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In Dance

Stepping Out of Your Niche

One of the lures of San Francisco in the 70’s for me was its robust number of world dance practitioners. Contemporary choreographers were entering a significantly pluralistic era. San Francisco boasted the widest range and most enthusiastic population of world dance participants and enthusiasts. With the advent of the Ethnic Dance Festival, their productions bec­ame hugely more polished and ambitious. They seemed to triple in number but that’s what happens when a door is opened. The festival was that door. I think this festival is a treasure; it stands as a beacon of value for our region, our wholehearted embrace of a broad and deeply imaginative world of traditions beyond our borders. We are not only a sanctuary city but also a celebratory city. —Brenda Way, Artistic Director/Founder of ODC/Dance


Next year is the big one. But moving into the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House now (July 8-9 and 15-16), as an overture to its 40th anniversary next summer was not such a bad, in fact courageous, decision for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (SFEDF).

Male dancer leaps with hat and cape

Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza / photo by RJ Muna

Was it serendipity that brought dances born in village plazas into this new venue, one of the temples of “high art?” Perhaps, but it’s good to remember that before they thrived in salons and court theaters, both opera and ballet had put down roots in popular culture. For the SFEDF, or as the dancers call it, “the Ethnic,” the new venue this theater offers a welcome opportunity to stretch its reach and claim its place as one of the Bay Area’s preeminent cultural institutions. After all, it was in this Beaux-Arts palace that countries from around the globe gathered in 1945 to found the United Nations. Also, if new museums, just by their very existence, dramatically increase their visitor count, there is no reason why SFEDF should not become more alluring to a wider audience and practitioners of other dance genres.

Yet this change of venue came only after several years of uncertainty and struggle for World Arts West (WAW), which produces the SFEDF. Executive Director Julie Mushet, always positive and who might be considered an SFEDF lifer—especially as she gets excited looking at the latest programs submitted by this year’s participants—recalls her frantic search for an appropriate SF theater. WAW had had high hopes to be considered as one of the developers for a revamped Palace of Fine Arts, their home for the last 23 years. “They didn’t even consider our proposal,” she explained, “because we didn’t have twenty millions in cash. Are there any non-profits who even have that kind of money?”

As it turned out the two potential hotel developers for the Palace of Fine Arts dropped out, as did the third candidate—for a museum. Then Mushet found out that even after the parking lots at the Palace of Fine Arts would be re-opened, the theater would no longer be available to them. So Mushet hit the phone, and finally called the Opera who not only invited them in, but also confirmed that they would be welcome for the festival’s 40th anniversary celebration (July 14-15 and 21-22, 2018).

Did the Opera give SFEDF a break on the cost to rent the theater? “No,” Mushet smiled, “we pay full price.” The rental fee will be around $250,000, compared to the Palace’s $103,306. During the last six years, because of limited or nonexistent parking at the Palace, WAW lost close to $500,000 in ticket income. Considering the way the funding situation is these days, one has to admire the guts and willingness to move forward by Mushet and her board of directors. “We understand that the Opera House is a bigger venue with a moderately larger fixed cost than was incurred at the Palace of Fine Arts. However, with its much more convenient location and the cachet associated with the Opera House we are anticipating a larger audience. Fingers crossed that this comes to pass!”explains SFEDF Treasurer Sydney Firestone.

seated and standing women play traditional instruments

Zena Carlota + Mahealani Uchiyama / photo by RJ Muna

A few years ago, SFEDF practically dominated the month of June with its four weekends of performances. Now their overall budget has shrunk by 20 percent, and many funders—both corporate and foundations—have disappeared. Mushet remembers a recent conversation with one potential donor who told her that SFEDF was behind the times and that they should turn it into a competition, in which the audience would determine the winner. “Does everything we do,” Mushet lamented, “have to be a competition? Isn’t there room for getting together and enjoying something beautiful?”

Over the last decade or so, SFEDF’s artistic quality has consistently risen. The dancers perform with expertise and commitment. The staging has become more proficient. The shows flow more smoothly. SFEDF presents dances to live music, “whenever possible,” Mushet clarifies. It is also be worth remembering that this summer might be a first for the Opera House: performers on stage who only dance for the love of it. No dancers get paid. SFEDF pays the companies a small honorarium according to their size. Maybe this is one reason that in 2012 an East Coast, post-modern choreographer, acquaintance of mine asked herself what she had carried away from a program she had just seen. Her answer, “They performed with such joy.”

Woman dancer lunges while swinging orange skirt

Ballet Folklorico Mexico Danza / photo by RJ Muna

Directors of Bay Area world dance ensembles often return to the sources of their artist inspiration to deepen their knowledge and performance practice. Mushet recalls that in 2007 SFEDF received a small grant to send LIKHA Pilipino Folk Ensemble’s Artistic Director, Rudi Soriano to Palawan, Philippines to study with his Batak mentor. The following year the village chief participated in SFEDF and videotaped San Francisco’s artists. Upon returning to the Philippines, he discovered that his previously lackluster students began to develop a new appreciation for their own culture.

Choreographer and San Francisco Ballet Character Dancer Val Caniparoli has “attended the SF Ethnic Dance Festival for years and still is in awe of the diversity and the many ethnic organizations that thrive in the Bay Area.” In 1994, when he was working on his SF Ballet commission Lambarena: Bach to Africa, he sought out Diamano Coura West African Dance Company’s founder/directors Zakariya Diouf and Naomi Gedo Diouf. Still full of admiration, he recalls them as “amazing mentors and collaborators. They have affected how I choreograph—with a newly found sense of freedom.“ (on July 8, Naomi Gedo Diouf will receive this year’s SFEDF’s Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award)

three dancers, one drumming

BITEZO BIA KONGO / photo by RJ Muna

For the last 12 years the two Co-Artistic SFEDF Directors, Carlos Carvajal and CK Ladzekpo, have planned the programs with artists chosen from the pool of those qualified from the auditions. Carvajal, folk dancer in his teens before Ballet and choreography claimed him, explains; “I have European and some Asian experiences; CK knows all about dance and music of Africa and the African Diaspora.” Through their work curating the festival they have grown so close that they call each other “brother.”

dancer in blue crouches by upright dancer in red traditional Japanese costume

San Francisco Awakko Ren / photo by RJ Muna

Guiding the dancers through the process of trying to reach the Opera House’s 3,200 potential audience members—the Palace seated 966—did provide some challenges. Carvajal, who has performed in the Opera House many times during his time with SF Ballet, thinks the deeper stage will work beautifully though. Production values, however, had to be improved. Dancers will need to project more. Because of the theater’s size, some intimate dance forms could not be accommodated. Current programming had to be reduced to two weekends of two programs with two performances each. For the first time, some artists were invited without having to audition since the Festival considers them important to widen its audience appeal. 24 acts are scheduled, some of them in pre-performance settings.

SFEDF at the Opera House sounds good but that’s not the end. What the organizers really dream about is an International Festival of World Music and Dance—in the Opera House, and the rest of the City. As Caniparoli said, “I believe the sky is the limit on how this Festival can unite and affect all in the Arts community.” And its audiences.

