Author Archive | Rob Taylor

“It’s More Than Learning the Steps”: Grace Torres and Luis Leon sustain Nicaraguan Culture through Dance

Dancer in blue performing on stage

Nicaragua Photo by RJ Muna

One of the wonders of the San Francisco Bay Area is the breadth of cultural dance forms being sustained here and available for audiences to experience. The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is one of the best places to witness that breadth, and highlighted that role in 2016 when they presented Nicaragua Danza, Hijos del Maíz, a local company led by Artistic Directors Luis Leon and Grace Torres.

Nestled between performances from two Festival mainstays (LIKHA – Pilipino Folk Ensemble and Dunsmuir Scottish Dancers (such is the mercurial world of an Ethnic Dance Festival), Nicaragua Danza, Hijos del Maíz introduced Nicaraguan dance to the wider dance community at the Festival in a trio of pieces collectively titled Somos Nicaragua Multiétnica (We are Multiethnic Nicaragua). It was a vibrant introduction to dances from Nicaragua’s Atlantic coastal region, the Miskito Coast. The pieces included traditional indigenous Miskito dances, dances drawn from Afro-Caribbean cultural traditions, and a Creole mixture of African and European dance forms that formed during the era during the 18th and 19th centuries when Britain was a dominant presence in the region.

When I spoke with Grace, she began by explaining that the company’s name, Hijos del Maíz, which translates to “Children of the Corn,” was chosen because corn is a central commodity incorporated into almost every meal, and has strong cultural currency in Nicaragua. “As a cultural-folkloric group, we wanted our name to have a connection to that culture,” Grace further explained that “there’s also a song, [“Somos Hijos del Maíz”] from a member of the Mejia family, which is this famous musical family in Nicaragua, [that] lists all the ways corn is important to the country.” The company seeks to honor all of corn’s many cultural references.

Grace was raised in the capital city of Managua, on Nicaragua’s Pacific side, and she didn’t visit the Atlantic side until relatively recently. Nicaraguans are introduced to dance as a national cultural form very early. She tells me that, “unlike here [in the U.S.], where dance is an elective… in Nicaragua, dance is part of your regular curriculum from a young age and the dance that is taught is folkloric…everyone learns these songs and the basic steps as little kids,” in school.

While she was in school, Grace trained with Blanca Guardado who was also founder and director of one the national Nicaraguan folklorico ballets, Ballet Folklórico Tepenahuatl. “One day when I was about 17 I asked her if I would be good enough to be in that Ballet, and when that would be,” Grace explains, “she laughed and said, ‘well, you can do it now.’” That was the beginning, and for Grace there was nothing better than the experience of being part of a large dance company, performing on a regular basis.

When I asked her to share something from her mentor that she now seeks to instill in the dancers she works with, she explains that it’s all about the repetition. “I’m focused on making the dancer better. I focus on the practice. In dancing, it’s all about the repetition – your muscles need to know the choreography so if your mind goes blank in the middle of a performance, your body will still push through.”  

Group of performers in blue bending at the waist

Nicaragua Photo by Steven Blumenkranz

Despite her love of dance, there was a long break from dancing after Grace moved to the U.S. in 2004. After a few years she began feeling the urge for what she calls the “structure of group dance with rehearsals.” She continues, “the rehearsal part, the process, that work is what really excites me. That process of seeing how a few steps and some patterns can create something so big and beautiful to watch.”

She was stymied in her attempts to find a Nicaraguan dance company. “There was one group that did it a little bit,” Grace acknowledges, “but although the person who ran it did it out of a love for Nicaragua, she honestly didn’t know much. It felt like she was looking at videos on YouTube and trying to mimic them. But I didn’t want to be the dancer telling the director, ‘you’re doing it wrong,’ so I just didn’t go back.” Instead, Grace danced with other companies that practiced Afro-Haitian and Afro-Peruvian traditions. Then one day, Luis Leon got in touch with her.

Luis, now Hijos del Maíz’s primary director, had danced in one of the other large Nicaraguan dance companies, Ballet Folklórico Nicaraguense, led by Francisco González. He had moved to the Bay Area and had heard that Grace had danced with Ballet Folklórico Tepenahuatl. “He came to my house, and we started talking – he and his wife both dance,” she explains, and very suddenly they decided to form the company in 2011. “We started very small and now we have a nice group of people.”

The company originally had four directors, but as one might expect that wasn’t a sustainable model. “It was too many people saying, ‘no I want to do this,” so we decided we need one director, and whatever that person says goes,” she tells me. So “we decided that Luis is the director and I am the right hand.” Grace further explains that “Luis and I share responsibility with the adult company, and I am very big on cleaning up the movement and making sure that we are connecting and turning at the same time. But Luis takes care of the kids and does all of the choreography for them, the costumes, everything.” The company’s rehearsals are very structured and focused on upcoming performances, so she says that “it’s very rare that we just work specifically on movement, there’s always a show that we are preparing for, especially the kids, the kids dance a lot, even more than us.”

Their Rotunda Dances Series performance at San Francisco’s City Hall on December 1st will feature both companies. They are bringing their youth group to do five short folkloric pieces. Then the adult company will perform a piece from the Atlantic coast, that was set on the company by choreographer Cleopatra Morales, who was a college instructor of Luis’ in Nicaragua and is well known for opening the dances of the Atlantic coast to a wider audience.

I ask Grace about their hopes for the future of their company, and she shares that “we really want to help our students – kids and adults – grow as dancers…we would also love to be able to take our dancers to Nicaragua.” As a start they recently invited Cleopatra Morales to work with the company, and Grace says “it was hard financially but we made it work and it was doable. We want to do more of that.” The company – like so many others practicing cultural dance forms in the Bay Area – is also on the lookout for space. “we are looking to create more stability to have space to create and practice our cultural forms with young people,” Grace continues, “so that Nicaraguan groups—not just us, but other companies coming up have a space to create.”

When I ask Grace about her personal hopes she reveals that “since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a dancer. I decided a few years ago that I’m not going to be able to live off of dancing. My husband is a Salsa teacher and has the blessing of making living out of it. But Luis and I have our 9 to 5 jobs, and we do this out of love.” And to that end, she says that “I feel fulfilled as long as I can keep doing what I’m doing. As long as I can dance, and keep learning, and work with other dance companies, and can see my group growing, that fulfills me and that’s enough.”

At one point in our conversation, Grace tells me that when she was member of Ballet Folklórico Tepenahuatl in Nicaragua, her focus was on “the steps and the movements, but I didn’t know much of the history of that piece. I didn’t ask enough questions.” But, she tells me that “from Luis I’ve really learned to not just be a dancer, but to ask questions to try understand why we dance, and why the dance exists. It’s more than just the steps.” She conclude by saying, “I think if I put a little more effort on that side, and making sure all our dancers have that knowledge too, the dancing will keep getting stronger.”

Innovative Artist and Traditional Teacher: the Passions of Cambodian Choreographer Charya Burt

Three dancers kneeling on the grass with their arms extended and have metal headdresses

Charya Burt Cambodian Dance photo by Craig Stewart

When I spoke with Santa Rosa-based dancer and choreographer Charya Burt, she had recently returned from the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in western Massachusetts, where her company (Charya Burt Cambodian Dance) performed in the Festival’s Inside/Out series. We began by talking about her experience in what she describes as “the most iconic outdoor stage” at what she laughingly called “the Pillow.”

Charya’s company performed work from within the Cambodian classical repertory, as well as the original and innovative work she has developed over the past several years, and she tells me that “it was an incredible honor to have my work presented there. It’s a space that I [had previously only] seen in pictures and videos of other dance company’s performances, so it was an honor to perform in such a beautiful and serene space.”

Experiencing Charya Burt’s vision of Cambodian Dance in a serene space is appropriate, because watching Charya and her company perform, I’ve found myself entering a headspace of attentive serenity. Her high-precision choreography, comprised of subtle movements and nuanced gestures, is as complex and intricate as the ornate hand-made costumes featured in Cambodian dance, which take up to three hours for dancers to be sewed into. Watching her work, you are witness to a demonstration of gentle power whose profound depths are only capable of being understood through the grace of dancer’s arm as it moves through space. Finding that serene feeling is how I want to experience dance, and it’s a feeling I’ve experienced watching Charya and her company.

Burt immigrated to the United States in 1993, after a decade of dancing with Cambodia’s Royal Dance Company, and several years spent teaching classical dance at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. Living in Santa Rosa, she has forged a career that, as she puts it, “highlights the two passions that I want to share – the importance of the cultural preservation of Cambodian dance, while at the same time showing how innovation, which has been in most of my work, can take classical movements and gestures and inject new life into them.”

