Author Archive | Sima Belmar

In Practice: Going Health Nuts

In our usual pre-article email exchange, In Dance editor, Wayne Hazzard wrote to me, “What is healthy these days?”

I have a very personal stake in this question, which made it hard to sit down and write about it. I tried to write about it when I was feeling well—but when I’m feeling well, I don’t want to think about my health. I tried to write about it when I was in the throes of a panic attack because I was convinced I had neck cancer (more on that below)—but it’s challenging to write when you’re lying on the cool tile of your bathroom floor with your legs up the wall, sobbing on the phone to your psychotherapist. I tried to write about it when the air quality in the Bay Area was worse than Delhi and Beijing—but my kids were home because schools were closed and Yahtzee took pre-cedent over writing. I tried to write about it the Monday after Thanksgiving because my deadline was in three days—that worked!

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2016, found out I had the BRCA1 mutation a month or so later, had a double mastectomy in July, and a full hysterectomy plus breast reconstruction in December. Then, in early 2018, I discovered the doctors missed a spot in a single lymph node, so I had surgery again, then four rounds of chemotherapy, and five weeks of radiation. I finished all the treatment in July, spent September in a panic that I would be diagnosed with cancer every two years for the rest of my life (hence the aforementioned neck cancer panic—it took three doctors to convince me that I have, in their words, “a perfectly normal neck!”), and enjoyed the extra hour afforded by Daylight Savings Time wallowing in the realization that I have anger issues and can’t forgive myself for yelling at my kids all the time.

Hard times, my friends, hard times. Add to my personal saga our national politics and global climate change and it would seem perfectly rational to start smoking a daily pack of Winstons again and having liquid lunches (Seabreezes, to be precise) like I did during the summer of 1988 in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. (That was my weight loss plan at the time. Worked like a charm.) But I want to stick around for as long as I can for those kids I yell at all the time so they can complain about me in therapy and then tell me about what a shitty parent I was at Passover seders.

So what does health look like “in practice” for me now? And what does my reflection on that question have to offer our phenomenal dance community?

The hardest part is feeling like I don’t have any control over my health because there are too many variables at play. I know I have some control, and most it has to do with what I do with my body—how and how often I move it, what I feed it, how much I allow my mind to fuck with it. To cultivate the best body-mind relationship I can, I engage in a rather extensive and somewhat unwieldy self-care regimen, which includes:

Feldenkrais with Mary Armentrout; dance classes with Randee Paufve, Nina Haft, Mo Miner, Melecio Estrella, and Joan Lazarus; Iyengar Yoga with Anneke Faas; lymphatic massage and somatic experiencing with Ama Dawn Greenrose; acupuncture with Carla Cassler; Jungian psychotherapy with (not telling! I’ll share body workers but not my shrink); nutritional advice from newly minted nutritionist Vika Teicher; no screens past 8pm, lights out at 10pm (this is more aspirational than actual); consumption of half my body weight in water every day (also aspirational—I hate having to pee all the time); mindfulness meditation (I don’t always manage even five minutes a day, but I believe “meditation on the spot” as Pema Chödrön calls it, counts); listening to Tara Brach podcasts; clean eating (I started a 30-day clean eating challenge, the 30-Clean, in late September, and haven’t gone back to any of my old habits…yet; I could write a whole piece on the stress of trying to figure out how to eat—what’s an omnivore to do? Right, ask Michael Pollan). I’ve got calls out to a Reiki practitioner and a Jin Shin Jyutsu master. I dabble in Qi Gong (I love your DVD, Margit Galanter!). I get occasional chiro/ART tune-ups from Bruce Rizzo and Rob Pape, plus PT with Wendy Clark at Kaiser Oakland. And of course, as much time as possible with beloved friends and family, indulging in intellectual inquiry, creative practice, commiseration, and The Great British Baking Show.

How do I afford all this? I do a lot of bartering, for one thing. And it’s not like these things are weekly or even monthly in some cases. I mainly try to make room for at least one of the above body-mind modalities per day. Also, though precarious, I’m privileged to have three jobs that allow for a flexible schedule to accommodate these psychophysical adventures.

Folks give Descartes a really hard time for initiating the mind-body split, but I think we’re too hard on the guy. I certainly know that my mind and my body are deeply connected but I also often feel like they are two separate entities vying for my attention. I was not raised to listen to my body, so my mind does a lot of the heavy lifting for me, often to ill effect. So I need all those body-centric activities to give my guts and fascia an opportunity to tell me what to do.

If I’ve learned anything about health, it’s that trusting in one’s health is fundamental to feeling healthy, and that enjoying oneself as much as possible is good for your organs. I remember yogi Rodney Yee telling a smoker who was feeling bad about smoking that if he’s going to smoke he might as well do so with pleasure: deep inhale, long slow exhale—the yoga of nicotine addiction. It’s also a great idea to see beauty and humor wherever you can. Sounds Pollyanna-ish, but for a gal who grew up with whatever the opposite of Pollyanna is (Yenta?), it works wonders. For example, having gummy bears that are anchored under my pectoral muscles in place of breasts that used to hang so low it took an acrobatic feat of drop-and-scoop to get them into a bra, means doing grand allegro braless—plus, I can now wear plunging necklines and backless dresses. Having no reproductive organs means no menstrual cycle and thus no fear of pregnancy (I know, I was pretty much out of the woods before my hysterectomy, but not totally out!). Other perks: my hair has grown back curly post-chemo and I have an asymmetrical tan across the right side of my chest that makes me look like I sunbathed half topless.

My health woes have taught me a lot about gratitude, though it’s still hard to feel it sometimes. (Thus the gratitude accountability email exchange I have with a friend.) They’ve showed me who’s in my corner. Above all, they’ve made me painfully, joyfully conscious of the fact that we’re all born into a death sentence. And what better way to partner with death than to dance.

Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her scholarly articles and book reviews have appeared in TDR, the Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices, Performance Matters, Contemporary Theatre Review, and The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies.

In Practice: Dancing Around Race with Gerald Casel

On September 20 of this year, approximately fifty Bay Area dance folks gathered for a Long Table discussion at Humanist Hall in Oakland as part of Hope Mohr Dance’s Bridge Project 2018 Community Engagement Residency, Dancing Around Race. The conversation was the first of three public gatherings organized by the residency’s Lead Artist, Gerald Casel, and featured Aruna D’Souza, art historian and author of Whitewalling: Art, Race & Protest in Three Acts. D’Souza is a brilliant thinker who spoke eloquently about racial inequity in the visual art world, and the Long Table format afforded participants the space and language to discuss the question of racial equity in Bay Area dance. But in a room full of choreographers, dancers, dance administrators, dance presenters, and dance writers, we somehow managed to dance around the subject—not of race, but of dance.

Maybe it was because the invited interlocutor came from the visual art world and not the dance world. I’ve long thought that 20th century Western concert dance discourse struck a devil’s bargain by positioning itself first within discourses of visual art (e.g. the Clement Greenberg club), and then within the conceptual frameworks of literary theory (beginning with Susan Foster’s Reading Dancing), to legitimize and make itself legible to a broader public. Although many writers work to find language to describe “the different ways dance does what it does” (as dance scholar Jacqueline Shea-Murphy, author of The People Have Never Stopped Dancing, put it at the gathering), when it comes to talking about what dance artists do that constitutes expert knowledge, I’ve often found a strange reticence.

For example, when Judith Butler was invited to speak about gender and performativity at the July 18, 2013 Dance Discourse Project, I asked a question about what dance as a practice may offer as a way to explore or understand the very concept of gender performativity, given that both take embodied behavior as their matter. I remember the moderator, Julie Phelps, dismissing my question as somehow reifying of dance as a movement practice wholly unlike the everyday embodied practices that Butler had been discussing. Didn’t I know that it was woefully unhip to talk about dance as an art form with unique characteristics? How awfully modernist of me! Had I not read my French theory?

But that was not my point. I don’t regard Capital D-dance as a monolith. My question had to do with what people who devote their lives to dancing, making dances, supporting dance, and even viewing dance have to teach the rest of the world. The guiding questions for the Dancing Around Race conversation were: What obstacles get in the way of racial equity in the Bay Area dance community? What does it look/feel like to have racial equity in dance? What does the future look like? How do we get there?—all great questions. But I wanted to ask, How might dance practices, in their medium-specificity and cultural context, help us address practical questions of how to cultivate racial equity? And what are dance’s blind spots to racial equity? It seems to me that any analysis of how the Bay Area dance community (or dance communities, as choreographer Byb Chanel Bibene rightly pointed out) can improve racial equity requires a deep acknowledgement and investigation of the methodologies and discourses that are grounded in their disciplinary expertise.

To be fair, there were efforts to turn the conversation towards specific dance-related issues. There was a question about decolonizing dance training, to which David Herrera, one of the members of the Dancing Around Race artist cohort, said, “It’s about getting rid of stuff in our bodies passed down by teachers and mentors.” Hope Mohr asked about how we determine criteria for good art, which launched a discussion about mastery and virtuosity. Yayoi Kambara, another member of the cohort, said we need to ask ourselves how we value what is good, beautiful, or true. Jess Curtis takes a performance studies approach, asking what a dance does, “Who does it change?” And Jacqueline Shea-Murphy pointed out that terms like mastery, virtuosity, innovation are inscribed in a system, and that the modes of doing things, like gathering energy, “can’t be sensed until you’ve been with them a long time…a different kind of sensing means the terms may not be the terms.”

I didn’t ask my questions at the gathering, but I did ask them when I got together with Gerald Casel a week after. We talked about the conversation and about the work he showed at ODC Theater in June, the premiere of Cover Your Mouth When You Smile, and a preview of Not About Race Dance. I wanted to know why he had said at the gathering that Not About Race Dance failed to reveal whiteness through structures as he had hoped it would. I wanted to know how he mobilized Homi Bhabha’s concept of colonial mimicry practically in the creation of the dance. Gerald was unflinchingly honest, forthright, humble, thoughtful—another magical conversation with another magical Bay Area dance artist.


Sima Belmar: Dancing Around Race did a great job talking about race and art/culture more broadly, but the dance expertise in the room wasn’t tapped. Aruna talked about visual arts, and institutionally, there are some similarities. But even with postmodern dance inhabiting the white spaces of the museum more and more these days, the visual art, museum model of reflection feels lacking. When we go to an art exhibit we’re not watching the artist’s labor in real time. The body of the artist is simply not on display in the same way the dancing body is. The artist alone in her atelier is simply not the usual structure of rehearsal. The way the artist feels making sculpture or painting is simply not the stuff of art history. (Though it should be.) Dance is a discipline, an interdisciplinary discipline to be sure, but a discipline nonetheless. And its workers know things that other kinds of cultural workers do not know. Why are we so loathe to share our expertise?

Gerald Casel: I noticed that there were very few dancers there, like maybe a handful, maybe five. There were choreographer-dancers, but just dancers? The people who take class? I didn’t see very many. To me that was an indication of something. Maybe we need to reach out more to that specific person and make sure that we’re talking to them and they’re totally part of this conversation. I agree that we really didn’t go into the weeds. I feel like there was a hesitation on the part of folks. Since I started working on Not About Race Dance, I’ve felt this huge reticence, people holding back, even my closest dance allies and colleagues in the studio.

SB: What did the experience of reticence look like?
GC: When I started that piece there were four white women and me. And there was certainly kinetic hesitation present in the room; there was white fragility. I asked the dancers to write about instances in which they felt racialized. They either withdrew from the process and were totally silent, or it snuck out in small increments. Or they talked about it in other people’s experience, as an observer of racialization.

One of the missions of the project is to mark whiteness, to make it visible. Neil Greenberg’s Not About AIDS Dance (1994) was highly celebrated. It was an all white cast. And that was the same year as Bill T. Jones’ Still/Here, which was massacred by [critic] Arlene Croce. It was mostly black and POC, different shapes and sizes. There felt to be a total discrepancy. I was there [dancing with Stephen Petronio] in 1994 and actually saw both premieres. I wasn’t really conscious of the racial politics and so part of Not About Race Dance is trying to acknowledge the racial politics of that time and to see how it’s become a persistent legacy.