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

Dancer in yellow skirt stretches arms diagonally

Te Mana O Te Ra / photo by RJ Muna

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

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

dancer in yellow skirt looks to right with arms crossed

Te Mana O Te Ra / photo by RJ Muna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wandering into New Terrain: Amy Seiwert’s Imagery – SKETCH 7

two dancers facing one another sprinkling dark matter mid-air

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery / photo by David DeSilva

Haunting D minor chords echo and repeat, evoking a sustained, steady, poignant walk. A descending scalic motif emerges, signaling the lowering of the sun and the onset of nightfall. Soon, the music modulates to the related major, F, and there is accompanying change of mood—a little more hopeful, more optimistic. A significant crescendo at the midpoint ushers in a sense of urgency. And in the final minute of the musical selection, another tonal area is explored, a different key entirely. Hinting at a new path maybe, a new discovery or perhaps a new realization.

These were just a few of my observations after listening to Gute Nacht, a five-minute duet for piano and voice, and the first song from Winterreise (D.911, Op. 89), by Franz Schubert. Composed near the end of Schubert’s life, Winterreise, translated as Winter Journey, takes the form of a song cycle, a compositional structure centuries old. While scholars are keen to point out that the song cycle is not a ‘one size fits all’ entity, a general search of the term yields a number of similar definitions, most describing it as a series of separate pieces woven together as one longer work. A few go a step further adding that selections in a song cycle often have some relational thread. Winterreise fits both criteria. First, it is made up of two dozen individual songs. And second, it has connective tissue. Twenty-four poems (in German) by Wilhelm Müller serve as the source material. Müller’s poetry tells of a journey, through space and time, of one who is experiencing loss, is contemplating the fragility of human existence and is struggling with the porousness between joy and sorrow. Schubert composed Winterreise in such a way to mirror and reveal these themes. The score of solo piano and a single male vocal line equally contributes to the mood and setting; the emotions and the narrative oozing from the music. I definitely could hear them as I experienced part one of Winterreise.

Dancer in plie holds dancer with outstretched limbs

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery / photo by David DeSilva

Amy Seiwert’s Imagery also finds themselves on a journey right now, traversing new territory for the upcoming SKETCH 7: Wandering. A convergence of contemporary ballet and Schubert’s Winterreise song cycle, Wandering marks a creative departure for Artistic Director Amy Seiwert, who has typically been pulled more towards the abstract side of dancemaking. Instead, Wandering sojourns into narrative choreography. Daring to take bold chances – a core tenet of Imagery’s annual SKETCH series.

“SKETCH is about risk and trying to move outside comfort zones,” explains Seiwert. Since its inception in 2011, each iteration of SKETCH has been built around a theme—a particular choreographic challenge posed to the participating dance artists. With their artistic puzzle in hand, the SKETCH artists then set out to craft new work, incubating ideas and pushing their compositional practice. Past years have delved into collaborative processes, the relationship between movement and text as well as the choreographic interpretation of music and sound. The trend continues with 2017’s SKETCH program. For the seventh iteration of this artistic laboratory, Seiwert is challenging herself to create an evening-length narrative work.

“I’ve never done a full evening work or a full narrative work,” Seiwert relays, “I’ve always had a fascination with how to speak choreographically, with ballet language and where I could take it, but I never felt a big pull to be a story-teller.” That is until recently, when Seiwert began to notice a shift, “of late, I have felt a need for narrative stories and a desire to say something more linear.” Schubert’s emotive, plot-based score seemed an ideal musical collaborator. Seiwert first encountered excerpts of the music back in 2015, when she and KT Nelson were building Starting Over at the End for SKETCH 5, “I fell in love with the songs and the sense of mystery they can hold; exploring an entire song cycle felt like a natural next step.” And then there was also the space inherent in the song cycle form that appealed to Seiwert, the room for another creative voice, “I think there is something fantastic about the song cycle with the piano and the voice–when you create to highly orchestrated music, it’s so huge and can leave you wondering where, how or does the dance fit in. In this, there is so much space for the dance.”

Seiwert dove into this artistic experiment and began work on Wandering, an apt title considering both the text of Schubert’s song cycle and that she is venturing out in this new direction. A number of different aspects have been part of the early process: digging into the storytelling form in dance, researching/seeing narrative work, studying the Winterreise song cycle and considering how to get a message across with movement. “This is definitely where I am less comfortable and it feels like a massive undertaking,” admits Seiwert, “but I want to try this different aspect and see if I can generate a narrative thread that engages the viewer for an entire evening.”

Choreographically, Wandering furthers Seiwert’s lifelong exploration of ballet language, “I am constantly looking for unexpected ways to use what we know, and see what the body can do when we look past a habitual kinetic response.” At the same time, the narrative-based phrase material is in deep conversation with Schubert’s emotionally charged score. Seiwert is excited to see that relationship intensify as the construction of Wandering continues, “Winterreise starts with rejection and a loss of place, the protagonist is out and lost and wandering in the world.” Some of the choreographic motifs that the company is currently working on in rehearsal reflect a similar sense of searching and seeking, for something or someone. Hands reach longingly outward into space; big extensions unfold in the legs and arms, in lifts and balances; running and walking motifs are investigated on the floor and in the air.

The seventy-minute contemporary ballet will be danced by a cast of eight and features two Acts. “I appreciate time to step away from a performance and come back after a brief rest,” Seiwert says, “so I was curious to think about whether there could be a break or intermission in the evening, and after listening to the music, there felt like an obvious moment of pause.” Collaborating with Seiwert for the project are costume designer Susan Roemer and visual designer Brian Jones, whose work for Wandering is supported by a Dancers’ Group Lighting Artists in Dance Award.

Wandering also has an interesting bi-coastal element to it. The dance will see its San Francisco premiere (and world premiere) on July 21st at the Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, and then the following week, will head to New York City for the Joyce Theater’s 2017 Ballet Festival. The Joyce Theater Foundation has been instrumental in the development of Wandering, providing financial backing for studio space and artistic personnel. “We [are] one of two creative residencies that the Joyce offers each year, which means that the stress of ‘can we afford to do this’ has been lifted and I’m able to complete the creative vision that I set out in the first place,” adds Seiwert.

Part one of that vision has definitely been realized, as Wandering has taken Seiwert outside of her usual creative space and into a new choreographic realm, “I’ve had to trust myself to go there with my risks and be bold enough in my choices so as to try and make a connection with the audience – that’s the scary part.” Scary indeed, but also ripe with possibility. And very soon, it will be time to see what Wandering brings, what those possibilities and revelations might be. Time to launch part two of the experiment—presenting the ballet in front of an audience. Seiwert’s main metric is that the piece elicits a reaction. “This work has been in the pipeline for over a year and a half, but I’ve been able to see parallels in the poem – loss of love, loss of home, the feeling of being unmoored – that speak very much to now,” Seiwert shares, “I hope that the audience feels something, that Wandering resonates with them and generates an emotional response; indifference is the biggest failure.”

For You, For All of Us

group huddles in center of chair circle on beach

For You / photo by Robbie Sweeny

The recent production of For You at the Marin Headlands was intended to be a break from self-absorbed, opaque art. Conceived by interdisciplinary performance maker Erika Chong Shuch, the April 1, 2017 all-day show was designed to center on the lives of 12 audience members, in an event that would feature recognizable moments and be meaningful to them. The surprise is that For You ended up being as much for us performers as for those in the audience. We artists had peak experiences. And thankfully for all of us it’s not over.

For You was inspired by Erika’s desire to make a show for her grandparents. “My grandparents were my biggest fans,” she says. “Or maybe not fans. Because they didn’t love the work. They loved me.”

