Speak: World Dance

By Joti Singh


Photo by Erin Brauer

If I could imagine a high school experience, where I fit in, felt inspired, and gained nuanced insight from my peers, it would be attending an unconventional, stimulating, challenging public school in San Francisco with a program focused on World Dance. Luckily for today’s high school students in this quickly morphing city, such a program will be rolling out this coming August. And lucky for me, I’ll be guiding them on their journeys.

When my colleague Monina Sen Cervone asked if I’d be interested in heading a World Dance program at the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts (SOTA), I didn’t hesitate for a second. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect teaching position for myself, given my background in Indian and West African dances, and my love for teaching, particularly high school students. Even more, I couldn’t wait to witness what I feel is a monumental victory for those of us who practice cultural dance forms and are constantly working to reinforce their value and rigor. I imagined myself as an 8th grader, on the precipice of young adulthood, choosing an educational path that, rather than erase or make invisible, would draw attention to the beauty and strength of my body, recognize and celebrate the culture I was raised in, and feed my desire for justice and equality for all kinds of people, particularly those who have been marginalized by racist and classist power structures.

Monina heads the World Music department and conceived of World Dance as a necessary component and complement to her program. I am incredibly honored to be taking on the role of creating this new program, and it’s a responsibility that I do not take lightly.

Since 2007, I have been directing Duniya Dance and Drum Company, focusing primarily on Punjabi Bhangra, Bollywood and West African dance and music. A large part of my mission has been to increase the visibility and respect for these art forms, and to close the gap between what is viewed as “technical,” such as ballet and modern dance, and cultural dances, which are often thought of as recreational and hobbies. San Francisco has a thriving dance scene, greatly informed and enhanced by the numbers of distinct cultural dance forms brought by practitioners from their native cultures. Especially while many cultural arts practitioners are being forced out of the city because of rising housing costs, I believe a World Dance track in a public high school works to keep San Francisco at the center of discourse around cultural dance forms. It works to move marginalized populations closer to the center by institutionalizing and validating the serious and rigorous study of world cultures.

This program provides an opportunity for students who might not have grown up with the privilege of formal dance classes from the time they were little, but who have experienced dance at family functions, in church, or with their peer groups. It creates a space where they can explore their own forms even more deeply, experiment with choreography, learn about dances from other cultures, and understand how music and dance interact through studying various types of drumming. Students who have been accepted into the program for the 2016-17 school year bring with them dances from the Philippines, Malawi, Greece, USA, the Basque country and more. With me, they’ll study West African, Bhangra and Bollywood. Their first year at SOTA will also focus on Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban dances with guest teaching artists, to prepare for a joint performance with the World Music department. In the future, we plan to offer Mexican Folkloric, Polynesian, Afro-Haitian dances and more.

One of the aspects I particularly look forward to is being able to bring in master artists from various cultures represented in the Bay Area to work with my students. As someone who has created a living from representing not only my own culture but also West African culture, which I did not grow up with, I am very deliberate and careful about how cultural forms are represented. Duniya is a very mixed company, in ethnicity, age, profession, and more. While I honor this diversity as a reflection of our city, I also find it important to create space for artists who are from South Asian or West African cultures to represent their own arts. For my SOTA students, beyond learning dance techniques, I want them to understand the context for what they’re learning and the complexity of representing a culture, especially when it’s not their own.

Another goal I have for the program is for the students to think critically about why we have a “World Dance” department when a Dance department already exists. Why does cultural dance have to have a qualifying word in front of it, rather than simply being referred to as “dance”? What are the political and historical forces that have shaped the different ways in which we refer to various dance forms? I have a few hip-hop dancers coming into the program. Why is hip-hop included in world dance, and what does race and economic status have to do with how dance is valued and seen by mainstream audiences and how it is funded?

A challenging question we will have to address is where these students go after graduating from the World Dance program at SOTA. What are the opportunities that exist for them? While UCLA’s World Arts and Cultures program is one obvious college choice for these students, I hope that we can offer them more options. In order to stay relevant, more colleges and universities need to develop dance programs that not only include cultural dance, but also value them on the same level as ballet and modern dance. They need to catch up to who we are as a society, and reflect what US American culture actually looks like. And even if this happens, will these students be able to come back home, and make a living in San Francisco as artists?

As the curriculum and the inaugural World Dance class at SOTA come together, I get more and more excited, particularly about the individuals I will have the pleasure, and challenge, of working with this coming school year. I hope to prepare them to be the best citizens of the world they can be, as well as to give them skills that forge a path for their futures.

Joti Singh is a dance creator and dance innovator, sprung from the U.S. American south to parents from northern India. She is the founder and Artistic Director of Duniya Dance and Drum Company and choreographs dance from Punjab, India and Guinea, West Africa. Singh began her dance training in Punjabi circles, carrying through her body the culture that is in her blood and memory. As an adult, West African dance entered Singh’s purview, transforming her body’s culture. Through this multilingual body, she explores where history intertwines with contemporary continuities of celebration and injustice.