring apparel and jewelry. She loves connecting personal style to dance. “It’s really important for dance culture. To make a statement with what dancers are wearing. There was that person who always had the best necklace for a performance and a dancer who could pull off a unique outfit…again, it was that ownership, taking a chance, stand out!”

When she’s not teaching at House of Mayhem in San Mateo, City Dance Studios in San Francisco, or at In the Groove Studios in Oakland, Khalili supports artists with her showcase Dance.Art.Music.Style.Fashion. (DAMSF)–which links both talent and fans from diverse backgrounds in a positive environment to encourage growth and individuality. The next DAMSF will be in January. When it comes to selecting people to perform, Khalili says “I ask ‘who are the people around me that love this or who are really hungry…the ones who are still so raw, still so real.'”

Many hip-hop artists believe hip-hop dance will continue to evolve by staying true to the founding principles of hip hop culture while experimenting with more dance genres, music, styles and arts. Khalili suggests “If the hip-hop community learns to work together, they’ll have more strength than any other community. It might take something drastic to take it there but today’s underrated artists will hold us down five years from now, when no one is watching America’s Best Dance Crew or Hip Hop Wives.”

Marc Bamuthi Joseph, arts activist, Broadway veteran, artistic director, award winning poet, and teacher fluent in hip-hop expression, shared unique insights into hip-hop culture and its flexibility as a tool for learning and action. Joseph is rooted in hip hop: “I was born in 1975 in New York–same time, same place as hip hop. The way I parent, teach, vote is hip hop,” he says. In his artistic practice and performance, Joseph integrates hip-hop elements: some are formal, some conscious, some vocabulary. “I don’t set out to hit on the head ‘hip hop in the theater,'” Joseph adds. “The way I write and construct and collaborate, the urgency…everything else is manifestation.”

Joseph highlights how hip-hop culture is all about expression and serves as a useful tool for creative learning. “My main inspiration is the tenth grade classroom. I taught high school English. In order to get everyone involved, you just had to have mad style. One of the reasons we don’t get each other is we don’t learn the same way. There aren’t enough ways to accommodate all these learning styles.” In the same way Joseph has created a conversation with everyone’s participation in the classroom, he wants to spark a conversation with his art. “I want to make art that is inclusive and pulls people in…that has style which people can integrate and adapt in to their own way,” he says. “As I’ve matured as an artist, I’ve become more collaborative. I choose people I’m inspired by and are skilled, similar ethnic, and fun to get along with. I invite them in a proactive way…the conversation benefits by diversity. I call it a ‘creative ecosystem,’ where it is most served by diverse organisms cohabitating. Everything is interdependent.” Joseph notes, “Making large scale art is a value. Diversity of opinions is a value. Harmony is a value.”

He is spearheading the Life is Living Festival, a national campaign of Youth Speaks Inc. that generates partnerships between diverse and underserved communities, green action agencies, local community groups, urban environmental activists, and the contemporary arts world. Life is Living encompasses a series of six-hour inter-disciplinary, intergenerational, eco-equity festivals in neglected parks in underserved neighborhoods around the country. Previous cities include Oakland, CA; Harlem, NY; and Chicago, IL; and Houston, TX. Joseph adds, “We like to think of environment through the lens of hip-hop culture.”

Fusing hip-hop influence in a different community, modern choreographer, Raissa Simpson, director of Push Dance Company, articulates hip hop’s cultural exchange: “I think modern dance needs to acknowledge it goes both ways: we’ll take from hip hop and hip hop will take from us.”

This is exactly one way hip-hop dance has grown up: it has an uncanny ability to shape shift into something mainstream, something alternative, something social, something artistic. Hip-hop dance often enters the recipe for mixing up movement forms. Simpson adds “I don’t think it’s possible to be a purist when it comes to hip hop. Today I think that the definition of hip hop continues to evolve.” Her dance company often exceeds a simple definition, as she develops multimedia works with an intergenerational, mixed group of dancers. She chooses dancers who have a hip-hop dance background because it’s a way she likes to move. “I think I have insight into this because I’m working in Bayview Hunters Point in a neighborhood that’s historically a minority and it’s almost insulated from the rest of the city. In areas like that, that’s where hip hop is being created and cultivated, because young people are looking for positive outlets.”