Erika’s vision was to create a custom dance theater piece for Phyllis and Milton Shuch. She imagined that they would sit in their house in the chairs they rarely got up from and watch little performances inspired by their lives. It never happened before they both died. But the seed was planted. And the notion of an intimate performance celebrating her grandparents dovetailed with her wish to make theater more democratic—less about processing her own feelings and more about the process of getting to know others.

The result is For You, a series of performances focused on the lives of 12 people, presented exclusively for those 12.

As a longtime friend and collaborator of Erika’s, I have the pleasure of working on For You. In addition to Erika and myself, performance scholar Ryan Tacata and architect A. Ghigo DiTommaso are also lead collaborators. The four of us have been developing For You for over a year: building a website, meeting with each other and with our partners at YBCA, representing For You at a conference of Creative Capital, our major supporter, and conducting For You workshops for the public that revolve around the notion of performative gifts.

On that first Saturday in April we presented For You to the first audience of 12. The performers included not only Erika, Ryan, Ghigo and me, but several trusted collaborator friends old and new—in all, performers outnumbered audience participants. There were interactive elements for the audience to partake in as well: one-on-ones (customized exchanges between one performer and one audience member), invitations to dance, serenades, trivia games, a formal dinner, a ritual at sunset on the beach. The audience knew nothing in advance, not even where we were taking them, in part to play up the suspense, and in part to keep our options open. Our website states: “Our eventual performance might take place in a black box theater, or it might unravel over a three-day road trip…”

We had been meeting with the audience participants for a few months prior to April 1st. The 12 people had to apply to take part. The application required a kind of self-awareness. You were asked to submit a photo of your favorite object, a self-portrait, a map of home, and answer the question, “What happened?” We selected people who wouldn’t necessarily hold the same views or attend the same shows, to give strangers a shared experience. Selected audience members then entered the “dating” phase of the project. We got to know them via individual visits. “The only requirements are your time and curiosity,” our website declares. Their gestures, trinkets, and anecdotes became fodder for our performance actions, menus and images.

Many funding organizations ask about impact: what is the impact of the project on your art? What is the impact of your art on the community? With For You, the impact isn’t broad but deep. “Success in some ways is defined by size,” Erika says. “Size of audiences, of venues – and impact is often also measured by those numbers. I became curious about designing a process that shifts some of the fundamental ways we gauge success.” We’ve trusted that less is more. We believe in that deep impact. We aspire to move the needle both in terms of what it means to be in an audience, and what it means to perform for an audience.

For You’s first performance seemed to succeed among audience members. “I have been moved since Saturday to try to be the best version of myself. I’ve been writing spontaneous thank-you notes,” reflected one of the 12. “I am awash in important new memories,” wrote another. “This experience has challenged and changed me. It’s dismantled my understanding of what can be involved in the act of receiving,” shared another. Yet another told us that it made her think of the best way to welcome her daughter home after a year overseas.

One audience member moved by the event was a medical school graduate about to begin a grueling residency. She shared with us her concerns about being away from her toddler son for up to 80 hours a week. This became the basis of a gift for her: a collection of letters written by YBCA youth artist-interns describing their working mothers’ embodied strength and purpose. For this audience member’s one-on-one she sat on a blanket with a thermos of espresso and a view of the Golden Gate, and read the letters. She wept cathartically. She plans to put these letters up in her office.

Even as we gave such poignant gifts to the audience members, we performers reaped unexpected rewards. I experienced a career high point. The moment was fleeting, but powerful and based on the slow, intimate creative process leading up to it. Buried Child is a Sam Shepherd play that was formative to one of our audience member’s careers. She happens to be the San Francisco Chronicle theater critic, Lily Rae Loving Janiak. (I prefer to use her full name, which I believe is a testament to how For You is a bonding experience. I have such affection for all 12). I knew nothing about Buried Child so I looked it up on YouTube. Among talks and stage productions I found a two-minute animated synopsis. We lifted the text from the video verbatim. It starts out, “So, you want to know more about the plot of Buried Child? If so, you’ve come to the right place. If not, well you can just get the hell out!” That shockingly aggressive greeting began what Lily described in the Chronicle as a “square-dance-inflected caricature of Buried Child.”

woman leans toward camera shouting

Rowena Richie in For You / photo by Michael Short special to the San Francisco Chronicle

The caricature was very demanding: a slurry of fast-paced facts about a family with confusing first names. It was under-rehearsed. Not surprising: we had a week-long residency at the Marin Headlands to pull together the whole For You smorgasbord. But as soon as I lit into “So, you want to know more…!” I discovered I was grounded—in Erika, in dance-theater, in my body, all the way down to my supporting breath. I was channeling, not talking about me or processing my feelings as I typically do – so liberating! There’s a photo from this moment of discovery. I’m surging forward almost unhinged, “Well you can just get the hell out!” Exhilarating doesn’t quite describe it. It was orgasmic.

As well as stimulating my performer instincts, this collaboration with Erika, Ghigo, and Ryan flexes my performance-maker muscles. Erika makes me see the big picture and the smallest details, Ghigo makes me see through his deft design-eye, and Ryan opens my eyes to the unseen.

We conducted in-home visits with each audience member. “Small talk” led to deeper dialog that shaped the performance. In the medical school graduate’s orderly, minimalist home Ryan asked to see her messiest space. She hesitated, then opened her sock drawer for us. By our standards it wasn’t messy, but underneath her paired socks were some loose papers, among them a card containing photos of her father trimming trees. The photos took her by surprise. She got choked up looking at them. The house, the trees, the tree-trimming days are gone. Her father suffered a stroke a few years back and consequently lost his beloved home, and some of his dignity. I would have—we would have—missed this bittersweet, telling story without Ryan’s scholarly, sleuthing skills.

For You continues. Rounds two and three are slated for Fall 2017 and Spring 2018. In these upcoming versions, we plan to cast a wider net. After the next two rounds, we have dreams of taking it across the country and beyond our national borders. To be one of the 12 audience members you need to apply online. For application instructions go to our website: www.foryou.productions. Applications for the next round are open from June 1st to July 21st. Application deadlines for future rounds will be posted online and updated regularly.

I can’t wait to work with the next set of “yous.” If the upcoming events are anything like the first one, they will be transformative. Lily’s one-on-one involved the Native American teaching that each of us has a ‘medicine’ that we are meant to share with others. It’s what gives us purpose. The April performance seemed to draw out that medicine in everyone involved—audience members and performers. We learned that in giving, you receive. For You ended up being For All of Us.

In Practice: Ramon Ramos Alayo and John Santos

dancer in orange poses next to dancer in white smiling and lifting a knee & handkerchief

Alayo Dance Company / photo by RJ Muna

This year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (SFEDF) takes place for the first time at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. It is also the first year that the festival will present the work of Cuban choreographer Ramón Ramos Alayo and the Alayo Dance Company. Festejos Caribeños, a collaboration between Alayo and renowned Afro-Latin percussionist John Santos and his sextet, and commissioned by the SFEDF, is an enactment of a Cuban street party in three parts, each dominated by a different dance form: Modern Dance, Rumba, and Conga. Each form bleeds into the other, laced with a fourth form, Cuban Salsa. The work begins with a New Orleans-style funeral procession and ends with an invitation to join the Conga line. (NB: This is not the “one-and-two-and-three, kick!” of your nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.)­­­

Alayo has been working in the Bay Area as a choreographer for nearly two decades—he founded Alayo Dance Company in 2002—and has organized the successful Cuban dance festival, Cuba Caribe, for the past 13 years. So it surprised me to hear that this was the first year his work was to be featured at the SFEDF. But Alayo explained that the way his choreography combines dances from Africa, Latin America, the US, and Europe has, in the past, been somewhat illegible to presenters looking for cultural forms that appear to have been spawned within clearly defined national borders: “Once I auditioned and brought a modern piece. They didn’t accept me. But this time they want to bring some modern into it.” In other words, dances from Cuba needed to look Cuban in the eyes of the presenters; traces of petit allegro or fall and recovery didn’t seem to go with percussive, polyrhythmic pelvic movement.

