Culturally specific dance is a lifeline for diverse cultural communities throughout the United States to stay connected to our cultural roots. This article explores the role of culturally specific dancers to address important social justice issues of our time and the capacity building support needed to maximize their impact on the communities they serve as well as the dance sector at-large.
Kerry Lee, an American born Chinese, co-directs the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company with her immigrant mother. She has witnessed firsthand the power of culturally specific dance to transform lives – not only within her own community but also the broader American public with which they share their art. Atlanta Chinese Dance Company’s 2019 production Ribbon Dance of Empowerment: Chinese Dance through the Eyes of an American intertwined Chinese dance with personal storytelling by and about some of the nearly 100 dancers in the cast, celebrating the role the art form has played in their search for identity, belonging, and self-acceptance as Chinese Americans in the black/white racial binary of the South.
Anne Huang is the Executive Director of World Arts West, a regional presenting and arts service organization that supports over 450 Northern California dance companies sustaining the world’s diverse dance and music traditions. After immigrating with her family to the US at age 12 to escape political persecution in Taiwan and spending her formative years trying to disappear into the white world, Anne turned to studying different cultural dance traditions and working with cultural artists on social justice issues as a way to embrace her own cultural roots and heal the broken pieces of herself. She has worked extensively with cultural artists and culturally specific arts organizations on capacity building and resource equity advocacy. Her latest project was Live Arts in Resistance: Ancestral Knowledge, Art & Resistance, an interview series amplifying cultural artists’ social justice journeys, co-presented by World Arts West, NAKA Dance Theater and EastSide Arts Alliance.
The following summarizes the common themes that arose in the LAIR interview series featuring CK Ladzekpo, Charya Burt, Alleluia Panis, Kiazi Malonga, and Victor Torres, conducted by Anne. Anne and Kerry also offer their reflections on these interviews. Collectively, their stories illustrate seven key roles that culturally specific dance has played in addressing social justice issues.
Reclaiming Cultural Traditions
There are multiple factors that have threatened the preservation of cultural traditions, artistic forms, language, and stories. Among them are genocide, colonialism, civil strife, transmigration, etc. Culturally specific dance has served as a powerful tool to keep culture alive.
Charya Burt, an acclaimed master dancer, choreographer, vocalist, and teacher of classical Cambodian dance, grew up in Cambodia during the 1970s when over 90% of artists and educators were killed during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Her uncle Chheng Phon (Minister of Culture in the 1980s) once said that culture is the spirit of the nation, and she has dedicated her entire life to reviving the Cambodian culture that the Khmer Rouge attempted to destroy. While studying at the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh (known today as Royal University of Fine Arts), Charya realized how important it was to be part of this culture rebirth and feels a sense of obligation to instill this spirit in young Cambodian Americans. Much of her work has been teaching youth in Cambodian communities in California and beyond, who were born into a deeply traumatized intergenerational community. The cultural elements of dance and music help them to know where they come from, and where they are going. Anne reflects that if you think of culture as a tree, the roots are the past, the trunk is the present, and the leaves are the future. If you remove the root, the entire tree dies. By nurturing the trunk, more leaves can grow. Charya’s deep cultural work is like watering the tree, laying the groundwork for an abundance of leaves to blossom.
Dr. CK Ladzekpo, an African music and dance pioneer in the US and beyond, grew up in colonial Ghana in the 1940s and 50s where he was punished regularly in school for participating in drumming and dancing. Growing up in a culture centered around drumming and dancing, punishing him for it was tantamount to sending the message that he was not allowed to participate in his own cultural activities and rituals – that colonial forces were going to designate who he could and could not be. The British colonial regime sent the message that Christianity was good and his own culture was bad, with the goal of wiping out African cultural identity. Dr. Ladzekpo’s deep love for these traditional forms propelled him to continue practicing them despite the punishment. He would go on to become the first professional artist from Africa to immigrate and settle in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was instrumental in starting the African music program at UC Berkeley as well as the first African Cultural Festival in the Bay Area. He has also served as mentor of countless African diasporic artists. Anne reflects that by reclaiming his cultural traditions, Dr. Ladzekpo has reclaimed his people’s right to exist – a right that was denied to them by their colonizers.
Embracing Our Cultural Identity Amidst Pressures to Assimilate
For many immigrants and children of immigrants, there is a constant tug-of-war between the traditions of our ancestral lands and the pressures to assimilate into the dominant culture of our current place of residence. Culturally specific dance has been a portal to embrace our cultural roots and forge a sense of identity, combating a sense of shame that is often felt for being different from and/or unwelcome in the dominant culture.
