Soft Power

By Yayoi Kambara

Group of women posed in a living room floor
Photo by Malia Byrne [Image Description: Group of multi-ethnic Asian femmes posed in a living room floor, all with their hands and arms bent as if they are fanning themselves. in various attire of jeans, t-shirts, sweaters, and socks.]

Uncomfortable sweat drips under my arms, my cheeks burning as I speak up on the panel. I challenge an application because it’s unclear how the applicant belonged to a marginalized BIPOC community and why they share stories of this community as a cis-white person. Why do I, as a person who regularly advocates for equity, have so much discomfort confronting equity issues in our dance field?

I often wonder if this unsettling is something I’m supposed to get a grip on? As a parent, I frequently hear educators speaking about students learning to regulate their bodies. As a dancer, I feel I should have better control, yet these uninvited physiological reactions startle me. Even though I am a member of Dancing Around Race, Women of Color in the Arts (WOCA), my small group Power Cirque from APAP LFP, and I’ve gotten to work through residencies like Aesthetic Shift, the physical dis- ruption continues to have the same intensity.

During college, I had to evaluate whether I would want to be the token Asian dancer in a predominantly white or Black company or dance with a predominantly Asian company. The reality of this was reflected in my career when I began dancing with STEAMROLLER Dance Company. STEAMROLLER is a queer loud dance company of mostly Asian Americans where rehearsals brimmed with crying laughter, mockery, and sweaty cheeks. Jesselito Bie was our choreographer or who we called ‘fearless leader’ but there was no traditional hierarchy. The collective collaboration was never defined through by-laws but I felt safe. In fact, during STEAMROLLER rehearsals, and the outings following, we would mercilessly tease one another as only siblings can do. I would blush from the impact as the zinging could sting, but I couldn’t deny the truth embedded in those words or the love where it came from.

During those weekend rehearsals on sidewalks, and meals shared with gravel and glass on our clothes and in our hair, we also shared the challenges of being dancers in the Bay Area which boasted a diverse dancer community but with much less diversity in institutional and choreographic leadership, a fact still true today.

Confrontations are challenging and yet I demand further equity in our field. Thankfully, affinity groups help us to better understand how to harmoniously work with personal and communal reactivity. Can I feel valid when making an observation? Can we, as a community, ask one another to do better without fear of repercussion, being labeled as difficult, or dismissed? Instead, can we call each other up to be better allies and community members?

I’ve also been thinking more about why was STEAMROLLER rehearsing on sidewalks when my rehearsals with white choreographers were in studios? STEAMROLLER’s lack of funds to pay for studio space is the practical answer. And yet, as I’ve participated on grant panels it’s made me ask questions like: Is it hard to fund culturally specific work? Is Asian American dance mostly supported through cultural equity efforts and cultural preservation interests? Are other cultural groups having this issue? I wonder if the aesthetics of soft power and collaborative leadership are fundable for white folks, but not for us?

I’ve become aware of artists calling themselves the Asian Babe Gang (ABG)*, and it made me nostalgic for my STEAMROLLER days. Maybe it’s their shared pleasure in art-making, collaborative spirit, and the fact they meet in their homes. Or is it because they kind of look like me in my twenties? Or maybe its because the ABG collaboration tube top manifesto, a video to express the revolutionary potential of tube tops as the site of the revolution, was made specifically for me? If I am their audience, they are making work for someone like me, shouldn’t they be fundable?

I caught up with Asian Babe Gang (Malia Byrne, Kim Ip, Rose Huey, Nina Wu, Aiano Nakagawa, and Melissa Lewis) to learn more about their shared work.

Group of women seated on a living room floor
Photo by Malia Byrne [Image Description: Group of multi-ethnic Asian femmes seated on a living room floor, all smiling directly at the camera. The table in front of them is covered with papers, drinking glasses, and green leafy vegetables.]
How would you describe Asian Babe Gang?