There’s much to unpack in the pieces I’ve seen Charya and her company perform over the past decade. She has always created memorable contributions for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, where she has performed 12 times, most recently in 2016, but she has also successfully performed in less obvious spaces for traditional dance, like CounterPulse.

Silenced, the piece she performed at CounterPulse, was about the life of Cambodian pop icon Ros Serey Sothea and wove 1960’s Cambodian pop music into its fabric. Sothea disappeared during the devastation of the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s, a period whose violence also resulted in the death of Charya’s father and numerous family members. In Blossoming Antiquities, she explored the 1906 visit of the Cambodian Royal Ballet to France and the sculptor Auguste Rodin’s obsession with them, and incorporated western music and live visual arts into this work. There is also Blue Roses, which took the character of Laura from Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and reconfigured it as the story of a Cambodian princess.

At her Rotunda Dance Series performance on November 3rd, Charya and her company will share one of the pieces she took to Jacob’s Pillow: Heavenly Garden, a piece originally staged for the proscenium stage of the Ethnic Dance Festival, re-staged for the outdoor performance at Jacob’s Pillow, and is now being re-conceived a third time to take advantage of what San Francisco City Hall Rotunda’s grand hall offers. Charya expresses great excitement to me about the challenge: “I imagine we’ll begin in the middle of the staircase, floating up and down in formation, eventually coming to the landing, which although it is small, can still fit the choreography that includes re-formed exits and entrances within the space of the piece.”

Charya tells me that Heavenly Garden’s modern take on classical choreography will be preceded by a traditional piece that “begins with me singing a prayer to bless the audience, where a dancer tosses flowers to the audience for peace and prosperity.” This mix of the traditional and the modern encapsulates Charya’s artistic goals. She explains that “adding singing into the performance and adding narrative are the two most prominent ways I add innovation,” to performances and Heavenly Garden includes both components.

Her performance at the Rotunda Dance Series is just one part of a very busy autumn for Charya and her company. In November, she will be at the Palace of Fine Arts auditioning a re-staging of a longer piece for the 2018 Ethnic Dance Festival. She tells me that the biggest challenge for these auditions is always “re-shaping a longer piece into a 10 minute performance.” Also in November, she will debut a new work choreographed to Cinnabar Heart, a composition for marimba by acclaimed Cambodian composer Chinery Ung, as a part of his 75th birthday celebration orchestrated by UC San Diego.

With support from the UC Berkeley Critical Refugee Studies collective, she will also begin research for what she hopes will become a new documentary dance project. Tentatively named Children of the Refugees, Charya says that in this early stage of the project: “I will interview my dancers [who are children of Cambodian refugees] to dig into their family history and specifically focus on the way a refugee’s understanding of space and time and how that impacts their children.” Charya tells me she “hopes to take the research gathered over the course of a year and use it to develop dance choreography by using those stories.” While this nascent work seems sure to produce an innovative new dance performance, her hope is to reconnect with former students and apprentices through the process.

Charya’s other stated passion of cultural preservation finds an outlet through working with dancers in the Cambodian community. In addition to her teaching in the Bay Area, she frequently travels to Long Beach (home to California’s largest Cambodian community) to teach at the Khmer Arts Academy, founded and run by her sister Sophiline Cheam Shapiro. Charya will begin a new artist residency at the academy in 2018.

She credits the Alliance for California Traditional Arts’ traditional apprenticeship program for helping her expand her opportunity for cultural preservation. Charya states that “teaching classes and groups of students is important, but apprenticeships provide a one-to-one intensive training. You work with one student for six months and train them with the skills and techniques they need to become professional dancers. It’s different with a class. That level of detail,” which is necessary to ensure the apprentice is immersed in the form to a degree that ensures cultural preservation, “cannot be conveyed at a group level.”

Charya has had “four apprentices from the Cambodian community, who are all working as professional dancers now.” She continues: “I’ve also apprenticed Tara Catherine Pendaya who comes from a different background [dances of Central Asia], but was able to work together through a CHIME[1] apprenticeship in a meaningful way.” As someone who wants to help sustain Cambodian dance and culture in the U.S. Charya says she “feels fortunate to have had the experience working with committed artists who love what they do, and who want to keep the dance alive and keep it moving forward.”

Charya is excited that “in the United States, wherever you find a Cambodian community you find dance happening. Because dance is a bridge for Cambodians to connect to their heritage, connect to their culture, and especially for younger Cambodians to be proud of who they are and be proud of their heritage.”

She often finds that Cambodian dance groups in a community are formed by a group of young people “who have learned from watching Cambodian dance on YouTube and then they start teaching each other, and they dance at all kinds of different levels,” but what makes Charya hopeful is that she finds “that dance becomes important to these communities,” and that is happening at all is a starting point for keeping Cambodian dance alive.

Her ultimate dream is to have a touring workshop that assists these myriad dance groups throughout the country with the “professional training that they need. I think it’s so important that I [as an established dancer] help build connections to the different Cambodian dance companies so they can better serve their own communities.”

[1] CHIME is a program of Margaret Jenkins Dance Company.

Expanding Expressions: Madhuri Kishore brings Kuchipudi to the Landscape of Bay Area Indian Dance

Line of dancers displaying a standing position in Kuchipudi

Madhuri Kishore School of Kuchipudi / photo courtesy of school

Traversing the landscape of Indian dance forms practiced in the San Francisco Bay Area, it can be easy for the curious explorer to become overwhelmed by the variety of traditions being sustained here. There are the eight different classical traditions, all tied to the Natya Shastra, a 2,000 year-old set of texts that serves as a guidebook for creating art within Hindu culture, but each developed to have precise and important distinctions that can be hard to see initially. There are also the various threads that connect each dance to the many deities who hold court in Hindu culture. And outside of all of that, there are the many non-classical, folk dance forms like Bhangra, that have become popularized through pop culture variations.

And Indian classical dance has deep roots in the Bay Area, relatively speaking. Kathak gained an early foothold here through the efforts of the late Chitresh Das and that tradition has continued to be sustained by his students and acolytes. KP Kunhiraman and his wife Katherine brought Bharatanatyam to the very first San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1978, and their company Kalanjali just completed their 42nd summer season. And as more immigrants from India continued to settle in the Bay Area over the past four decades, practitioners of all eight of the Indian classical dance forms have set up shop. So yes, delving into the many different forms can seem daunting, but if you love dance, the Bay Area offers opportunities for discovery that can’t be found in such close proximity anywhere else.

One of those who have staked a claim to sustain Indian dance in the Bay Area is Madhuri Kishore. Born in Hyderabad in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India, she came to the US in 2000 to work in the tech industry. Her passion was always for dance. As a young child, her father took her to see performances quite often, and she recalls that from a young age she “remembers feeling a passion for the dance…there was an aura to the dancer that appealed to me.” She loved all the classical dance forms she saw, but the one that most strongly impressed her was Kuchipudi.

One of the eight classical forms, Kuchipudi also originated in Madhuri’s home state of Andhra Pradesh, and is based in a grammar of facial and body movement described in the Natya Shastra. While Kuchipudi features rapid footwork and graceful movement that also characterize other Indian dance forms, what makes Kuchipudi distinctive is its focus on dance-drama storytelling. Dancers use highly evocative facial expressions and stylized hand movements to tell a story. Madhuri explains me that Kuchipudi is also unique for incorporating choreography where “dancers dance on the rim of brass plate with pots on the heads which is a salient feature of Kuchipudi dance.”

Kuchipudi dancers can form strong emotional bonds with audiences, even in large theaters. “I’ve performed in theaters with over a thousand audience members, and when we cry, we can see the audience responding with tears as well. We use make-up that focus attention the ways our eyes move that increases the connection from the stage, but would frighten you if you saw it up close,” she tells me, laughing.

Asked when she knew she wanted to make a life of dance, Madhuri recalled being in the audience of a Kuchipudi performance when she was five or six. “It was a piece that addressed the injustice of class structures in India and the plight of those in the untouchable caste. When the dancers cried, I cried with them. They made me feel what they felt.” Having experienced the ability of Kuchipudi to give a young girl an understanding of social injustice far beyond her years, Madhuri felt a desire shared by artists of many forms: she wanted to be part of creating that experience for others.

