Signature Style: Eclectic Ethnic

By Lily Kharrazi


The roster of artists for the 29th San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (EDF) can read like a delectable menu for feasting, but the real heart of the festival is to be found in its parts, rather than in its sum. Each and every dance artist has a compelling story to tell of how they got to the Palace of Fine Arts stage, representing traditions and communities that are larger than the performers.

Hearan Chung is one powerful part of this year’s season, which runs June 9th-24th with different programs each weekend. A soloist from Korea, she has attained credentials that permit her to perform the “intangible cultural treasures” of traditional dance, based on shamanistic rituals. The act of simply drawing in a breath, that is so essential to Korean traditional dance, takes on its own urgency in the hands of a master artist like Ms. Chung. In conversation about her life and work here in the United States, she spoke about this traditional dance form as endangered. In her dance classes, where she teaches primarily Korean–American youth, parents have expressed displeasure with this canon of dance. As the population has converted to Christianity over the last decades, the shamanistic elements of the traditional dance are viewed less favorably. Ms. Chung’s transformation on stage is nothing short of masterful, more poignantly underscored knowing how clashing religious dogmas are battling within her own community.

Clarice Armstrong faces a whole other set of challenges in her community: Oakland and Richmond, CA, which have become unwitting landmarks for gang violence. She is a dancer and popular teacher with Destiny Arts, based in Oakland. The youth ensemble Armstrong directs, Imani’s Dream, is comprised of performers who range in age from 9 to 20. She makes a case for hip hop as a cultural expression that has been adopted worldwide. Having seen Imani’s Dream at the Festival auditions in January, this dance was performed with an intensity of emotion that was not about virtuosity but about raw feeling.

Working with this handpicked group, she urges her kids to “express whatever it is you have in your body; open up your mouth and be who you are.” With that said, the piece that will premiere at the EDF on weekend three, is atypical of any children’s ensemble that this writer has seen perform at the festival. This is not your upbeat homage to the future, which is often the subtext for why we love to see youth perform. Their piece reflects a gritty reality of a world through the eyes of these East Bay kids. Drawing out this kind of emotion from her kids, Clarice Armstrong explains her teaching style. “I am just real; I don’t lie to them. They see me in my imperfections and in my perfections.” Her mentoring extends to her two sons, Machante, 16, and Tarik, 13, who have choreographed large parts of the work to be performed by the cast of nineteen.

This year’s festival will be co-directed by Dr. C.K. Ladzepko, ethnomusicologist of African Music at UC Berkeley and Carlos Carvajal, accomplished choreographer of ballet and modern dance who will provide the stage direction and theater craft for the showcase format. “This team of community leaders,” according to Julie Mushet, the executive director of World Arts West who produces the festival, “brings a lifetime of involvement in culturally specific dance. They are two masters that have been deeply involved in the festival as panelists and have had an impact on its development.”

The development referred to is signature San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival: presenting, without apology, an eclectic blend of master artists and community based ensembles. This inclusiveness riles those who wish for more neat and tidy definitions of culturally specific dance, but has also garnered praise from those who wish to bust out of ghettoizing categories of ethnic dance definitions. Wherever you fall in this spectrum, something about this format celebrates and validates the artists of world dance, which makes this festival provocative.

This article appeared in the June 2007 issue of In Dance.

Lily Kharrazi is the program manager of the Living Cultures Grants Program at the Alliance for California Traditional Arts where she has had the privilege of meeting and working with many of the communities whose portraits helped to inform this essay. A dance ethnologist by training, she has worked in refugee resettlement and was formerly program director at World Arts West, producing nine seasons of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. She serves as a consultant to both local and national projects involved with arts and culture. A first generation American, she is trying to figure out if it’s family folklore or truth to say that she is the first one in her family to be born outside of Iran in 14 generations.