SB: But at the public gathering you said were unhappy with how Not About Race Dance turned out. Why do you feel that way?
GC: I wanted more tension. And every time I asked for it, it felt forced. There was all this tension in the rehearsal room but also all this avoidance, which is what maybe happened on stage. Also, trying to harness the ideas and themes in the writing and put them into a compositional form was really hard. I would generate material, they would generate material, and after Splinters in Our Ankles [the first of the trilogy that includes Cover Your Mouth and Not About Race Dance] choreography felt like a colonizing force because I’m always teaching them and they’re learning from me; I kept making movement for them to follow. So for a long time I didn’t dance I just gave the dancers instructions. I wanted something different, a little bit more of me dancing, writing together, developing scores or improvisational ideas. But because of the nature of what we’re talking about, it didn’t feel organic or flowing as I’d imagined it would be.

SB: We talked about dance legacies inscribed in the body at the public gathering. What dance legacies are inscribed in yours?
GC: I started as a hip hop/jazz baby in Oakland/San Jose. I had such a classical compositional training at Juilliard, with Doris Rudko who assisted Louis Horst. When I left Juilliard I didn’t want any of that, I wanted to practice “release” techniques. I met Ralph Lemon and did his Folk Dances for my senior jury, which was really a departure. But I felt at home in that material. That’s when I met Michael Clark and Stephen Petronio. I would say I borrowed a lot of tools from Stephen borrowing from Trisha [Brown]. That lineage is very clear. I’ve written about it, processed it a lot. Some days I want to shake it out and have nothing to do with it, and some days it just feels like it’s so deep I can’t undo it. And that’s fine.

Juilliard was richly diverse, at least my class. Not the teachers—they were mostly white (except for Indrani – who was my Bharatanatyam teacher, and Carolyn Adams, who taught Paul Taylor’s technique). Over time, I started to be a little more aware of who was the population that follows the post-Judson, Stephen, Trisha lineage. And I realized that I was picking up someone else’s history—even though it was in my body it didn’t reflect me. So when I moved back to the Bay Area, I felt, this is where I felt things shift.. But I still notice that the choreographic tools that I’m seeing on stage in the Bay Area still look the same. I can’t do that—I have to figure out what am I resisting, what am I highlighting, and what I feel encumbered by. I look around at positions of power in dance organizations, studios, companies, artistic directors, boards of directors, and they are mostly white people in the Bay Area. If I’m looking at my own history, not just my dance history but my ancestry [Casel came to the US from the Philippines in 1978], it doesn’t have anything to do with the reality that I’m seeing so why am I assimilating into a culture that I don’t want to reflect back, to define me?

SB: So an immanent critique of dance training and a confrontation with racial politics in the US drive your creative process these days. What sort of relationship between the two do you see in the Bay Area?
GC: At ODC, for example, as an immigrant I find the title “Global Dance Passport” series to describe their “non-Western” classes troubling. Especially in the Mission with many displaced residents and Latinx folks, it seems insensitive to assume that through dance we can freely “travel.” Also, I counted all the contemporary and modern dance classes in SF and out of 46, 44 were taught by white women. That was a year ago. But those numbers don’t lie. CounterPulse appears to be doing indigenous performances and honoring the neighborhood, and yet all of their leadership is white. It’s so clear, after watching the Kavanaugh hearings, that the top has to change, we have to shake up leadership in this country from the bottom up, all the way up.

SB: What do you think are the Bay Area dance community’s blind spots to racial equity?
GC: We have to first acknowledge that there is inequity. For example, I was on the CA$H grant panel and noticed that some people have had more access to education than others. Some choreographers are better writers than others, it’s a fact that we can see, but we’re evaluating them on their writing. We have to acknowledge that, and the CA$H grantors already do. There are a lot of workshops, webinars, that people don’t take advantage of, in part because we don’t disseminate the information well. Maybe we can do better.

Also, white choreographers need to move back and make space. If you don’t see your privilege or your access, because you’re taking up that space or position, then someone else is unable to occupy it. I’m also asking everyone to write a statement of equity. Like residency programs: what are you doing to make the field more equitable, what are you not doing? A local residency program called me to ask how they can better serve their constituents. I said, “Have you looked at your Board of Directors? 26 of them are white.” And she was like, “No I didn’t know that.” So look at the leadership, at the board. What do you mean when you say “diversity program”? When I point it out to people they instantly recoil. You should look, immanent critique, take a look.

Finally, choreographers and dancers need to be in conversation with thinkers and writers more, in the same space more, not just virtual reading space but in rooms together. Dance writers can build bridges for audiences who come to dance performances and feel like they don’t get it—that anxiety is real. Dance writers can say, calm down, you don’t have to get it, whatever your experiencing, that’s all you get.

In Practice: Patrick Makuakane’s Hula in Unusual Places

The last time I interviewed Patrick Makuakane, Artistic Director of Na Lei Hulu I Ka Wekiu, his company had just received a Special Award from the Izzies Committee for The World According to Hula. When he introduced the company, the emcee made a cringe-worthy Hollywood hula gesture, you know the one—Lucille Ball does it in Dance Girl, Dance (1940), Debbie Reynolds does it in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the Minions do it in Despicable Me 3 (2017). Makuakane graciously accepted the award and gracefully admonished the emcee for promoting the very stereotypes he has long sought to dispel.

A hula dance company with arms raised to the sky.

photo by Ron Worobec

This was in 1999. Today, Makuakane is happy to report that hula is living its hashtag moment, at least in the Bay Area; folks have awakened to the cultural realities of hula as an art form, cultural practice, and way of life. This month, Makuakane and company present I Mua: Hula in Unusual Places at the Palace of Fine Arts. Right away the subtitle got me thinking about what constitutes an unusual place for hula, and the only thing that came to mind was “not Hawai’i.” I assumed that the moment hula hits the mainland it becomes unusual.

Makuakane explains that San Francisco both is and isn’t an unusual place for hula. Hawaiian music and dance were featured at the Panama Pacific International Exposition at the 1915 World’s Fair at the Palace of Fine Arts, where the company has its home season, and Hawai’i Pavilion headliner Lena Machado and her group were voted audience favorites at the 1939 and 1940 World’s Fairs on Treasure Island: “So there has been a longstanding appreciation for Hawaiian music and a relationship between California and Hawai’i, in part because of the proximity. Hawaiians move here more readily than anywhere else, making it easier for us to do our cultural work here.” Still, Makuakane concedes, “considering its traditional origins, this is a strange place to be doing hula. I guess because I’ve been doing it for thirty-something years over here it doesn’t feel strange anymore.”

What did feel strange was when Makuakane brought 10 members of his company to Burning Man for the first time three years ago. Indeed, images of the company dancing in a haze of gray playa dust contrasts sharply with visions of blue waves and lush green. But the burners embraced the hula dancers: “I can’t tell you how blown away I was by the inventiveness, the subversiveness, the acceptance, the radical expression of self, and the loving embracing community—it reminded me of our community, very welcoming.” The ubiquity of electronic music at Burning Man also inspired Makuakane: “I’ve been fusing electronic music with my dance for a while now. I put everything I had in my arsenal—electronic music, traditional chants—and people loved it.” When we spoke this past August, Makuakane was about to bring his whole company to Burning Man, an unusual place turned desert home for hula.

I Mua: Hula in Unusual Places is a proscenium performance that draws its spirit from Makuakane’s Hit & Run Hula, a series of hula flash mobs that have taken place all over San Francisco, in New York City (Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge), and, one time, on a Hawaiian Airlines flight from San Francisco to Hawai’i. Makuak?ne loves the way these performances work the element of surprise in two directions—audiences don’t see it coming and the dancers don’t know how they’re going to be received: “When Hawaiian Air hired twenty of us to dance on the plane to inaugurate a new flight out of San Francisco, they played one of oursignature pieces, I Left My Heart in San Francisco. One by one the women got up to dance in the aisles from first class all the way down to the back. I remember looking back and seeing this one gentleman very annoyed because he was trying to open the overhead bin to get his bag and there was this hula dancer in front of him. He was waiting for her to go back so he could jump up and remove his bag. For me that just made it. That was perfect. Not everyone was like, Oh, wasn’t that pretty. This guy was like, You’re in my way, I need to get my bag. Life is happening as it moves.”

Makuakane never gets permits to perform Hit & Run Hula and he has learned how long it takes on average for law enforcement to show up: “These pieces are a minute to a minute and a half long. Several times we’ve just finished a piece and some security person will come up and say, Hey, you can’t do that here although it’s really nice. And I just turn around and say, I’m really sorry, thank you, we’ll be on our way. But my piece is finished already!”

Makuakane calls his style of hula, hula mua, which he defines as “the kind of hula that moves forward.” The upcoming performance is titled I Mua, a common term in Hawai’i that means “move ahead,” among several related meanings like

“straight ahead” and “let’s do it!” Makuakane says he titled the show “in a very Hawaiian way. That is, you never really refer to something directly but obliquely. Especially in mele or Hawaiian music, or poetry, the mele that accompanies the dance often speaks in metaphors and hidden messages. The power of deduction is what’s interesting.” I wondered aloud whether modernist dance forms have suffered from the autonomizing gesture that dislocated movement from other forms of expression, severing the ties to verbal speech in ways that prevents audiences from using that power of deduction to make sense of and thereby more deeply enjoy the work. “I definitely engage in that conundrum myself,” Makuakane said, “because hula is a dance form that we dance to Hawaiian language and 99.99% of my audience doesn’t know what the dances are about. So in my shows I incorporate narration in a way that gives the audience a little hint but doesn’t overwhelm them.”

A hula company seemingly hugging each other.

photo by Ron Worobec

Makuakane’s concept of an unusual place encompasses the geographic, the auditory, and the corporeal. Hula mua challenges essentialist theories that certain dances belong on certain bodies to certain music in certain places.

One of Makuakane’s most cherished sites for teaching hula is San Quentin State Prison: “I teach in the chapel area. It’s not a hula class, it’s a Hawaiian spiritual group meeting, a service, under the auspices of the Religious Freedom Act. I went to (Catholic) church throughout grade school and high school, and never felt any connection. Then I started hula and realized this thing I’m feeling, this connection out of self to the world, I think this is what I’m supposed to be feeling at church. In some ways I can see that in the guys when they’re in class. There’s this connection with community, arms and hands moving in space accompanied by some kind of chant or music. It’s a time when I see their walls come own, and they’re vulnerable and open, and always very respectful. It just goes to show not only the power of dance—I hate that phrase, it’s more than that. It’s community, it’s acceptance, it’s acknowledgement, all of that plays into a successful community and then you add dance to it and, wow, how could you not be inspired and interested in that.”

When Makuakane was growing up on Oahu in the 1960s, native Hawaiian culture was very much on the periphery of his family and community events. But in the 1970s, a Hawaiian cultural renaissance invited people to ask questions about their identity as native Hawaiians. According to Makuakane, many moved into the fields of music and dance to find answers to those questions: “I found all those answers in hula. Dance is what saved our culture and language in the 70s. Now we’re in the midst of another renaissance of knowledge, people going back to study traditional applications and methods, dancing, canoeing, farming, wayfaring, sending their kids to Hawaiian language immersion schools. I’m amazed.” And since all identities are intersectional identities, hula offered Makuakane a way to embrace his ethnicity, spirituality, and sexuality: “In high school, when I told my mother and sister that I was going to be a hula teacher, they were like, ‘Oh, so you are gay!’” They didn’t really say that. But when Makuakane brought that conversation up 25 years later after earning the right to be a kumu hula, he asked his sister and mother, “Do you remember that conversation? Yes. And did you think that? Yes.” Makuakane had a good laugh over that one.

