Dancing Around Race (DAR) explores the socio-cultural dimensions of race within the interconnected fields of choreography, dance presentation, dance training, funding, curatorial practices, and dance criticism in U.S. contemporary and postmodern dance. Since 2018, DAR has been building momentum and relevance across the dance communities in the Bay Area as it grapples with systemic and institutional racism that require profound change. Looking closely at the Bay Area dance ecology and working with a systems thinking approach, inquiry examines how various elements contribute to or inhibit racially equitable distributions of power, access, and representation. We’re a collaborative of emerging and mid-career BIPOC choreographers working together to create platforms to explore racial justice and equity. Despite the pandemic, we continue to meet and assist the BIPOC community, finding reprieve while uplifting each other.
By Gerald Casel
I reach to the high back diagonal, leading with distal fingertips and spoking my arms as I step forward with my right foot. Allowing the arms to drop, the knee swoops up in a counter thrust against the arms’ driving force. The right arm circles up above the head while the left arm slices across in front of the torso reaching toward the side low diagonal. There is a lot of weight sequencing through my bones and the resulting wave of motion ripples through my muscles and beyond my nervous system. The arm upswings and I turn on the ball of my left foot as the right leg falls up to the side high diagonal only to fold down allowing the left knee to flex with the foot and wrists also bending as in the weighted, crumpled, and genuflected figures in Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps.
These descriptive words don’t actually describe how I am feeling while performing these movements. I wonder if it’s because as I think about the gesture, I can visualize postmodernism’s lack of affect – in the facial expression and in the absence of dynamic peaks and valleys. This insistence on not offering kinetic commentary gives rise to an embodied neutrality such that the body can/shall be read without any markings that would announce its race, ethnicity, gender, class, or any other intersectional identifiers. When performing these movements, I am imagining the impossible, that my body can be read as neutral and that the movements I make can be translated and read as universal, without meaning or intent. Following Claudia Rankine who says, “I myself am overdetermined by my race,” my dancing body is always/already/only read and preconfigured in the viewer’s mind as a racialized subject.
Over the years, I have been improvising in a style that looks like a mix of Trisha Brown, Bebe Miller, and William Forsythe. Maybe these three are the ones I try to channel when conjuring movements that simultaneously reflect both my deepest somatic self and a nonchalant stream of consciousness that is at once self-conscious and carefree. I call this my default. For me, this term captures the moment-by-moment work of improvising that acknowledges my teachers while trying not to look like I give a shit. Honoring my teachers is unconscious and unavoidable, but not all of them exist within these categories. For some reason, my somatic teachers disappear in my mind’s eye since so much of that work integrated imagery into an applied practice so that my body became more efficient, discerning, and clear – free from adornment and embellishment. In a way, somatic practices ask us to be a body that is unperforming.
Lately, I’ve been bringing into practice the naming of people’s most influential teachers. I have also asked them to identify their teacher’s race or ethnicity, the form they taught, and the cultural tradition from which their practice comes. It has been interesting to see the various ways people have processed this request – with some totally unphased by the prompt – while others expressing how, just by being asked the question, were reliving a difficult experience from their past. It is never my intent to ask people to draw on past traumatic experiences and share them with the group, so I take it very seriously when someone taps me on the shoulder to say that this might not be a good question to bring up in a community gathering. How do we create clear boundaries of care when asking about histories of dance training that have been harmful and painful? How do we hold space when the questions we ask unearth a traumatic past? These are some of the challenging territories my social and creative practices have been merging.
In asking about people’s training histories, I am also interested in understanding the potential for cultural mismatch that may emerge. For example, one of my most influential teachers is Kazuko Hirabayashi. Kaz was Japanese and she taught me Graham Technique at The Juilliard School. Martha Graham was a white woman and one could say that her movement practice, the Graham Technique, embodies a uniquely white-American aesthetic, which has become a quintessential U.S. modern dance form. I never thought about it while learning the technique from Kaz, but there may have been some other internalized tensions imbued in how she delivered her teaching since her approach was vastly different from the other Graham teachers I had including Ethel Winter, Jeanne Ruddy, and Christine Dakin. Kaz’s style was fast, brainy, and ferocious. She challenged me like no other teacher. When we danced poorly, she would tell jokes. I heard her once say, “If you dance like that, I have a company for you – the telephone company.” Since she also taught at SUNY Purchase as well as at Juilliard, she would instigate a rivalry between the schools. When our contractions were sloppy she would say, “this looks like Juilliard junkyard!”
