Team Rita

By Ann Murphy

December 1, 2014, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

When I first got a call from Rita Felciano, she was working at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival office in Fort Mason Center and I was the editor at the Bay Area Dance Coalition, a service organization in the same building. It was the 1980s, and Rita asked to meet with me––she had an idea for the new In Dance monthly. And so we set up an appointment for later that week. I would eventually come to learn that this Swiss-born woman with a Spanish name was re-launching her career and feeding her hunger to write—in her 4th language—now that her two sons were well along in school.

The woman who appeared was poised and self-assured, dressed like a grown up in a simple suit—a pale grey green gabardine, as I remember it, that had a curious way of setting the tone then fading into the background like a great supporting actor. The clothes seemed to underscore that she meant business and yet they were neutral enough to allow her quiet air of power and purpose to speak loudest. Rita wanted to talk about writing for the monthly, which, at that point was an eight-pager with a performance calendar, grant information, workshop notices, and display and classified ads, but trying to be more than that. To expand content we had begun to include items like book reviews, editorials, and the occasional vox pop column. Dance reviews were forbidden, and even sly efforts at commentary were taboo. It was a balancing act between service and usefulness and the publication seemed to keep asking: What does a community publication need to be?

Rita had an idea: it needed feature stories.

Rita and I met together in a big draughty room on an upper floor of one of Fort Mason’s brick buildings. We sat in facing chairs surrounded by empty space. She leaned in, arms against her lap as she folded herself closer toward me decades before Cheryl Sandberg made the act a shallow meme, and brilliantly painted the rationale and outcomes that would emerge if I allowed her to write a feature piece on the SF Ethnic Dance Festival. Her voice was wonderfully sibilant, and she uttered words with conspiratorial purpose in a soft, polyglot accent. I watched in amazement as I both tried to resist her influence and saw how easily she won me over through conviction, composure, and sheer persuasiveness. Why wouldn’t this small publication bring in an outside writer to discuss events with the rigor of good journalism?

Following the finest pitch I would receive in my many years of writing and editing, Rita wrote the first feature article In Dance would publish, and as a result she expanded the vision of what the community could give itself, whether in today’s In Dance or in her many tireless reviews of known and little-known dance performances and events. Within a few years she became the first lasting dance critic for the one weekly inhaled religiously by the arts community, the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Early on in her tenure there, she regularly met her editor over lunch to convince and re-convince him that the paper had a moral and editorial obligation to cover local dance. I was in awe. Like a great community organizer, she believed her duty was to actively champion the cause, and though the battle had to be renewed all too frequently, she won it again and again and held on to dedicated dance space each week. Rita has the power to imagine, persuade others to imagine, and then run after what she imagines, and through the writing reflect dance back to us. Always she has done it with both a capacious air of generosity and sense of the importance of the work in our midst, both now and for posterity.

The Bay Guardian had only cursory dance coverage before Rita arrived. In the decades that followed she created one of the most significant and enduring dance writing careers in the region. Wendy Perron, the longtime editor at Dance Magazine, describes Rita as a “human writer,” and, indeed, we see it in how she translates dance by giving every artist the benefit of the doubt, beginning with the presumption that each dancemaker and dancer climbs onstage to try to communicate with an audience, and that that intention, even when it fails, must be honored, even celebrated. She is the antithesis of the theater critic in Alejandro González Iñarritu’s latest film Birdman, Tabitha Dickinson. Dickinson, with her hardboiled reporter’s demeanor is the devil incarnate, endowed with mythical power to annihilate anything less than what she deems the highest of “high art.” While Rita has often described her mission as an educational one, her reviews and feature pieces reveal that it’s much more than that—it’s to be a witness to dance and its allied arts both for everyone who is in the theater on that occasion and for anyone with even a bit of curiosity about what happened.

While the Bay Guardian has been Rita’s mainstay, where most of us in the community have read her work, her writing has been in places as varied as Dance Magazine, The New York Times, Ballet Review, Dance International, the San Francisco Chronicle and the LA Times. This year Rita finally decided to retire, to pass on the mantle to another hungry writer. Then, just as that news hit, we learned that the Bay Guardian was going the way of hundreds of activist, leftist grass roots weeklies: the San Francisco Examiner bought it, then closed it. This is a double blow: we not only lose Rita’s enduring weekly commentary on both homegrown and imported work; we lose the most reliable record of dance in the Bay Area. The community, and history, are the poorer for it.

It’s not all bad news, though; we will still be able to read Rita at And perhaps a young and hungry writer will be inspired by Rita’s legacy to find a new way to carry on that vital and difficult public task.

This article appeared in the December 2014 issue of In Dance.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.