Stereotypical assumptions aside, Makuakane did find hula to be a place where he felt safe being himself: “My main teacher was gay, not out or anything, but a flamboyant guy being himself; he didn’t look like he was hiding anything. And he was the leader of all these young guys who were football players, big macho guys, learning to dance by moving their hips. And I was like, Where’s that magic wand at?” As hula began having its renaissance in the 1970s, more and more boys and men were drawn to the form as a way to express their native identity: “It was becoming more acceptable. You were still called a fag, and some groups were deemed more faggy than others. My group was one of the faggier groups.” This sparked a movement to develop a hypermasculine style of dance, “almost as if a way to let people know [grunts], we’re not gay.” Though this style may be traced to lua, Hawaiian martial arts, which “traditionally speaking, have a close relationship with hula, in the oldest archival footage of people dancing hula it’s very soft and flowing.”

Makuakane hadn’t planned to stay in San Francisco when he moved here to be with his partner in 1983. After three months, he’d found home. “I couldn’t do a show in Hawai’i called Hula in Unusual Places. Here I can. I am going to take the show back to Hawai’i next year, but it was important for me to plant the seeds in San Francisco. The gay scene, the modern dance scene, this unique experiment with life.” Makuakane’s whole career has emphasized the fact that dances are connectedto places and people, and, at the same time, are roomy enough to include and engage other places, other people: “Here I am doing hula outside of the mothership, and I feel like I’m set free.”

In Practice: Mahealani Uchiyama

This month the Mahea Uchiyama Center for International Dance celebrates its 25th anniversary. And although no institution, especially an arts institution, makes it to 25 years without the toil and TLC of scores of individuals, the Center owes its energy and longevity to the passionate expertise of founder, artistic director, and kumu hula (master hula teacher) Mahealani Uchiyama.

Uchiyama was born in Washington DC. She arrived in the Bay Area by way of Honolulu in 1982, with an undergraduate degree in Dance Ethnology[1] and a master’s degree in Pacific Islands Studies from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. In 1993, after teaching hula at Chabot College in Hayward, Laney College in Oakland, and at private dance studios she rented throughout the East Bay, she established her dance center on Heinz Avenue in Berkeley and founded her current performing company, Halau Ka Ua Tuahine. In addition to Hawaiian and Tahitian dance, the school has brought together instructors of the dance and music of Bali, the Middle East, India, China, Congo, Central Asia, Zimbabwe, Senegal, to name a few. This month’s anniversary gala and performance will reflect that diversity.

Uchiyama explains that the Center is a place where “non-Western forms can be explored regardless of an individual’s background and ethnicity, as long as they are willing to do so in a spirit of profound respect. This is the place for all of us, a place to feel at home exploring spiritual and artistic connections.” The theme of finding home—in a geographic place, a body, a dance form—recurs throughout our interview.

Uchiyama had just completed her first season as co-director (with Patrick Makuakane and Latanya Tigner) of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, and was taking a breath before launching preparations for the anniversary performance when we spoke in her Oakland home on July 26.

Sima Belmar: How did an African American woman born in DC at the height of the Civil Rights Movement become a kumu hula?

Mahea Uchiyama: My mom, who had grown up in the Jim Crow South and migrated north, was determined to provide access to all the things that she had wished for as a little girl but couldn’t have. She enrolled me in the Bernice Hammond School of Dance, a black owned business and the only dance school in the District of Columbia that would accept black children. I was there for nine years, from the age of two and a half until I was almost 11, at which point I was old enough to notice that I was not seeing any ballerinas who looked like me in terms of height (I was already 5’11) and race. Even so, with everything that was going on in the world at that time, dance made it possible for me to feel some sense of self-worth and hope. I knew that I didn’t want to give up dancing but if I kept doing that style of dance there wouldn’t have been any future for me that I could see.

My mom also got me into one of the very few if not the only elementary school in DC that was integrated. I was the only black child, but I was there with children of ambassadors and children of the housekeepers of those ambassadors, so there were kids from all over the world. From the 5th grade on my sense of the world expanded dramatically compared to what it would have been had I continued to only experience life within my own neighborhood. So all of this started me thinking: Why do people move the way they move? I was fascinated with different people’s ways of expressing themselves through movement. I also loved being exposed to different languages, music, and food.

SB: So early on you developed an embodied ethnographic sensibility.

MU: Yes, which led me to be interested in different histories and geographies. Why do we have all these different, fascinating, beautiful ways of saying the same things? So that led me to dance ethnology. There were two programs I was aware of, one at UCLA and the other at the University of Hawai’i.

SB: Why did you choose to move 6000 rather than 3000 miles from home? How did your family feel about that?

MU: I really wanted to study hula in Hawai’i. I had started taking hula lessons at the age of 13. In DC, each state had their own State Society, where families of people who served in the government got together to promote what’s unique and wonderful about their state.[2] My mom contacted the Hawai’i State Society and they put us in touch with people who taught hula and Tahitian dance. I got really fascinated by it.

SB: What did you find when you got to Hawai’i?

MU: It was a mixed bag. It’s incredibly beautiful, and I did find a lot of wonderful friends and a whole different sensibility of how to be in the world. I also found a lot of people, outside the university context, who made it clear that they did not have a very high regard for African-American people. I was not in the military, or on the basketball or volley ball team, so some people just couldn’t grasp that I was there as a regular student. I was there really by myself, no family, and no discernible black community in Honolulu at that time. I felt very alone, but I was also determined to graduate before I left.

SB: What made you leave?

MU: The whole reason I went to Hawai’i was that I wanted to dance hula, and I wanted to explore different ways of being in the world through movement. In addition to hula, and as part of my degree requirements as a Dance Ethno student, I took classes in everything that department offered in those years—Filipino, Okinawan, Korean, Javanese, Mohiniyattam. Additional experiences included playing in the university’s Javanese gamelan, and receiving instruction in South Indian classical singing.

When I first moved to Hawai’i as a naïve and innocent young woman, I just wanted to dance and to be a part of that place. Over time it became clear that there were certain things that at least at that time, were not likely to be possible for me to achieve in terms of finding a sense of “home”. In addition, as both my husband and I were teachers, it felt very unlikely that we would ever be able to buy a home there.

SB: At least you got to the Bay Area in time to do that.

MU: Barely!

SB: What did you find when you arrived in the Bay Area?

MU: When I first came here I was amazed at how big and active the Polynesian dance community was (and still is).

SB: Was it easier to integrate with the Polynesian community in exile? How were you received by that community?

MU: In those years, many people were very welcoming. However, there were also those who were like, “what are you doing speaking Hawaiian?” There were some who couldn’t get past the misconceptions of what they thought my phenotype represented. Fortunately, when I arrived a friend introduced me to Uncle Joseph Kaha’ulelio, a renowned kumu hula who was teaching in Hayward. I studied intensely with him for several years, and danced in competitions and events all over the Bay Area. I found complete acceptance with him, something I ever had never experienced in full before.

SB: Describe your process of creating hula performance works.

MU: I’ve always tried to adhere to the traditional expression and to honor it. As a kumu, one of my jobs is to innovate and create in ways that honor and draw from a wellspring that was passed on to me by my kumu. Walking that fine line has always been the challenge. It is vital to fully understand every aspect of what we are doing as a teacher of this tradition, (the music, the narrative, the regalia, and of course the movement sequences) and simultaneously to create something that’s beautiful and consistent with tradition, yet something unique that hasn’t been seen before.

First and foremost in preparing a hula is the narrative. Hula is a logogenic art form. So, in the absence of a poem or a prayer, there’s no hula. Dancers have to be trained so that the movement becomes a part of their DNA in order to make it possible to express this narrative through their body. A kumu must have a clear understanding of how to clothe the dancers, because every single item worn, its color, design and materials has to be in accordance with and expressive of the meaning of the dance that is being presented at the time. Even how a dancer wears their hair must be attended to in detail, as must how much make-up they’re wearing, if any, what kind of lei they wear, how the lei are made, and how the component parts of the lei are collected. Hula is a lifestyle, it’s not just something one does in the studio. When we’re in Hawai’i, getting ready to create our regalia for our ceremonies, we ask permission before we enter a forest and again when we approach the item that we want to gather. We only take what is needed. While crafting the lei, it is important to focus on positive intention, as what is on your mind can go into what you are creating. Once we are done with the ceremony or the performance, the lei is respectfully returned to nature. This is our way. This is how we try to work with our students so that they understand how they relate to the world around them. The point is understanding who you are in relation to your community, and that community is understood to be not just your people but the plants and the air and the mountains. The performance aspect is the outward expression of this training, but it is not the most important thing.

SB: Your center is home to so many different cultural forms, and you studied multiple forms in college. What has it meant to your embodied identity to have been inside these different forms?

MU: When I first came to Oakland, I noticed that there was a huge tradition of African based forms, and I got very interested in learning them. For a number of years I danced with the Orinoco Caribbean Dancers and Drummers. We performed the regional dances of the Caribbean. In those years I also started learning Middle Eastern dance. In the 1990s, the late Pandit Chitresh Das started teaching at my studio, and I had the extreme good fortune to study with him as well. I love movement, I love to see and feel what it is to really immerse myself in different ways of being and I also think it’s really healthy for my teaching to be reminded how it feels to be a beginning student.

Each form meant different things to me. When I was doing the regional Caribbean dances, for example, it felt like a bit of a homecoming because for the first time in my life, I sensed that everyone within a particular dance community considered my body type acceptable for a form that I loved. I had walked into a situation where I was celebrated and recognized for those very features that in my youth and naivete I had grown to feel badly about. That’s a lot of what I got from that experience, that grounding, and that understanding that there are different ways of seeing.

SB: Given that experience of homecoming in the Caribbean forms, and that sense of alienation from at least the social context of hula, what kept you going in hula?

MU: Hula was always been my core and it remains my core. I love the form. There was a spiritual connection that made sense to me. My heart was telling me that this is a beautiful dance form and I just followed that. At the same time, I began to understand that when you’ve had something taken from you, or almost taken from you, you get very possessive about what you have of it left. So, I get why some Hawaiians are quick to express caution toward people of other backgrounds who say they want to explore (but also possibly appropriate and exploit) that which is sacred to them. Encountering that attitude before I had developed an understanding of it was very rough and painful for me, but I get it now. Certainly we too, as black people, have had much taken from us.

SB: So your own history plus the knowledge you gained of Hawaiian history gave you a compassionate perspective on those that might have made you feel like you don’t belong. And it seems this made it possible for you to have felt a sense of homecoming in the Caribbean forms without it having to mean you had to live there. Your story inspires trust in the body’s intuitive sense of home, one that may or may not correspond to one’s geographic, cultural, ethnic, or social origins. What do you hope your work can do to intervene into those nefarious global efforts to confine individuals to a narrow sense of home based on nationalist and racist borders?

MU: It is more urgent than ever that we find ways to recognize each other’s humanity. Dance and music are good ways to start to get a sense of a people. What I see as my contribution is to help us as a community to get to know each other, and to be willing to see ourselves in each other.

SB: How specifically does hula help us recognize each other’s humanity?

MU: Hula is a reminder that we are part of something big, and a spiritual recognition of our place in the world. The extent to which our environment is healthy is the extent to which we ourselves are healthy. Hula gives us this awareness, and it helps us to see ourselves in each other, in the trees, and in the ocean. Spirit is everywhere and we are a part of that. The realization that we are connected to each other and to everything in the environment leads to a greater sense of the importance of caring for each other and for the world.

In June we participated in the 5th World Conference on Hawaiian Hula, Ka ‘Aha Hula ‘O Halauaola. This event began 17 years ago and was created by three wise and powerful kumu hula who realized that people were dancing hula all over the world without necessarily understanding the full depth and meaning of the tradition. The event occurred every four years, each time on a different island. As each island hosted the conference, there would be a hula ceremony for which we would learn ceremonial dances that related to the place. The first conference was on Hawai’i Island. We went from there to Maui, to Oahu, to Kaua’i, and then finally, back to Hilo on Hawai’i Island.