There was a tradition of “no pain, no gain” in these well-worn techniques, and that, unfortunately, included emotional suffering. Shame was often used as a motivating tool used to lure us out of our comfort zones and competition became fuel for technical improvement. Each of us fought for a spot in one of the annual concerts, which often featured a Martha Graham piece or something from Paul Taylor or some other quasi-neoclassical ballet choreographer. I am sure there was another way to instill discipline without having to break a student’s sense of self, value, and confidence. This was the late 80s and this was the norm.
In my creative research as well as my social practice through Dancing Around Race, I have been asking people to name their teachers, their race, and the form they were taught. In a simple way, this exercise honors and exhumes the knowledge learned from their teachers but also some potentially painful emotional memories associated with their learning process. The goal of this practice is not to re-traumatize people (should they have terrible training histories) but to acknowledge the trauma-informed past and to move beyond it by arresting the transmission of suffering by not replicating pedagogical methods used by their past teachers. The hope is to transmute the passing forward of trauma into one of care and empowerment — rather than shame and fear, we draw out joy and resilience. In essence, by breaking these harmful pedagogies, we challenge our default mode of teaching, learning, and being in our bodies while seeing and meeting our students as they are and giving support so that they can be where they need to be.
Gerald Casel (he/they/siya) is a Bay Area-based dance artist, equity activator, and antiracist educator. As director of GERALDCASELDANCE, his choreographic work complicates and provokes questions surrounding colonialism, collective cultural amnesia, whiteness and privilege, and the tensions between the invisible/perceived/obvious structures of power. Casel is an Associate Professor of Dance and is the Provost of Porter College at UC Santa Cruz. A graduate of The Juilliard School with an MFA from UW Milwaukee, they received a Bessie award for sustained achievement. Casel founded Dancing Around Race, an ongoing community engaged-participatory process that interrogates systemic racial inequity in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. geraldcasel.com
When Houseguests Become Songbirds
By Raissa Simpson
“Why you want to fly Blackbird you ain’t ever gonna fly,
No place big enough for holding all the tears you’re gonna cry.”
Calling on all culture bearers who pass down traditions, rituals and heritage through dance. The type of dance maker I’m referring to are choreographers of color whose works set out to preserve the transmission of culture through our movement lineage of historical, socio-political, and economic struggles. This art form of socially relevant dance transcends dance genres from folklorico to the stage and commercial forms while at the same time blending Western concert dance formalities of what is deemed professional. I usher in this article with the spirit of ancestral struggles while simultaneously carving a future pathway in what is a shifting paradigm for San Francisco Bay Area dance.
Dance writing is just as difficult as choreographing a new piece. From the onset of writing, you need something of an outline—or in my case an existential crisis—whereas in the studio you can start creating right away based on a feeling. I’m impartial to the plight of the choreographer of color who just creates a dance piece intentionally—but more often than not unintentionally—highlighting racism and the harm done by systemic racism in the dance field. I posit how dance writing, in particular dance criticism, is a gatekeeper to accessing opportunities like funding, presenting and touring. That said, I’m an unlikely antagonist of the journalist community. I’m interested in ethnographic patterns of Power and following those phenomena which I feel have shaped daily life.
In this article, I will be referring to Black, Indigenous, People of Color as we, us, and our in an effort to combat referential terms such as they, them or other. BIPOC is an imperfect acronym, however it does aim to encompass us into a group or identify ways in which we hold little to no proximity to whiteness. Throughout, I may use the monikers houseguests and songbirds to also describe choreographers of color. These monikers aim to demonstrate how we play by a different set and lesser rules when subjected to whiteness and the white gaze from white dance writers. This article isn’t an indemnification on dance criticism, but encapsulates the very fraught relation quite a few of us choreographers of color have with hegemonic white dance criticism.