MALIA: Asian Babe Gang (ABG) is six friends within the asian diaspora who found each other through various dance projects and started unpacking our shared and individual experiences. We just kept hanging out and gravitating towards each other, even after the projects
we were working on ended. I think engaging with race and identity can feel really isolating, and I personally was seeking witnesses and empathy in that process. We also know that Asian people have been strategically used by the forces of white supremacy to reinforce anti-Blackness and we strive to coalition build with our Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other friends towards mutual liberation. The name ABG wrecks the “asian baby girl” trope, which is rooted in the appropriation of Blackness and also depends on the monolithic stereotype of Asian women being a certain way.

KIM: ABG is a group of dance artists, multimedia artists, healers (Aiano+Melissa), a mathematician (Nina), writers, poets, stand up comedian (Malia), vertical dancer/flyer extraordinaire (Rose) and I could PROBABLY GO ON. Each of us has been in someone else’s rehearsal process or sharing our cultural experiences at a Dialogue (on Diaspora) at Nina’s Home (pre-pandemic). What I noticed in dance rehearsals with other Asian folks was how comforted I felt having discussions about our bodies, our herstories in ways that resonated with each other rather than just acknowledgement.

AIANO: Echoing everything already said, and adding that, for me, ABG is also about learning how to build solidarity within the Asian diaspora. Within the United States, we are categorized into a monolith of “Asian American,” but there is a complex history of colonization, imperialism, and war between many of our ancestral homes (Japan, China, Philippines, Korea, etc.). For me, ABG is an attempt to begin to explore the question, “How do we build solidarity against white-supremacy, while also facing the complex reality that as a Japanese person, my ancestors were responsible for colonization, genocide, and imperial violence against the ancestors and ancestral lands of my current comrades?” White-supremacy runs deep and we must address its manifestations at every level.

What do you think of when you think of Asian American dance work? Can you name a major Asian American dance company?

MELISSA: In my experience, I didn’t encounter ‘Asian American dance’ until my twenties – when I’d moved to San Francisco. I distinctly remember Googling “Asian American Dance SF” … Lenora Lee Dance and Lily Cai Dance Company came up in my search. Yay, it existed here! But I really had to seek it out myself. Another big moment for me was when Shen Wei came from New York to show ‘Undivided Divided’ at YBCA. There are so many predecessors to ABG that we wish to name, acknowledge, connect with, learn from, recruit into ABG; but the followup observation is: there are not that many ‘mainstream’ examples. That’s where the white supremacy of the dance world shows up— keeping us in competition or isolation from each other instead of in relationship with.

KIM: As a youngin’ growing up between New Zealand and the United States, Asian American Dance Work was traditional Chinese Ribbon Dancing and anything that was on a variety show that my mum would watch on the television. I remember Asian American Dance Work seeming grand and something out of my reach. Then in my teens, I recall watching “The Jabbawockeez” perform and win the first season of America’s Best Dance Crew on MTV which greatly changed my perception of Asian American Dance work—realizing that the dance work Asians performed wasn’t limited to traditional Asian dance forms.

It wasn’t until college that I could tell you the names of major Asian American Dance Companies: Lenora Lee Dance here in San Francisco and Shen Wei Dance Company in New York.

MALIA: wowwww kim, I so appreciate this reference. It makes me realize that I grew up idolizing Melody Lacayanga– the season 1 runner up of So You Think You Can Dance. That must have been the first time I saw an Asian, let alone Filipinx, person occupying any explicitly “American” dance space, or probably any dance space at all. I also have a memory of going to see a Shen Wei performance when i was in high school. It’s funny because someone i looked up to as a young dancer from the local dance community had joined the company at that point (a white person) and looking back, i was excited by this aesthetic that was distinctively not western, yet there were mostly/only white (and tall, lithe) people onstage. So i was like, “where do i fit into this…?”