Much of the hula tradition is based on the epic story of the volcano Goddess Pele and her siblings, particularly her youngest sister Hi’iakaikapoliopele, who was sent on a journey from the Hawai’i Island to Kaua’i to find Pele’s dream lover and bring him back to Pele. She had many obstacles along the way, and it took time for her to complete her journey. However, overcoming the various challenges on each island, Hi’iaka became aware of who she was as a healer, as a priestess, and as a goddess. She returned in full realization of who she is.

Those of us who participated in each of the conferences over the years essentially traced the same path as did Hi’iaka. The dances that we were given to learn for the recent ceremony spoke of all those events, including the eruption and destruction of Hi’iaka’s sacred garden. As hula practitioners from all over the world were working on the ceremonial dances, the latest eruption occurred with fissures opening up throughout an area known traditionally as Keahialaka. (The name translates to the fire of Laka, the hula Goddess. This is an area known in ancient times as the site of frequent volcanic activity.) In the 1960s, this area was renamed as Leilani Estates. Just as Hi’iaka, after her circuit, arrived back to this eruption, so did all of us.

Pele is about giving birth. Pele’s womb is the earth and from it she creates new land. Hi’iaka follows her, and brings new life to this gift of new land. Such metaphors and archetypes from Hawaiian spirituality explain a lot of what we experience in the environment. If one is sensitive and open, the hula can reveal quite a bit about what to expect and how to respond.

[1] There is currently one dance ethnology course offered at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, according to the 2018-19 course catalog. The dance department’s current foci include choreography, kinesiology, movement analysis, heritage, globalization, technology, ethnography, education, corporeality, visual media, and embodiment, with a unique focus on Asian and Pacific dance.

[2] The National Conference of State Societies (NCSS) began as informal gatherings of State society officers in the 1930s and is currently best known for its annual National Cherry Blossom Festival. Uchiyama had her first introduction to hula at a Hawai’i State Society of Washington DC event.

In Practice: Book Review: Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by Joanna Dee Das

The first time I met dance historian Joanna Dee Das was either at an event she curated when she was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies at Stanford or in a dance class at Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Das is a dance scholar and a dancer. Her academic credentials hail from Columbia University and NYU, and her dance pedigree traces back to classes in the Dunham technique beginning at age 12. She is currently Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis and is certified in the Dunham technique. This is all to say that readers of Das’ book, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press 2017), can trust that Dunham’s story is told from a multimodal, deeply personal, massively archival, and blessedly embodied point of view. Das offers a balanced and loving account of a complex person living and dancing across complex times (nearly a century, 1909-2006). She presents Dunham’s history as a deft and daring navigation of a uniquely American tangle of racial, gender, and class norms.

Das is trained as an historian so the book, though academic, is not laden with impenetrable theory. The concept of diaspora, more specifically, “a politics of diaspora” (2), is Das’ theoretical, historical, and analytical framework as performed, taught, and lived by Dunham. Das writes, “While many theorists have invoked long-standing, historical, or even blood-memory cultural connections to Africa as the foundation for diaspora, a politics of diaspora also involves the conscious refashioning of existing cultural forms and even the creation of new ones” (3). In other words, the concept of a politics of diaspora allows us to witness how Dunham negotiated the suffocating binaries of her era—high/low, traditional/contemporary, popular/artistic, authentic/theatrical, pure/hybrid, black/white, body/mind, dance/academia—as well as reckon with the ways hierarchical relations between these oppositional categories continue to hold sway today despite the daily unmasking of their instability and insufficiency.

Das demonstrates how Dunham worked to legitimize dance as an embodied intellectual pursuit, simultaneously reinforcing associations between black people and bodily skill and challenging the notion that bodily knowledge constitutes something anti-intellectual.

Dunham emerges as an expert navigator of the choppy seas of her identity as a black feminist anthropologist-dancer-choreographer, one who brought “dance into the conversation about how to build a sustainable cultural foundation for political activism” (2). Though Das is unflinching in her exposition of the less heroic aspects of Dunham’s actions and belief systems, we nevertheless encounter Dunham as a force to be reckoned with, a human being, flawed and fantastic all at once, and an incontrovertible matriarch of modern dance.

Das does not merely analyze Dunham’s choreographic output. Rather, she investigates her performances, her institutional legacy, and her personal life as “interrelated spheres of action” (4). In doing so, she charts Dunham’s social and aesthetic compromises and sacrifices, naming her successful strategy for surviving and thriving “aesthetics as politics” (4). Das’ close analysis of Dunham’s choreographic strategies—the dancers she worked with, the movement vocabulary, spatial relations, music—serves as a model for dance writers of all stripes: the movement is the method and the message. Being able to see those choices and understand them in the context of broader choreographic, kinesthetic, social, cultural, and political histories is what makes Das such a deft “reader” of Dunham’s work.

The book offers a clear chronological account of Dunham’s personal and professional history. We learn that Dunham was an academic, a writer, a memoirist, and an activist in addition to being a dancer, choreographer, film star, and director. Das explains that Dunham’s memoir A Touch of Innocence, written in 1958, “reveals how dance became one of Dunham’s tools for survival, a personal narrative that she would then theorize and apply to people of African descent more broadly” (13). Readers travel along an artistic journey marked by a collision of black vaudeville and Hollywood, European ballet and American modern dance, with the addition of a rigorous and rich experience with dances of the African diaspora. But even this isn’t quite the way to put it because the point Das drives home is that all of Dunham’s aesthetic choices constitute and reflect a diasporic consciousness.

Das’ patient exploration of the ways critics received Dunham’s work teaches us a valuable lesson in witnessing dance today. In her discussion of minstrelsy, she explains that “the shows often contained ‘hidden transcripts’ that powerfully critiqued existing social structures, but they still overwhelmingly signified ‘racist humiliation and self-denigration’ in the public imagination of both black and white Americans” (21). I take this as a reminder to always ask myself when I watch any performance, do I really know what I’m looking at? Do I really know how to see this? To answer these questions does not necessarily require deep powers of analysis; in fact, those powers are always culturally specific and when wielded, often sink dance criticism further into the abyss of ignorance.

Overall, Das highlights the ways Dunham’s artistic production both conformed to and challenged ethnic, racial, and gender narratives in the US in the 20th century. She points out the scholarly “point of contention” around “the question of authenticity and its relationship to theatrical presentation” (30). She explains the ways Dunham and other artists of color in the 1920s and 1930s “used the discourse of primitivism to critique US empire and neocolonialism, even as, contradictorily, they ended up reinforcing problematic categories and romanticized notions of primitive life” (31). And she explains the Janus-faced nature of “structural functionalism,” the anthropological approach Dunham used in her study of diasporic African dance: “By turning to dance, Dunham had arguably chosen the most difficult path for reframing primitivism. From another vantage point, she can be said to have audaciously struck at the heart of primitivist discourse, challenging its most fundamental precepts about black women’s bodies in motion” (32). In other words, Dunham problematically sought to “elevate” African rhythms and movements through Western concert dance structures while holding the belief that those rhythms and movements were the truest forms of expression.

Das takes us through Dunham’s process of transforming the dances she learned in the Caribbean into choreographic works for the concert dance stage. Prior to Dunham’s 10-month research trip to the Caribbean in 1935-1936, Dunham, not unlike Ruth St. Denis, “adopt[ed] exotic foreign identities” (16)—a form of cultural appropriation—in her early choreography, a practice that she transformed through her training in anthropology and participant-observer work in the Caribbean. Das writes, “For both black and white women of the early twentieth century, exotic performance was a means of liberation from restrictive gender and racial identities” (16). Das places these forays into cultural appropriation in the context of a real tension between racial and gender uplift, a tension we’re still living today.

It’s easy to condemn Dunham for choreographing an “Oriental” dance until Das reframes the move in the context of finding ways out of stereotypes of black women that came out of minstrelsy. Das reminds us that for a black woman to focus on dance in any part of the twentieth century “was an audacious move at a time when the body, especially the black female body, was considered to have little capacity for intellectual expression” (20). Dunham’s work in the Caribbean reveals how choreographers locate content and choreographic approaches among their “subjects.” “Instead of serving as raw material to insert into a ballet or modern dance, Caribbean dance could offer its own aesthetic principles, both in terms of philosophical foundation and formal movement structure” (36).

Dunham’s choreographic practice moved from “pre-Caribbean interpretive dance” to “fairly direct translations of the dances she had seen in the Caribbean,” to anti-fascist agit prop works, to “’fusion’: a blending of her ballet and modern dance training with Afro-Caribbean forms” (56). Das describes this last approach as the moment when “Dunham’s aesthetics became her politics” (56). And she attributes her success to the way Dunham blended narrative structures, program notes, and choreography that displayed “that elusive blend of high art, social value, and popular appeal” (57).

Dunham was a black female intellectual whose life work focused on the dancing body; a dancer and choreographer who understood that dance constitutes knowledge that extends beyond knowing how to move. As a scholar, she was surprisingly transparent about the limits of her objectivity during her research in the Caribbean—as a dancer who took part in the performances and rituals she studied, she recognized the gap between embodied response and intellectual recording of experience. She knew that she was both a foreigner (as an American) and an heir (as a black person) to the cultural forms she witnessed and participated in. “In essence, Dunham proffered contradictory opinions. […] This back-and-forth revealed a central tension of diaspora that Dunham would wrestle with throughout her career—namely, the debate over how best to ensure the continuity of Africanist cultural practices in new settings” (38).

Das offers us a detailed picture of Dunham’s pedagogical philosophy and practice. The Dunham School operated from 1944 to 1954, long enough to sediment Dunham’s influence on everything from the development of jazz dance pedagogy to the integration of dance training spaces. This got me wondering about the particular personal, social, and political forces that shape the development and dissemination of dance techniques in general. For example, according to Das, Dunham’s signature blend of ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance was a function of her personal experience with these forms, of course; but her technique is also an effect of her political drive to dismantle racial stereotypes about black dancers. Taking her diverse dance experiences and codifying them into a technique constitutes a political move, one that “struck a blow to all three stereotypes” (64) of black bodies dancing—that black people were natural dancers, that black people “could not dance genres that required technical training,” and “that perfecting dances derived from black culture required natural abilities, not dedicated practice” (65). I could feel the deeply American nature of Dunham’s training history in my bones—the Laban and Dalcroze, the ballet and musical theater, the black social dances, the random encounters with Eastern European folk forms—a polyvocality of forms colliding. We can see how Dunham’s bodily experience of multiple dance forms are archived as the Dunham technique, a form of “kinesthetic memory” (40).

Both Das and Dunham emerge in this book as women who believe in the social and political power of dance. Das illustrates how Dunham’s experiences in the Caribbean helped her “articulate[] a thesis about embodied knowledge and its relationship to politics” (52), which in turns helps Das articulate her own thesis about how a politics of diaspora is embodied through dance. Das explains that “Dunham repeated a consistent message: training in the performing arts and humanities prepared students to face life’s problems” (108). This line alone convinced me to put Das’ book on my syllabus—that and the fact that if a student searches for “Beyoncé” in Google Scholar, Das’ book will come up. Das closes Katherine Dunham with an epilogue that clearly articulates Dunham’s relevance today and the challenge she continues to pose for us—how to “embrac[e] interculturalism without reproducing cultural hierarchies” (201). Whether we identify as activists, artists, educators, administrators, scholars, or all of the above, we can meet that challenge if we’re willing to learn, act, and, above all, change. Dunham, the great strategist, not only “choreographed the change she wished to see in the world” (201); she also appears to have let the world choreograph change in herself, demonstrating that dance, as a dialectic of stillness and movement, of listening and responding, is the perfect medium for political movement.

Das is not the first white dance scholar to write about a black dancer, and she is aware that this can prove an awkward position. In the preface, she writes, “And while Dunham always proclaimed that her technique was for everyone, I see myself as a guest in an African diasporic cultural practice” (x). This line is quintessential Das. Throughout the book, Das holds every tension and contradiction, whether in Dunham’s rhetoric or her own, with honesty and care. And this is what makes her book not just smart but brilliant. Das reminds us that it’s always a risk to dance—and to write. And Dunham teaches us that these are risks worth taking.