Madhuri trained at the Lasya Priya Dance Academy in Hyderabad, with Dr. Uma Rama Rao. Madhuri recalls that her guru “was one of the legendary artists of Kuchipudi with many, many awards and titles to her credit. She dedicated her life to dance. She passed away last year, but I will always be grateful to her, as she is the sole reason for who I am today and for what I am doing today in the field of dance.”

After moving to the United States, she continued dancing as a soloist in performances at the Indian Consulate and at community centers and temples around the country. But what turned her into an evangelist for Kuchipudi was seeing how many second generation Indian youth did not know their culture. “I observed that kids are learning to dance but they actually do not understand the essence of the Abinaya (or the ‘expressions’) aspect of the art form,” she tells me. “I don’t blame them as the kids are born and brought up here and they might not relate to the same stories that we grew up with listening to,” and with this in mind Madhuri decided to make her contribution to sustaining Indian culture in the US by training young people in the aspect of Indian culture that she herself knew best. So in 2005, she began teaching.

It came with costs. She was also thriving as a software engineer, and Madhuri knew something was going to have to give. “I had been working at Google for 5 ½ years and I knew that if I was to follow my heart and grow my school I wasn’t going to be able to stay there.” One day she and her husband began talking over teaching more at lunch and by the end “I had decided that I was going to leave Google to make it happen.” Today she works for a smaller company that allows her a more flexible schedule to run her dance school and work with her students.

This is a work/life balance she needs, because Madhuri has over 200 students and dancers. These include dancers who began with her when they were six years old and are still coming back once a week for class, even though some are students at far away locations like UC Davis. She has also had children of her own since starting the schools, and says that experience has reaffirmed her commitment to the path she is on. “Kuchipudi has a grammar and set of movements like all Indian dance,” but as she explains to me, “something I learned from my guru is that you look at each dancer as an individual and as you compose the movement, you sculpt it onto that dancer based on their strengths.” The result has been deep emotional bonds with students that she is profoundly grateful to have.

Having built the school up over the past decade, she tells me that while the Indian dance community is very strongly connected through a web of community centers, newspapers, online groups, and temples, “what is missing is the outreach to the non-Indian audience, which is why I so strongly respect events like the [San Francisco] Ethnic Dance Festival, because that is exactly what it is doing – bring dancers from different background together to discover each other’s dance.”

On October 6th, audiences will have an opportunity to discover Kuchipudi for themselves at San Francisco’s City Hall as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, and the three-act performance will be an excellent introduction to Kuchipudi for the curious dance enthusiast. “We will start with an invocation item on Goddess Saraswathi,” Madhuri tells me, “followed by a piece called Kamakshi – The Divine, a narrative dance which will feature the plate and pot choreography which is a such salient feature of Kuchipudi.” The performance will conclude with Thillana, a fast paced dance consisting of complicated and graceful movements”

As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked about her plans for the future, and she recalls the impact of the performance she saw as a young girl in Hyderabad. “My dream is to develop a dance drama that address social issues, particularly children’s and women’s issues,” she tells me. Despite Kuchipudi’s regular subject matter of gods and goddesses, based in movements codified in a two thousand year-old text, Madhuri, like many Bay Area dancers of all backgrounds, will begin to use her art form as a way to explore what is going on in our world right now.

The Luckiest Teacher: Lisa Aguilar’s 40 Year Commitment to Tahitian Dance

Dancer in yellow skirt stretches arms diagonally

Te Mana O Te Ra / photo by RJ Muna

Lisa Aguilar is the Ra’atira Pupu (Director) and Choreographer for the East Bay-based Tahitian Dance Company, Te Mana O Te Ra. I spent a Sunday afternoon speaking with Lisa about her life and her dance, in a bustling coffee shop in downtown Walnut Creek. Although she had just led her company in two performances the day before at the Lesher Center for Arts, and was clearly exhausted (when the company performs, Lisa is usually dancing on stage with them), she radiated elation and pride for the performance her company had done the day before, and in anticipation for the upcoming piece that will premiere this July for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.

Lisa is working with her third generation of dancers, continuing to embody the beauty of Tahitian dance forms as she has for nearly 40 years, 20 of those with Te Mana O Te Ra. With her husband Rey, who serves the company as its Musical Director, Te Mana O Te Ra has become one of the most well-regarded and powerful Bay Area dance companies sustaining ‘ote’a—the Tahitian dance noted for its quick, rhythmic hip movement that is maintained throughout a series of group formations and additional choreography.

dancer in yellow skirt looks to right with arms crossed

Te Mana O Te Ra / photo by RJ Muna

This July’s performance will be Te Mana O Te Ra’s eighth appearance in the Ethnic Dance Festival. Lisa credits the Festival with being a stepping stone to help educate people about many different dance genres, including Tahitian Dance, but this year she is using Tahitian tradition to provide a reflection of our current world—and response to it—back to the audience. Te Tiaturira’a – Believe, the piece they will perform on weekend two of the Festival, is based in Tahitian tradition but born from a very contemporary dismay that overtook Lisa as she processed the events of 2016. She explains:

“I was really pissed, had a lot of anger. I couldn’t really point out why. There was a lot of senseless violence in the world, and you turned on the news it was so ugly, with the Election, with ISIS… And I knew lots of people who were barely making it, living paycheck-to-paycheck and were struggling to pay their mortgage. Lots of people were depressed. I have a dance company with 100 plus people and I saw people there who were struggling, too. They would come to dance class to get out of what was going on their lives. Not to stop the sadness, but to just make it better for a little while.”

As she reflected on the collective pain, Lisa considered the many challenges she has faced. “I realized that the strength to overcome these challenges was within me, and the name of the piece—Believe—is meant to represent that. If we believe in ourselves as individuals, if we believe in ourselves as a group, if we believe in ourselves as a country we can overcome these challenges.”

When it was time to consider auditioning for the Ethnic Dance Festival, she decided to create a dance performance that acknowledged the difficulties in the world, while still providing audiences a sense of hope and light. Seeking light is critical, as Lisa explains, “We live in a pretty shitty world right now, but if we keep wallowing in how bad it is, we are not doing anything to help make it better.” It seems a bit of an obvious reminder, but we live in times where it’s so much easier to scream alone in darkness than dance together in light. Reminders are needed.

Lisa was also inspired by one of many Tahitian precedents for this kind of statement. She tells me that, “In the 50s and 60s, as nuclear weapons were being tested close to their home, Tahitians made dance and music that protested the tests. They used their art to make a statement, and that’s what I’m doing in my piece for the Ethnic Dance Festival.”

The piece will begin in sadness and dismay, before transitioning to a faster pace. The key color in her piece are natural shades of yellow, “which are meant to represent hope and the light within you, the strength that—if you remember to use it—can get you through anything. You will survive,” she states before laughing and completing the thought with “well, I hope we’ll survive.”

How Lisa came to practice ‘ote’a was a surprise to me. Born and raised in Oakland, Lisa is of Filipina/o descent and grew up learning dance forms from that culture. In the 1970s, she began taking Polynesian dance classes from Marge Bronson. Marge was a Navy wife who had studied different Polynesian dances while joining her husband on his Pacific postings during the 40s and 50s. The couple settled in Walnut Creek, where Marge taught at a community center and formed a company called “Dances of the Pacific.” “She taught all the Islands’ [dance forms] together,” Lisa explains, “back in the day we did everything.”

In the 70’s the Bay Area dance community was opening up to exploring culturally-specific dance forms from around the world (the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, which began in 1978, was a product of this global expansion), but sometimes with little adherence to the concept of specificity. In 1979, Lisa made her first visit to Tahiti where she realized “people didn’t really know about Tahiti. Everybody connected [all Polynesian dances] to the standard Luau—you’d see Maori and Tahitian and Hawaiian,” all mixed and matched together.

In 1981 she began teaching her first Tahitian classes, and has traveled to Tahiti every year to work with her mentors there. After Marge Bronson passed away, Lisa and Rick Smith, another of Marge’s students formed a new company called “Drums of Polynesia.” Lisa taught Tahitian and he taught Hawaiian. “I was fine being part of a dance company that did Tahitian and Hawaiian,” Lisa says, and the trend towards specificity continued. “By the late 80s, early 90s, people who were doing these combined dance companies were splitting up to focus on specific cultures,” and Rick really wanted to focus on Hula. “I didn’t really plan on directing a company all by myself, but he said ‘you’ve been teaching Tahitian all along, what are you afraid of?’ He must [have] known something I didn’t, because we’ve both been very successful. (Rick Smith’s Halau is named Na Mamo No’eau). In 1997, Te Mana O Te Ra was started, and they performed in the Ethnic Dance Festival the following year.