Thankfully, the SFEDF currently understands that “ethnic” dances are dynamic, hybrid practices rather than static, monocultural forms; they develop in non-linear time and multidirectional space. The audition guidelines call for “dances that reflect all aspects of culture, including sacred or spiritual dances, social dance, secular or vernacular dance, dances from life cycle events, and innovative work based in traditional dance forms.” Ethnic dance festivals, in their effort to showcase diversity under the banner of multiculturalism, risk conceiving of and promoting dance forms that are “recognizably” Other, perpetuating simplistic binaries such as traditional/contemporary and ethnic/art. But the SFEDF’s panel review criteria includes a section on the “Relationship to Cultural Origins – Authenticity and/or Genre Growth,” asking whether a work of “hybrid genre or fusion […] successfully integrates the disparate movement vocabularies as well as demonstrate technical and cultural understanding of its disparate roots.”

Alayo explained that since the 1959 Cuban revolution, Cuban dance has been a mixture of modern dance, ballet, and folkloric forms. To complete his Master of Arts at the National School of Art in Havana, Alayo trained for eight years in multiple dance forms including Cuban dance, folkloric dances from other Latin American countries (Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Venezuela), Yoruban dance, Haitian dance, modern dance (Horton, Limón, and Graham), and ballet: “All my life I have been mixing genres and styles.” To account for this complexity the festival is calling his work “Cuban Contemporary Folkloric,” “because I’m not doing a pure folklore. I’m modifying the Rumba a little bit, like with lifting [one person lifting another] from modern dance. They call it contemporary because it’s not a traditional Rumba or Salsa.” Since Alayo trained in Cuba at a school where contemporary and folkloric forms occupy a level playing field characterized by cross-pollination, it seems to me that “Cuban dance” would have been the more appropriate and accurate moniker.

Despite efforts by dance scholars to challenge aesthetic hierarchies that place “traditional” or “folkloric” dance forms below “concert” or “art” dances alleged to have universal reach and a capacity for transcendence, these hierarchies remain. [see footnote 1]  “Not for Cuba,” Alayo said.

“When you start choreographing, you can mix all those dances, there’s a lot of connection.” This interaction and exchange of forms that began after the revolution continues to change: “Cuban modern is changing because now they are bringing companies from Europe, who don’t know what Cuban dance is.”

musician holds drum

John Santos Sextet / photo by RJ Muna

Santos, who was born and raised in San Francisco to Puerto Rican and Cape Verdean parents, further discussed how we misunderstand the term traditional: “The forms that we are using here in this instance are super traditional dance forms but even in that context, even saying they’re traditional, they have to be understood as all about improvisation and creativity. It’s not a staid, under-glass, museum tradition. It’s a living tradition that has always evolved.”

In terms of labels like “Afro-Latin music,” Santos said, “They mean nothing. They’re commercial labels, made mainly for the industry, so the people selling the music know what bin to put it in.” Nevertheless, certain commercial labels often have complex histories, particularly among the musicians who find themselves under their jurisdiction. Santos explained, “To call music Afro-Latin, for example, does have a certain connotation and it means different things to different people. We’re dealing with Afro-Cuban music in this case, but we don’t call the music I play in general Afro-Cuban anymore. Afro-Cuban is the strongest root, but it would be limiting to call it that since we put in all our collective lines—jazz, funk, rock, classical, Puerto Rican, Brazilian. In Dizzy Gillepsie’s time, the 40s and 50s, it was Afro-Cuban jazz, not Afro-Latin. But as years went on, the Caribbean adopted it all, so now you can’t just say Afro-Cuban.” Afro-Latin Jazz works to account for that hybridity, but tensions among artists around labels continue: “There was a time not long ago when Cubans hated the term Salsa because it was a Puerto Rican term. We know it has mostly Cuban roots—it’s rumba, it’s son, it’s mambo—but the Puerto Ricans promoted it in New York. Now many Cubans say Cuban Salsa.”

Santos’ recordings provided the point of departure for Alayo’s choreography: “Ramón listened to several of my pieces and identified the ones that spoke to him. Then we took two separate pieces and made one new piece. Ramón gravitated towards the pieces that were most danceable.” Alayo worked with the dancers to the recordings and then showed Santos the choreography. I asked Santos how working with a choreographer and dancers affects his practice: “Whenever there is choreography we have to pay close attention for cuing, for the vibe and spirit of the piece. That’s what makes it special.”

Although working with choreography may be a special circumstance for Santos, working with dance in mind is not: “In order to play traditional Cuban music you have to learn it in the context of dance. I’ve been around that type of dance my whole life. When performing, composing, and recording music that is based on traditional forms, like rumba and conga, I visualize the dancing. The dancing is part of my process, even when there’s no dancing involved directly; the music is made for dancing. Most of our music is based on dance forms. So it’s a natural fit.”

When I told Santos about Alayo’s past illegibility in the eyes of the SFEDF audition panelists (and surely there were more variables in the decision than can be accounted for here), he was surprised: “What he was presenting should have fit all along. It’s what’s going on in Cuba. You now see modern, hip hop, Michael Jackson, boxing, baseball, in traditional rumbero dancing. It’s open to everything, so it’s logical to a dancer who studies modern and ballet, and who sees rumberos in the street.”

As the festival continues in our post-/neo-colonial, globalized world, it is important, perhaps now more than ever, that it presents artists like Alayo, whose artistic practices embody the tensions that challenge the concept of “ethnic dance” as it developed in the context of colonialism. As anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku argued in her groundbreaking 1969 essay, “An Anthropologist Looks at Ballet as a Form of Ethnic Dance,” all dances are ethnic dances, even ballet. [see footnote 2] And all dances are hybrid forms developed in the context of global flows of human capital, even ballet (Italian, French, Russian, Chinese, Cuban). Despite the fact that hybridity, creativity, and a notion of the contemporary characterizes all dances of modernity, the label “ethnic” continues to operate as a euphemism for “other,” for world dances that are somehow not of this world.

Ballet, with its high level of infrastructural and financial support, doesn’t need a platform like the SFEDF. Even if he isn’t fond of the pressure to be “the representative of tradition” (and the concomitant critiques for being not authentic enough), Alayo appreciates how the SFEDF offers a forum for the rich Bay Area dancescape. Both he and Santos feel that the festival is particularly important right now. Santos said, “It has a special significance to be in that environment where there’s music from around the world; it frames current political discourse and divisiveness differently by demonstrating unity and solidarity across all real and perceived borders.”


SF Ethnic Dance Festival presents Alayo Dance Company and John Santos’ Festejos Caribeños: Jul 8-9 (full festival runs Jul 8-9 & 15-16), War Memorial Opera House, SF, sfethnicdancefestival.org


[1] For an excellent discussion of the discursive history of “ethnic dance,” see the edited collection Worlding Dance, edited by Susan Leigh Foster.