In Practice: Tonya Marie Amos

In a 1993 interview, Toni Morrison said, “The people who practice racism are bereft. […] It feels crazy. It is crazy. […] If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”[1] I thought about Morrison’s words as I sat in the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts theater on June 25, 2017, witnessing Grown Women Dance Collective’s annual Juneteenth celebration, Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars.

The performance combines concert dance and a multimedia presentation to honor the Black musical artists we’ve lost since 2000. When I saw that much talent on display in a society that works hard to vilify the bearers of that talent, combined with that much loss, the cognitive dissonance of anti-Black racism was laid bare. I realized I was listening to the sound of social life in social death, the sound of uplift, the sonic landscape of Black joy— and the soundtrack of my life, to this American life. In the face of the sheer dominance of these voices, I could sense in my bones the crazy Morrison describes, the pathology and supreme waste of time of white supremacy—to work that hard to build yourself up by shooting down what so clearly soars.

My generation’s K-12 history books never mentioned Juneteenth, so Tonya Amos, Grown Women Dance Collectives’s artistic director, had to educate me.[2] In sum, on June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Texas to read the proclamation and make official that which slave owners had sought to keep secret: slaves were now free. Jubilation among former slaves ensued, followed, unsurprisingly, by a tenaciously adhered to revisionist history. So, white folks get to honor Lincoln, the white man who freed the slaves without any muddy chronology to contend with. On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday, and there appears to be a steady rise in consciousness and celebrations nationwide.


In the spirit of In Practice, this interview focuses on the labor of Amos’ dance journey, and the love that established and maintains GWDC’s Juneteenth project. It’s about Amos’ dance training history and how it reflects the racializing and racist history of American concert dance. GWDC is comprised of concert dancers, currently between the ages of 48 and 54, who come out of retirement each year for Fallen Heroes—from my point of view, they only get better with age.

Amos, like so many dancers, was hesitant to talk to me, afraid to expose things about elite concert dance company culture. Many, many dancers grin and bear it for the chance to dance. Amos and I spoke at Peet’s coffee on College Avenue on August 22, 2017.

In Dance is publishing our interview now to coincide with the 9th Annual Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars Juneteenth performance at the Malonga Center, June 23-24.


Sima Belmar: You’re a Bay Area native. Tell us about your early dance life here.

Tonya Amos: I grew up in San Francisco, Sunnydale neighborhood — no running water, no electricity, no food. My parents put all of their money towards our education. I went to fancy schmancy schools, and I took ballet classes, acting classes, and all this stuff that kids in the projects didn’t do.

SB: Where did you take these classes?

TA: When I was a kid I was at ACT. For dance, I was at San Francisco Ballet. We’re talking about the 1970s. I was literally the only child of color in the studio. Every other kid in the school got to be in The Nutcracker, but I was never allowed on stage. So, after three years my dad went and spoke with the director of SFB and they were like, Yeah, Blacks can’t be on stage. I remember my dad saying something not very nice, and then, “We’re going elsewhere.”

SB: Where did you go after your dad took you out of SFB?

TA: So this was pre-BART and there was tons of traffic in northern California, unlike now [laughs]. My parents were in the car all the time trying to make sure we had access and to minimize the racial trauma of being a Black kid in the 70’s. I ended up at Diablo Gymnastics in Walnut Creek (the kids were horrific to me there). A woman who was watching practice said to my mother, “Why isn’t she dancing?” This was Lareen Fender of The Ballet School. Lareen approached me with my mom’s permission and said, “You’re beautiful. You should be dancing.” And I said, “I don’t want to dance anymore.” And she asked, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, Blacks can’t be on stage.” I was 9. And she said, “Nonsense. You can be on stage with me.” So Lareen trained the hell out of me for a couple of years. She was wonderful to me and made sure to never let the racial undertones that were thrown out by kids and their parents become overtones.

At the same time, I was going to school at Nueva Day in Hillsborough with people who had 18 burners in their kitchen and horses. Anybody like me was cleaning someone’s house. Meanwhile, in my house it’s pouring rain and my whole family is in my bedroom because it’s the only room that doesn’t have water pouring through the ceiling—mom, dad, two sisters, two dogs, and the cat.

When my mom got pregnant with my third sister, she couldn’t drive me to Walnut Creek anymore. So I went back to train in the city, bouncing around between pretty major academies. One of them is gone, a boarding school for ballerinas, LaNova Academy [Ballet Celeste International of San Francisco].[3] I didn’t live there, but ballerinas came from all over the country to study there. I remember there was a Nutcracker audition. I was about to go home when people asked why I wasn’t auditioning. I was like, Well, Blacks can’t be on stage, and they were like, “Oh, that’s right. Ok! See you next week!” They were kind of glad—the little girl with the leg behind the head and the three pirouettes en pointe at age 11! But on my way out, one of the moms said, “I hear what you’re saying, but Ms. LaNova is very open-minded. You should go talk to her.” So this old Russian woman looks at me and says, “Nonsense, dear. Blacks can be on stage. There’s a black snowflake in Nutcracker. But we already have our Black this year, dear. You should come back next year.” And “that Black” was Eurydice [Ross], one of the original members of GWDC. She was the only Black concert dancer I’d ever seen in my actual conscious memory.

solo african american female dancer in purple flowing dress


SB: What happened after you missed your chance to be the single Black snowflake?

TA: I went to Janet Sassoon’s Academy of Ballet. Richard Gibson had just come from the Joffrey. I walked in, this little 12-year-old with flawless turns and arabesques behind my head, 42 pounds in the 7th grade. I was skin and bones, which is why my ballet teachers loved me…

SB: …because they could see the lines…

TA: …right. American teachers often had been really mean to me. But Richard, who was really nice to me, jumps me to the 15-17 year old girls, until Janet comes in and says I’m in the wrong class and puts me back with the 12-year-olds—and I was thrown to the wolves. Then, one day Janet looks at me and says, “Dear, your hair is very ethnic.” At that point I was 13 and starting to notice what I looked like in the world. I never went back. I couldn’t enter another dance studio for 7 years.


SB: So you just stopped dancing?

TA: Yes, until 1986 when I left for UCLA. I was the first person in my lineage since slavery to go to college. I went to UCLA because in that time period all of my friends were being murdered and locked up under Three Strikes for a joint in their pocket. The depression and survivor’s guilt is really bad when you come from an environment where people are actually being targeted to not make it.

When I transferred to Cal in 1989, I bought $5 rush tickets to Cal Performances—Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan, and Bill T. Jones with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m one of the only brown folks in the theater and just crying. In that moment I realized you can create social change with the arts.

In my junior year there was a company called Voice the Movement, a project put together by Anne Reeb, daughter of the white minister [James Reeb] who was killed during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1989, she made a piece about Medgar Evers. Reggie Savage was Medgar and I was his wife, Myrlie. During this process, I figured out that people can actually do this as a job. So my senior year, instead of scooping ice cream on campus, my job was dancing.

SB: Did you dance with the Graham folks at Cal?

TA: I did not. I was an Anthropology major. I was studying African American history and taking Egyptian hieroglyphics. I was like, we need Black people who can read primary documentation, so I did three years of glyphs, which when I moved to NY in 1991, two weeks after I finished college, kept me out of trouble because I had like $200 and had no place to live, no job, no food. I would go to the Met and pay 24 cents to get in and I would spend 8 hours and just translate stuff off the walls.
When I graduated from Cal in 1991, people kept telling me to take [class] with Alonzo [King]. And I was like, Who is this Alonzo? Finally, someone dragged me in there and I was like, He’s Black! Why didn’t anyone say he was Black! None of the Black folks in his class had done any ballet but they were just so happy to be in his presence. And he treated everyone with loving respect. He encouraged me rather than flattening my already low self-esteem.


SB: But you chose NY over SF, and you went to NY to dance, not to be a museum docent, right?

TA: I went to New York to dance. My first Ailey audition was for the company, at Zellerbach [Berkeley]. I made it through a cut and then Ms. [Denise] Jefferson, who was the head of the Ailey school at the time, pulled me aside and asked me to come to the audition for the Ailey school’s Summer Intensive in NY. She saw my really good ballet foundation from years before. Years later, I worked for Ms. Jefferson—I was her student assistant, her house sitter, her friend. She was the one who built that school. She was my mentor and I loved her so much, my NY dance mom. Several women were accepted into the summer program, but—two of us, myself and Phyllis Byers—were asked to attend the scholarship audition in New York. This moment changed the entire course of my life. There were 600 girls at the Ailey school audition. They give 35 scholarships a quarter, and they try hard to make sure that African American dancers are represented in that group. I auditioned for the scholarship and got it.

SB: So what was it like at the Ailey school for you?

TA: I would not have danced without Ailey. I owe Ailey a lot. But back then, Black women couldn’t have braids, locks, twists—the same reason I was ousted from ballet was happening there. My generation got that changed. Ms. Jefferson went to the International Blacks In Dance conference where somebody talked about self-hatred, and she came back and changed the policy. All the higher level ballet classes were mostly white. I’d be put in the back line, told by a (non-Black) teacher, “You’re fat, you’re lazy, you’re never going to dance.” It wasn’t always like that but even in a Black organization, that European body type is preferred, that ballet line. I defended my scholarship for 9 semesters. After a year and a half I looked around and everyone else was gone. And I kept defending it. They make you audition every single semester.

SB: Talk about precarity.

TA: If your lines and turns don’t keep getting better, you’re gone.

SB: So who did you dance with during the New York years?

TA: During the New York years, I danced with Cleo Parker Robinson (in Denver), one of the Black rep companies. Basically all the repertory gets shared between Cleo, Dayton Contemporary Dance, Philadanco, and Ailey—we all did Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Katherine Dunham. For example, I was a soloist in McKayle’s Nocturne, which was Sylvia Waters’ role at Ailey, but during a different time period.

SB: Was this supporting you?

TA: Oh yeah. Once I went to New York all I did was dance professionally. When I was at Ailey I did three hours of answering phones in the morning. But I was at Ailey 12 hours a day. I was off on weekends. I taught some gymnastics on the weekends just to make some extra money. Once I was in New York, I was a dancer. I never got a “real job” ever again. I danced with Cleo in Colorado from 1994-1996. Back in New York, I danced with Footprints, an Ailey spin-off, and Amy Pivar, a Bill T. spin-off. It was all concert dance, until the last four years. I had a career-altering abdominal surgery, I’d say career-ending, but it wasn’t really career-ending, I just couldn’t do concert dance anymore because it was 12 hours a day of hard core physical work and partnering. I couldn’t support weight on my pelvis anymore. I didn’t trust my body at that point. I’d be okay for two weeks and then I’d be doubled over in pain, I didn’t realize that for years I was working with scar tissue and internal bleeding. I was just in pain all the time. So my last four years in New York I turned to musical theater, because I could be a dancer but not be a dancer. So I did the international tour of West Side Story and some other Broadway tours and reviews, including playing Ernie in a ginormous, hot costume in the national tour of Sesame Street. I did a lot of fitness modeling, so when you see someone flying through the air in a business suit, that was me.

an african american couple leaping in the air

SB: So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

TA: After 9/11, my husband and I backpacked through Latin America for a year. When we came back to New York, my apartment was sublet, so I stayed in California after visiting my parents. I’d been trying to retire for 10 years. At that point I had convinced myself that dancing was the only thing I was good at. I couldn’t start over. I [didn’t] have any real skills. The dance career is really bad for the self-esteem—you’re yelled at non-stop, people are throwing chairs at you and cussing at you, with the occasional getting swatted on the butt by a choreographer. That abuse over a long time, that’s in your nervous system at that point. There was one other choreographer that I still wanted to work with and then I found out he was doing the same thing to his dancers so I was like, Yeah, done.

I was using my return to the Bay Area as an excuse to do something new. At this point I’m 35 years old. After two years trying actively to teach, I opened a Pilates studio in Concord. I opened in 2006 with no business experience.

