Andréa Spearman: Dancers’ Group is experimenting with new ways to unify, strengthen, and amplify voices in the Bay Area. We’re excited to share a variety of ideas and stories.
David Herrera: Jocelyn, do you care to talk about how we first met?
Jocelyn Reyes: Yeah, I remember the first time we met was in Choreographers & Coffee. I think it might have been the first or second time that we ran into each other. After we met at Choreographers & Coffee you came up to me and said, “Hi, I’m David. I am a choreographer, and I’m happy to see that you’re also creating work. I’d love to support and talk or meet up anytime you want.” Then you gave me your email and your information. I remember being so surprised because until that point I had been the person doing all the reaching out and trying to get help from other people. This was the first time that someone approached me, just trying to support in some way. I was super excited. I emailed David a few days after that, I think September of 2018. Then we met up for coffee and it was super useful. I picked David’s brain about production and every part of creating work. It was super useful.
David: For me, I always loved networking and I loved meeting new folks and for me particularly it’s part of my work now to outreach to other Latinx and Hispanic dance artists, especially people who are just starting out. I didn’t know Jocelyn prior to this at all, and I’m not sure that I had seen Jocelyn around, but through that first meeting she was describing what she was starting to do, and what some of her ideas were. I did feel that as someone who has been in the area for a longer period of time, it’s part of my duty not only to welcome but to support other choreographers, particularly BIPOC and even more specifically Latinx and Hispanic creators and dance makers.
In that first meeting I think we spent a little over an hour having a conversation, and Jocelyn without knowing also ended up helping me out. I was in the process of putting together the LatinXtensions mentorship program and through the conversation she and I had, she ended up giving me clarity on some of the things that are needed or what people who are just starting out might want from mentorship or support. It was through her questions, that same week, I went back and restructured some small things from the conversation that she and I had. So, Jocelyn, thank you.
On Growing Up and Dance
Jocelyn: I grew up in Highland Park, Los Angeles, which was a predominantly Latino neighborhood at the time. It’s changing a lot these days. When I grew up, my family was pretty poor, so a lot of my exposure to dance at first was public school programs, free programs that they offered after school. I tried everything out. I did drill team, I did cheerleading, I did hip hop, I did jazz. Prior to that my first exposure to dance was just dancing at Latin social gatherings. At a birthday party, baptism, or first communion, or any kind of celebration there was always a DJ and music, and parents and kids would stand up and dance cumbia, merengue, and salsa, and punta, and bachata, and just all kinds of dances. That’s kind of how I started dancing and why I continued to try and seek dance opportunities when I was at school.
When I went to middle and high school, I actually was chosen out of a raffle, and I got into this charter public performing arts school called Renaissance Arts Academy. That’s when I was first introduced to modern contemporary dance. It’s really funny because prior to that a lot of the dances I had participated in were social dances with lots of smiling and being happy and communicating with other people. I remember my friends and I at first when we started doing contemporary and modern dance were like, “So should we do any facials? It seems like we don’t really move our faces here. No, we should be really serious. Yeah, everyone looks really serious.” So it was really interesting to transition to a whole new world. From there, I really began to fall in love with contemporary and modern dance. I was introduced to choreography and composition. I actually produced a show at my high school with a couple friends and that was my first experience of putting together a show. Then I went to UCLA to the World Arts and Culture/Dance program where I continued to study choreography, composition, dance theory, and I was exposed to a lot of different dance forms, including West African, bharatanatyam, ballet, and I continued some modern contemporary dance. Then I moved to San Francisco after graduating, and here I am now.