[2] In her chapter in Worlding Dance, “Race-ing Choreographic Copyright,” Anthea Kraut makes a crucial point about Kealiinohomoku’s groundbreaking 1969 essay, “Despite her efforts, the constructed opposition between the solitary, creative genius of the West and the collectively created dance cultures of the Rest continues to hold sway” (78).

Speak: Tension

video face looks down over gallery scene with performer

Dia Dear / photo by Jenn Wong

My name’s Dia Dear. I’m an untraditionally trained dancer, choreographer, performance, and visual artist and make live, solo work. My work grew out of drag clubs and queer nightlife in San Francisco. My practice is most closely rooted in the open-ended concept encapsulated by notions of ‘queerness’.

I’m working on an evening length piece that will premiere at CounterPulse in February 2018 investigating tension. In preparation for that piece, I’m making images that generate the most and least tension.

A couple of years ago, I began reflecting in a very focused way on what I made and was interested in making. Tension as a concept slowly revealed itself as a primary concern and interest for me. Tension is a force, push and pull at once. Incongruent and interlocked. It’s a pendulum that swings between varying degrees of tightness and release. Tension is the experience of events coming into sharper focus. It is energies that are dense, unsustainable, combustible. Things that quickly change.

Specifically I saw tension in my work in the creation of drama; in the jerky, isolation dancing I was drawn to choreographing; in the conflicted emotional content of my pieces existing in a messy state where feelings are tied to desire, ego, context, history; in displaying my rare form of alopecia and transgender body openly.

figure stands leaning over cube in front of projected video

Dia Dear / photo by Jenn Wong

I saw tension as a theme of my lived experience too. It’s something I’ve been trying to write about: how the condition of tension is related to transgender bodies, diseased bodies, and any body marked with visible physical differences that are pathologized. It’s even more interesting and complicated to me to look at how these bodies in performance art are valued, and how the meanings the bodies are imbued with – which Other them – can be reclaimed and used as collateral or appropriated and made into art capital.

I also noticed how literal physical tension affects my body—I have a horrible problem with my jaw that can make it painful to open my mouth, and have had inflammation problems with both knees that greatly affected my mobility. Then of course there is psychological tension, emotional tension, any other tension a human body can experience.

Now, I think about tension and its value in body based art a lot. I’m interested in using all the body’s potential (in my work that has been my own body) as a tool for translation. The body has the potential to translate through movement and manipulation of physical appearance. In my short format work in clubs, manipulating the appearance of the body to create spectacle is an important tool to attract and maintain attention in an overstimulating environment. I also believe creating spectacle is a useful way to destabilize a viewer’s experience or tendency to ‘read’ a body as this or that. Spectacle, however, is becoming a major way of communicating. Social media algorithms prime spectacular content to be most visible, most consumed, and most commodified. I think about how that is culturally changing people, and the position that puts the artist using body and movement in their work.

These reflections turned into a focus on the physical manifestations of tension in a body on a stage. I made choreographies of tension throughout 2016 and showed my work on tension in the performing body at SOMArts as a part of the curated group show Touch On (December 2016 – January 2017).

figure stretches on ground with mask on

Dia Dear / photo by Jenn Wong

The second phase of my tension work has me thinking about tension in terms of images and the process of making images. Images seem not to exist without a viewer so I’m thinking of the viewer’s experience as I fabricate tension in images.

I was just flicking through a dating app with my friend on her couch a night ago as a way to decompress. Watching her flick through her own app and NO and YES people was a reminder of how image reading works. With my friend, knowing her type, I was surprised when she would say NO to some people and YES to others. This reminded me that everyone looks at an image and interprets it uniquely. It makes sense to me to think about image interpretation as a form of reading and the unique way each person interprets an image as indicative of a personal language. Everyone has their own language for reading and is a skilled reader before they are ever a competent maker of images. Everyone has their own language of reading images that can’t easily be translated to another. When reading written text in a language you have fluency, the reader’s comprehension can get very close to the intended meaning of the writer if the writing is done skillfully with the intention of being unambiguous. Image reading cannot achieve that clarity. Culturally, familially we are bombarded with information about how the meaning of images interacts with that individual’s lived experience and history. And as individuals we create some of our own meaning and it all jumbles together into something that’s not wholly conscious. So, I’m interested in reading images for what generates interest and what doesn’t generate interest. I’m making a collection of images in response to this research.

I want a break from tension too and am thinking about, not it’s complement (release) but it’s absence: ease.

I’ve been trying to read an essay by Susan Sontag where she discusses silence in art and uses one of my favorite painters to discuss the principle: Agnes Martin. Sontag’s language in this essay is relatively dense compared to her later work that I’ve read, and it’s hard for me to follow her in this essay. I quickly get frustrated or tired and stop reading. What I gather from Sontag and from studying Martin’s paintings in real life is a sense of quiet that isn’t silencing. It isn’t trying to ‘do’ anything. It’s completely unaggressive but utterly powerful. It’s an openness. Martin’s paintings are famously difficult to reproduce because she used very faint color. They’re large and square so when you stand in front of them they feel big enough to hold you but not so big as to be unrelatable. They’re simple: collections of grids and lines with little to no variation in a single painting. They possess a depth of field and meaning that is contradictory, but sort of similar to the work of some religious traditions that are used for meditation. Except in her paintings there is no focal point to meditate on. It’s just one big whole.

I’m interested in finding that performative / body based corollary. That’s where I’m at right now and I’ll leave it there because I don’t have the research yet to say anything more. In the next year, I’ll be presenting more work in preparation for the tension premiere at CounterPulse and continuing sharing writing on some of the topics I touched on here. If you’re interested in staying updated on the piece, please send me an email at dia@diadear.com and let me know!

Welcome

July August 2017 CoverSize matters, mostly.

I like my encounters to feel big and bold. In a space where bodies defy expectations in size, ability, race, and gender, while providing intimate physical moments that range from quiet tenderness to explosive fireworks. I also like the experience to last—an encounter might take 30 to 40 minutes. Not to be too detailed, but there may be props involved or theatrical toys incorporated to enhance the experience. All in service to what can be described as the dramatic pay-off, the climax, which concludes the performance.

Did this rudimentary rambling have you imagining a scene of carnal pleasure?

No, silly, it’s my way to describe how much I love to see dance. A chance to imbibe a variety of physical actions of all shapes and sizes. These instances are intimate embraces between performer and audience. And like most first loves—and those that are fondly remembered—they’re all part of experimenting.

I often question, how does physical proximity to a dance impact or alter one’s perception of that dance? Perhaps the closeness of moving bone and muscle forces unforeseen feelings and unimagined interpretations. Yet, how close is too close? Does an audience’s distance from performers more fully realize or lessen sensorial images intended by their creator?

Does it matter?

I’m on a roll with questions. And there are more, like: what draws an audience to attend one event over another? Is it good marketing? Artistry? Affordability? Money certainly is a factor in making a decision on which event, or events, one can afford to attend. Access? Can someone in a wheelchair even enter the performance space?

No answers readily available here—open for discussion.

Happily, this is a time when moving bodies, and the events that showcase their artistry, are valued and seen in ways that past generations could never have imagined. This includes having audience embraced in a bar, museum, park, gallery, on the side of a buildings wall, and of course at theaters (inside and outside). Performers now have the opportunity to dance on Facebook or move in such close proximity that only inches separate the viewer from the performer. Dances are now crafted for one person’s pleasure or for hundreds of thousands, as in the case of online media.

Over the next two months, reflect on these questions, and your own, as you consider which events to attend: at spaces small, alternative and grand.