While hip-hop dance now occupies theater stages and studios, Simpson recalls hip hop’s roots: “It was born in…I don’t like to use the word ‘urban’…minority areas that aren’t exposed to different forms of dance. That’s where it comes from. These kids don’t have the resources to take a dance class. It’s funny because it sprouts from the clubs and the neighborhoods. I think people would love the acknowledgement.”

Last May, Push Dance Company and youths 12-21 from 3rd St. Youth Clinic presented Mixed Messages at the Museum of the African Diaspora in downtown SF. It was Simpson’s introduction to weaving an inter-community project. A two-year collaboration, and commissioned by San Francisco Arts Commission, Mixed Messages was inspired by the term “mixed” which is just short of slang for someone who comes from one or more racial or ethnic backgrounds. It was an all-inclusive event that highlighted the vibrant diversity of the multiracial community. Simpson continues to work with youth, teaching them critical thinking skills and choreography skills so they can create their own type of movement in what Simpson names “the hip hop diaspora.”

Continuing the theme of cultivating a voice for youth in the hip-hop community, Micaya’s classes are loved by many students of all ages and backgrounds. As the founder and producer of SF Hip Hop Dance Fest, Micaya has shown many styles of hip hop over the years. In 1993, she began producing high energy, underground, sold-out hip-hop dance shows in the heart of San Francisco’s Mission District. Those shows led to the creation of the First Annual San Francisco Hip Hop DanceFest in 1999 at Theatre Artaud. This November marks the 13th annual SF Hip Hop Dance Fest. In this unique platform, hip-hop dance is presented on a proscenium stage as a showcase of the art form and welcomes companies from all over the globe.

Micaya is also the founder, director and choreographer of SoulForce Dance Company and produces Mission in the Mix every June, a performance that features SoulForce along with up and coming local talent and students.

“As a choreographer, teacher and a presenter, I appreciate the evolution with keeping a recognition of its history,” she states. “I am inspired by the pioneers of the dance forms, the ones that are bringing it into the future and music from the past and present.” Micaya also takes inspiration from music, ideas, thoughts, dancers, props and clothes, adding “The label for what hip hop is, is challenged on a daily basis and I find it fascinating and intimidating.”

Reflecting on the evolution and future of hip-hop culture, Khalili says it well: “There has to be some kind of a change. The mainstream ‘what hip hop is right now’ is gonna get old, it’s going to dissolve. It makes it look like everything is about bling and money, titty and ass–but that’s not what it was founded on…it’s the subculture of hip hop that truly understands the expression of culture. Every fad gets old, goes out. But it’s those artists who are still gonna be there. They’ll keep the movement going in a positive direction.”

Push Dance Company: Push is available to come to your school, youth center, community and offer hip hop and/or modern, contemporary dance classes.
Funkanometry SF: Funkanometry SF Class at City Dance Studios on Thursdays & Sundays
Mark Dan Pablico teaches at In the Groove Studios and City Dance Studios.;
Micaya teaches ongoing hip hop dance classes:

SF Hip Hop DanceFest: The 13th annual celebration of contemporary urban dance styles, featuring innovative artists in two programs. Nov 18-20, Palace of Fine Arts Theater, 3301 Lyon St., SF. 415-392-4400.
Program A: Fri, Nov 18, 8pm; Sat, Nov 19, 9:30pm
Funkanometry SF (San Francisco); Meech Onomo Company (Paris, France); Neopolitan (Oakland);
SoulForce Dance Company (San Francisco); Academy Of Villains (San Mateo); Outer Circle Crew (Los Angeles); Compagnie Arts de Scene (Valenciennes, France); Strictly Business–youth company (Bay Area).
Program B: Sat, Nov 19, 6pm; Sun, Nov 20, 6pm
Mind Over Matter (San Francisco); Plague (London, England); FBC (San Francisco); Loose Change(San Francisco); Soul Sector (San Francisco); Robot Boys (Denmark); FootworKINGz (Chicago); Chapkis Dance (Vallejo); decadancetheatre (NYC)
Prelude NorCal hosted by Main Stacks: Nov 19, at Chabot College Center for the Performing Arts, 25555 Hesperian Blvd. Hayward.
CityDance Studios Performance Workshops: Advanced Hip Hop Performance Workshop directed and choreographed by ROcko Luciano and Funkanometry Performance Workshop taught by Emerson Aquino and members of Funkanometry SF. Dec 3, at Cowell Theater, Fort Mason, SF.
DAMSF: January 2012. Details online at
Rennie Harris Puremovement: Mar 9, 2012 at Wells Fargo Center, Sonoma.
Marc Bamuthi Joseph: Living Word Project works-in-progress presentation, In Spite of Everything.
Nov 30-Dec 2 San Francisco and Berkeley.

First Class Arts:

2010 Highlight

As an emerging professional dancer, choreographer, performer, I seek out ways to develop my artistry, broaden my perspective on process/performance, and connect with communities in creative fields. My most memorable moments of 2010 involve two special trips—one to Arizona and one to Western Massachusetts—which continue to affect how I apply key concepts in experiencing and making art.

Last spring, I visited Arizona to attend the Artistry with Clay and Lime workshop at the Canelo Project. Athena and Bill Steen taught workshop participants how to work with earth and lime plasters. Making mixes, testing different mud and lime samples, applying the coats and shaping the mud on surfaces—these exercises called for play and experimentation. I enjoyed combing my fingers through the clay each day. The tools and techniques were all new to me, but the hands-on creative process rang true to my dancing self. I became more aware of the specific physicality involved. I learned how to execute a range of plastering actions: isolated movements of the hand and wrist to create surface swoops, swipes, and smaller strokes; plus full bodied-upward arc and spiral motions to cover a broad surface area. As in dance technique, the plastering technique’s goal was efficiency in action. Often the participants, including myself, would tightly grip the plastering tool and apply too much pressure into the surface. This bad habit usually resulted in uneven distribution of the material. Bill Steen would encourage us to “hold it like a bird.” This lesson about tension reminded me of dance class exercises. In order to best execute an action, it is crucial to understand which muscles to engage and which ones to release.

Athena Steen taught us some concepts in design: finding balance in the texture and to use contrast and continuity in the composition. I understood how to navigate the bigger-picture composition of the form while maintaining flexibility towards the materials and the time allotted. It took creative skill to discover the right texture, the right level—working and re-working, making space to incorporate suggestions, bigger picture articulations, compositional frames, etc.

This process is true for my experiences in dance-making: you give yourself some parameters to work with, re: people, music, space, idea, and then work from there, while using your resources of time and energy to work it out.

In the summer, I participated in Pedro Alejandro’s Open Artist’s Project, Soft Body/Soft Terrain, as part of the SEEDS Festival at Earthdance in Plainfield, Massachusetts. Soft Body/Soft Terrain taught me new, clear ways to source movement material from the body and illuminated new ways of looking at forms in space. In a building part of the workshop, we used Earthdance’s natural resources—mud, hay, sticks, water. Pedro also introduced his recycled window screens to experiment with surfaces and framing. With these materials, we created mini-sculptures and formed a site for our performance showing. We also covered ourselves from head-to-toe in mud for the showing. The experience of making a set piece made me wonder: what visual elements can a choreographer include or edit when composing the environment for a dance piece? Viewing the movers in space as part of the landscape of three-dimensional sculptures allowed me to reexamine the dancers’ bodies as forms, somewhat removed from the usual inescapable body politic and narrative.

Learning from these two environments, I have developed fresh perspectives on the craftsmanship of construction and choreography: there’s no end-all be-all recipe in plastering or dance-making; there is always room for experimentation and practice. The kindness, curiosity, and collaboration of the people I engaged with motivates and inspires me in my creative processes and in life!

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