Driving the Ethnic Dance Festival: Behind the Scenes with Julie Mushet

By Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos


At the Fort Mason Center, located in the windy northern part of San Francisco, I sat down with Executive Director Julie Mushet in the World Arts West (WAW) office. Accompanying us was Julie’s four-month-old baby, and the gracious staff who were busy in their preparations for the 31st San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival this June. Having observed recent Ethnic Dance Festivals as an audience member, backstage volunteer and housemate to someone who used to work for WAW, I was curious to hear from Julie about her roles as an arts administrator, caregiver, and visionary a year after two landmark events: the 30th anniversary of the Festival, and the birth of her new child.

Q: What first sparked your interest in traditional or culturally specific dance?

Julie: I began dancing as a young girl in Los Angeles. I had been studying tap dance for several years when a Polynesian dance teacher began offering classes. I fell in love with Hawaiian and Tahitian dance and studied both from ages 10 to 14. I performed in luaus throughout southern California during this time, and while the gigs were not so great, as everyone was usually really drunk, I loved getting paid. I was a bit of a freak being young, blonde and fair-skinned in a company of older, brunette, dark-skinned Polynesian women. But we had a lot of fun, and I loved dancing. Then the dance studio lost its lease, my teacher disappeared, and that was that. I didn’t start dancing again until I was a student in the modern dance program at UC Berkeley. There I began my work in arts management where I organized strategies to bring students to the performances at Cal Performances. I also staffed the green room, and it was thrilling to meet Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, Marcel Marceau, Ravi Shankar … so many incredible artists.

Do you identify with a specific cultural heritage, and how does this help or hinder your role as executive director?

My cultural heritage is a real mix, being descended from Sicilian farmers and mobsters, Scottish royalty, French seamstresses, and an English Mayflower pilgrim. During my 20s, I spent several years exploring the world, and I learned from my travels that I feel most at home in Sicily and Bhutan. But I am married to an Egyptian and we eat mostly Mexican, Chinese, and Thai food …

For the past two and a half years I’ve been dancing with Patrick Makuakane’s Hawaiian halau, Na Lei Hula I Ka Wekiu, and I am very happy there. But as executive director of World Arts West, I make a conscious effort to make sure that I do not give any preference to Na Lei Hulu, Patrick, or any of the other Hawaiian companies. I loved presenting Na Lei Hulu in 2003 and 2008, but no more than the other great companies that are part of the Festival each year.

I’ve heard mention concerning a name change for the Festival. Can you talk a little on that?

It’s consistently the experience that someone who’s not initially interested in this work comes to the Festival and genuinely shifts saying, “That was the most fun I’ve had in years. I can’t believe I didn’t know about this.” I think that a lot of the misperception may be tied to “Ethnic Dance Festival”—just the terminology being something in someone’s mind that they think they don’t want to go see, unfortunately. Also, many people have only seen ethnic dance forms presented poorly, perhaps outdoors on park stages, or being mocked on television by actors—so they have an existing imagery that is difficult to get beyond.

It [the terminology] has a feel of obligation perhaps?

I think that it is interesting that most people don’t have similar perceptions associated with “ethnic foods.” You go to an ethnic food festival and people are open to having great culinary experiences. So what is it about taking the word “ethnic” and connecting it with dance or music that makes it so different than a culinary association?

How do you define ethnic dance? Have there been debates on whether or not a particular form would be considered ethnic dance?

All dance is ethnic dance, connecting to a single cultural origin or multiple points of cultural origin. Most people do not think of ballet as ethnic dance, but ballet is absolutely ethnic dance, originating in sixteenth and seventeenth century French courts, and then further developed in Italy, England, and Russia. It is one of the more recent ethnic dance forms when compared to many of the forms that we showcase on the stage of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Modern dance is a derivation of ballet, with lots of sampling from other dance forms mixed in.

I have angered many people when I have suggested including some ballet or modern dance on the Festival stage so that people could see all dance forms side by side. Instead, many feel that the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is a showcase for everything but modern dance and ballet and that it should stay that way. There is the feeling that it is a rare and precious performance opportunity for all of the marginalized ethnic dance forms, but in my mind, what better way to stop the marginalization than to level the playing field?