In this issue you will read about productions taking place at the San Francisco Opera House (SF Ethnic Dance Festival) and performance events that are being built for only 12 people (For You). Learn about outdoor events created in public parks that investigate how disabled and non-disabled performers are seen (Occupy). Then there are the festivals, which are part of an ever-expanding format that speaks to the power of coming together to share multiple viewpoints in one setting (Bay Area International Deaf Dance Festival).

So, size, scale, magnitude, and intent does indeed matter because it plays an important role in gaining access to as many options to create and see dance in as many ways as we can imagine.

A final reflection on size: big is sometimes small, and small can lead to something bigger, therefore, size, like beauty, (cliché alert) lies in the eye of the beholder.

Dream Big and Hope Often.

SPEAK: PoemAnthemSong

Dancer kneels over other dance lying down

Alexandra Carrington and Robyn Gerbaz in poem : one / photo by Andrew Weeks

poem : one
began when Hope Mohr invited me to participate in her company’s 2015 Bridge Project, Rewriting Dance, featuring work at the intersection of language and choreographic thinking. From my earliest choreographic attempts, text has figured prominently, usually as a movement germinator. I find it so easy to fall victim to my movement habits and affinities, so working alongside language allows me to ‘unknow’ and therefore access unfamiliarity. Since text was already a consistent, impactful presence in my process, I wanted to approach a relationship of magnified stamina and literality. I chose to work with Lydia Davis’ “Head, Heart,” a short story whose inevitability and lens on heartache has long resonated with me. I began as usual, trying to transcribe and manifest page to body, but instead of taking leave of the text once an embodied language began to develop, I remained ensconced and loyal to the imagined life of head and heart.

Inspired by Davis’ minimalism and also wanting to shift my artistic orientation, I tried to construct the resulting duet between Alexandra Carrington and Robyn Gerbaz with as much humanness (not dancer-ness) as possible, and also experiment with the durational possibilities of simplicity. I am decreasingly interested in steps and the virtuosity of the physical. While dance still requires a body, I long for it to not preside or impress. Give me the virtuosity of intimacy, nuance, presence, and affect.

dancer leaps mid-air with one leg behind

Alexandra Carrington demonstrating V of anthem : two‘s movement alphabet

anthem : two
was born in the aftermath of Trumpocalypse.

Just as I often rely on text as seed, I also turn to the alphabet to start a flow: usually after abcde within a specific template, something loosens. In the doom of the alt-right and the gleam of Colin Kaepernick, I decided to create a dystopian, sorrowful alphabet to spell, or perhaps gut, the national anthem. Did you know that the version America recites is only the first of four verses? The end of the third verse: No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave… Hardly national (national: common to or characteristic of a whole nation) or anthemic (anthem: a rousing or uplifting song identified with a particular group, body, or cause), unless we acknowledge its purpose for a whites-only nation and a white group/body/cause. Definitely a call to defy and eviscerate.

After creating the movement alphabet, I divvied up the lines equally between Alexandra, Robyn, Asha Benjelloun, and Stephen DiBiase, and asked them to create a literal, spelled bodily document. The initial result was predictably tedious. The work then was to edit, mutate, construct divergent personal landscapes, and infuse our communal rage and grief. That initial version is unrecognizable, with only faint alphabetic vestiges.

dancer kneels in blue light on stage

Alexander Diaz in song : three / photo by Kimara Dixon

song : three
contains, surrounds, queries, sings, and celebrates blackness. It is also my first-time attempt to pointedly engage with blackness via dance: fear of falling into the pitfalls of ‘black’ work that is blatant, didactic, or essentialist, combined with questions around my right to engage (I am a black woman with enormous light-skinned privilege), have made me trepidatious.

My thesis for my (recently completed) MFA was about the politics of wonder, more specifically how systemic racism diminishes, and often annihilates people of color’s access to wonderment. In a way, song : three feels like an extension of that study. Who is allowed to wonder and dream themselves into fairy tales (also known as wonder tales)? How does a child of color inhabit a story-book filled with blond whiteness? Where is a young black girl’s opportunity to see herself as a princess, the slayer of dragons? When can a black boy become the valiant hero, an elegant swan?

I worked on a solo with a beautiful young artist, Alexander Diaz. A black body on stage is political, particularly if that body doesn’t entertain, jive, jump, wow, play victim or beast. I wanted to dispute those reductions and create space for Alex’s multi-faceted, sparkling entirety to exist; an entirety whose very ontology challenges the reigning and dismembering pigmentocracy; a space for this black man and his blackness to simply be… quiet, fluid, vulnerable, non-performative, and resultantly vast and optative.

Maurya with head turned to side

Maurya Kerr / photo by Andrew Weeks

PoemAnthemSong
represents the nascent positioning of these three distinct works as newly one, kindred in their mutual reliance on words as catalyst and infrastructure. I’m now in constant consideration of how to connect them: perhaps as prefix, word, suffix; wing, tread, anchor; or moon, sun, eclipse? Should they intersect, penetrate, glide or chafe? Or maybe simply witness self and other.

I recently came across this quote by writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara: “The purpose of a writer is to make revolution irresistible.” I can only hope that our work as makers and movers can likewise compel us into devotion with rising up and radicality.

Help, head. Help heart. — Lydia Davis.


tinypistol presents PoemAnthemSong June 9-10 as part of ODC’s Walking Distance Festival. (poem : one premiered November 2015 as part of the Bridge Project; anthem : two premiered April 2017 as part of Dance Mission’s D.I.R.T Festival; song : three premiered (as fable : three) February 2017 as part of the Black Choreographers Festival. Thank you to Hope Mohr, Krissy Keefer, and Laura Elaine Ellis for their respective invitations and support.

Create, Reflect, Advocate, Repeat

Dance teacher moving with younger student

Jochelle Perena teaching at Luna Dance Institute / photo by Michael Ertem

Dance Teaching Artist is my primary job and Professional Learning Manager, my secondary role at Luna Dance Institute. The latter may sound more distinguished, yet teaching is where my heart is and where I hold the most pride. And it is my tenure as a dance teaching artist (DTA) that allows me greater impact as a manager. I can relate to the questions that artist educators bring to me because I have grappled with many of the same issues myself. Where my first-hand experience falls short, I draw from the collective capacity of my Luna teaching team. Our goal for Luna’s Professional Learning is to support dance educators so that they continue teaching and pushing the eld of dance education forward. How do we do this? Recently I spoke on a panel during the CreateCA conference in Costa Mesa, and the notion of the needs and identity of the teaching artist came to the forefront of my mind. As I shared Luna’s history of inquiry-based teaching and learning, I realized that what we’ve developed in twenty-five years of serving dance educators is explained through four essential prongs.

Build Community. Dance teaching artists often feel incredibly isolated. They may spend more time commuting from school site to studio, or from studio to an after-school program than they do actually teaching, and thus don’t always have the opportunities to make connections with colleagues at their sites. Or, if not commuting, they may be the only dance teacher at their site and this can feel lonely,  even disempowering. Finding colleagues who truly value dance and who have wrestled with similar questions is reaffirming and inspiring to a DTA. Our eld of dance education grows stronger when practitioners can connect to the expansive network of teaching artists.