Houseguest Rules: Don’t Make Any Noise
By the third question from students in the Dance Criticisms and Aesthetics class at the University of Nevada’s Department of Theatre and Dance this past February, it became clear that no one could dispute the current dynamic link between dance criticism and racial representation. The talk was a joint guest lecturer event between a local Bay Area Choreographer Sarah Bush; and myself. What I find significant is how academia plays a crucial role in the examination of dance writing’s racist legacy and ways in which its biases permeate criticism today. Even more evident is the fact that white dance critics (and the dance media) have a paradoxical relationship to choreographers of color when they see racial dynamics on stage they know little about. Whether real or perceived, we are naively invited into white-led spaces as houseguests. In the presence of an overlooked history, how does the houseguest remain invisible and silent?
Dance criticism has an obvious role in connecting readers to choreographers, but at the same time, contributes to misconceptions, erasure and ostracization of these same artists. In favor of avoiding retaliation, we houseguests remain silent out of a basic human need for survival in the dance world. Considering some houseguests want to create “dances just for the sake of dancing” or postmodernism, we find our work is still superimposed against power and authority from white hegemonic notions of the white gaze. On the contrary, the unspoken rules of silence patterned the hallmarks of houseguest etiquette of not being fully citizen, human and autonomous. What type of authority of power is inescapable for the houseguest?
The Old Playbook
The most recent display of white fragility comes from an article that was lauded on social media by quite a few of my white peers. A high profile journalist (whose name I’ll refrain from using) discusses receiving a “transparent press policy” which in their mind makes demands on critics to “treat the art and artists with respect.” Referring to the routine and practices of dance writers using old racial tropes and linguistics to describe our work, the press release calls into questions the writer’s biases based on race and sexuality; and calls for acknowledging the basic human existence of transgender people.
Interestingly, the study of dance history across various cultures becomes the argument for why an antiracist message isn’t needed for this journalist at the receiving end of the press release. Despite the reprieve against such a stipulation, the message is much needed. Additionally, the initial defiance against the news release stems from it being an ask to acknowledge racial bias in reviews. The unwillingness to do some self-reflection and a little antiracist work feels emblematic of dominant white society. Because the Writer becomes a Narrator, we often read the depiction of our dances through the lens of privilege and whiteness, making our lived experiences unrecognizable to us.
What did dance critics think racial reckoning would look like? Surely, they didn’t think the hollow words and actionless solidarity letters after the George Floyd Uprising would come without accountability. If changes to dance criticism like antiracist work were part of news outlets’ policies but never implemented, then a small request such as treating artists with respect through a press release would certainly be necessary. Perhaps this particular critic is right in that dance reviews aren’t always spread en masse to large audiences, however they are studied in academia for their consistent patterns of racist depictions of us from primitivism to orientalism. The main reason why this journalist can’t abide by such a request, in their own words, is because they’re working under scarcity due to budget cuts. I’m sorry, what?
This example reminds me that like a houseguest, we play by a different set of rules in white spaces. The rules set forth before us ask houseguests to turn a blind eye to racial indignation in the white spaces and dance media. It is required of us to navigate these spaces with white hegemonic notions of civility and fairness swarming around us despite regular microaggressions and sometimes blatant racism we face. Then, when we begin to sing our truths like an unrelenting songbird filled with color and without inhibition or despair, the retaliation is swift. At the heart of the matter is the complicit impulse for those with proximity to whiteness to confuse antiracism work as an economic class issue. I’m all for the opposition to fascist authoritarianism, but can you not throw us under the bus?
Why do we want to sing?
Like a canary in a minefield, our voices are heard amongst the dynamite around us. When houseguests become songbirds, we sing our truth, speak out against racism, and start addressing the harm done by white dance critics’ inability to acknowledge our very humanity in their writing. The translation of our art hinges on the ability of white hegemonic dance criticism to concede its authoritative perspective on our lived experiences. Adding to the complexity of this relationship is how our identity is intertwined into what type of reception of the dance given. We welcome dutiful criticism without the artifice of truth concurrent in racial linguistics.
It’s no wonder when it comes time for us to sing, whiteness conveniently excludes the greater racial and social meanings in our art or our presence all together. Some of us are following in the footsteps of Indigenous artist Yolanda Bonnell by “asking white critics to not write” about our work. Bonnell’s strategy is an earnest way to signal the eloquence around minding your business if you don’t understand how the power dynamics between races in America work. It allows critics to witness the work versus acting as the authority on the songbird’s lyricism.