From concept to opening day was six weeks. I wasn’t supposed to make it out of the projects. I definitely wasn’t supposed to have a 15-year dance career after not dancing for seven years. I wasn’t supposed to have a really successful concert dance career as a Black dancer, period. Luckily I had people around me saying do it. I’ve won five business awards—Small Business of the Year, Best Woman-Owned business of the year, Female Entrepreneur the Year, 100 influential women of Pleasant Hill, and Best Pilates Studio.

SB: No one had related to you that being a dancer involves a whole range of skill sets…

TA: …I had no idea! I went from a ballerina to the Ailey institution, and whether you like it or not, when you’re part of the incredible Ailey institution, you don’t know anything else is out there, that’s the only thing that’s legitimate. You go out into the world and you can dance circles around everyone else but if you stand next to Desmond [Richardson] every day in class, of course you think you suck!


SB: So what drew you back to dance and the formation of GWDC?

TA: After opening my studio, I started getting really itchy artistically. At the turn of the millennium, we were losing some really kick-ass people in the African American community—Ossie Davis, Gregory Hines, Nina Simone, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King. Michelle Ned, who I danced with in Voice the Movement, and I thought, someone has got to do something to honor these people. We decided to make a show, just bring our friends and family to see it. I called Eurydice and Marisa Castillo. My husband, who’s a computer geek, put together a multimedia to tie the dances together and holy shit, we have a show!

Our first year was at Laney College in 2009. We had 150 people in the audience. They were mostly all my clients. So we moved it closer to my studio to leverage my clientele. For the next six years we did [it at] Pleasant Hill and Concord, we sold out our shows, 600 people, lines down the street. In 2015 we moved the show to a new theater in Pittsburg to try to reach the Black community there. But folks didn’t know concert dance and because we don’t have funding, the tickets were too expensive. We always sponsor 100-150 kids, but I couldn’t get the tickets cheaper than $28. Then, most of my clients wouldn’t come to Pittsburg because there were too many Black people. Y’all want a dance history concert but you don’t want to be around black people! Black people were afraid to come to Pleasant Hill for fear of being pulled over. White people were afraid of Black people. So I moved the show to Impact HUB in Oakland 2016, and this year [2017] to Malonga. I think it will stay there. My dream is to get it in a bigger space and make the tickets $5.


SB: For those who’ve never seen Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars, the multimedia presentation of images and songs by Black musical artists alternates with dances choreographed by GWDC. And the dancing is amazing.

TA: I only work with people who are kick-ass dancers who I trust intimately because I’ve worked with them in companies.

SB: I feel like your story demonstrates that dancing is not about ability, but about a commitment to changing approaches over time. Aging dancers teach audiences that it’s not about being in shape…

TA: …it’s about sharing wisdom. The power you have in your little finger, the experience you have in your body. If you can walk onto the stage and snatch the air out of the theater, then I trust you.

Tonya closed her Pilates studio this past March to focus on GWDC and expanding Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars to create a robust Civil Rights program. “As a dancer I didn’t have voice. Now, I know: I started something from nothing. There’s a part of me that needs to go back to dancing, not for the sake of dancing, but to use dance as a modality for social impact and civil rights work. We are grown-ass women, carrying on the Black tradition of protest, agency, and providing access. We can do anything we put our brains to. It might be hard, but we’ll figure it out.”

In Practice: Claudia La Rocco: Distance and Intimacy

The internet threatens to ruin every radio voice for me. Terry Gross, Marco Werman, Ray Suarez, Rose Aguilar—none of them looks like they’re supposed to! But then again, when I think about what faces I expect to match these voices, I can only see vaguely gendered avatars in silhouette. In other words, I expect no sort of face at all, so any face would be surprising and somehow wrong.

Same thing with bylines. Here it’s the literary voice that meets with a shadow image, looking like no one and everyone at the same time. Take Claudia La Rocco for example. Many a theater usher experienced cognitive dissonance when the curly-haired, bright-eyed, twenty-something sought to take the seat with her name on it: “I would routinely sit in seats reserved for The Times and ushers would say, ‘No, that’s reserved for Claudia La Rocco.’ I think they expected a 60-year-old. I don’t know if that was because I was writing like a 60-year-old or if The Times just ages a gal. I think it might be the latter. I hope it’s the latter.”

La Rocco, now 40, and neither looking nor writing like a 60-year-old (but with 60 being the new 40, who’s to say?), became the Editor-in-Chief of SFMOMA’s online and live interdisciplinary platform Open Space in 2016. From January through April of this year, Open Space organized Limited Edition, a performance programming/arts writing collaboration between CounterPulse, The Lab, ODC Theater, Performance at SFMOMA, and Z Space. The program encapsulates La Rocco’s commitment to understanding all art practice—whether Palestinian Dabke or a Keith Hennessey/Gerald Casel collaboration on Ocean Beach—as community-based. Community members make performances and community members witness performances—why shouldn’t community members write about them as well? “We’re just trying to get more smart context around contemporary performance and to look a bit at the ecosystem of these spaces.”

La Rocco and I spoke over coffee at Alchemy in Oakland. I wanted to know the whole story of how she became a dance writer. And I got it. And it’s great. And all you need to know is:

  • Just because you major in English, and choose to study “super lucrative” genres like contemporary poetry and Middle English, doesn’t mean you’ll never make a living
  • If you get hired to write about, say, biotech for a tech publication, don’t be afraid to ask if you can write a book review column instead (yes, she did that, and they let her)
  • Writers learn on the job, so forgive them their trespasses, i.e. being dicks in their early reviews (how gratifying to learn that I am not the only critic “horrified” to look back at old reviews)
  • Even New York Times dance critics can feel like frauds

La Rocco is an accidental dance critic, who began writing about dance for the Arts Desk at the Associated Press. While at AP, she wrote for various arts publication including Art on Paper and Art News, mostly about visual art and books: “Dance wasn’t in my experience. My best friend growing up was a committed ballet dancer and I saw her perform a few times. But mostly I played tennis. I read books.” Her first foray into dance writing was to cover Baryshnikov in Eliot Feld’s work at the Joyce: “It was terrifying. I went with a very good friend of mine who is a dancer, Kathryn Enright; she was my security blanket. It was a good deal: she would get free tickets and I would get somebody to be like, you can do this.”

La Rocco says she got her start because of a lack of value and literacy around dance: “You can say well here’s a smart young kid who has no experience, we’ll throw her in, whereas you wouldn’t say, you don’t know about politics, but hey you’re twenty, let’s have you be the political correspondent.” This lack of cultural literacy around dance also allowed her to get to know and own her personal tastes: “At first I was going to the more traditional houses: City Center, Lincoln Center, The Joyce, the usual circuit. I just thought I don’t like dance, or I must not understand it because if I understood it I would like these shows. Then I stumbled into DTW one night, and that was a game changer. I started writing more and more about ‘weird’ stuff that to me didn’t seem weird. It seemed smart and layered and akin to how I think about the world.”

La Rocco became a stringer for The New York Times in 2005, where she wrote about dance until 2013, leaving the newspaper for good two years later: “I stopped writing for The Times about dance because at that point I had been doing it for 10 years as a daily critic, in that treadmill of you see 5-7 shows a week, you write about 2-5 shows a week. I began to feel like I was overly intimate with and exhausted by the form of the 300- to 900-word overnight review. And I just didn’t think I could say something else within that form about Sleeping Beauty or about Revelations. If you’re a Times critic you have to survey the field and it’s no good to walk into something and be bored. It’s not good for the readers, it’s not good for the writers, it’s certainly not good for the art form.”

But burnout was only half the story. La Rocco is a poet and a performer, who in 2008 founded The Performance Club as a “real-time and web-based” space for “criticism that is also, or at least aspires to be, art”. Interviews and conversations with dance artists led to friendships and artistic collaborations, which led to an ever-expanding list of artists she could no longer “feel comfortable writing with honesty about in The Times from the position of The Times and its conflict of interest policy”: “In many ways in our culture we value intimacy: If you don’t know it how can you write about it? If you don’t know this person, if you can’t empathize with her, how can you put yourself in her shoes? But journalism really wants this separation. So when we think about daily journalism faltering as a vehicle for criticism, perhaps a silver lining is that we can finally abandon this idea of the critic as objective, thumbs up thumbs down, non-implicated witness.”

From what I’ve seen, Open Space with La Rocco at the helm initiates from this question of intimacy in relation to performance criticism, and it is this always questioning, ever experimental approach that reveals criticism, history, reporting, and documentation as aesthetic practices in their own right. Asked to describe her writing and editorial practices, La Rocco says she tries to follow in the footsteps of exemplars of the poet-critic tradition like Frank O’Hara, and Bill Berkson, who wrote “as a way of marking one’s consciousness through time”; radical, political experimenters like Jill Johnston; dance artists like Simone Forti, “whose movement and writing and drawing and speaking improvisations are all mixed up”; and editors like Artforum’s David Velasco, “who has that magical blend of structure, sensitivity, and intelligence, who pushes me to experiment but also tells me ‘Hey, you think you’re being experimental but you’re actually writing self-centered drivel that I can’t understand.’ Not that he would ever say it that meanly. But I can send something that I think might be a mess and I trust him to save me from myself or to say, ‘This works.’ He’s a collaborator in the best way.”

La Rocco met her partner, Oakland-based musician Phillip Greenlief, in 2013 at a residency at Headlands Center for the Arts, where she assembled her book, The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands 2014). An “embedded writer” position with the Hatchery Project, a partnership between Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, Vermont Performance Lab, The Chocolate Factory, and Philadelphia’s RED Arts Project, supported by major grants from the Mellon Foundation and the NEA, enabled La Rocco to leave The Times against the advice of “several colleagues who told me I was an idiot.” Free from daily journalism’s grind, “restless and itchy,” she moved to the Bay Area, and took the position at Open Space.

As Editor-in-Chief at Open Space, La Rocco isn’t writing as much criticism as she used to. Rather, she is out “identifying the people that I think should write.” Along with Managing Editor and poet Gordon Faylor, and in line with the vision of Open Space founder Suzanne Stein (another poet), La Rocco seeks to produce an artist-centric publication with strong voices that represent aesthetic, geographic, and sociocultural diversity. This is not hard to come by in the Bay Area, but locating diversity of political viewpoint presents a challenge: “The public discourse is so hardened right now. We don’t know how to have good disagreements in public. I’m trying to figure out how to have contrarian viewpoints not for the sake of them but to find smart gray areas. I’m really interested in Open Space being a balance of art, art criticism, and arts reporting. And I want it to be a place where people can really play with different types of writing, where they can take a risk on something that could be a total failure.”

This sort of rigorous openness means you’ll find criticism, performance, poetry, and all manner of digitally supported cultural production at Open Space, all subject to La Rocco and Faylor’s deft editorial eyes. And you will find dance there too: “I’ve always thought of criticism as a triangle between a work of art, an individual experience, and the surrounding culture. It would drive me crazy when people would say, ‘Balanchine works are timeless’ No, they’re not. He created in a very particular time. If a work of art is timeless and its creator a genius and everybody should just bow down before it, then by that logic if the art work isn’t ‘succeeding’ in any one moment, it has to be the fault of the people performing it or the people perceiving it. It can’t be that a thing that was created 70 years ago might no longer be legible in a contemporary context. Performance has to move. So does the writing and thinking that seeks to converse with it.”

To write dancing from a position of intimacy with dancers and with critical distance from the form is a delicate, difficult, and delicious balance to strike. When I awkwardly told Claudia that I would be interested writing for Open Space, she said, “No awkwardness. Everything in life is hopelessly intertwined.”

In Practice: Christy Funsch

Five women holding an historic photograph

Laura Elaine Ellis, Courtney Moreno, Chinchin Hsu, Chris Black , Aura Fischbeck in Mother Sister, Daughter, Marvel / Photo by Christy Funsch

Last December, I took a one-and-a-half-hour “Choreographic Tools” workshop with Christy Funsch at Shawl Anderson Dance Center. One and a half hours is not a lot of time to make work, but Christy is very good at time management.