To facilitate relationship building amongst educators, Luna ensures that all of our work- shops include group and partner conversation, and collaborative dance-making. We encourage workshop participants to stay in touch with one another, sometimes through virtual discussion forums, and invite them back for follow-up Practitioner Exchanges, where they can bring lessons they’ve tried, challenges they’ve come across, or ideas they need help expanding. Our annual Launch gathers a broader community of dance educators to celebrate the beginning of the school year, and often serves as an opportunity for us to connect teachers with similar interests and inquiries. Out of these initial interactions I’ve seen DTAs orchestrate their own informal communities of practice over dinner, observe each other teach, attend the National Dance Education Organization conference together, offer job recommendations, and support each other through the highs and lows of their careers.

Creative Rigor – inspire the artist within the teacher and the teacher within the artist. I sometimes hear teaching artists exclaim that, despite their role to inspire creativity in their students, they feel like the least creative teachers at their site. Their tried and true curriculum may have grown stale or administrative duties have overshadowed their teaching, and somehow they’ve lost touch with what brought them to the profession in the first place: the love of their craft.

And really, dance teaching artists have two crafts: dance and teaching. How can we continue sparking the joy for both? Each year we design new Professional Learning workshops around the questions both artists and educators ask during coaching and consultations. Integrating dance activities into all of our offerings has helped us honor the artists within the teachers we serve, and has aided in dance educators recognizing that their artist selves and teaching selves can be one in the same. One practitioner told me that to her surprise, “taking these workshops has actually made [her] a better choreographer,” a sentiment shared by more than one participant. Luna’s choreographer showcase, 20 Points of View, was partially inspired by the desire to celebrate the dance makers within our teaching community, and we introduced our Adult Creative Dance class to support educators in (re-)discovering their artistic practice. Going to a dance concert, the museum, or an improv jam is just as critical to a DTA’s professional development as attending a webinar or reading a research article, and we encourage it all. It all promotes practitioners seeing themselves and the world in a new way, and these fresh perspectives cultivate creative teaching.

Develop a Personal Reflective Practice. Choreographers often keep journals of their visions, scores and rehearsal notes. They watch dances live and on  video, ask for feedback in various ways, and consider how to edit and revise many times to meet goals. Developing a Reflective Practice in teaching can be much the same as in the dance-making process; it is personal and will evolve with each new project or inquiry question.

Reflective Practices are incorporated into all of our Professional Learning activities at Luna, and we also present it as a separate course, with the intention of helping practitioners grow more mindful in their teaching. It’s easy to lose sight of goals and rely on teaching habits that may no longer serve teacher or student. Workshops intersperse movement and discussion with free-writing questions asking artist educators to consider their values, fears, assumptions, goals and challenges, and get at the heart of where they are now, where they want to go, how they might get there, and what’s getting in the way. Luna provides support for practitioners to design their own questions – big inquiry questions that they might explore over the year, and smaller ones they might ask themselves each time they teach. In house, these questions have helped us critically and continuously check in with Luna’s social justice mission – are we teaching with inclusion and equity so that all children can come to dance?

As Luna helps teachers shape goals and questions, we also encourage them to observe their students regularly. For me, even two minutes of actively watching my students dance in each class has pointed to what’s working, what’s not, and what might be needed next. It can also be a rare moment of ‘rest,’ when I can sit back and see my students – their joy in moving, their perseverance through something challenging, their small shifts in participation from the prior week. Tracking these observations through journal writing, or notes on a lesson plan, can inform how a teacher approaches the next class, assesses progress over the semester, and contributes to developing a personal, ongoing investigation into one’s teaching practice.

Cultivate Advocacy. With the current political climate and the constant threat of arts funding cuts, dance education needs advocates in all forms, and for all audiences. Any sort of Professional Learning must provide opportunities for educators to strengthen their advocacy voices. “My principal doesn’t understand what I’m doing in dance class. How can I show her?” “The parents at my studio want to know why I’m focusing on improvisation rather than rehearsing for a performance. What should I say?” These are questions teachers ask, and though they often know intrinsically that dance has value, they may lack the confidence or language to explain why. Dance teaching artists need to claim their expertise. Sharing a favorite story about a student’s progress allows them to practice revealing dance’s positive impact. The same story, photographs or quotations, could be used in a proposal to an administrator, a grant report, or in a parent newsletter or social media post. These acts of advocacy help make dance learning more visible. These small acts of advocacy help make dance learning more visible, and prepare practitioners to communicate in larger contexts through dance or education journals and conferences.

Several individuals in our teaching community have started blogs, which have allowed them to interact with students, parents, administrators, and fellow educators all at once, while others have become active with the California Dance Education Association, even taking on leadership roles and addressing arts issues with state representatives.

“Do I really have something to say? I feel like I’m still learning.” I wonder this all the time, even in writing this piece. But I try to remember that no one has all the answers, and in some ways it is our responsibility as dance educators to keep the conversation going, amongst ourselves and with non-dancers – because who else will? As we exchange ideas and learn from each other, we strengthen our individual teaching practices and collectively become a force not just for preservation, but also for advancing our eld in innovative ways.

What I’ve realized in my own journey as a dance teaching artist, and in supporting my fellow artist educators, is how essential it is to view Professional Learning as a constant career practice, a verb rather than a noun. The very word Learning in its gerund form implies this active-ness and ongoing-ness. At Luna, we continue to investigate and inquire and discover from our own research teaching in the eld, but also from that of our peers. It can be exciting and challenging and rewarding, and also a little daunting to approach Professional Learning at first, because we may be reminded of what we don’t know. But we’ll also reconnect to what we do – our love of dance and of teaching – and through that, ourselves.


Luna offers the first two courses of our Foundational Series this summer, Developing and Implementing Dance Curricula – A as a week-long intensive July 31-August 4, and Developing and Implementing Dance Curricula – B as a semester course beginning August 29. Join us for our Launch September 5 to meet our community of dance educators. More information at lunadanceinstitute.org or email Jochelle, jperena@lunadanceinstitute.org.

In Practice: DWP, Dancing While Pregnant

In 2012, I saw Patricia West dance pregnant in Joe Goode’s When We Fall Apart. I was pregnant myself at the time and thought, Damn! I can barely get out of my car! When I put out the call for stories about dancing pregnant, I expected to hear about the task of modifying movement (floor work in particular), the audible gasps from audience members (like me) when they realize this is not a Cunningham-Kawakubo collaboration, running off stage to barf, and splitting costumes on stage. What follows is what I didn’t expect.

Even modern dancers hide pregnancies

Dance critic Arlene Croce called ballet a world of “signs and designs,” a world in which “[t]he arabesque is real, the leg is not” (see footnote 1). It’s rather difficult to be a sign and design when things start getting bumpy, and there’s nothing like pregnancy to make a belly real. Former Oakland Ballet dancer Milissa Payne Bradley writes, “Once I found out I was pregnant, it only made sense to hide it as long as possible. Being ‘fat’ felt like a death sentence concerning my dance career and stability as a working dance professional.”

I liked to think that modern dance would be more forgiving. But many modern dancers talked about hiding their pregnancies from choreographers for fear that they would be asked to modify movement or, worse, postpone performing. Lisa Bush Finn worked with a choreographer in New York on a piece that was set to premiere when she was 18 weeks: “I decided not to tell my colleagues and to keep doing all the inversions and floor work and leave the well-being of the creature inside me to fate.”

Dana Lawton describes hiding her pregnancy from her mentor, Janice Garrett: “I was afraid that if I told her, she would cut some of my stuff. I was in every single piece, I had solos in every piece, and there were a lot of lifts and a lot of running around. I told Janice after the run. I didn’t start dancing until I was 18 and was basically told I was wasting my time, so to be with her and feel like, wow, I’m actually really doing it, I didn’t want to jeopardize it.”