Allow us to tell our own stories in the same manner we have studied yours. As you create movement in our bodies, our lived experiences recall colonial humiliation felt by Indigenous people on their own land, undeniable effects of slavery by African-descended people, and identity formed by occupation and war across the globe. Here we arrive at the truth that whiteness is filled with fixed bias through impartiality for fear of coming off as unintellectual. The innocuous questions raised here are evidence of why songbirds need to sing, and sing often. Racist caricatures are filtered through language and then deployed through reviews. Shouldn’t there be a counter-narrative?
Well, I imagine there’s little fairness to our relationship from the time we start our dance training. Our bodies are asked to be neutral and clean. Despite notions of postmodernism or humanism, we can only go so far as artists until we find our tackling race and the marked body. We dance and make work under struggle and under the pressures coming from the needs of our communities. Many of us are positioned in the dance field as tokens of diversity with the omnipresent fate of if we don’t succeed there won’t be another us to replace us. What we’ve realized during the pandemic is how we’ve been politely waiting for immediate action, but your fragility is preventing you from acting on anything.
The dance writing industry is in serious need of some diversity, inclusion, and equity but I don’t trust anything that could potentially spell out D.I.E., so let’s add access and learning. With IDEAL, we get what songbirds have been singing about for ages, access to opportunity and the ability for white writers to learn about our experiences. If dance writers are willing to learn more about race (not just culture) and how they’re positioned in the discussion, then songbirds will have access to equitable inclusion. I acknowledge that songbirds will be singing for more, but the urgency around getting reviewed is a step in the right direction. This might be an oversimplification to what is a long history of artist-observer relations. From this perspective, I imagine the contention between critics and this newfound songbird status is the perfect harmony for a song.
Raissa Simpson (she/her) is a performance studies scholar and artistic director of the San Francisco-based PUSH Dance Company. Her interdisciplinary dances are at the intersection of racial and cultural identities and centers around discourse on the complex experiences of racialized bodies. Through her research she investigates how Race is performed in theatrical settings, the mass media, activism, and in daily life. Her interest lies in the body as a site for racial discourse alongside new media and technology. She is author of Writings On Dance: Artistic Reframing for Celestial Black Bodies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), which offers considerations on how Afrofuturism is staged in contemporary theater.
(Dance) Field of Dreams
By David Herrera
I live my life in a liminal space. This “in-betweenness” is more accurately depicted by the hyphen of Mexican-American rather than being American or my Mexican heritage; even as I recognize my privileges as a first generation U.S. citizen. I am Latinx, Latino, Mexican-American, and Chicano depending on cultural context. I am multilingual. I grew up in a low-income immigrant household in a vibrant multicultural community in Hollywood, CA. I am gay. I was the first to graduate college on both sides of my family. Ni de Aqui, Ni de Alla(neither from here nor there). Like most Latinx peoples in the U.S. my identity is an amalgamation of my current life and the history of my parents and ancestors with a mix of geographies, citizenship, languages, and cultures.
As a young artist I never saw narratives such as these on dance stages or within the leadership of companies heralded as American dance staples. Sometimes companies had a singular Latinx dancer but they were rarely the lead. I felt erased by the art form I loved. I dreamt of programming that reflected the communities and people I knew. I couldn’t be alone in this feeling. Was I?
This need motivated me to create David Herrera Performance Company (DHPCo. 2007) with a mission to center Latinx experiences and communities in contemporary dance. In this time, I have explored immigrant histories, family separations at the U.S.-Mexican border, LGBTQ+ identities, Catholicism, Day of the Dead, language, racism, colorism, cultural empathy, nationalism, mixed-race dynamics, cultural poverty, celebration of heritage, and decolonization of the Latinx body and aesthetic, and much more. While the dance company gave me a platform for artistic expression and representation, I began to realize that it was not enough to ensure field wide change, at least not for me. I felt a calling to do more, but what?