AIANO: I also grew up with very little Asian-American representation in dance and the representation I did have was usually within the context of an Asian dancer fitting into the white, eurocentric aesthetic of a tall, thin, cis-het, dainty feminine dancer. Moving to the bay was also my first time seeing Asian-American dancers who were addressing issues directly related to their experience as dancers, not ignoring it. However, I was always craving to see more of myself, as a queer, big bodied, non-binary person, represented. I am still craving that, which is why I’m so grateful ABG is making space for that.

Quartet of women seated around a living room
Photo by Malia Byrne [Image Description: Quartet of multi-ethnic Asian femmes seated around a living room two on a couch, two on the floor, all smiling and laughing with a pile of junk food snacks at their feet.]
Where did you grow up and were you involved in a cultural/arts/athletics/program?

KIM: I grew up in Wellington, New Zealand and eventually moved to Cupertino, California where I wanted to play AYSO Soccer with all the other kids, but my mum was restrictive about the activities I participated in. She wanted me to participate in more “feminine forms” of activity warning me that soccer would make my legs too muscular. So with lots of negotiating, I was finally able to take a dance class once a week and join the cross country team in Middle School. Jokes on my mum because my legs still got muscular! By high school, I moved to Honolulu, Hawai’i, and naturally as an angsty teenager, participated in theatre in High School and in Chinatown (the arts district) doing long form improv theatre and Hawai’i Shakespeare Festival. Hawai’i is unique in that Asians are the majority, so I saw representation all around me in the arts.

MELISSA: I grew up in Massachusetts performing with a traditional Chinese Dance group, but that space didn’t ever acknowledge the wholeness of our individual experiences. Instead of being a space to support each other and process our identities, I feel it actually reinforced some hierarchical, ableist values of beauty while trying to ‘preserve’ Chinese culture (which isn’t inherently a bad thing). I made some of my closest friendships there and learned a lot of Chinese technique, but I don’t think I got any closer to understanding myself in that space. Younger me longed to be accepted, but I was always struggling with my sense of belonging (as a biracial white and Chinese person often read as white).

NINA: Somehow, my Chinese parents ended up in southwest Florida, where I was often the only Asian person anywhere I went. That led to a lot of internalized racism, resentment and shame towards my heritage, and a very strong desire to be white. (I distinctly remember wanting to look like Shirley Temple and role play the Pink Power Ranger, refusing to play the Yellow Ranger.) I remember my friends growing up “complimenting” me saying that they sometimes forgot that I was Asian (because I was so good at “playing whiteness”). Being enrolled in dance studios starting at the age of 8 and onward, I took on more white goals in my dancing (ballet, pointe, lyrical, jazz, and a season of clogging LOL) where the messages of whiteness, gender performance/roles, and body politics were only reinforced.

So all the dance that I’ve pursued as an adult has come with an underlying imposter syndrome of wondering if this dance is really for me, and if I belong in that space. This is all to say that it’s been my work in adulthood to undo all that internalized white-supremacy and learn how to honor, build connection, and fall in love with being Chinese, while also challenging and undoing the oppressive parts of that identity (anti-Blackness, body-shaming, misogyny, homophobia, etc.).

AIANO: I grew up in Portland, OR and attended Japanese Immersion school from 3rd – 8th grade. I had access to learning Japanese language and parts of Japanese history. However, while I was part of this program, I always viewed Japanese culture as “other” because the rest of my life was in white, American culture. I saw my “Asianness” as a point of shame and difference until I was in my third year of college and began to learn about systemic racism.

Trio of women outside sitting on a mountainside
Photo by Melissa Lewis [Image Description: Trio of multi-ethnic Asian femmes all wearing dark pants and puffy outdoor jackets with white safety masks on as they sit posed on tan dusty rocks.]
I’ve noticed that Asian Babe Gang harnesses their soft power in the videos and IG posts. What are you interested in exploring? Do you also define this as soft power? Or is it something entirely different?

MALIA: I love that. I definitely identify with soft power, personally. I’m not sure that’s what I call it in my brain though, because I find softness inherently powerful even though it might seem like an oxymoron. there’s definitely a tenderness with which we approach this work and each other.