Dancing pregnant gives dancers a sense of control over a body out of control

Given their close relationship, I asked Lawton why she assumed Garrett would have that reaction: “I think I was just nervous that all of sudden she would have to worry about me. And there was the young ego—I can handle it, I’m fine, I’m in charge of my body all the time, I have mastered all of these things. I’m in total control!”

Lawton’s words resonated with several dancers. Still, several dancers found that dancing pregnant gave them back a sense of control. Mira-Lisa Katz, editor of Moving Ideas, a book on embodied learning, writes, “What stands out to me is that dancing is still, to some extent, an experience on one’s own terms. Pregnancy might slow you down or make you move in different ways, but you are still more in control of your own experience then you might be, say, doing things in public. When I was about six months pregnant, a middle-aged man looked down at my protruding stomach, and said, ‘Well we all know what you’ve been doing!’ What I realized during my pregnancy was that being in public, your body was no longer your own.

I was grateful during my pregnancy to have dance as a safe haven where I could continue to experience myself more or less on my own terms, and continue to be my own body’s friend through the dance.”

Toni Melaas, a New York-based dancer who is currently touring with Faye Driscoll, writes, “The way I handled the out of control nature of pregnancy was almost always through moving to remind myself that I still had the control to connect to myself and express through this body that has always been my happy/safe place.”

Dancing pregnant helps reframe the dancer’s relationship to her dancing body

Rebecca Chun, founding member of Mid to West Dance Collective (who wrote to me at 41 weeks!), claims dancing pregnant as a corrective for the fragile dancer ego: “As my mobility and balance decreased with the increasing size of my belly, my perspective on imperfections changed. Instead of seeing inabilities as deficiencies, instead of changing, fixing, improving, I enjoyed the acceptance of doing exactly what I could. I finally reached a respite from this thinking and saw my abilities as a matter of fact. This, in turn, allowed me to see my dancing effort as a beautiful offering to myself, the health of my baby, and an opportunity to be in community.”

Performing pregnant also affords the aspiring dancers in the audience a chance to rethink the “ideal dancing body” and imagine a dance career that doesn’t preclude motherhood. Carol Kueffer-Moore and Peggy Peloquin were pregnant at the same time on tour with David Dorfman Dance. Kueffer-Moore remembers being asked questions in post-show talks at colleges about what it was like to dance pregnant: “Young college students seemed to want to be reassured that one could be a professional dancer and still have children. It was unusual to see pregnant dancers and I think both of us wanted to make a strong point that, yes, it was all possible.”

The Bay Area is full of choreographers who embrace rather than tolerate the pregnant dancing body!

When Jill Randall became pregnant with her second child, choreographer Nina Haft asked to work with her on a solo with the express purpose of investigating how her movement changed as her pregnancy progressed. Moved by Nina’s interest in her morphing embodiment, Jill said, “It was this really special opportunity to fully embrace being pregnant. I remember things about heat, slowness, anticipation, breathing. That solo, The Wake of Your Dive, only existed during that point of time, nobody else has ever done it. I danced it eight months pregnant, which was incredibly hard. We made the piece over four months—how drastically my body changed!”

Like Haft, Joe Goode worked with instead of against Damara Ganley’s pregnancy, weaving the pregnancy “into the ‘character’ and movement development.” Ganley (who wrote to me at 35 weeks!) says, “I performed throughout my first pregnancy including a six-week performance run of Poetics of Space with Joe Goode well into my third trimester. I began the rehearsal process at 7 weeks pregnant and was in my 36th week when the show closed. Joe was open and supportive of adjustments made along the way when I found my body had shifted in ways that didn’t accommodate a particular movement sequence. I am fortunate to work with a choreographer that I can offer different things to—not just the capacity to perform high velocity or technically impressive sequences.”

Choreographer and Interim Chair of Dance in the Department of Physical Education at UC Berkeley, Sue Li-Jue, danced pregnant with June Watanabe, a mother herself who supported Li-Jue’s endeavor. She also danced “fully pregnant” with Dance Brigade: “It was total girl power the whole time and I loved it.” Whereas dancers used to just “disappear when pregnant and then come back well after the baby was older,” Krissy Keefer begged her to bring the baby on tour.

Pregnant dancers have mixed feelings about watching pregnant dancers

Ganley remembers seeing Yayoi Kambara dancing pregnant with ODC and “just being in awe. It made a big impact on me visually and emotionally and has stayed with me for years. I remember being struck by her freedom and full out dancing.” Still, she is aware that the pregnant body “carries with it such potent cultural narratives” and admits that she is not particularly “drawn to choreography that is just about being pregnant or being a mother. In some works I felt that there was a drive to universalize and idealize the experience in a way that I found unappealing artistically.”

Li-Jue had a similar response: “Well, maybe I am old school, but unless there is a reason for the dancer being pregnant on stage (like the piece is about that or related to motherhood), I don’t need to see that. It would be distracting to the piece. However, if I knew and liked the dancer, I would probably be, Oh, that is so sweet…”

Chun expressed a newfound respect for the pregnant dancer: “I’ve always enjoyed it as a gift from the pregnant mother. But now as a pregnant woman and knowing how depleted energy levels can be, how difficult it is to fit in work, sleep, self-care, AND dancing, I look at pregnant dancers performing as super heroes and/or a touch crazy.”


This article focused on performing while pregnant. But Ganley reminded me that we should consider the “other elements of the reproductive cycle/reality” for dancers. Miscarriage, abortion, fertility treatments, birth, motherhood, losing a child—we dance through all of these experiences. In fact, the female dancer’s first crisis often comes with puberty. As Dawn Holtan recounts, “I did RAD [Royal Academy of Dance] ballet from six to 16 until I got the little, ‘We want you to keep a diary of everything you eat’ talk. I took advanced modern at UC Berkeley with David Wood, and he gave me his version of the talk, ‘Your joint health will be greatly improved if you never go above a certain weight. You better stay light.’”

Also, in large part due to my own dance history, my inquiry wound up centered around Western dance practices that are positioned in relation to theatrical performance. My questions posed to pregnant dancers engaged in non-Western practices, or global traditions that are not built for the stage, most likely would have elicited different stories and raised other concerns.

And then there are intersectional issues that further complicate how pregnant dancers navigate their dancing identities. LaWanda Raines, former dancer with the Latin Ballet of Virginia, writes, “Being a dancer and pregnant added to the mountain of challenges I already face at the many intersections of life: African American, female, single. It was expected that I would drop out of the program and then college and only one professor supported my return as foregone conclusion. Dance life did not stop, but it added new logistical and emotional challenges.”

Dancing while pregnant affords artists and audiences an opportunity to reframe not only the image of the dancing body, but the entire concept of mastery. Many forms of dance collaborate with the view that the dancer can no longer be the master of her body once she becomes the incubator for another life. But pregnant dancing exposes our mortality, the reality of change, the fluidity, and the fluids that none of us are exempt from. We can only master so much for so long. And so, pregnant dancing invites us to let go of mastery and focus on practice in the present— this is my body now, it moves this way, I will tend to it, and let it teach me what it knows. As step-dancer Evie Ladin puts it, “The body is amazing how it can produce a child and never be the same again. Makes it hard to think about the stereotypical dancer’s body after that, as it seems unattainable again. And yet, the dancing continues.”


1. Croce, Arlene. “The Two Trockaderos,” The New Yorker, 10/14/1974. In Writing in the Dark, 67.

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