I dug back into my own upbringing. How had my own community persevered and even flourished in the face of erasure and assimilation? What made us so resilient? I reflected on the way that “la Raza/la chusma/los vecinos/la communidad,” always played a role in all major (and some minor) events throughout my childhood. If someone was celebrating a Quinceañera or mourning a death, la communidad rallied. Perhaps they helped plan the party, some would become “Padrinos (god parents)” for the young lady’s dress, for the catering, for the church ceremony. In moments of sickness or sadness, the neighbors would offer to take care of the children while the parents dealt with the situation. If money was needed to return to a home country a collection was taken. You could count on the vecina to stop by with a small amount of groceries to help through the week when someone fell ill. In sadness and in celebration, the community made sure that burden was as minimal as possible on the centered family. We all mourned or celebrated simultaneously; no one was left behind.
I recognized that for real change to happen in the dance field, I had to stop thinking of myself as an individual artist and think more about my community of artists, specifically my Latinx colleagues. We have all heard the saying, “If you build it, they will come.” This (mis)quote spoken by Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) in the film Field of Dreams has been absorbed into the American psyche. This mentality puts the onus on one person to build something grand, build it alone, at any cost, with the promise of American greatness. This false prophecy often leads to fatigue and exhaustion. And even worse, it assumes that one person should be able to present a fully realized “product” without faults, loopholes, mistakes, or room for growth. If it does not, then we are considered failures. Is it of any surprise then that we see so many Latinx and BIPOC dance organizations and artists leave the field, stop dancing, or go under so quickly? This and the lack of support, access, and visibility.
(Side Note: As I type, I am juggling an upcoming production and its’ many needs, building and leading two community programs, involved with 3 other dance organizations in member capacities, writing 3 grants, sitting on a residency panel, and still having to hold a part-time job outside of dance. The difference is that now I ask for help within my circles and larger community.)
Why are we pushed to “excel” as individuals in the dance field rather than taught to enter the field in pods or in community? It has taken me almost 20 years to begin shaking off that toxic mentality of pulling myself up by my bootstraps and American individualism force-fed into my consciousness by the generations that came before me. This particular buck stops here.
In the last several years I have had the privilege of creating and leading two community impact programs: LatinXtensions and Latinx Hispanic Dancers United with this idea in mind. Both programs are based in community exchange, giving, and learning. Both programs embrace intersectional Latinidad and have a mission to uplift the national community. These programs are not about me, they are about Nosotros. In them I urge others to build their art with community, in support of community, in relationship to community, and to ask for help in community. We have to because we need to. I have to because it’s needed. We have to because we owe it to the next generation. I have to because it’s right.
I want to build up with my fellow Latinx and BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and artistic communities. I want to see them thrive as much as myself. Sincerely, I do. I want to share in the glory and the pain. It will make the glory more glorious and the pain less painful. Through this, the field-wide change for inclusivity, liberty, and visibility that I did not see as a young artist can actually be achieved. But now we are doing it together.
I have stopped chasing empty promises of individualism and have started doing something more tangible and powerful. Working in community, en comunidad. If we uplift each other, we will grow. I have gone from dreaming about it, to making it happen. This is where I am now. This is my dance field of dreams.
David Herrera (he/him) is a Latinx, gay choreographer and community leader. He is the Artistic Director for David Herrera Performance Company (DHPCo., 2007) in San Francisco. DHPCo’s mission is to center Latinx experiences and communities in the dance field. David has also launched two community impact programs: LatinXtensions mentorship and Latinx Hispanic Dancers United. Both programs provide community, resources, and opportunity to the greater national Latinx dance community. He currently sits on the Isadora Duncan Awards Committee, is a founding member of Dancing Around Race, and serves as advisor to the Festival of Latin American Contemporary Choreographers. David is a 2021 National Association for Latino Arts and Cultures Leadership Institute Fellow.
Santa Momentum All Year Long
By Yayoi Kambara
“Santa, tell me if you’re really there
Don’t make me fall in love again
If he won’t be here next year” Santa Tell Me – Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande, Mariah Carey, and Michael Bublé croon Christmas cheer loudly in my house the day after Halloween. I used to have a pretty strict no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving policy. Still, after a pandemic school year with limited socializing, no holiday performances, many of my house rules seem to be up for debate. It’s currently mid-November, and Halloween candy has barely made a dent as I write and I’m contemplating my Santa note.