Dr. Victor Torres, a Full Professor in the Department of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno and director of the university’s Los Danzantes de Aztlán Mexican dance program, characterizes the Zapateado (Mexican folkloric footwork) as his weapon of resistance and folklorico as a means to resist assimilation. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848, Mexicans found themselves as strangers in their own land – no longer Mexicans in Mexico, but rather Mexicans living in the US. Subjected to intense discrimination thereafter, they experienced a sense of inferiority as being called “Mexican” had a pejorative meaning. Parents changed Mexican names from Juan to John, Jose to Joe, etc. and chose not to teach their children to speak Spanish, because they did not want them to experience discrimination. A key goal of the Chicano movement in the 1960s was to counter this narrative by reclaiming their Mexican heritage and promoting positive self-identity. This was where folklorico came in – as a public symbol of resistance to assimilation and a tool to recuperate and promote Mexican culture. For Dr. Torres, folklorico was the armor that would allow him to resist assimilation. For his children who grew up in white neighborhoods and were accused by Mexican immigrants of being too white, folklorico was their shield to defend their cultural authenticity.
Dr. Torres’s story resonated with Kerry, who grew up in suburban Atlanta in the 1980s and 90s looking down on Chinese dance as inferior to western art forms such as ballet and questioning why her immigrant parents forced her to learn Mandarin Chinese. In her mind Chinatowns had the connotation of being dirty and low class, and the standard of beauty was having blonde hair and blue eyes. It was the act of performing Chinese dance hundreds of times for cheering audiences from all walks of life that slowly chipped away her sense of inferiority, empowering her to embrace her Chinese heritage as something that could be admired and appreciated by all types of people. Kerry and her mother Hwee-Eng Y. Lee co-direct the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company to instill cultural awareness and pride in the next generation of Chinese Americans. Kerry recently reflected that she hopes her young dancers performing the Chinese ribbon dance feel as if they have the power to command a majestic dragon, and that they are not shy but proud to introduce it to their friends.
Connecting to Our Cultural Roots
Many immigrant communities have few opportunities to learn about their cultural heritage in the US. Culturally specific dancers have bridged that gap, providing access to cultural traditions, artistic forms, language, and stories that are otherwise out of reach.
Alleluia Panis, the Artistic and Executive Director of Kularts (the nation’s premiere presenter of contemporary and tribal Pilipino arts), has organized tribal tours for Pilipino Americans to visit indigenous communities in the Philippines. The Philippines has been colonized for many generations, so what many people think of as Pilipino dance forms actually have a colonized flavor. There are over 100 indigenous tribes in the Philippines, most of which are unknown or have been looked down upon by Pilipinos and Pilipino Americans. After working to decolonize her own mind, Alleluia has worked to help other Pilipino and Pilipino Americans decolonize their minds by creating opportunities to experience indigenous cultures outside of the big cities. In addition to organizing tribal tours, she has also brought indigenous master artists to the United States for cultural exchange and friendship.
“De-colonization work begins with de-colonizing my own mind. How do I see my own power? How do I step into my own power and beauty? How do I embrace my leadership? How do I increase the number of leaders, and help them empower more people to embrace their own leadership?”
Many of Kerry’s students were adopted from China by white families. Chinese dance serves as one of few (if not the only) connection to their Chinese heritage, as most do not speak the language and have limited exposure to Chinese culture at home. One dancer said, “At my school I have seen no more than ten Asians. Because of Chinese dance I can listen and try to comprehend fluent Chinese, I can see the Asian shops, I can taste the Asian cuisine, and I can smell the Asian spices. All of which I don’t interact with on a daily basis.” Another spoke of her embarrassment whenever a Chinese auntie would say something to her in Chinese that she could not understand, and that performing Chinese dance was the only time when she felt fully in touch with her Chinese identity.
Building Intergenerational Communities
Practicing culturally specific dance is a way of life that has been shared across multiple generations within households and communities. It holds space for people of different generations to engage in cultural traditions together, cultivating a sense of belonging that transcends bloodlines.
One example of intergenerational community building is second-generation Congolese American Kiazi Malonga and his late father Malonga Casquelourd, who was a renowned traditional artist from the Congo. Casquelourd traveled to the US in 1972 and shortly after, began to build his empire in traditional arts in the US and founded Fua Dia Congo. It was in this setting that Kiazi was trained and learned about his Congolese cultural heritage. Growing up, many of the activities that Kiazi did with his father involved Congolese drumming – drumming for classes and performances for Fua Dia Congo as well as rituals at home. Through these rituals, his father passed down family stories, spiritual traditions, political advocacy, and more. Kiazi became the lead drummer of Fua Dia Congo at 16 and began teaching at that age as well. He has taught and performed in the US, Canada, Costa Rica, Europe and Africa. Anne reflects that the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts has become one of the most important buildings to study African dance and music in the US. Dancing and drumming, which are central to Congolese community gatherings, are like the glue that binds intergenerational communities together.
