Photo by Rocina Prado
[ID: Bianca Stephanie Mendoza, who is Latinx American, has hands on hips with her chin slightly lifted as she looks into the camera. She wears a dark metallic jacket over a ribbed black jumpsuit with a belt. Her dark hair is in a high bun and she has dangling earrings plus a septum piercing.]
Navigating a career in a Eurocentric, White-centralizing, contemporary dance world as a lesbian Latinx woman of mixed Indigenous blood never felt complicated until it started to. Before my exploration into non-Eurocentric dance, I operated through a lens shaped by my Western dance education, a profound education, but one that only allowed me to envision a very limited contemporary dance career. It wasn’t until I began to practice non-Western dance and trace my Indigenous ancestral lineage that was lost due to colonization that I found that lens no longer served me.
As I dissect my Western dance training, I am left with more questions than answers. Why was there such a lack of cultural and Indigenous dance studies throughout my dance education? Would I have sought my ancestral lineage sooner had a door been open to me in my dance schooling? Why is it my job, as an individual and person of color, to find my own way out of this limited, dance culture? I continue to find myself maneuvering through this unlearning and relearning process, a rewarding process that has also revealed the ways that, throughout my dance education, White Eurocentric Westernized dance was normalized as the standard and the forms of dance outside of this standard were considered “other.”
I chose to pursue my BFA in Dance and Choreography at Calarts where we would touch on these “other” dance forms in our dance history class. But the majority of the Calarts curriculum was spent studying choreographers like Isadora Duncan, Merce Cunningham, Mark Morris, and Pina Bausch. These pioneers of modern dance were given extensive class time with hours’ worth of films, articles, books, and discussions. I studied the essentials of a broad modern dance repertoire with techniques that included Limón, Release, Horton, and Graham. At the time, I was blind to the erasure of cultural and Indigenous dance in our dance curriculum. Naturally, I left Calarts wanting to fulfill a dance agenda that reflected this dance discipline created through and by White individuals. Upon graduation, my peers and I were encouraged to push the boundaries of dance and create thought provoking work, but only within a construct built around Eurocentric dance.
This construct would prevent me from finding my own ancestral dance lineage for years to come. I spent the majority of my dance career creating a subconscious dance hierarchy with ballet and contemporary ranked at the very top. It was when I began to open myself up to the dances of Samba, Hip Hop, Vogue, House, and many other cultural dance styles and learn their histories that I began to decolonize my experiences with Western dance, challenging this hierarchy.
For example, when I began to study Samba, I was first drawn to it for its gorgeous costumes and boisterous percussion music. As my relationship to the form and its communities deepened, I began to see and feel how deeply symbolic and ceremonial Samba was for the people of Brazil. Samba originates from African peoples who were brought to Brazil to work on the sugarcane plantations. It is a dance of celebration. Once slavery ended, Samba dancers migrated to the favelas, also known as the shantytowns, outside of the city where these formerly enslaved individuals would put together dance troupes for Carnival. These loud, unrestrained performances were at first frowned upon by Brazil’s Portuguese “upper class.” Over time the music and dance deeply affected the hearts and souls of all the people of Brazil, crossing classes and borders. Learning this history of Samba allowed me to deepen my respect and love for the dance and gave me a profound appreciation for its origins and ancestry. You can feel the pride and joy that resonate throughout the Samba community, and all who are invited into it, through the care each individual takes into telling Samba’s story.
The other cultural dance forms I have practiced share similar backstories and ancestry as Samba. Hip Hop was birthed in New York in the 70s by rhythmically talented individuals and was shared amongst communities of culture that didn’t have access to Western dance academies. Vogue dance evolved out of the Harlem ballroom scene of the 1960s, a dance and performance scene created by individuals from the LGBTQ community where they were safe to express their true, authentic selves. House dance was influenced by African dance, Tap, Latin dance, and martial arts, and is a dance about freedom, improvisation, and feeling the rhythm of the music. These styles of dance were born of struggle and fought to be established as legitimate dance genres. Their histories deepened my engagement with dance, both physically and spiritually. I feel that as a dancer who has been privileged to study such a vast assortment of dance styles, I have a responsibility to share their histories along with their movements, spreading respect, love, and understanding of their origins.
The knowledge that I have gained expanding my cultural dance repertoire has helped me peel away the parts of my Eurocentric dance training that I never questioned. Studying cultural dance is a practice of decolonization that inspires me to discover the roots of my ancestral dance lineages. My lineage is traced to the nomadic Chichimeca tribes from the Aguascalientes region in Mexico and the Mayans in the Yucatan, and I continue to try and find ways to translate this information into my dance. The research I have gathered has informed me that my ancestors were fierce warriors, described by the Spanish as the most ferocious, the most valiant, and the most elusive of peoples. They were also fierce adorers of mother earth, known as people of the wind. When I apply these bits of precious information to my dance, I am grounded.
I have reached out to dance groups like Calpulli Tonalehqueh in San Jose, and Xitlalli and Mixcoatl in San Francisco, for guidance on how to even begin my journey in Aztec danza. After a 48- minute conversation with one of the elders of the group Xitlalli, I felt overwhelmed. The amount of history that was shared with me, the ceremonies, the prayers, the language with its sharp T’s and L’s with clicks of the tongue, left me feeling lost to an ancestry and culture that was historically mine to claim but absent from my upbringing. Parts of me felt so ashamed of how foreign it all was to me. I realized that this reclaiming process would be both joyous and painful. Joining one of these groups is a commitment to a lifestyle change, a complete baptism in the culture of my ancestors. I’m deeply committed to this journey into my past.
Knowing my history has changed my approach to movement, making me conscious of the decisions I make in my dance career in ways that I never was before. Today, inspired by the movements of the many cultural dances I have practiced, and those of my own ancestry, I continue to search for ways that I can put the pieces of my story into my present dance life so that they can feed me and my loved ones now and in the future.
This article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of In Dance.