ROSE: Agreed! There is a tenderness in the way we approach each other and any work we do. At the heart of ABG, we are all dancers with personal creative practices. For most of us, the entry point into being in relationship with each other was through movement – a rehearsal or dance class. We met each other as bodies before anything else. I’m curious in exploring how this body-first connection impacts how we build strategy towards collective liberation and dismantling white supremacy. It feels like a powerful entry point and place to build foundation from.

MELISSA: Yes, tenderness as an approach. And it goes so far beyond the ‘femme’ association of softness, I think. We also collectively have a mixture of martial arts training, carpentry, outdoor wilderness skills, etc… and are curious about what it means to embody strength, directness and power in addition to softness. Maybe it’s an ability to be flexible, fluid, and adaptable to a multitude of modes and ‘powers.’

NINA: I appreciate the naming and attribution of soft power to ABG because as Malia and Rose mentioned, it is how we tend to each other as friends and collaborators. I also second Melissa’s idea that we’re also trying to explore, practice, re-mix, and re-define power. I think it’s especially important work as Asian femmes where we’ve historically been seen as and expected to be soft. And while we’ve been able to claim power through softness (which is a potent and radical way to be), are we also allowed to access power through more “hard” means? (or whatever soft power is opposite to; and without furthering any harmful oppression) More broadly, I like grappling with how we can continue to bring nuance and complexity to ideas of power.

KIM: Yayoi you and I spoke about this soft power over our video call a few weeks back—I really loved hearing that so much. I felt very comforted in knowing that you could see it in ABG and the ways in which we try to guide each other in a horizontally integrated collective. I agree with what has been said above about how we are trying to evolve what “soft power” can look like. There is strength in being adaptive and flexible but there is absolute power in recognising when it no longer serves you and the group; we try to treat and hear each other with softness, and recognise that this soft power is to hold an understanding for each other in our respective lives and capacities as part of ABG.

Can I join Asian Babe Gang? Is it exclusive?

MALIA: We’re still figuring out this question I think but fundamentally ABG is not exclusive. There’s a clear need from the community to have spaces to be seen and heard in our Asianness and all the intersections therein and so that’s the space we aim to create and offer to whoever needs it (while specifically centering the experiences of queer people, femmes, women, nonbinary and trans folks, and dancers/artists). When we were deciding on our name, it was exciting to include ‘babe’ in it because then we claim babe-ness along with Asianness. So I kind of feel like if you are Asian and self identify as a babe then you’re in ABG. And that being said, it’s also important to have this container between the six of us where we’re actively deepening our relationships to our lineages and each other, because what we learn through that commitment is ultimately what we have to offer the community at large.

ROSE: So far, we work from a place of attending to what is needed among the six of us and then turning focus towards our larger community. Currently, we are building our collective foundation, deepening our trust and clarifying our visions and dreams. We are also still in the middle of the pandemic, which has caused us to slow down and reevaluate how we can show up and how we want to be showing up for each other.

Why is an AADA (Asian American Dance Affinity) group important to you?

KIM: This group is important to me because it identifies a group of Asian Artists at various points in their careers who want to nurture/support artists like me. Conversely there is a lot to learn from each other as the challenges that younger generations of artists face are similar and some of the challenges are very different–one being that the economy around art-making in the 90s is very different than the last 5 years in the Bay Area. AADA is an organization that can affirm Asian American artists and support them in their pursuit of creation or supporting longevity in our careers. In the past, the momentum in my work is driven by a residency or my putting aside finances to produce work. I would like to see how our Asian Artist community can grow through affirmative spaces/support systems.

MELISSA: I distinctly remember this small moment a few of us shared in a rehearsal process for Clarissa Ko’s ‘five feet dance’ — we all had a collective realization that NONE of us had never been in a creative process with 100% Asian Diaspora collaborators. I return to this simple moment (that turned into hours of followup discussion) often because it reminds me how important it is to build support and capacity from an internal, affinity place (i.e. with other Asian Americans)—in order to step up in coalition with others, as Malia is saying.