Kerry’s mother Hwee-Eng Y. Lee, an immigrant from Singapore, started teaching Chinese dance just after Kerry was born in Atlanta and founded the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company in 1991. Kerry grew up dancing under her direction and returned home after dancing professionally in New York to co-lead the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company together. When Kerry asked her mother why she wanted to teach Chinese dance in Atlanta, she said she knew there would be a generation gap between them and she did not want them to have a cultural gap too. By instilling a love of Chinese dance and culture in her daughter, it would bring them closer together. There have been many pairs of mothers and daughters within the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company – and even mother and son, and grandmother and granddaughter too. The concept of family extends beyond bloodlines, creating a sense of belonging for the dancers who are often surrounded by people who do not look like them in their everyday lives. A four-year-old Chinese adoptee remarked, “We all have black hair!” on the first day of class, and she would go on to dance with the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company until she graduated from high school. Some of her classmates would continue beyond college into adulthood, forging friendships that have lasted a lifetime. The mother of another Chinese adoptee mentioned that her daughter had been having trouble socially at school but found a sense of belonging through Chinese dance – so much so that it was worth the five-hour round trip weekly commute between her home in Greenville, SC and the dance company in Atlanta!
Dance as Diplomacy: Bringing People Together and Combating Racial Stereotypes
In a country that is increasingly polarized, culturally specific dance is a cultural diplomacy tool that can bring disparate communities together to love and understand one another.
World Arts West’s signature event, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, celebrates and fosters appreciation for diverse cultural communities through an annual performance season of dance styles that have included traditional classical dance, sacred dance genres, vernacular dance forms, social dance, and folk dance presentations. Since 1978, the Festival’s performances have presented over 450 companies and soloists to tens of thousands of audience members. The Festival has taken significant leadership in broadening the public awareness of world dance and music forms and in encouraging many artists to maintain their distinct traditions. The Festival artist jam featuring all participants at the end of the performance is an exemplary example of how artists of different cultures can come together as one – moving through space together, yet uniquely – to celebrate our shared humanity through dance.
Another example of dance as diplomacy is the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company’s outreach performances in schools/universities, libraries, museums, senior centers, military bases, corporate events, international days, arts festivals, private parties and more throughout metro Atlanta and surrounding areas. China is not part of the elementary school curriculum in Georgia, and oftentimes the company performs for audiences that are overwhelmingly non-Asian. Watching the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company may be one of few times they ever have a meaningful interaction with the Chinese American community – not to mention the first and only time they may ever see Chinese dance. In the black/white racial binary of the South, performing Chinese dance serves as a reminder that the Chinese American community exists and helps to debunk racist stereotypes. On more than one occasion, Kerry has encountered racial microaggressions just before performing. When a white school teacher asked where she was from and she said Atlanta, the teacher confusedly turned to the person beside her to ask, “But where are her parents from?” as if Kerry had misunderstood her question. At a senior home, an older white man called them “slanty eyes.” Kerry feels a sense of purpose even when performing for the smallest of audiences in the smallest of venues, as she views these opportunities as vehicles to spread positive energy and cultural awareness to people who she would otherwise never have the opportunity to meet. As the emotions expressed through the dances – joy, love, sorrow, etc. – are universally relatable, culturally specific dance provides a window into the soul and an opportunity to connect heart-to-heart. She finds that audiences who appear skeptical at the outset are often all smiles by the end, coming up to the performers afterwards to express their appreciation.
Sharing Rarely Told Stories about “Hyphenated” Americans
Culturally specific dance is a platform to share rarely told stories about “hyphenated” Americans, such as the taboo subject of incarcerated Pilipino Americans and Chinese Americans in the South grappling with identity, belonging, and self-acceptance.
Starting in 2009, Alleluia Panis started an initiative to create works about subjects that are considered taboo in her community. She said that one of the most shameful things for a family was to have someone incarcerated, which she addresses in her piece “Incarcerated 6×9.” There is a large population of young Pinoys and Asian Americans who have been incarcerated. The piece was based on one person, and she mentioned that it was so tough to take on this subject that she had to find ways to remove it from their realities. She asked him what kept him sane, and he said it was his family – a family that was deeply rooted in the culture. The tragic story is not only about the incarcerated people, but the families who are impacted by it. This is a topic that very few people know about, and Alleluia has brought visibility to it through her work.
