A ‘Thank You’ to Life: Dancing Earth Celebrates Their 20 Year Anniversary

By Emily Levang

February 2, 2024, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
Dancer Rulan Tangen in the heart of the Amazon forest, Brasil.
Photo ©Labverde by Laryssa Machada
[ID: In the Amazon forest, Rulan Tangen wears a brown dress and gracefully connects with a branch, symbolizing nature’s strength and rootedness.]

Rulan Tangen was on death’s door as she dreamed of Dancing Earth. She could barely recognize her own body as she battled stage-four cancer, hardly able to move, let alone dance. Yet in that liminal space between realms, Rulan was grateful to still be breathing, and in this dream-space she visioned Dancing Earth – an offering borne as a thank you to life. This year, Dancing Earth celebrates their 20-year anniversary, as Rulan honors the strength and empowerment that this moment represents.

Dancing Earth creates elemental ritual and dance performances grounded in the ancestral, land-based wisdom of contemporary global people. With hubs in the Bay Area and Santa Fe, and a widening international cultural exchange in the Amazon, Colombia, Mexico and other countries worldwide, Dancing Earth prioritizes equitable exchange between local cultures and artists. Working with grassroots communities, Rulan says they have created an “inclusive belonging space for the people who are dancing for the Earth, with the Earth and as the Earth.” As director, Rulan is passionate about cultivating “real living relationships that honor the special unique qualities that each individual brings, culturally and creatively.”

I recently attended one of Dancing Earth’s offerings – The Source, 4-Day Festival in the Bay Area co-curated by Elaine Talamaivo and Gabriel Carrion-Gonzales. At this immersive community ritual and performance experience, I received an embodied transmission of the world that is possible – one of deep reciprocity with the Earth and with one another. I’ve been grateful to talk with members of the Dancing Earth team and their collaborators, to learn more about the seeds they’ve been planting over two decades. One theme stands out: this is much more than a dance company.

Alex Meraz was an original founding dancer with the company in 2004, and is now a celebrated actor and director, known for his roles in the Twilight Saga, Suicide Squad, and more. At 19, Alex was bagging groceries at Whole Foods after having recently moved to San Francisco. He’d grown up break dancing near the Reservation in Mesa, Arizona. He’d never auditioned for anything, and was a bit nervous. “I think Rulan saw I was this rough kind of urban kid, tore up jeans and a hoodie. So she played an old school hip hop song. And I just started break dancing.” Alex was welcomed into the company, and the next day actor and Dancing Earth collaborator Raoul Trujillo invited him to dance in the movie The New World. Alex says, “When I think about Rulan, when I think about Dancing Earth, it doesn’t feel like a dance company to me. It feels like in many ways they saved my life. They came at the perfect time, and told me beautiful, encouraging words at a time that I needed it. They gave me my career.”

Alex says this foundation as a dancer has been integral to his acting. “Rulan was getting us into our bodies, to find an element, and really express the element through our bodies. ‘Cause you know, we are the earth. So it was really just connecting us back to traditional views. It was figuring out a way to honor that same expression.”

Three people dancing outdoors.
Photo by Randi Lynn Beach
[ID: Three dancers wearing white and red attire lift flowing red fabric, grounded on desert lands, producing interconnectedness. Left to right: Sarah Hogland-Gurule, Lupita Salazar, Gabriel Carrion-Gonzales.]

Since its inception, Dancing Earth has always welcomed the wisdom of each dancer’s ancestral knowledge, rather than emphasizing specific body types or ways of moving that originate in the dominant culture.

Sarah Hogland-Gurulé has been with the company for three years, and is the director of UNBOUND, a performance ritual that honors the cast’s ancestors. Together with dancers Lupita Salazar and Gabriel Carrion-Gonzales, and producer Angel Guanajuato, their performance educates communities about the suppressed history of the Genízaros – Native people who were enslaved by Spanish colonizers. Sarah says, “I feel deeply encouraged by Dancing Earth to be guided by my intuition and to work with the ways of knowing and creating that were a normal part of culture for many of my ancestors but are often diminished, not taken seriously or even laughed at by the dominating culture of today.”

For Dancing Earth, celebrating diverse lineages is an act of honoring biodiversity: when humans dance, we are the earth dancing. This principle is central to all choreography. Ronice (“Ro”) Stratton is a dancer in the emergent Bay Area company. During the development of their production of Eco-Elegies, Ro researched the Bay Area’s watershed, created movement based on that, and shared her embodied learning with fellow dancers, which was incorporated into the performance ritual. Ro says, “Dancing Earth has been a beautiful place for me to feel agency in my dance and my expression.”

“This is a reflection of the natural world,” says Taraneh Sarrafzadeh, “that not everyone is expected to fill the same niche or express themselves in the same way. That’s embracing biodiversity.”

Taraneh is a dancer with the Bay Area company, and joins the artist-leadership cooperative team with focus on grant writing, as well as producing Eco-Elegies. At the first Dancing Earth Summer Institute she attended in 2022, she spent time in the desert, learning directly from chosen kin, and integrating that into her performance. She says, “it opened up a lot for me to have a dedicated time and space to be with a juniper tree for an hour and then see what my body absorbed from that relationship.”

After 20 years, and thanks to community, in-kind support, and grants, Dancing Earth has been able to expand. The practice of shared visioning that has been foundational to choreography is now expanding into the organizational realm. The past three years have marked a shift in Dancing Earth’s work, as they’ve been able to have consistent, part time staff, rather than working on a project basis. This enables broadening leadership in creative visioning and management of the company which they hope to continue with sustainable funding sources.

As Dancing Earth enters its third decade, Rulan intends to continue exploring the emerging theme of “mixed-icism,” which is the basis for their new Eco-Elegies performance. “Mixed-icism” inhabits the liminal space of “in between,” exploring the confluence of mixedness in lineage, citizenship, gender, sexuality, skin color, artistic discipline and more. An expansion on the long-standing themes of Dancing Earth, at the core, mixed-icism is about “acknowledging yourself as a person who’s carrying mixedness.” Rulan says, “For myself as a dream visioner, I personally want to delve into being more than a box check.”

Rulan holds this work as a way of standing for life, for what we want to see in this world. Many of her mentors have taught her that the “particular power of dance, embodiment and movement is to show not only what you’re fighting against, but what you’re standing for, what you’re dreaming into being. It’s about embodying a future of balance by showing it on stage, and then actually making it the present reality.”

This article appears in the Winter 2024 issue of In Dance.

Emily Levang is an essayist envisioning humans caring for our Earth-body. She is the Communications Manager for Waankam: People for the Estuary, a citizen-led Rights of Nature initiative. Her work has been published in Earth Island Journal, Ensia, Braided Way, Geez Magazine, Mn Artists, and others. She is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA in Maine. emilylevang.com