We began with an exercise Christy called “Building” (influence: Julie Mayo), 1-, 3-, 5-, and 10-minute improvisations that are “maybe towards making a phrase.” Christy admits to being very cautious about the word “phrase,” noting that it can be a “structure that gets in the way,” making her panic about beginnings, middles, and ends, about the trajectory of a piece: “It’s too early for that.” In fact, she tries not to do phrase material in her choreography: “If I see it in technique class, it shouldn’t be in my choreography. There are phrases but they are not organic, not concerned with conventional pathways of momentum or tried and true pathways of movement efficiency.” Christy suggested we use one minute to arrive, 3 minutes to ask what’s happening in the body, 5 minutes to explore what is interesting about what is happening in the body, and 10 minutes investigating one of those tiny interesting things. I got very interested in digging my elbows into the floor and then shouting “Timber!” in my head as I let my forearms fall; the palm makes a nice slapping sound on marley, in case you were wondering.

Christy started performing and making work in the Bay Area right about when I started writing here, so my eyes watching her perform have grown up with her performing. She has long matched an understated, anti-spectacular performance personality with breathtaking precision and subtle wit. These qualities bear out in her teaching as well. During the workshop she offered a poetics of movement exploration, a process of “disclosing a state, quality, body part, mood, memory, functional basic body action,” that felt accessible in no small measure due to the way she awkwardly (her word) inhabits her position of “power in the working room.” She told us, “I have a practice but no authority. I’m following and challenging my own interests in making work.”  Like Ann Patchett’s essay “The Getaway Car,” Christy’s workshop was not “an instruction booklet,” but rather “an account of what I did and what has worked for me” (Patchett). Not a manual but a way of holding our hands nonetheless.

Like her performance persona, Christy balances her sharp intelligence with a genuine humility. There is a fierceness that accompanies her shyness, which made me trust her in the vulnerable space of dance making. We learned that she never starts with an idea that she wants to make manifest in movement, something she finds “patriarchal, belittling.” She finds the idea in the movement—“What’s in the body right now?” We wrote together (influence: Tere O’Connor), showed each other excerpts of our (non-)phrases, danced together, meditated together (influence: Daniel Nagrin). Christy’s got tools and she knows how to use them.

Recently, we’ve seen a lot of Christy on stage with Nol Simonse—“17 years working together; I consider him a brother and soulmate.” Their duets are a demonstration of the gorgeous ways opposing movement qualities can work together as rituals of intimate interaction. This April, Christy and her company Funsch Dance Experience will celebrate 15 years of dance making in the Bay Area with a full-length work entitled Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel (MSDM), co-produced by ODC Theater. At the time of this writing (January 2018), Christy wasn’t sure Nol would physically appear on stage, devoted as it the piece is to “10 women dancers and pillars of the current Bay Area dance ecology.” But she assures us that he is present in the work: “All the work I’ve made has been in conversation with Nol, directly or indirectly. It’s been really hard for me to make work without him in it and yet I feel like I must do it sometimes. It’s my effort to grow. But maybe that’s some kind of capitalist default. Maybe instead of growing it’s to do the deeper thing and stay with this movement partnership we have and ride it for all its worth, for as many years as we have left together.”

Christy was not only unsure about Nol’s role in MSDM—she wasn’t even clear about her own: “I just wrote myself a note in my notebook, ‘Christy maybe you’ll actually choreograph some material for this piece.’ For this new work, I haven’t come in with a lot of made, sequenced movement material that’s come from my body. I’m asking, Where am I in this?” I asked if she was experiencing a mini existential crisis around the work: “I wouldn’t call it mini. I started in the fall with the new work to generate the material, and I was doing an all-consuming project with Nol, so I was having dancers generate a lot of material. I feel good with the situational choreographic moments we have and the interrelatedness of the figures within the piece. But the vocabulary and risk to myself and my phsyiological intimacy with the new work isn’t really there yet. So in the past couple weeks I’ve come up with a plan to address that.” And what’s the plan? “I can’t say what the plan is! I’ll say what it is knowing that the whole thing will collapse at any moment.” And yet, there’s a plan: “It’s a structural pathway. Stuck with where I am in the work, it’s easier to think of myself as a structural rather than content component, if I work in some interstitial way, in and out of the piece, constructing 20 moments, maybe I’ll use six or something. I’m in out, it’s a blip and then gone, I’ll talk about something, have an experience, draw from my own child movement experience as I have asked the performers to do. I trust that there is a relationship between my body and the work. It’s there, but I have to unearth it. I’m just worried it’s January and I haven’t seen it” (laughter).

Mother, Sister, Daughter, Marvel is constructed out of two types of bodily archives: embodied memories drawn from a cast of Bay Area dance artists over the age of 40 (Chris Black, Laura Elaine Ellis, Aura Fischbeck, and Nina Haft), and photographs of the California Dancing Girls, an early 20th-century San Francisco dance troupe directed by Anita Peters Wright. When Christy encountered the California Dancing Girls archive in the San Francisco Museum of Performance + Design, she felt as though she had come face to face with the women who “made possible what we’re doing.” The “we” here refers to Bay Area women choreographers from Judy Job, Anita Peters Wright’s niece (and Christy’s Tai Chi teacher) to Margaret Jenkins, who studied at the Peters Wright School of Dance to her current collaborators: “I’m interested in the personal histories and early movement memories from a cast of women who are mostly over 40, who identify as mothers, teachers, administrators, producers, dancers. In my estimation, they’re the connective tissue of the Bay Area dance ecology.”

Although Christy and the dancers occasionally take shapes from the photographs to choreograph the work in rehearsal, the project is more about a “way of being with these women, conjuring a connection to our maternal past. How am I reaching back into history to access and pay homage to this particular group of women and how am I making a contemporary piece? Where is my own physicality, my own body, my history situated in the piece?” To answer these questions, Christy has asked her guest collaborators to remember, reenact, and reinvent movement histories, real and imagined. Nina explored early memories of improvisation and flamenco guitar music, while Chris was asked to write a fictionalized account of one of the women in the photographs: “We’re not using the text. I don’t want to read it. I wanted her to have a private thing, to find ways for her as a performer to inhabit the material with this text that was personal and lodged in language.”

Also involved in the work are two longtime Funsch Dance Experience collaborators, Chinchin Hsu and Courtney Moreno, who “serve a different function in the work”: “What’s driving me in the room are Chinchin and Courtney and the relationship we have built over the past few years. We can go to places physically that I find exiting. Conceptually, they’re this river of time, they’re not themselves, more this embodiment of ongoingness. This is the connection to Funsch Dance history, not just the superstars coming in for this work. They’re the meat and potatoes of my choreography.”

It wouldn’t be a conversation with a Bay Area artist if the issue of space and cost of living didn’t come up. “What’s heartbreaking is, in production, all the money is going to space. I’ve been on the cusp of leaving San Francisco for 20 years. It’s healthy to constantly reexamine and challenge the parameters that you’re making work in. There’s a crisis of space here, and it would be great to take some power back there. I can see not producing, but I can’t foresee not making dance. It’s the way I reorganize space, take power from constructs that are made without my permission; the way I investigate power, gender, momentum, physics, humanity. If I didn’t have any money and I had to do that kind of investigation with my own body and with whatever limitations of space, I still would. If it came to not being able to make work here anymore, I would leave.”

Happily for us, for now, Christy is staying: “I am feeling fierce, I am shedding, I am pushing on.”

In Practice: Body Nerds: Judith Butler and Monique Jenkinson

Two performers standing talking

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

On November 3, 2017, philosopher Judith Butler took to the CounterPulse stage and, be still my beating heart, danced. Joined in mutual illustriousness by Monique Jenkinson in a tempered version of her drag persona, Fauxnique, the duo of theory queens performed Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body[1], what will go down in my personal history as the greatest lec-dem of all time.

Picture it: two queer icons alone together on the dance floor, step-touching their way through theories of gender, embodied identity, and precarity. Their dancing demonstrated that the philosopher has a body and the dancer has a mind—in other words, everyone is a bodymind—and the toll dancing and scholarly labor takes on the body was made visible by their talk about it. For years I’ve been arguing that talking and dancing are never mutually exclusive enterprises, and both talking and dancing flesh out theory. Are we understanding something different about the same thing when we investigate that thing through non-verbal movement vs. through words? Can we arrive at the same understanding of the same thing from different sensory and cognitive approaches? Is that even a desirable goal? What do we want when we say we want to bridge the gap? Butler and Jenkinson chose to perform the gap, to wade in, swim, tread water, float, and play chicken in the gap—though there wasn’t a spirit of knocking opponents off shoulders.

Dance is a popular metaphor among philosophers, including Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but there was nothing metaphorical about these two dancing bodies theorizing. When Jenkinson mentioned the pelvic clock, she was referring to a somatic practice, not some idea about waning fertility; when Butler, discussing the body as a set of interrelationships, said, “Oh fascia, who knew? Fascia is the center of the universe!” she was locating the web of connections in her body as a source and a source of healing for her chronic joint pain.

And yet, of course, Jenkinson and Butler were also illustrating the webs of the social through this bodily discourse. But before I turn to those connections, allow me to linger a bit longer on the subject of the philosopher’s body.

When French critical theorist Evelyne Grossman visited UC Berkeley in 2010, she gave a seminar entitled, “An Authentical Body of Sensibility,” in which she discussed the drawings of theater director Antonin Artaud. In it, a student asked, “Why do you think Artaud drew pictures of teeth falling out?” And Grossman replied, “Because he had so much electroshock therapy—all his teeth fell out.” Later that same year, I took a seminar with Ramona Nadaff (whom I’d first met in dance class at Shawl Anderson—dancing scholars unite!) and discovered that Marx suffered terribly from carbuncles.

Learning that Butler suffers from her own “systemic joint disease,” and hearing about her embodied practices—yoga, meditation, walking, swimming, getting up from the computer every 20-40 minutes to move—brought me back to her 2009 Hegel seminar. I got into the seminar on the basis of a proposal to study the relationship between the Alexander Technique discourse and practice of “non-doing” and Western philosophies of the Self. Somatic practice meets critical theory.

Bookended by a little bit of Kant and a little bit of Marx, the course focused on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, which we read very slowly and very carefully. Despite this loving approach to the text, I took very little away in the way of Hegel’s philosophy (or Kant’s, or Marx’s). In fact, it’s a good thing there are no final exams based on content in graduate seminars because what I remember most from the course are Butler’s gestures. I often wouldn’t hear a word she was saying, so fixated was I on the symmetry of her hand gestures and the way that symmetry would break down as she held an idea in one hand and used the other hand to demonstrate its complexity. Any gesture studies scholar will tell you that the gestures of a philosopher have much to tell us about their thinking. We get to know something else or something more, even if that knowledge escapes verbal articulation—we enter the phenomenological feeling space of being together. But attending to the philosopher’s body does something else as well: it reminds us they have a body in the first place, and that they’re vulnerable, and that they give and require care.

So, even before witnessing her James Brownesque shuffles and a move I’ll call “schlumpy chicken does the Hollywood hula,” Butler was already, for me, a species of dancer. And just like my experience in her seminar, my notes from her performance with Jenkinson are largely incomprehensible and my memory deeply selective. Here’s a selection:

  • Butler’s left fingers twitch as she lies on the stage, the seemingly involuntary gesture revealing layers of movement inscription—all the writing, all the typing, all the touching.
  • Butler erupts into a lasso maneuver amidst her rhythmic step-touches and says, “Well, some of us didn’t really want to dance but here I am.”
  • Jenkinson matches Butler’s step-touches and remembers the many conversations she has had “in this state, over the music, queering the conversation.”