If all dance is ethnic dance then why not simplify the name to the San Francisco Dance Festival? This idea incenses many people who see the Festival as a precious rare opportunity for dance other than ballet and modern dance, and by including the word “ethnic” they feel that people will understand that this is not a stage for those more prevalent and better supported dance forms. There are strong voices in the dance community, like that of Chike Nwoffiah, who have asked us to stop using the word “ethnic,” and so we have considered the “San Francisco World Dance Festival.” On the flip side, there are community leaders, like C.K. Ladzekpo, who believe it is important to maintain the word “ethnic” as part of the name. A lot of elders in the community fought hard during political movements stemming from the Civil Rights Movement, and for them, maintaining the “ethnic” terminology in the name is important. A Festival name change is not to be taken lightly.

I don’t know what the best answer is, but I’m deeply invested in community consensus building, so the answer will never come top-down. I believe the right answer will come from the dance community, which is invested in the integrity of its dance forms. We’re definitely going to need guidance through the process and a lot of time and thoughtfulness. I don’t think that we can move too quickly, but I think that a productive dialogue needs to happen ASAP.

The Festival has been at the Palace of Fine Arts for a number of years now. What are the advantages or disadvantages of the proscenium format given the range of cultures and dances presented?

The proscenium format is not ideal for many of the forms we present, but it excites me nevertheless to watch thousands of people getting to see dance forms that they most likely would not have the opportunity to see; and even better, it lets artists, who often perform to small audiences on bad stages with no production support, feel the love of nearly 1,000 people focused on them and their artistry.

I am concerned about continuing to present at the Palace of Fine Arts though, as the venue is becoming so run down it feels like it’s being held together with band-aids. At least three times that I know of recently, the old plumbing system has broken during performance evenings, leaving hundreds of people without bathrooms. This happened last year at the Festival, and we had to wait an extra half-hour at intermission for people to use portable toilets that we had rented in case of an emergency—luckily! And it really stank with backed-up sewage coming through the floor drains.

A new Dance Pavilion would be a logical progression for the arts community. It used to be that the SF Ballet, Opera, and Symphony all shared the War Memorial Opera House. Then the Symphony raised the money, thanks to people like Louise M. Davies and Ann and Gordon Getty, to build their own venue in 1990. Its construction allowed the symphony to expand to a full-time year-round schedule. I have heard that SF Opera’s relatively-new director, David Gockley, would like to be able to use the Opera House full-time for opera, which would require the SF Ballet to have a new home. A fabulous Dance Pavilion for the Bay Area’s 400+ dance companies to present year-round would showcase our dance wealth.

It would take millions of dollars for a city to try to create the kind of dance community that already exists here. There are well over 10,000 dancers putting their time and own resources into making work, and it would make good sense to embrace this extraordinary phenomenon and put it at the center of our civic pride. I have been intrigued by the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau’s slogan “Only in San Francisco.” Our enormous, diverse dance community is truly something unique to San Francisco that could be embraced and marketed to build the tourist market for dance performances. One of the stumbling blocks for tourists is that it is often not easy to find many of the ethnic dance performances happening in community centers, churches, temples, high school auditoriums any given night … if we could present them in a beautiful, easily accessible venue, I think that everyone would benefit. I’m not suggesting that the companies stop performing at small venues for their own communities, but I think that they could also perform at a centralized venue and enjoy the benefits of higher visibility.

Many groups see the Festival as a great opportunity to perform. Are there groups that might avoid the Festival for particular reasons?

Yes, I am sure that there are groups that avoid the Festival. One reason is the limitations of the format. Group performances are limited to ten minutes, while soloists are limited to five minutes, and for many artists this is just not feasible. I think that it’s not great for any dance form, on some level, because I think to develop a piece as part of a larger work, it’s nice to have a home season or an evening-length performance. But for what it is—for outreach, for audience development, for high visibility, and for many dancers within our great dance community getting together on one stage—I think it does work well. For the artists, more than just dancing on stage, there are other benefits—like each dance company being given a photo shoot with RJ Muna where they can use these photos for their own marketing and development after the Festival free of charge. They also get to work with excellent scenic, sound, and lighting designers, and our marketing team sends their information out to over 250 media outlets. There is also a whole lot of networking and relationship building between the artists backstage. I know of several marriages that are the result of time spent together backstage—it’s pretty magical.