Lisa and Rey teach Tahitian Dance and Drumming through the Walnut Creek Parks and Recreation department, and Lisa remains true to the mission of creating inroads for cultural diversity in a civic space. “Initially we are a parks and recreation group,” she insists. A noble cause to be certain, but by the time students are invited to dance with the performing group a different level of skill has been attained.

The company has toured Europe four times at the invitation of the European Folk Association, recently receiving a fourth invitation to dance in Tahiti in 2018 (a huge honor for a mainland company), and have continued to perform regularly throughout the Bay Area at large-scale, professional venues for full audiences. Pushed on this, Lisa tells me, “okay honey, I guess it feels like this old lady’s done pretty good. As far as the dance company goes, as long as I’m inhaling and exhaling I plan to continue permeating the culture and teaching dance.”

As with any cultural dance form, the movement and the music are part of a more complex cultural transmission. “I teach my dancers about the cultural and the history of Tahiti, so they understand what they are doing and what the movement means. I want to educate as many people as possible about this genre.” The task of running a 100+ member dance company is made no easier by the fact that in order to set choreography, she still “needs to get to know each of my dancers individually. No two dancers’ dance are alike, and not all of them are at the same place—either in their lives, or in their dancing.” She continues: “Some are quick, some not as quick, but if I see the desire in their heart, I’ll work harder with that kind of person, I think they need that kind of nurturing. If you encourage somebody, and they feel encouraged they try harder. You’ll end up with a quality dancer.”

Te Mana O Te Ra means energy of the sun. For Lisa that means “as long as I walk this earth, I hope the spirit is spread, and keeps spreading. I am the luckiest dance teacher. To make people really feel like they’re something else.” She adds, “If we made you smile, you can go out into the world and share that smile.”

Clog On: Ian Enriquez Continues the Barbary Coast Cloggers Legacy with the Mussel Rock Cloggers

musselrockphotobyloiselling-300x200Spend time exploring the Bay Area’s myriad traditional and folk dance communities and you will soon discover that the concept of “traditional dance” is an amorphous concept that changes based on whose eye is beholding the tradition.

As is the case with other cultural forms, the transmission of a dance tradition almost always begins with a student studying the dance form alongside a master dancer. Over time, and after achieving a particular level of excellence within that dance form, the student becomes master, and takes on the responsibility of training another generation of students.

This well-established dynamic is how dance forms were passed on to future generations, and for most of human history, the speed of cultural change meant that the dance form evolved slowly. Whether the student was a West Virginian who learned how to clog from an uncle in 1905, or a young girl in India learning Bharatanatyam from her mother in 1925, or a Mexican teenager discovering Jarabe with their siblings in 1955—in each case the student was regularly immersed in the same cultural ecosystem as the master dancer, and when innovations were incorporated into the tradition, the homogeneity of experience ensured that the changes happened slowly over time.

But in the early 21st century the path to mastering a traditional folk dance is often a circuitous one that passes through the full range of cultural influences that technology and globalization have provided our time. Evolutionary change to the dance form that might have once taken generations can now happen within a decade, or faster. The work being done by Ian Enriquez and his Mussel Rock Cloggers is a perfect example of those rapid changes within a Bay Area context, which he initially began developing for the all-male clogging group Barbary Coast Cloggers.

Clogging is a raucous amalgamation of tap dance, Eastern European dance forms, line dancing, Irish dance forms, and West African dance that was forged within communities in the Appalachian south over the course of the 19th and into the 20th century. In its modern format, clogging can incorporate complex group formations borrowed from square dancing traditions, thrilling audiences as dancers travel across a stage in dynamic rhythm.

For Ian, clogging was not an obvious path. Raised as an international student in the Philippines, when he went looking for dance, he discovered hip-hop and embraced it fully. He says, “I became that kid in high school who danced hip-hop and choreographed for school performances.” He continued to dabble in dance while at Oberlin College in Ohio and upon moving to San Francisco after graduation, he began studying for a dance certificate at City College. As he recalls, “one summer I couldn’t get into one of the classes that I needed, so I decided to do something completely different and…I stumbled across a clogging class. I had studied tap and knew that tap had come from clogging,” but he knew little else about the dance form at the time.

Through an immersion in clogging, he developed a deep appreciation for the history of the dance, particularly its role as a cross-cultural art form that drew from both European and African influences. “Clogging incorporates many different cultural strands. It proves that at different points throughout American history, everybody partied together at some point,” regardless of culture.

In 2003, he began taking classes with the Barbary Coast Cloggers, and “picked it up really well. Matt Ellinger [Barbary Coast Clogger’s artistic director at the time] started grooming me right away [for performances]. When I couldn’t afford classes he took care of me, and he came to my [City College] choreography final.” The fact that Ellinger was so supportive of his development as a dancer touched Ian, who laughs as he recalls that he “kind of felt obligated to audition for [the] Barbary Coast [Cloggers].”

Ian’s acceptance into the group came at a very auspicious time for the Cloggers. The company had been founded in 1980 and had thrived for while, but the original membership was hit extremely hard by the AIDS epidemic. But by the early 2000s, new dancers had picked up the mantle and the company was on an upward trajectory, selling out performance at the Palace of Fine Arts, booking shows around the country, and performing in such varied spaces as Sean Dorsey’s Fresh Meat Festival, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and as an opening act for rock group Faith No More. They developed a devoted following, and as a male group they existed as an anomaly in the clogging world where most groups are either all-women or mostly women.

“Men just dancing together is a rare sight and conveys a different energy to an audience,” Ian explains, “Barbary Coast as dancers have tried to embody Gene Kelly’s style of a ‘man’s man’ who is having fun [in the dance] without being aggressive. A lot of choreography for men is very aggressive, but the dance being done in Barbary Coast was just men having fun.”

As Ian began taking a more prominent artistic role in the company, eventually becoming lead choreographer, he began to insert his own distinct artistic personality into the company’s work, and states, “I try to bring who I am as a choreographer, into what we do.” When probed on what that means exactly, he says “the [Barbary Coast] Cloggers always had some novelty number but I do a lot more weird stuff.”

As times change it’s inevitable that dancers move on from a company, and having an all-male repertoire made it difficult when there weren’t new male dancers capable of replacing the ones that left the company. Clogging dance formations involve eight people, and Ian says that “when the numbers got low this time, and there weren’t any men taking clogging classes, the only way I could think to preserve the dances we are doing was to invite women [to perform].” He continues: “Bringing women into the company made more sense, especially because we had so many skilled [women] dancers in our classes. They were dancing at such a high level and it was a bummer that they didn’t have an opportunity to dance at a professional level.”

This change spurred Ian to form a co-ed dance group in 2013 called the Mussel Rock Cloggers. The group’s name is a clever reference to San Francisco’s past that also touches on the group’s immediate lineage. As Ian describes it, “the Barbary Coast was the place in Gold Rush-era San Francisco where everyone came to celebrate, where there were up to 14 men for every woman. The 1906 earthquake destroyed the area that was home to the Barbary Coast and the epicenter of the earthquake was Mussel Rock, a rock formation off the coast of San Mateo county.”

The Mussel Rock Cloggers will perform at San Francisco City Hall as part of the Rotunda Dance Series, and the performance will be a perfect example of the tradition/ evolution spectrum in practice. “We’ll start off with some of the more traditional dances. Doing stuff that we can tie to the city a little bit,” Ian tells me, starting off with choreography set to traditional songs like “Foggy” and “Fire on the Mountain.”

The second half of the performance will represent the contemporary work (Ian’s “weird stuff”) being created for the company, including a Bollywood/Clogging number, a Star Wars-themed performance, and two dancers will portray the presidential candidates and perform a Trump-Clinton dance off, choreographed to the song “Dance Off” by Macklemore.

Traditionalists may scoff at these modern reworkings of clogging, but according to Ian, “what’s often forgotten is that clogging is a folk dance, and that it needs to incorporate new elements to grow and evolve. It’s a living folk dance. Limiting the dance to only performing it as it was done 100 years ago is disingenuous and not true to what folk dance is. So when people see contemporary clogging set to modern music, there’s a disassociation with their expectation of what ethnic dance or folk dance is supposed to be, or what it means to them. Ethnic dance has been framed as a feature of the past, but with clogging it is growing, it is still changing.”

As we wrap up our interview, Ian lets me know that “It’s been a challenge to get out there. People have tried to hire Barbary Coast and when I said we have a co-ed company, they changed their mind. Which is disappointing because the dancers I’m working with are as strong as any I worked with in Barbary Coast.”