David: We have a lot of overlap, I think, you and I. Like you, also grew up in southern California. I grew up in Hollywood. Because of growing up in Hollywood, I was already enamored with the idea of performance and film and the whole industry. A lot of that was present in my childhood. I recognized that I wanted to perform more when I was in junior high. I happened to be lucky enough to be in the district where the closest junior high school was a performing arts magnet school. While a lot of people came to that school for the performing arts program, I just happened to live in the neighborhood. I went there, but I didn’t actually sign up for any of the performing arts classes immediately. I was a bit shy back then. I just looked at it from the outside. I did bring it up to my parents, letting them know I was interested, but they didn’t really see it as a viable option for somebody like myself, for somebody like us. We were lower class, working class really, making ends meet. Anything that was extracurricular that cost money, that required more time – a lot of these classes even though they were taught during the daytime in the school system, you had to stay after school for programs and rehearsals and things like that. They could not afford to have someone take me or pick me up. They could not afford the fees that came along with some of these items, like costumes and so on and so forth.
Like Jocelyn, I also learned how to dance when I was younger in a communal setting, in a family setting, in a community setting. At group events – you mentioned quinceañeras, weddings. A lot of cumbia, a lot of salsa. For me, also being Mexican American, especially my parents both coming from the state of Zacatecas, we did a lot of zapateado and things like that. My preteen years is when I started getting interested in doing it, it just seemed like a lot of fun, and everybody was partaking, adults, men, women, children, everybody was partaking, so it really caught my attention. I have to say, the first time I did it, as awkward and as embarrassed as I was, I also felt for the first time really liberated. It was that sense of liberation that kept calling me back to doing it more and more.
Even though I didn’t start “formal” (and I’m going to use that word in quotation marks) training until college at the age of 19, I had all this dance background already from the community setting and the cultural setting. It’s interesting to think about the difference between those two things. Even though it wasn’t taught, it was learned. It is a learned artform. It is a learned genre or genres that we grew up in. It was funny because once I went to college I remember thinking, “Wow, there’s nothing here but modern and ballet.” That was about it. If you wanted anything else you had to go outside of the university system. We would have all these dances, college dances, and I would go to these dances so I could move in other ways, in other fashions, in other forms that I knew that I could do and was happy to be a part of. Don’t get me wrong, I fell in love with modern, that’s what I do now, but it’s interesting to see the two things and how they arrived into my life from very different points of view.
David: Why do you continue to dance? Why do you, not only why did you start, but why do you continue to do it now? What continues to inspire you?
Jocelyn: I’m really inspired by family dynamics and lineage and what traditions we continue and which ones we change. My dad is an immigrant and so is my mom. My dad is from El Salvador and he fled war when he was about 15 and came to the US. My mom came from Mexico when she was about 17. They met in a basketball court at the park and then voilà I happened. Something I think a lot about is all the different family dynamics and the ways we’ve been trying to keep some of our traditions from our homes even though we’re so far away and half our family is also far away. Trying to keep that alive. There’s also so many things we’re trying to question and change, for example, domestic violence. Growing up and being raised believing that corporal punishment was a way. I’m trying really hard to heal from those experiences and also change that and talk to family members and extended family members and be like, “There’s a better way to do these things.” I know it all comes down to lack of resources and just trying to make ends meet. That’s something that a lot of my work is inspired by. Rethinking about the ways in which we exist here and the ways that we continue to hold onto tradition and also change other things.
What about you, David? What are you inspired by?
David: I specifically created the company to highlight and to make visible the experiences of Latinx and POC folk, just because it’s something that I noticed was lacking in general, particularly in the modern dance field. I craved it, I craved it from the get-go. I wanted to see more brown bodies on stage. I wanted to not only see them but I wanted to hear their stories and have the concepts and stories be part of the narrative or the idea behind the movement. I wasn’t seeing much of that. That’s really where most of my inspiration not only came from but continues to come from. Giving voice to the communities that I grew up in, and the communities that now I partake in. With the hope that I’m changing the face and the look of modern dance.
When I’m casting folks I’m always curious about what their complexities are. What they’re willing to share within the work that we create together. I love actually asking cast members to look into their complexities and into their layers and bring that out into their movement. I’m more interested in their movement than I am in me putting my movement or my feel onto their bodies. I’m very specific about doing that because I don’t feel like I can speak for anybody else necessarily. Even if we have overlapping experiences.