In 2019 Kerry and the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company presented an original production Ribbon Dance of Empowerment: Chinese Dance through the Eyes of an American, inspired by an article Kerry had written about Chinese dance and creative placemaking for Alternate ROOTS’ Creating Place multimedia collection. Not only did she share her own story growing up American born Chinese in the South – she also collected stories from her fellow dancers and families, including Chinese adoptees, immigrants, and biracial dancers. The production prompted an outpouring of even more stories by audience members, as many approached Kerry in the lobby after the performance to share their personal reflections and sent heartfelt emails in the following days. An audience member who was adopted from Columbia thanked the company for giving voice to an aspect of the adoptee experience that is rarely discussed. Another mentioned that hearing Kerry speak of wishing she had blonde hair and blue eyes as a child deeply resonated with her and gave her a sense of healing. As an immigrant from Argentina who could not speak English, she had felt small and inferior just as Kerry had depicted in the mini dance drama. A white male said that he could not relate as he had never felt inferior, but that the performance made him think. Many of the dancers expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to share their stories with over 1,000 audiences – including with friends and families whom they had never found a way to express these sentiments. The stories surprised some parents of other dancers who thanked the company for helping them to understand what their children may be going through.
Bridge to Higher Education
Culturally specific dance is not just an artistic tool – it also serves as a bridge to higher education for young people facing economic and educational barriers.
Through his work with Los Danzantes, Dr. Torres has empowered Chicano/Mexican youth to pursue higher education by creating programs targeting high school folkloristas (practitioners of Mexican dance) that enhance their professionalism in folklorico and achieve academic excellence. Fresno State’s Los Danzantes de Aztlán is located in the Central Valley, which is home to half the cities ranked as the poorest in the state of California and consists primarily of Hispanic students – many of whom attend rural schools, speak Spanish in the home, and are first generation college students. Dr. Torres’s high school programs act as a feeder for the Los Danzantes dance program, inspiring young Chicanos to simultaneously pursue their passion for folklorico while earning a college degree. Dr. Torres runs the largest Chicano/Mexican commencement ceremony in the United States, with over 14,000 attendees in 2019. It was watching Danzantes performing at the commencement ceremony many years prior that convinced Dr. Torres to take over the dance program from Professor Ernesto Martinez, who had been trying unsuccessfully to recruit him. He was blown away by the caliber of the commencement as well as Danzantes’ performance, which made him feel at home. Danzantes still performs at the commencement ceremony every year – a testament to the power of folklorico in transforming the lives and education of these youth.
Culturally specific dance has been a powerful tool to transform lives for many generations. For communities facing threats to their cultural heritage, practicing these art forms has empowered them to reclaim traditions, embrace cultural identities, and connect to their roots. Performances and classes have brought people together to understand and celebrate one another – not only across generations within a specific cultural community but also across communities of different cultures. New choreographic works have amplified rarely told stories about “hyphenated” Americans. Partnerships with educational institutions have built bridges to higher education for students facing economic and educational barriers.
Despite the deep social justice impact of cultural artists in diverse communities and the dance sector at-large, they have not received adequate support – both by audiences and philanthropic institutions. It takes an entire village to support cultural artists – culturally competent arts executives, fundraising professionals, arts administrators, archivists, production professionals, and more. The first step in cultivating that village is to garner the financial resources needed to identify and train these individuals. Anne has addressed this issue in a previous In Dance article Resource Equity: Connecting Culturally Specific Dance Communities with Grants Funding. Learn more here. Building the entire ecosystem of culturally specific dance communities is the key to help cultural artists sustain and expand their impact for future generations.
Dr. Anne Huang is the Executive Director of World Arts West. Anne has worked extensively with cultural artists and arts organizations such as Charya Burt, Kyoungil Ong, Naomi Diouf, Alleluia Panis, Chinese Culture Center, Dimension Dance Theater, CubaCaribe, LIKHA, Bisemi, Halau ‘o Keikiali’i, Cunamacue, and many others. Anne has served in leadership roles for National Dance Project’s Regional Dance Development Initiative, New York Foundation for the Arts’ Immigrant Artist Program, and the City of Oakland’s Mayoral Arts Task Force. She is the Board Chair-Elect for the Dance/USA Board of Trustees.
Kerry Lee is the Co-Artistic Director of the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company. After graduating from Stanford University with a degree in engineering and working for a top ranked economic consulting firm, she followed her heart into the professional dance world in New York City. Kerry performed throughout the US and the British Virgin Islands with the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, H.T. Chen & Dancers, Dance China NY, and gloATL before returning home to co-lead the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company with her mother Hwee-Eng Y. Lee. For many years, she worked at the intersection of the arts and activism at Alternate ROOTS. She is also an avid writer, pouring her heart out in a blog entitled Memoirs of a Chinese Dancer. kerryylee.com