I’ve been really pleased with the increased opportunities that have come from the auditions. Lots of groups that don’t make it into the Festival are still being approached to do all kinds of gigs and performance opportunities locally and internationally. People come from many other organizations, including from Beijing and the L.A. Music Center, to book their performance seasons from [who they see at] the auditions.… There are a lot of other opportunities now because of that format.

There are other reasons that people avoid participating, and we are always trying to adapt to overcome these barriers. A good example is the audition application wording. I looked closely at the criticisms of the audition process and adjusted some of the language in the application that was really off-putting. One of the questions in particular asked for a description of the performers’ costumes. For many of the dance forms, what they are wearing is not a costume—this was a language problem that translated as a sign of disrespect. So we simply expanded the language to include the words “attire” and “regalia.” This year, for the first time in many years, we had a Native American audition from Four Winds who had refused to fill out the application previously because they are not wearing costumes but important spiritual regalia. I am excited that they are featured as the Festival’s poster image for this year. Respect is one of the most important touchstones of our work day-in and day-out.

If you could dream big for World Arts West, what would you see?

I am concerned about the lack of arts education currently in the schools, and what that neglect will translate into for future generations. One big dream, for World Arts West, would be to orchestrate having dancers teaching in every school, every day. I’m told that there is not enough time in the school day to teach to all of the mandated state standards, no less the un-mandated arts standards, so why not extend the school day to 5 p.m. and add in a couple of hours of arts classes every day? What are most children doing from 3 to 5 p.m., after school closes? With most parents working until 5 p.m., the kids are mostly watching TV or often getting into trouble from 3 to 5 p.m.

Has having a baby influenced these thoughts?

Yeah, I’ve always been future-focused and sort of a planner by nature, but I have felt a palpable shift since having a baby. Now I’m more deeply invested, emotionally, in the future. Would I be as interested in that if I didn’t have a baby? I’d like to think I would be, but the timing of this is pretty interesting. Now I have someone who is going to be entering school in the near future.

How has having the baby here changed the office environment?

I am working mostly from home now, and I come into the office once or twice a week for some face-to-face meetings. For the first four months, the baby would say hello to everyone and sleep for most of the time, but when she is awake she is very curious and enjoys watching the conversations. Just in the last two weeks though, there has been a lot more interaction. Every week has been a new adventure. Caring for a baby is a lot of work, but I have never felt so deeply joyful. I’m grateful to be working in an era where I can do such much of my work remotely via my laptop computer and cell phone. It’s great to have such flexibility in the workplace.

So the baby … I’m always referring to the baby as “the baby.”

I do too … my “Baby O.” Her name is Olivia.

Do you take her to hula classes?

No. My husband watches her those nights. I know that this first year and a half sets certain patterns for her life in terms of her feeling comfortable and secure and safe. That’s why we agreed to spend as much time as we can to enrobe her in love while she’s developing that sense of self. She’s the most trusting baby that I’ve ever met. She’ll let anyone come and pick her up and hold her. I’ve been told that before I know it, she’ll be all grown up, so I’m savoring my time with her now.

Compared to when you first joined as the executive director, what does the Festival look like now? How do you imagine it in the future?

The production values are much higher now, and I think that the Festival will be presenting more fusion work in the future as it seems that many artists are working at the intersections of two or more cultures. A big dream for the Festival would be to expand citywide, with dozens of venues collaborating and lots of international guest artists and companies. A dance festival on this scale would be so exciting and would draw an international audience each year.

I think that RJ Muna was an important change because of the way he photographs … he’s lying on the ground and shooting up, which creates really heroic images. It was interesting to meet with people from the mainstream media here when I first came on board. I could talk about the work as much as anyone would allow me to, but I found that once I was able to bring these photos to the conversation, all of a sudden I saw a shift in their interest level. We’re a very visual society, and I think that imagery is very important. I’m really grateful to RJ Muna.

Another change was to have the dancers and musicians enter the lobby after the performances to mingle with the audience members. Some people have voiced their concerns that this is unprofessional.

I loved it.

I think it made a huge shift, a good one.… It was a risk. Hopefully taking risks will keep leading us in a better direction.

This article appeared in the June 2009 issue of In Dance.