Dear Santa, you magical mystery of goodness, are you really there? When I get the notification that I am a finalist for national grants, I believe your mysterious universal power of love is pulling me to become an awardee. And then an email delivers a coal lump of disappointment, leaving me feeling inadequate, talentless, and wondering if you exist. As I evolve and build into a mid-career artist, the gaps are getting wider and the environment feels inhospitable for marginalized artists. Outgrowing the emerging grants, the mid-level grants are few and far between. And then, the big national grants such as NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and Creative Capital feel really out of orbit. The odds are stacked against mid-career BIPOC artists. The amount of time, work, and resources it takes to take on these grants is exhausting and depleting. Looking around, most of the Bay Area’s institutional arts leadership positions are held by white artists who have deeper pockets of resources and I don’t have the same building blocks to lean on.
What I do have is overwhelming optimism. It turns some people off, but as a person of color, it’s my survival skill. I need to believe my glass is half full, or else I’d probably stop working as a choreographer. My tenacity is powered by the support I get from Dancing Around Race and the dancers and artists I collaborate with; whenever I come ‘home’ artistically, I feel nourished, and the stings of my disappointments feel a little less tender.
My creative appreciation and sustenance come from BIPOC artists who elevate stories not usually seen physically narrated in concert dance. My eyes well up, I laugh, and feelings of magical connectivity and psychic messaging feel alive in the bodies on stage, and I feel seen even though I am the one actively viewing. THANK YOU.
The directors, leaders, funders, and panelists who Secret Santa me with opportunities, jobs, and grants: THANK YOU.
But optimism can have a double-edged sword. I can keep hoping and lying down with my palms up in a full pranam pose, waiting for the universal magic to deliver to me, but I know I am missing my reciprocal responsibility of our community agreement – we are in a perpetual group Secret Santa that functions outside of seasons. We don’t have to give each person a gift, but if we all give a gift to someone, someone marginalized or whose narrative isn’t seen regularly, then everyone gets lifted up – equity is elevated for our field, for the LOVE OF DANCE! It’s less about everyone being uplifted, and more about generosity and working against the scarcity ingrained into our training. Our dances exist in a complex ecosystem and they need to be tended through multi-symbiotic relationships, not just binary ones.
So lately, I am swelling with the need to become the Santa our field needs. I’m saying yes to being a panelist at every opportunity and even joined the Izzies Committee. Being from our diverse dance community, I can explain why culturally specific dances produced for intentional audiences aren’t exclusive, gently push my equity agenda, and advocate for BIPOC artists whether they are working on owning their spaces, producing work/large festivals, or getting general operating funds! Sometimes I feel disheartened on a panel, like when my own child accuses me of being a ‘reverse racist’ but I also know people have my back. As my White Husbear ally gently reminds our daughter, I am correct in calling out Whiteness. Carrying that support, I quickly ease back into feeling believed. She doesn’t need to get canceled for challenging my opinion but we all need to work on being open to new points of view. As I write this and sip a holiday bevy, I’m growing my symbolic Santa momentum full of regenerative energy and immune health while hopefully keeping my dancerly shape getting ready for my next performance season center stage as dance Santa.
Santa has to be a simple pledge we take for one another, not just for a season. As Ariana Grande sings:
Oh, I wanna have him beside me like oh-oh-oh
On the 25th by the fireplace, oh-oh-oh
But I don’t want a new broken heart
This year I’ve got to be smart.
Let’s be smart, be there for each other and I promise this Santa, Yayoi Santa/aka Ms. Kambara-Claus, will be there for you after the holiday season. I’m ready to celebrate you and our community with sympathetic joy – always.
Yayoi Kambara (she/her) From 2003-2015, Yayoi Kambara was a full-time company member with ODC/Dance and most recently performed with Dance Brigade. While occasionally still performing Kambara focuses the majority of her time on choreography and directing including movement direction for contemporary opera. In 2019/20 she led a Community Engagement Residency for HMD’s Bridge Project, Aesthetic Shift, an exchange between dance educators, social justice activists, and choreographers to interrogate the overlap between equity values, creative practices, and organization. Kambara was in the 4th Cohort of APAP (Association of Performing Arts Professionals) Leadership Fellows Program and is a collective member of Dancing Around Race.
Her project IKKAI means once: a transplanted pilgrimage is commissioned by the San Jose Japanese American Citizens League and premiers in 2023.
This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of In Dance.