The Impact of COVID-19
Jocelyn: [REYES Dance was] in the middle of a new full-length work that we were going to share as part of a co-production with Joe Goode Annex in May of 2020. We were in the middle of that process and suddenly COVID happened. I felt it was definitely very sad. We were all very excited and we had been at that part of the process when we’re all really getting to know each other and finally getting to that awesome collaboration. I wanted something to remember that we worked together and to give us this sort of feeling of closure – something to conclude our time together.
What I started doing is, with my dancers, we came up with some prompts and made a film version of the beginning section of what was going to be part of LASOS, which was the new production. We each just filmed ourselves in our own respective homes with our iPhones and then they all sent me their films and I started editing and put them together, trying to figure out ways in which we could partner but in the virtual space.
Since then, I’ve been kind of just nerding out [David laughs] on using different editing softwares. I’ve been looking up a bunch of YouTube videos on how to do this or how to do that, and how to edit, looking up all the different parts of it, and it’s been actually really nice. I feel like I’ve been doing choreography for so long and the longer I do it, the more things I know that I don’t want in my dance work and so I feel like I have a very strict list of things that I do and don’t want, and because film is so new to me, I suddenly have so many possibilities, and I don’t have any internal ideas about what I think it should be. It’s just like, “Okay, I’m going to try anything out and see how it goes.” It’s been kind of liberating in that way.
David: We had just our first couple of meetings, our first true rehearsal, and then we were locked down. And of course, that’s a huge disappointment and [COVID-19] just threw everything up in the air. It created a lot of chaos, a lot of uncertainty, but as time kept going, and I think we all started to recognize that this wasn’t going to go away anytime soon, I settled into the idea of like, “Okay, this is time for some reflection” – not only about the history I’ve had so far and what I’ve done, both wrong and right, but also what I want to do moving forward. And this is when a lot of clarity has come in for me in regards to the community impact programming that I’m developing with David Herrera Performance Company. Now I’ve really sunk my teeth into continuing the LatinXtensions program but even more so, developing the national caucus Latinx Hispanic Dancers United.
COVID has also shown us that spaces that provide support and comradeship, especially for people of color, are necessary and are wanted and are desired. I think it’s showing us that we’re also no longer willing to be on the sidelines of the dance field, and we’re looking for changes and we’re demanding changes, and demanding that the programming that’s out there reflects the communities that we live in and reflects the cultural breakdown that is in the United States.
Jocelyn: It’s been really nice to be a part of that caucus. It was nice to meet so many other artists and hear about their stories and also put our brains together [David: Yeah!] to figure out: What is needed? What are we missing? How do we support each other and, tapping into each of our communities, try to bridge them together? I think that’s been really interesting and I’m excited to see where it goes.
David: Well, isn’t that the cool part? That we’re getting to know each other on a much deeper level and also recognizing what powers we actually already behold, both individually and even more so as a collective.
Even though I’m not doing performance work at the moment, this is fulfilling me completely as well in a different way. It’s something that I’m very thankful for – it’s been a weird silver lining considering how COVID has affected the country in such awful ways and other aspects: jobs being lost, and people becoming sick, and even worse dying. COVID has hit – I’m actually in the middle of quarantining at this very moment [laughs] because two people in my inner circle came down with COVID, so it’s a very real thing. Having this outlet has helped out a lot. I keep thinking about it – and this is going to sound a little morbid, and I don’t mean for it to sound morbid – but I keep thinking like, “If I were to go within the near future myself, what did I leave behind?” And so I hope that programming like this, and what I do with both our performances and with our community impact programming, that it leaves something for somebody else to work with or move forward with and hopefully build some connections with other folks where even if I’m not part of it, it can carry on and continue to create.
Limitations Create Possibilities
David: Even with the rehearsals that we have been having, because it’s been just one or two people at a time and we’re not doing any partnering or anything like that yet – everything is spaced out – it’s not quite hitting in the same way as a regular rehearsal would hit I think. We’re working on the things we can work on and then tabling those things that we cannot work on.
And it’s a whole new process I think as you’re recognizing yourself. We’re all working through it and figuring it out, but it has been nice to see other people in an artistic fashion.