NINA: I think you know the answer to this question the moment you’re in any affinity group/space (whether it’s by race, sexuality, gender identity, parenting status, whatever it is. In this case, it is queer Asian femme dance artists). Echoing Melissa’s memory of being brought together and sharing space and process for the first time in five feet dance, the absence of feeling othered in a contemporary dance space was very striking. By removing just that one layer of whiteness, there’s a sense of release and permission to let go (of performing, accommodating, proving that I belong, assimilating). And then, once you see what that’s like, you can’t unsee it and you realize how important it is to nourish your self, identity, lineage, and connection to ancestors. And then building and feeding into a larger AADA community feels like a natural extension, so we may see/be seen, heal, process, interrogate, challenge, build, share resources/history, and surface our connective tissue that exists within this specific slice of identity.

Quartet of women and a dog outside sitting on a mountainside
Photo by Melissa Lewis [Image Description: Quartet of multi-ethnic Asian femmes all wearing dark pants and puffy outdoor jackets with white safety masks. Dark brown dog snuggles up to one of them.]
What is your best group agreement?

ROSE: “I am responsible for myself, my reactions, my own needs” “show up however you need, however feels best.”“crying is okay!”

MELISSA: “There is no perfect moment to share. If your heart is beating fast, take it as a sign: you have something important to say that someone else needs to hear.”

KIM: Our group agreement: come as you are with the parts of yourself that you are ready and/or want to share with the group. This is a space where you can ask questions, make mistakes, and not worry about failing or being wrong. There is a space here for you to be held. Our group agreement is a living agreement.

How do you want to show up for each other?

ROSE: With ferocious tenderness. with love. listening to our own and each others’ capacities. Asking for what we need, want, and dream of. Deep, active listening and patience. Maintaining check-ins and communication through ups, downs and inbetweens. encouraging and supporting each others’ imaginations. holding each other after a hard day or a sweaty dance class. Listening to our ancestors and those who have come before.

MELISSA: I see this image of us all wrapping and eating dumplings together. Nourishing each other, using our hands, in motion together, with enough abundance to spare and share with others. As a chosen family, with constant invitations to each bring our unique gifts into our work together. With joy, lightness, and deep trust.

MALIA: With the capacity to really see each other in each new moment and with trust that it’s reciprocal. With lots of laughter! With the knowledge that Kim and I are probably going to start singing a 2000’s pop song. Definitely with dumplings and luxurious love, and our ancestors’ support.

NINA: I love what Rose said earlier about how most of us met in a body-first way. I think that dynamic has set the tone/foundation for ABG. We listen to more than words or deliberately shared information. I really believe that we can feel each other – energetically, spiritually, and through our ancestors.

KIM: I would like to show up with space for others to take if they need, an offering—joke, story, laughter, and unending sensitivity for one another. I show up for the womxn in my family who came before me—my grandmother who worked in the fields researching Malaria, my mother who taught me her kind of strength, and to show up for myself and understand that familial sacrifices made for me don’t direct the story of my life.

AIANO: I want to show up in fullness, which to me means everyone being able to show up where they’re at. I’ve been struggling with depression and appreciate that I’m able to show up in whatever my fullness is that day. The other day, that was in bed with the blankets up to my nose. But space was still held for me and I was able to participate in that state. I want this space to be one not of perfection or professionalism, but one of authenticity and fullness at whatever state we’re in.

Hearing ABG articulate their process and project makes my heart full and I am inspired to keep thinking about the legacy and future of Asian American dancers and choreographers from the Bay. Next, I’ll be interviewing Claudine Naganuma about Asian American Dance Performances and how we can disrupt funding structures so we see more culturally specific groups get funding, and why re-granting doesn’t work. I’ll also be speaking with Melecio Estrella on developing an Asian American Dancers’ Affinity Group with ABG.

This article appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of In Dance.

Yayoi Kambara, MFA started her career as a professional dancer and currently directs and produces live performances and multi-media works, including film and XR.