But he understands that “there’s this mystique as to what Barbary Coast is, so that now that we’re co-ed, people have gone back to thinking we’re just cloggers” and not the innovative and groundbreaking group that they are. Mussel Rock Cloggers will be working hard to dissuade their audiences of the notion. It’s what Ian thrives on as a choreographer and a dancer. He says: “Those moments when you break the boundaries of audience expectation is transforming as an artists and as a person. I’m not a contemporary dancer, I’m not creating what’s maybe seen as high art, stirring, or powerful. So to have these other moments where you are making a difference in the dance community is great. It’s really energizing.”

The Mussel Rock Cloggers will perform on Fri, Nov 4, Noon, as part of the Rotunda Dance Series at San Francisco City Hall. The Rotunda Dance series is presented by Dancers’ Group and World Arts West in partnership with Grants for the Arts and San Francisco City Hall. More information can be found at

Becoming Super-Flamenca: Carola Zertuche Guides Theatre Flamenco Into its 50th Year

Photo by Christine Fu

Photo by Christine Fu

The ink on the lease to the newly acquired studio in San Francisco’s Mission District was barely dry when I sat to talk with artistic director Carola Zertuche’s about her guidance of Theatre Flamenco of San Francisco through its 50th year, and the new show the company is preparing to present during their November home season: El Latir del Tiempo / The Beat of Time.

Carola speaks in precise, clipped tones, and is intensely friendly, emanating a fierceness that befits a Flamenco dancer, which in no way detracts from her approachability. Born and raised in Torreón, Mexico, she was introduced to classic Spanish dance as a child. She was introduced to Flamenco when her mother sent her to ballet class as a young girl. As she describes it, “I was bored in Ballet and I could hear the Flamenco class next door, so I begged my mother to put me in Flamenco.”

The match was lit, and at the age of 16 she traveled to Mexico City, where she began her career at the Flamenco nightclub Tablao Mesón de Triana (a Tablao is a type of intimate nightclub where Flamenco is most often performed). She toured internationally, before deciding to settle in San Francisco in the late 90s for the diversity of dance experiences the region offers. “The dance community is super strong here,” she says. “I go to see the modern dance companies, the ballet, ethnic dance. All kinds of dance is practiced here and it is what attracted me to the region.”

She performed in nightclubs in San Francisco, and as a featured soloist in larger Flamenco companies. In the late 90s she began performing with Theatre Flamenco under the direction of Miguel Santos. Founded in 1966 by Adela Clara, Theatre Flamenco was the first U.S. company to stage full productions of Spanish dance, and proudly declares that they are San Francisco’s second oldest dance company (after the San Francisco Ballet). Santos had started dancing with the company at the beginning, and had been artistic director from 1987 to 2007.

Carola tells me that Santos first “invited me to perform as a dancer, and then he started inviting me as a choreographer. I would create a number for the company each home season. And then after three or four years,” he came to her and, “asked if I wanted to take over the company.” Carola leapt at the opportunity, in large part because it gave her an opportunity to drastically expand the scope of her choreography.

She explains, “I really like to perform in the [intimate spaces provided by] Tablaos, but people think Flamenco is just for the small venue, and that just is not true. In the theater you can really create something different. You have all these elements – lighting, sound, production design. And that was exciting for me. And then there’s the challenge of having to create something new every year [for the company’s home season].

There is some irony in the fact that over the past decade, as many dance companies have explored ways they can break their proscenium shackles and perform outside of traditional theater settings, Carola has been pushing Theatre Flamenco to excel as a company that performs on a proscenium stage. “The dance that is created for the Tablaos is a very beautiful thing, but when you go to the theater you have to use the theater.” In Theatre Flamenco performances, group numbers and duets are usually set for the stage with specific movements and timing, but solo performances in her show maintains the tradition of improvisation.

Photo by Christine Fu

Photo by Christine Fu

So while El Latir del Tiempo / The Beat of Time acknowledges and celebrates the company’s 50 years of existence, and the continuity of their mission to present the artistry of Flamenco in large scale theatrical productions, it is also a celebration of Carola’s 10 year tenure as artistic director.

Santos had developed the company towards large-scale, community-focused presentations, and “it was very beautiful what he was doing, but [Santos’ vision was] focused on students and teaching.” Carola had a slightly different vision and wanted to shift more towards employing full-time Flamenco dancers – a company with dancers that could dedicate more time to the artform.

According to the philosophy of Carola Zertuche, “If you do Flamenco, you are waking up with Flamenco and going to sleep with Flamenco. You have to have a very deep knowledge,” in order to perform with Theatre Flamenco.

“I said if I take the company, I really want to take it to another level.” She aspired to bring Theatre Flamenco to a level of quality she associated with Bay Area choreographers like Alonzo King and Margaret Jenkins. While the dance vocabulary is different, she pushes the company to maintain the same caliber of physicality and technique that she sees taking place in the larger ecosystem of San Francisco’s professional dance community.

Carola has also worked to expand the caliber of musicians Theatre Flamenco engages in their productions, especially bringing in skilled musicians and singers from Spain. For the shows this November, this expanded caliber includes Flamenco singer Juana la del Pipa who is part of a dynasty of artists from the Flamenco cradle of Jerez de la Frontera in Southern Spain.

“I want to show the direction of the company is still very tied to traditional Flamenco, which is why I’m bringing Juana, who is very traditional. Her way of singing is so personal and she is one of the last singers to sing that way. To be on the stage with her is amazing.” Carola expands on why it’s important to bring artists like this to broader audiences: “I bring this kind of artist to show what’s going on in Spain. To show people that it’s more than just polka dots and flowers and the Gipsy Kings.”

Another guest is Pastora Galván, who made her professional dance debut with Theatre Flamenco at the age of 15, before becoming an international star of Flamenco over the past several decades. This will be Galván’s third time guesting with Theatre Flamenco, although she’s danced in shows Carola produced before as a solo artist.

Carola describes the powerful impression Pastora leaves on the audience: “She is a super-Flamenca…that means she is earthy.” I ask her to expand on that and she continues, “It’s in the way you position your head. Not many dancers have that ability. They have incredible technique, they are beautiful dancers, but then when you compare them to Pastora…she doesn’t have to do anything. She comes onto the stage and you will have goosebumps”.

I have had similar experiences watching Carola perform works on stage, and when I ask her about her own super-Flamencaness she is demur, giving credit to the singers and dancers. For her, as with most Flamenco dancers, this sense of bearing and power is something that comes with time and experience. “It’s not a craft, it’s a way of being and when you hear the singer, or a note of music you slip into it,” she tells me. “For me it depends on who is singing and who is playing the music, because you bring that emotion into your dance.”

A Peruvian Heart on an American Stage: Nestor Ruiz Shares his Passion

I have worked for many seasons at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in varying capacities, and my first interaction with Peruvian dance company El Tunante and the company’s artistic director (and frequent lead dancer) Nestor Ruiz took place within that setting. I have a distinct memory of seeing Nestor in the midst of the quietly precise chaos that is the Festival’s backstage, where up to 80 dancers from eight or nine distinct cultures work together to produce a show that is seamless. I must admit that even in that manic context, Nestor stood out as he sprinted around his company, simultaneously assisting his dancers with last minute costume challenges, giving parking directions to late-arriving musicians over the phone, and rehearsing his own movements.

But when El Tunante emerged from that backstage pandemonium and stepped onto the stage, the transformation was profound. The frantic behind-the-scenes energy folded into the graceful and elegant choreography of the Marinera norteña. The Marinera is commonly called Peru’s national dance, and the Marinera norteña is a variation that came from the northern coast of Peru and has become the most representative form of the dance. It is a series of elegant choreographies between a couple. The male dancer is normally dressed in a Chalan drill suit (or sometimes in a poncho) with a wide-brimmed hat. The female dancer is dressed in traditional clothes, but most importantly, she always dances barefoot.

As they dance, the couple sweeps around the stage, flirtatiously stepping in and out of each other’s space in a complex series of movements that when executed with the precision that El Tunante brings to each performance, appears to have a beautiful simplicity. I love the grace the dancers bring to their performances commingled with delicate playing of guitars and the solid rhythm from the cajón that I am unable to unfold from the movement as it weaves itself around the dancers.