Butler and Jenkinson’s discussion revealed biographies that overlapped in ways that might have been surprising had the two not been performing with such synergy. Both are best known for pioneering work from decades ago (Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990, Jenkinson won the Miss Trannyshack Pageant in 2003; I think Jenkinson spoke for them both when she said, “I’ve done a lot since then!”). Both went to Bennington College. And both have a long-standing and always evolving relationship to drag—Butler remembering the “gorgeous, fabulous, perfect freedom of expression” of the drag performers upstairs at Partners Bar in New Haven, Connecticut in the late 1970s and early 1980s, while the lesbians were “dancing, debating separatism, and breaking up” downstairs, Jenkinson noting that ballet is also drag, “a codified way of being feminine.”

Two performers leaning against the floor or wall

Monique Jenkinson, left, and Judith Butler in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

Turning now to the social body, Butler told the story of how she and dance writer Wendy Perron, during their Bennington days, used to walk around Greenwich Village, “body slamming” into and sliding down the windows of fancy restaurants: “We would lose our balance, we would die, and wait to see if the good bourgeois people were alarmed—no one ran out.” These “choreographies of collapse” (Jenkinson quoting Perron) drew the discussion away from gender performativity and towards Butler’s theories of “precarious life,” “bodies that matter,” and “performative assembly.” This hilarious section (see photo) rubbed against the most somber of subjects, of “who might catch you, where you might land.” Jenkinson and Butler stumble walked together and fell together in an exploration of ground. “No one stands on their own,“ Butler said, and everyone requires ground on which to move—a floor, insurance, shoes, well-funded infrastructure: “The ground is part of the living that lets us live.”

Lying on the floor in the somatic X, the two performers discussed the ordinary practices of the radical body and ways to find the radical in the ordinary, “How we help each other persist” (Butler). Jenkinson tried to explain the Feldenkrais Method, which she practices with Augusta Moore, saying, “It’s kind of this,” what we’re doing,” i.e. lying on the ground barely moving. “And then Augusta would say, ‘All right, now rest, that was a lot.’” Jenkinson’s Feldenkrais humor issued peals of recognition-laughter from the audience, and she called us all “body nerds.” I’ve never felt more understood in all my life.

One performer holding another's head

Judith Butler, left, and Monique Jenkinson in the 2017 Bridge Project / photo by John Hill

After Jenkinson reflected on the wonder of the pubic bone being not a bone but two processes and a symphysis, the dynamically attuning duo got up to share some weight, took a minute of silent stillness each, inviting themselves to be seen[2], and took turns holding each other’s heads (see photo). This last precious exchange quieted the room—the intimacy of it, the performance of care. As Butler cradled Jenkinson skull, she wondered whether anyone would “speak with invective” if they were holding a head. Reflections on what constitutes a grievable life, a loseable life followed. And then, Butler asked Jenkinson, “How heavy was my head,” to which Jenkinson responded dramatically, “Unbearably heavy.”

It is not my intention to make naturalizing associations between the body of the theorist and the theories she produces, but to remember that the theorist has a body and that the body of the theorist theorizes. As we age, we are forced to practice, to move, to think differently, finding our sensory capacities limited and expanded, in other words, changed. We change and the world changes for us. As I watched Butler and Jenkinson attend to their changing bodies in real time, physically and verbally, it seemed clear to me that their new attunements would undoubtedly affect their cultural products.

But the ground of it all is life, liveable and grievable life. Just days after her performance with Jenkinson, on a visit to São Paolo, Brazil, Butler was met by a mob of violent, far right Christian protestors who burned her in effigy[3]. A deeply frightening experience and yet, Butler is confident that “this contemporary sexual conservatism or what we might understand as a reactionary sexual politics is an effort to take us back to a world that will never come back. […] So we shouldn’t be worried that all of our steps will be reversed. They’re trying but they will not win because our side is on the side of greater acceptance, greater understanding, it offers more recognition to more people, and people want to live with freedom, they want to live with joy, they don’t want to live with shame and they don’t want to live with censorship, so we have joy and freedom on our side and that is why we will eventually win.”[4]

Bearing witness to Monique and Judith, cradling each others’ heads, caring for and protecting the body of the dancing philosopher and the body of the philosopher dancer, it seems we have already won.

That was a lot. Now rest.


[1] “Ordinary Practices of the Radical Body” was the opening night performance of Hope Mohr’s 2017 Bridge Project: Radical Movement: Gender and Politics in Performance, which was inspired by the question, “What does it mean to have a radical body?” and which deserves way more than a footnote. (Hope and I are in the midst of finding a time to talk so stay tuned.)
[2] “What if every cell in our bodies (100 trillion) at once has the potential to invite being seen choosing to surrender the pattern of facing a single direction while perceiving all of the space in which I am performing (and time is my music…all of my movement is music).” (Deborah Hay, quoted on the PICA blog,
[3] See Scott Jaschik’s “Judith Butler on Being Attacked in Brazil” on Inside Higher Ed,
[4] “Judith Butler no Brasil | Quem tem medo de falar sobre gênero? [legendado],” TV Boitempo, published November 8, 2017,

In Practice: Sue Li Jue

Selfie of Sue Li Jue

Sue Li Jue Photo courtesy of artist

When I was writing dance reviews for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and other local and national publications in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I thought I was one of the more dancer-/choreographer-friendly critics. But looking back through those reviews, I did not find a dancer’s dance critic there. I found neither an open mind, nor a diplomatic pen, nor a generous heart. Instead, I found a voice performing its authority. And I rue many of those journalistic performances.

One of the reviews I regret the most was of Sue Li -Jue’s Facing East Dance & Music (FEDM) performance of The Nature of Nature (2001). I won’t go into detail about the ways I would write that review if I could turn back time. I was mean. I didn’t understand. I was mean because I didn’t understand.

When my review of The Nature of Nature came out, Sue called me right away. “Why do you hate me so much?” she asked. Hate her?! Well, revisiting the review I can see why she felt that way. So we met for coffee. I was humbled by her willingness to confront bad press head on and face to face. I still wasn’t totally convinced critics and choreographers should be having those sorts of conversations, but my grasp on the relationship between these two historical adversaries had begun to slip.

Fifteen years later, I contacted Sue to process again. (She was over it. I was not.) I wanted to let her know that I’d thought about that review and our conversation numerous times during my graduate training—in fact, it was while writing my dissertation that I came upon Yutian Wong’s critique of my review in her excellent book Choreographing Asian America, sparking an extended reflection on my dance critical career and the role of the dance writer. As she had fifteen years prior, Sue met me with generosity and openness. She’s rather badass that way.

During our conversation this past May, I learned that after 32 years, Sue is retiring from the Physical Education Department at UC Berkeley. So this article now has a dual purpose: to offer readers insight how The Nature of Nature came to be—giving it the attention I now believe every work deserves, attention to process—and to pay tribute to Sue’s service, her unwavering commitment to dance in higher education, and her enduring love of dance.  

The Nature of Nature: Backstory

The Nature of Nature was born out of an encounter with a San Francisco Examiner article about fashion designer Colleen Quen and her husband, furniture designer Rick Lee. Quen, who has designed costumes for several of Alonzo King LINES Ballet works, was discussing a 2000 collaboration between her and Lee around the theme of the five Chinese elements—metal, wood, earth, water, and fire. Sue said, “She made gowns and he made furniture. My husband, Richard, read the article and said, ‘You have to read this. It sounds like a mirror image of us!” (Richard, an optometrist by day, had been making sets for Sue since the founding of Facing East Dance & MusicFEDM in 1999.) Inspired by Quen’s story, Sue gave her a call: “We talked for 45 minutes. I had been considering a piece about the five elements—how they relate to nature, personality, physicality—so I asked her if she wanted to do the costumes. And she did.” Quen also made the costumes for FEDM’s 2003 Held So Close, a piece about Angel Island, which Sue worked on for two years in collaboration with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

With Asian American scenic collaborators, Sue also came into contact with Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble—“At the time, it was like, Wow! Taiko! Who does that? Now, everyone!”—and decided to hire only Asian American dancers. But she got significant pushback from presenters, granters, donors, dancers, and both artistic and academic mentors: “A lot of people were saying, ‘You’re not making Asian American dance, you’re just making modern dance.’ And some people were like, ‘You really ought to get off the Asian thing.’ And I thought, Wow! You don’t think it’s necessary that I explore this?” I asked Sue what she makes of this response with 20/20 hindsight: “I’m not really sure what they meant, but it was very important to me to have all Asian dancers, yes, for a visual look, but it was also an understanding. I mean, I’ve never picked rice in a rice field, I’ve never lived in China, but there’s some kind of a thread there, through your parents, through your genealogy. I’d say my more successful years were those beginning years when I was hot and heavy to do that. When I loosened my grip on the importance of an all Asian company and doing every work about Asian Americaness, I felt less urgency and focus for making dances.”

Despite ramping down her choreographic practice, Sue continues to face East to keep herself grounded and inspired.

Physical Education at Berkeley

Sue started ballet and tap when she was six, and took her first modern dance class at Mills College with June Watanabe, whose company she joined in 1982. While dancing for June, company member Aida Pisciotta, who had been teaching in the Physical Education department at UC Berkeley, declared that she would be moving to New York “to seek her dance fortune.” The department hired Sue for one semester to teach jazz and modern. Aida stayed in New York; Sue stayed at Cal.

Sue spent her first two years at Berkeley as a Visiting Lecturer, becoming a Continuing Lecturer after the campus changed their policy: “They said that they were losing too many good lecturers with the two-year cap. I had to reapply through a search and I’ve been there ever since.” Once Sue completed six years as a Lecturer, she was given a renewable three-year contract, and considers herself “fortunate” to have had her contract renewed over and over again

Within the context of adjunct precarity, Sue and her colleagues also carry heavy course loads. When she began, PE dance lecturers taught 10 two-hour classes a week. Then it went up to 11. Then 12. “When it got to 13 we were all dying and injured, so they brought it back to 12. Jason Brittoen [PE Lecturer] rallied through the union to get us down to 11. So that’s where we sit now. That’s a lot of dancing.” Plus, those are 11 different classes, e.g. modern dance levels 1-4, jazz levels 1-4, etc., taught to as many as 40 students at a time.

When she first came to PE, it was a degree-conferring department with graduate student instructors (GSIs, also known as TAs), comprised of lectures, labs, and activity sections. At the time, you could get a Bachelor of Science degree in PE with a specialty in dance. But then the tenured faculty, who were teaching science-based movement classes, moved out of PE into Integrative Biology/Molecular and Cell Biology, taking their lectures and labs with them. PE was left with the activity sections— tennis, swimming, dance, etc.—and these courses became “merely” recreational, offering elective credit towards graduation. The disestablishment from department to program meant the remaining faculty “had no leg to stand on.”

When PE director Kathy Scott, the program’s last tenured faculty member, stepped down as director two years ago, Sue stepped up—unwillingly. Having no aspirations to becoming director, Sue put her name forward under the assumption that she would be co-directing with another colleague. When that colleague neglected to put her own name forward, Sue was hired. “I’d always said there’s no way I’m ever going to direct this department. But I said, all right, I’ll do it for a year.” A year became two, and although the pay raise is nice and teaching 4 rather than 11 classes a week a relief, Sue finds herself “administrating like crazy. It’s not really me.”

When Sue decided to step down as director she realized she’d have to retire because she couldn’t imagine going back to teaching 11 classes per week. But Sue is hardly done moving and shaking. She is recently certified in Kinesiological Stretching Techniques and feels like she has a second career in her: “Maybe I can share this work with students who, these days, are so out of their bodies.”


When I encountered The Nature of Nature in 2001, I had neglected to consider the concept of hybridity. I was looking for a certain authenticity, which now is the dirtiest word in the book, because what the hell is it and who the hell gets to decide? Further, back in the day, I didn’t think backstory should be part of a critical view. Now I have the exact opposite opinion. Pretending a work exists in a modernist vacuum is ridiculous. By reaching out to me to discuss my review, Sue became the first catalyst for my turn away from writing dance criticism from a position of authority to writing dancing as a conversation with dance makers and thinkers. And for that, I am forever grateful.

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