Jocelyn: I totally agree. Something I was thinking about while you were talking about the limitations of not being able to do partner work and having to stay far apart is, in delving into this new medium – film – how do those limitations bring on more possibilities [David: Yes.] and how can I create a relationship between two dancers even though they cannot touch and they have to be six feet apart? It’s been challenging, but also it’s nice to be open to new possibilities and consider new ways of working.
David: Well I think you hit the nail on the head there with: How do the limitations create new possibilities? And that’s why I was talking about the silver lining around all this has been like, “Okay, so I can’t be in the studio now – what can I do?” I feel like a lot of richness is coming out from a lot of folks who are figuring out new ways of expressing themselves – in either an artistic fashion, whether it’s going to film or voice work or things like that, or doing other programming such as the ones I described.
Jocelyn: Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is grant writing, and how I talk about my own work and how I present my work. Something that I was realizing is: Why is it that, as dance movers and people who create choreography and dance, in order to apply for funding we need to submit a full-on essay about the work? And then only one or two minutes of movement of what we’ve been creating.
It’s made me think – I wonder if there are different ways of writing grants, and different ways of selecting artists, different ways of distributing funds that could be more equitable. Because I was thinking, if we’re basing it so much on writing, it already makes it an uneven playing field.
David: Yeah, fully agree.
Jocelyn: Some people, English is their first language, and perhaps they’d have people in their immediate family who can look over grants or they have, within their circle, that access to resources. I feel like, as someone whose first language is not English – and my parents don’t speak English fluently, they mostly just speak Spanish – I don’t have that extra support from my family to have someone read over my grants and that type of thing. [N.B. Though I do have help from my partner and from my friends.] I wonder if there are different ways of selecting and sharing resources among artists.
David: Something I do recommend, and something that I’m doing myself, is I am joining more panels and I’m having more conversations with funders in regards to this very specific topic because I do think it needs to change, it needs to be reformatted. I love hearing folks like yourself, especially younger folks, who are saying “Hey! This isn’t reaching out to me at all. This is actually putting me on the sidelines, and I see the same people getting the grants and the money over and over.” Something’s amiss when it’s the same folks and so much of the community is left on the sidelines or marginalized or left completely out of the possibility because of access, or the lack of access really, in a lot of communities, particularly communities of color. Many of us didn’t have access to arts when we were young so we don’t have those networks that so many folks already come into and, I’m going to say this very clearly, particularly white folk who do have access from the get-go, at a young age. They have networks that are already built into their education of the arts and many of us are learning them really late in life. For myself, it’s taken me over a decade to really get myself established. I still think of myself as an emerging artist and yet I am 20 years in, you know?
Jocelyn: I was thinking about those caps where it says you can only apply if you’ve been working for this much [time]. I wonder if there can be the opposite, where you can only apply to this grant if this is your first year, your first two years of making work or something along those lines to help new artists that are just arriving into the city and trying to get started. I think that’d be super helpful. I feel like that’s why it’s so important to have places like SAFEhouse Arts. When I first got to San Francisco, I was so thankful and happy to have a residency with them because that’s how I was able to start making things. If there were more programs and more resources geared towards new artists, I think it would be a great way to bring in more diverse voices into the dance scene.
David: Yes, yes, and yes [laughs]. Oof, I mean honestly, we can talk forever about some of those things, but I think we’re starting to make some of those changes ourselves. I think it’s good that we’re creating our own groups and our own collectives and things like that so we can mobilize and unify our voices so that we can then demand some of these changes and ask for some of these changes and hopefully see the cultural dynamics shift, as I said earlier, to reflect the country as is, rather than what used to be, and with that being predominantly white, or predominantly religious, predominantly wealthy, so on and so forth. Those kinds of things. So really working against the systems that have been set up and that have been perpetuated but I really think that the power is going to come from those of us who are doing this type of work and that’s why I’m so darn excited about seeing so many people doing this right now because I do feel like the shift is finally here [laughs]. And I’m all for it! I’m embracing it.
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