I appreciate the beautiful simplicity of the Marinera norteña for its formal qualities and as a subtle metaphor for the emotional transferences that take place between courting lovers. But I am not Peruvian, and I know that for those who are Peruvian, watching El Tunante can be a profound experience that carries within it the resilient evocation of a place, a people, and a way of life in one’s past that cannot be reached in present circumstances. I cannot tell you what the Marinera means to a Peruvian heart, but I’ve seen people cry and shake and stomp their feet when experiencing that passion El Tunante brings to their performances. I feel there is a specific power to the emotions that are evoked when a Peruvian in America experiences a well-produced Marinera norteña.

1. El Tunante photo by RJ Muna

Photo by RJ Muna

The man at the heart of El Tunante is Nestor Ruiz, who, when met in person outside the context of a performance and in the more constrained hubbub of a coffee shop is somewhat shy and very friendly man with eyes that are the very definition of soulful. He was born in Trujillo, the coastal city that is home to Peru’s National Marinera Festival. It is also home to Club Libertad, a cultural organization dedicated to promoting Marinera both in Peru and internationally. Both of his parents were professional dancers, and by the age of 16 Nestor was also dancing professionally as part of Club Libertad. He decided to devote his life to practicing and promoting Peruvian dance, and was named champion of the National Marinera Festival four times before coming to the United States in 1998. In America, Nestor struggled and hustled to find ways to practice his dance the way any artist must, although the immigrant-artist hustle has an additional layer of challenges. But he quickly found a home at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and their performance on June 3rd at the Rotunda Dance Series marks El Tunante’s 12th appearance at the Festival.

Nestor teaches more now, and is able to rely on his art to provide an income that may not pay all of his bills, but helps fund a performing company. He teaches at various schools and community centers throughout the Bay Area, and as is the case with so many practitioners of cultural specific dance in the United States, most of his teaching is to the children of immigrants who don’t want their children to lose a connection with their home culture. For many second-generation immigrants, their cultural dance forms becomes a cord that connects them to another homeland.

Nestor tells me, “I’ve taught in Peru and taught here. It’s a big change…in Peru, I taught students for competition – I taught students to be champions on the stage.” In the Bay Area, Nestor is teaching dance to young people who haven’t been raised in Peruvian culture. “In Peru they are born into the music. Here it takes time,” he says. “It’s a little bit different, a little bit weird to them at first, but it’s a bridge to Peruvian culture that needs to be built in order for the children to hold on to their culture.”

We discuss El Tunante’s performing history and how he transforms his students into performers. Many of El Tunante’s performances are in Marinera competitions where the emphasis is on skill, precision, and adhesion to form. “For the competition they lose themselves in the intensity of the conflict,”Nestor tells me. “The truth is when the girls and boys start dancing, they are competing, each one is trying to be the best they can be and to show how much they are able do with their feet and their body.”

But for El Tunante, performing for a more general public at events like the Ethnic Dance Festival is something different. “It is
a more emotional thing,” Nestor reveals, explaining that “at the Festival there are people from countries from around the world watching backstage and in the audience, and everyone has come to share their passion. At competitions it’s about being the winner, but at that Festival it is about sharing the passion.”

Nestor goes on to say that when dancers perform at the Festival, “We are building relationships with [dancers from] different countries and culture, and when my dancers are there they realize that this doesn’t happen much, and it makes the experience very special and very emotional.”

Nestor also singles out Ethnic Dance Festival Co-Artistic Director Carlos Carvajal as a powerful influence on El Tunante’s expansion as a dance company. “Year after year as we dance in the Festival, he’s always pushing us to dance bigger, to expand our performance. And when we hear the applause from the audience, that drives us” to follow Carvajal’s direction.

Nestor says that his mission in life is to share the art through performance, but also to perpetuate the art through teaching, by showing the public that the Marinera is a dance form that can be learned and performed by the youngest child to the oldest adult, and can be “something they carry with them through life.” The “eight to eighty” multi-generational framework is common among culture-based dance forms. Nestor and I were joined at our interview by Efrain Altamirano, whose daughter has been dancing with El Tunante for eight years, starting when she was seven. She will be dancing with El Tunante on June 3rd, and Efrain shares that for his family, seeing their daughter grow up dancing the Marinera has been “such a wonderful part of our life.”

It is quite a trick to make this magic happen, the tiring hustle that goes into teaching, and then into building a dance company— bringing a level of extreme passion into every performance. As audience members, we let go of what we think we know and are carried to a place where only the experience of dance is able to carry us. To watch the exchange between dancers in the Marinera is to see an intricate intersection of movement and culture. As the dance ends and music stops and the man and woman on the stage are facing one another, they come together as if to kiss, but the man raises his wide-brimmed hat to conceal that last moment and the lights come down. All that is left is the passion that the dance brought into the space of the performance, and it is very emotional and it’s pretty intense. But for Nestor Ruiz, “It’s my life all the time, I want to introduce the dance form, but I also want to share the passion.”

One Chinese Foot, One American Foot: Talking with Lily Cai

Group of performers moving ribbons

Photo by Marty Sohl

MY CONVERSATION with dancer and choreographer Lily Cai began with a topic that is probably the most important issue facing artists in San Francisco in 2016: real estate. We met at her company’s South of Market rehearsal space, where they have been for many years and she told me “we’ve been very happy here. This is our first permanent rehearsal space, and it’s been nice to not have to haul props in and out of Dance Mission or Fort Mason Center.” However her current rehearsal space is located in a multi-use building at 8th and Folsom, which “is a commercial space. They were happy to have us 51?2 years ago, but it’s different now.” Their lease for this studio is not up soon, but Lily is aware of how hard it is to hold on to artistic space in San Francisco.

Despite this, she is adamant that “San Francisco is still the best place to be an artist. First of all we have Grants for the Arts, we have World Arts West [presenters of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival], and the community is here. New York has a bunch of modern dance companies, but San Francisco has more diverse ethnic groups and there is just more community support for dance from backgrounds that aren’t ballet or modern.”

Fort Mason Center was where I first met Lily and her musical director and husband Gang Situ. At the time, I was working at World Arts West, who also has their offices at Fort Mason. Over the years I saw Lily’s company perform many times at the Ethnic Dance Festival, as well in her own home seasons at YBCA and the Cowell Theater. I have found her work to be some of the most thoughtful choreography in Bay Area dance, and it was nice to take time to understand her artistic history.

After our brief discussion about real estate, I inquired about her early years in China. Lily: “I started dancing when I was five years old, and I’ll never stop. My life is dance.” Lily goes on to tell me that nobody in her family danced (she was the youngest of five), and her father, who passed away when she was nine years old, wanted her to become a doctor. While he was dying he told her mother, “that little one, she is the smartest, so she should be become a doctor.” She never became a doctor, but “I bring all of that intelligence into the dance. All of that energy comes into the dance.

Reflecting on the course her life has taken as a practicing dancer and choreographer, Lily tells me that despite the difficulties of being a working artist, she’s found over her years of practice that “there is a true balance, if you are really happy doing what you are doing.”

She discovered that happiness in San Francisco—like many of the best American success stories, Lily Cai’s story is an immigrant’s story: “When I immigrated to the United States I had no dancers. I came to this country in 1983. I had no money, I couldn’t speak the language—I had nothing, it was just another world.” However despite these challenges, she laughs as she tells me that “I’m a strong headed woman, and if I think things I make them happen.”

Lily also brought with her many years of training in traditional Chinese dance and a performing career as a principal dancer with the Shanghai Opera House Dance Troupe. As has been the case for dancers from other cultures who eventually called the Bay Area home, Lily found a welcoming stage for her art at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. “I auditioned for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival in 1984,”as a soloist and after that she returned to the Festival numerous times over the following years.

After performing as a soloist, beginning to build a company became a natural decision. “I began working as a teacher’s aide at Galileo High School in San Francisco—they have a lot of kids from Chinatown.” She began teaching dance to students as a PE credit.

Lily divides the dancers in her company into first generation and second generation: “The first generation were basically immigrant kids who had never learned dance be- fore. They came to my dance through the PE classes at Galileo High.” The first girls took it as part of their two-year PE requirement, and some of them chose to stay for another year as a fine arts credit, and then they just kept dancing with Lily after school.

“That generation [of dancers] had no dance background. They couldn’t stay in time with the music and didn’t know their left foot from their right. But that’s how my dance style and technique formed. You can’t get angry with them [for not knowing]. They are so innocent—so wonderful. They are working so hard, but they just don’t know.

“I think of the saying, ‘there’s no bad orchestra, only bad conductors.’ It made me think a lot on how to solve this problem. So I began working with them for one hour during school in PE class and then again every day after school.”

A solo performer dancing with ribbon

Photo by Shawna Sarnowski

It was a challenge for Lily, “Of course, I had to tell them what to do, but after a while they began to understand what I was asking for and how to read my body language, and finally they began to move.” Eventually it got to a point “where they watch a video of themselves and [tell me] ‘Ms. Cai, I don’t see me dancing anymore. That’s you I’m watching.’”

After that group of girls graduated from high school, they continued dancing with Lily, and became the core of the company she toured with throughout the 1990’s, per- forming in more than 30 states.

As Lily established more performance opportunities and a successful touring company, she began to attract a more polished and trained set of dancers. The group of dancers that Lily works with now—what she calls her second generation—are dancers who were mostly born in America and “came to me knowing dance—it was their college major, but of course it was still challenging for them because we have a very unique style, and it still takes them two to three years” to really understand how to move in the “Lily Cai” style of dance.

As we continue talking, Lily pauses to try and describe how her working method has changed over the years. “You work with what you have, so with the first generation I had to teach them, but for the second generation I’ve had to inspire them and combine their passion with my stuff and it comes out as something very unique. I love it.”

Lily’s passion and choreographic intelligence are evident in the fluid, dynamic, stage-filling dances that characterize her work. She is a master of marrying movement with objects, be it ribbons, fans, or parasols, and after years of observing her work, I’ve found that she understands how a proscenium stage can be used to create a furious canvas of dance. It makes me curious to see how she’ll use the space at San Francisco’s City Hall for her performance at the Rotunda Dance Series.

“I just visited [city hall]…they told me a lot of times people sit on the stairway and watch the dances on the marble floor. But they’ll be facing the exits and the people going in and out. So I’m thinking we’ll use the stairway— it’s quite challenging, so I’m thinking we are going to present a completely brand new piece. If I have my stuff moving around and we enlarge our movements it will be nice.”

I concluded our conversation by asking Lily about her working relationship with Situ, and she explains that “I see the visual… it’s like when you write a Chinese character it’s in a square block, and as a writer, you have to decide how to use the space in that block. That kind of design thinking influences me very much. I see the design on the stage in my mind, and then I talk with him (Situ)… sometimes I hear a fluid melody and come to him with it and he shakes his head and says no—that’s easy listening.” She laughs at this and says, “he likes the counterpoint. He likes to mix it up.” Lily also designs the costumes her dancers perform in, “it’s still part of the creation. When I’m designing the costume, I’m re-thinking what I want the dancer to do.”

Their goal for creating the work is to have something that refers back to Chinese culture but makes something new with it: “we are so lucky that we have a foot squarely in Chinese culture and all of the different material that comes from China—there are 56 different minority groups in China and thousands of years of history to draw from. The other foot is my American foot—that foot wants to challenge yourself and do something unique.”

I ask her what it is like to return to China and watch dance there. Lily says that “the aesthetics about beauty are so different there—I watch dance there and it’s ugly and it’s beautiful—like plastic flowers. All the girls do the same thing, same arms; they’re the same skinny. But there’s no dynamic, and when you mix it up [which is what Lily aspires to] you see life. There they want everything to be the same, and this is why I live here. The depth is here.”


WHAT I DO IS MEDICINE: Julia Chigamba and the Healing Power of Dance

Chinyakare dancers moving

Photo by RJ Muna

I WAS WALKING ALONG a street not far from Downtown Oakland, looking for the studio where I was scheduled to meet Zimbabwean dancer and choreographer Julia Chigamba to discuss her work with her dance company, Chinyakare Ensemble for this article. I had missed the address the first time around, and starting back down the street I began to wonder if I had the correct information.

As if to answer my uncertainty, the unmistakable sound of someone plucking a mbira drifted across the cool autumn night. The mbira is an instrument constructed from a small wooden board to which an assortment of harmonized metal prongs has been attached. It is utilized by musicians in a number of African cultures, but is particularly associated with the musical traditions of the Shona people of Zimbabwe. Played with the thumbs, it produces the most beautiful sound. I followed that sweet, multifaceted music into the dance studio, where I spoke with Julia and members of her community.

Julia Tsitsi Chigamba was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and comes from a long lineage of Shona musicians, dancers, and storytellers. From an early age she was enmeshed in a world where dance and music were an integral part of everyday life.

“I watched my mother and my father play music in ceremonies and rituals for other people in the community,” she says, explain-ing that when people were sick or families were having problems, music and dance were used to “call to the ancestors to find out why these things were happening and find the path that would lead to solutions.”

She came to the United States in 1999: first to Portland, Oregon for six months, and then returning permanently in 2000 to settle in Oakland joining the thriving community of both African expatriates and African-Americans who sustain different African dance and music forms. She began working with the group of dancers and musicians who became the Chinyakare Ensemble the following year.

Julia tells me that for the first few years in America she was reluctant to do extensive work with American dancers and was focused on doing solo shows and teaching here and there.” As she began working with American dancers, she began to become comfortable describing the body movement she was looking for in English.

“I grew up speaking Shona, and back home [in Zimbabwe] people made fun of you if you spoke broken English.” Coming to the United States, she was wary of teaching students for these reasons. However, “none of the students laughed at me when I talked, so I didn’t have to worry about that. I gained confidence around my English and my teach-ing from watching students dance and seeing how good they were becoming.”

Julia and two of her students began to perform as an ensemble, with Julia dancing solos, then watching her two students perform from off-stage. “I would watch them and sometimes I’d be in tears, because I’d be watching the girls, but I would be seeing my family.” This almost magical capacity of dance helped convince her that she was on the right path as a Zimbabwean dance choreographer in America: “the dance could make me see someone from home, when I was so far away. And I could make other people see and feel my home,” through her choreography.

In these early performances, Julia and her students would sometimes dance as a trio, and Julia would be overcome by a kind of spiritual ecstasy: “I would just go off and the dance just takes me someplace. These girls somehow knew to stay in step, to stay within the choreography. Then I’d come back from where I was and return to the choreography. They were able to speak that language, and understand that they didn’t have to panic and they could maintain the line.”

It’s appropriate that in the Shona language of Zimbabwe, Chinyakare translates to “we are many, all in the deep tradition of the arts of our ancestors.” The training that Julia has provided those girls and continues to provide to dancers and musicians is about building community. “I wanted to make music and dance for families, for communities, for peo-ple to come together and find out they could solve their problems.” Through the practice of Shona dance and music, these community members can reach back to their ancestors to find solutions to the challenges life presents. “Sometimes the family can’t find the solution on their own,” she explains, “but through the dance and music they can—it lights the eye that helps us to see and opens the ears that helps us to listen.”

Julia tells me, “I never knew it was going to be a full-time job, it was tied to my culture and my family.” For Julia, to be a dancer and to build a life around her cultural form was “the way to live life. It’s for helping people, and sometimes it’s hard for me to understand that I’m doing it as a job.

She continues: “I’m not here to just be here. What I do is medicine—it is a healing thing. I feel that what I’m doing here [in Oakland] is what I saw music and dance being used for at home [in Zimbabwe]. It is to unite the community and bring families together. It can give you peace of mind when you are having a hard time, or when you are sick.”

While I was transcribing the recording of our interview, I realized I only asked Julia two of my planned questions. Most of my questions were follow-ups to her very thorough response to “what made you decide to become a dancer?” and to her responses to my follow-ups. I did get to my second planned question, which was “did you ever want to do anything else?”

After a long pause of reflection, she answered with “no, but sometimes yes. Sometimes I just think that I don’t want to do this anymore, that it is too much.” It is exciting and meaningful work for Julia: “you meet different people, you meet different cultures.” But she explains that there are also the pain-ful realities of life that come out when one is creating art and “with what I do, most of the time I hear about people’s hard times and troubles. And it becomes personal for me. Sometimes it’s too much. It’s intense.”

But when she takes those hard experiences to create art, she explains that “I sing and dance and when I talk about it I feel free, I feel open, I feel happy. Then I ask myself what other things are going to make me happy? Life is not easy, but you have to find a way to have peace of mind, and I’ve found for me that music and dance is what keeps me strong. Dancing is a healing thing and when I hear people say that my dance touches their heart, it makes me feel happy, it makes me feel strong, because that person I helped has become strong.”

Julia Chigamba and members of the Chinyakare Ensemble will kick-off the 2016 Rotunda Dance Series with a performance at San Francisco’s City Hall on February 12, 2016. The performance will begin with a welcoming dance to serve as a call to the ancestors, and continue with a series of performances that will call for healing and celebration.

SUSTAINING THE LINEAGE: Kumu Hula Kawika Alfiche shares the multi-faceted training of a Kumu Hula

Hawaiian dancers, blue background

Photo by RJ Muna








THE 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) represented many things to many people in its time, but one of the most notable outcomes of the festival was that it introduced the Hula dance and music form to the United States. Hawaii became a territory of the United States in 1898, but it was through the Exposition that mainland Americans were able to interact with some of the culture of the islands. This exposure made Hawaiian music incredibly popular, and only a year after the Exposition, Hula music recordings, many featuring the Ukulele, outsold all other styles of music purchased in the United States.

This June, the Rotunda Dance Series continues to celebrate the PPIE’s centennial with performances of both traditional Hawaiian dance and music by Halau o Keikiali’i and Halau ‘o Ku’ulei, two Bay-area based Halaus (Halau roughly translates to “school” or “group”) that are sustaining traditions. Recently I sat down to chat with the Kumu Hula of Halau o Keikiali’i, Kawika Keikiali’ihiwahiwa Alfiche about his background and their performance at the event.

The son of mixed Hawaiian/Filipino parents who both worked for the Airlines, Kawika was born in San Francisco, but grew up with strong Hawaiian connections: “My parents brought us up the way they were brought up…the food, the culture and etiquette, everything was done in the Hawaiian and island traditions.

Kawika Alfiche, in a crown and necklace made of leaves

Photo by RJ Muna

Because his parents worked for the airlines, Kawika was able to easily travel there to spend a great deal of time in Hawai`i where, “all of my cousins, and all of my aunts danced, and the uncles all cooked but none of the men really danced, but it was something I wanted to do.” While his desire to dance was not exactly forbidden, it wasn’t encouraged (“I think my dad would have preferred it if I continued sports”), and Kawika didn’t begin formal Hula training until high school – ”because I could take myself to Hula.”

I used the word ‘professional’ while asking about the decision to devote himself to Hula full time, and Kawika stepped back from the term (“It makes it sound like a job.”). He tells me that in terms of dedicating so much of his life to Hula, that “I didn’t really make a decision. I danced.”

Hawaiian culture developed over a thousand years before it came to the United States, and understanding Hula (even in the very limited way an outsider like me can understand it) means grasping a sense of how the form was cultivated over time, which ultimately requires an appreciation for the role lineage plays in the development and evolution of Hula. One doesn’t learn “Hula,” the exact same way from each teacher—one follows a distinct lineage that is passed from teacher to student over time, and each lineage reflects the style and method of each Kumu Hula (master teacher).

To become Kumu Hula within a lineage, a dancer goes through an “`uniki,” or graduation process with a Kumu Hula whom they have studied under. However, the terms of the training and the `uniki are set by that older Kumu—there’s no formal Hula college, or set curriculum. The knowledge (dance, music, lei making, prayers, chants, etc.), is largely the same, but how it is passed on can be vastly different.

Kawika’s journey is a fascinating example of the complex pathways that a dedicated dancer can take. The first Kumu he trained with was Tiare Maka-Olanolan Clifford, who passed away in 1992. After that fell under the care of Harriet Keahilihau-Spalding. “Aunty Harriet” was from Keaukaha, and two years after mentoring Kawika she had Kawika start his Halau and made Kawika the Kumu Hula or leader.

As Kawika describes it, “I was very young—21. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it—it wasn’t even a thought. I was just doing what I was supposed to do. She said here’s the name of your group, and I’ll mentor you for as long as you feel you need.” The name of the group was, and still is, Halau ‘o Keikiali’ (“School of Keikiali’”— it was named for Kawika), and Kawika is still the Kumu.

I ask him about Keahilihau-Spalding’svision Halau o Keikiali’i, and he tells me that it was (and still is) a vision of the “halau as something that helps and supports the community.”

Part of that vision that was passed down to him meant that Halau o Keikiali’i wouldn’t participate as a contestant in the world of Hula competitions, which for some is the core reason to dance Hula. Kawika tells me that for some people in the Hula world, “there’s a sense that because my halau doesn’t participate in competitions, we must not be as good as other companies.”

But his reason for not participating is very specific: “I saw this cut-throat part of it, where it wasn’t as important to learn what the dance was about as it was to present the dance.” Kawika “would much rather spend my time in a ceremony than on stage in a competition. And there are lots of people willing [to participate in competitions], so there’s no need for me to be a part of that. I support competitions, I play in them, I help my friends who do it, but it’s not my deal.”

But not participating in competitions does not mean he has retreated from the world. He has traveled extensively internationally, sharing hula as a performer and teacher. This has been in large part the result of work he began with his last Kumu Hula: Rae Kahikilaulani Fonseca, a widely respected Kumu who had been a student of George Lanakilakeikiahiali’i Na’ope, one of the most respected Kumu Hula of the 20th century and a founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival, which is the Super Bowl of Hula dance competitions. Kawika trained under him from 1996 until Fonseca passed away in 2010, going through a formal uniki ceremony in 2007. Kawika was one of only six people to attain Kumu status under Fonseca in the 30 years he taught, and was the only one of the six who lived outside of Hawai’i

It was with Fonseca that Kawika also began taking Hula to new places. The national explosion of interest in Hula that began after the 1915 exposition ebbed and flowed throughout the 20th century as a global phenomenon. Kawika points out that “people have been dancing and singing to the songs from the 20s and 30s all around the world. Shirley Temple did it, Elvis did it–it was huge.” Fonseca had discovered that there were groups all over Mexico who were passionate about Hula as a result of this infusion into other cultural forms. Some Mexicans had also traveled to Hawai’i, learned some things and brought it back to Mexico. So Fonseca began traveling around Mexico and teaching his style of Hula.

Kawika began assisting him as part of his own training “[Fonseca] treated everyone he taught there as if they were his own students, and he provided them with foundational training they didn’t have from just studying popular Hawaiian dance,” that they had picked up through media representations or through brief visits to the islands. “You go [to those Mexican communities] today and when you watch them dance it’s all Kahikilaulani (Fonseca’s style of Hula). You can see it in their dances and their movements. They may not even know that, but they’re dancing our style because of the work he did.”

Kawika has continued to work in Mexico and in other parts of the globe. “All of my work is international or on the other side of the nation—New York, Boston, DC. I go to Japan every two months, and to Mexico every three or four months.” He’s planting seeds of Hula in these other locales, but letting the communities cultivate the tradition on their own: “It’s not for me to become their Kumu but to put them on a path so that one day they can find their own Kumu.”

This international expansion of Hula brings up the challenges of Hula as an evolving form. Kawika is pretty clear where he stands on the issue: “It’s 2015 Hula has to evolve, but the challenge is making sure it’s evolved by people who have a strong foundation in the culture and form. There’s lots of people making changes and evolving the dance, but they haven’t gone through a formal process of training.”

Kawika breaks it down for me in more specific detail: “Kaholo [a side-to-side movement] is one of the most basic movements in Hula, and maybe you have a glimpse of what Hula is after doing a Kaholo a million times.” The challenge comes when a new dancer/choreographer “has done a Kaholo 10 times, and then decide they are ready to start incorporating all of these other things into the form—that is a scary thing for me.”

Kawika describes his role and goals as a Kumu to me: “I think we have some
wonderful songs and chants that have been passed on through generations. My job is to completely share those things with my students so they are passed on to future generations, and to make sure they know these dances so well they don’t have to think about it when they do it. And there’s a way to present those dances and make them as interesting as anything else without other elements being added to it.”

As part of his upcoming performance at the Rotunda Dance Series, Kawika and his Halau will focuses on songs of the Ukulele and song from the era that came after the 1915 PPIE. “I grew up dancing to these songs and I hated them (laughs)—they were so corny and felt so kitschy at the time. I want to dance to songs in Hawaiian, I wanted to express myself in Hawaiian songs and words. But it’s a definite bona fide era of Hula. Now, I love playing them and singing these songs.” Before the Ukulele piece, they will open the show with Hula Pahu— ceremonial songs done on the Pahu Hula (shark skin drum).

As is the case with many of the artists I speak to who carry a tradition forward, I ask Kawika about the pressure of sustaining tradition, and he agrees that there is pressure. He shares a Hawaiian word—the Kuleana: “It’s your duty. Some people like to translate that as responsibility, but I like to translate as duty—no choice” But the way he describes Kuleana sounds liberating, and his tone resolutely upbeat, as he concludes “at the same time, I am really, really honored to have been chosen.”

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