scribed by Roko Kawai
On October 15, 2009 a group of Bay Area artists, arts administrators and audience members met at CounterPULSE for the Dance Discourse Project 7: Dancing Diaspora. Co-presented by World Arts West/ San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and Dancers’ Group the event was a part of the Fall 2009 season of Performing Diaspora. Learn more about Performing Diaspora at www.counterpulse.org/performing-diaspora/
At the exciting event, participants were broken up into small groups where they discussed a variety of pertinent issues concerning traditional arts, innovation and identity. Below is one person’s account of the discussions led by Wan-Chao Chang about:
A gnarly question! LUV IT. Folks at our table spoke mostly from their own individual vantage point. As scribe, a few themes emerged for me — “but i really love it,” “so long as you respect it,” “the native’s burden,” “keep the bump.” As a participant, I was grateful to take part in discussions that are often dealt with in isolation and to continuing thinking on: “…but i really DO love it.”
[Quotation marks below represent my paraphrasing of separate speakers, not verbatim comments:]
but i really love it…
“Being a Caucasian and a student of African dance causes me to question my place & right to be there. It feels ‘right’ on the soul/spirit level; I really feel connected to the dance/rhythmns – why shouldn’t it be ok if it brings me joy & my teachers are opening their hearts to teaching me? But then I go to a place like Boulder CO [to take workshops] & it gets confusing again. Most of the teachers are actually from Africa but the people who have access to study from them are white.”
“I want to say a part of me identifies as African
“As a Caucasian studying Capoeira from an instructor who is not from Brazil, I feel like I lost something. The instructor held back because he wasn’t Brazilian. I feel a lot of love for Brazil; it gives me a vitality that makes me feel alive, something I haven’t been able to access in other places.”
“It’s so relative. Many Peruvians don’t even know about the diversity that exists within Peru. And even if you live inside a community, those community traditions, food, whatever, may not remain your core identity later in life. That’s why you find people switching, searching. ‘I want to be Native American, I want to try this or that.’ There’s a margin of freedom to decide once you grow up. Or, if you’re raised with multiple, overlapping identities there’s always constant movement anyway. 20 years ago, I didn’t know what I’d be thinking.”
“How do you feel if you see a non-Peruvian doing a Peruvian work? I’d welcome it! So few people know about us. When Simon & Garfunkel covered ‘El Condor Pasa (The Flight of the Condor)’ in the 70’s, they brought our culture into the mainstream. Grateful. We can all learn from it, even those we feel critical about.”
“I’ve trained in Bulgarian dance & Persian dance but I’m never chosen to perform cuz I look Chinese.”
“As a dancer/choreographer I’ve always wanted to do a ‘Kimono Dance.’ I’m not Japanese but I’m married to a Japanese American and feel a strong affinity to the culture. But there will be trouble. Do I need permission? or does ‘modernity’ permit me the ‘reckless’ freedom to create, deconstruct. How to break it up while also respecting it?”
“The term ‘artist’ – paradox between being an artist & not being able to freely explore. Tension always.”
“This conversation is framed by ‘Americanism’ and American racism. We have a sense of entitlement here, that there’s a ‘smorgasbord’ of options available to us. I’m just critical of the approach: ‘sample whatever.'”
“Choreographers – need to create something of their own. If you say this is my own thing & don’t claim that it’s ‘folkloric,’ it makes people calmer. There can be authenticity without tradition.”
“What about the Dance Theater of Harlem, a black ballet company founded in 1969? What may have seemed preposterous and unnatural then has become an amazing and unique model of this form.”
so long as you respect it…
“If ‘proper respect’ is shown & mastery gained, does that give you more freedom to innovate, to feel more belonged? Is it okay to include the influence of traditional forms in one’s own contemporary work so long as you draw the line at teaching (the tradition to others)– unless the teacher grants you permission?”
“But let’s also be careful not to over-idealize or ‘nobilize’ the Master-Granting-Permission deal. In Japanese Classical Dance, for instance, getting a stage name (license to teach & call yourself a legitimate keeper of the tradition) isn’t purely about your ability and commitment. Yes, you do have to demonstrate technical mastery & historical knowledge to pass “the test.” But it’s also about GOBS of MONEY — for exam fees & annual duties to the master, and the master’s masters, and the master’s master’s master, in perpetuity. On a romantic level, I still dream of one day receiving a stage name. But I’m opting to out for now because I don’t want to invest in a system I don’t fully comprehend, that could trap me in lifelong obligation.”
the native’s burden…?
“If you come from the native culture itself, does it give you more license to innovate — or more obligation to preserve the tradition?”
“If I say I was born & raised in Peru, others may assume I am an expert on Peruvian traditions. But what I know about my own culture, I learned from American anthropologists who know more about my culture.”
“As a person from Taiwan, I admit I feel uncomfortable when a non-Chinese person performs a traditional Chinese piece. But I also feel constrained when others expect me to ‘go back’ & focus strictly on traditional Chinese dance myself.”
“Haitian students are expected to preserve. I’m African American and not Haitian so I have more freedom to innovate within Afro-Haitian dance. If I wasn’t responsible wth it I could get away with a lot of stuff. But cuz I’m trained by both Haitians and African Americans; it’s tricky — the boundaries between preservation & innovation.”
“Traditions can be very burdensome…lots of sexism, abusive hierarchies, inter- and intra-tradition in-fighting. Sometimes the best support comes from outside your source community. But if you choose to have a relationship with a tradition, you necessarily need to be in real relationship with that community too — and all the ‘dramas’ that come with it. Otherwise, you’re not really ‘studying’ the tradition within its proper context.”
if you take away the bump, is it still black…?
“As long as we keep the ‘inner core’ within each tradition. the ‘essence.’ as long as we’re ‘sincere???????'”
“The issues are really fractured in the African American community — sometimes you go back to Africa, and it turns out you weren’t doing it right, even if you have been studying it for years. But for us, ‘working with blood memories’ is valid as well. African Americans, the African Diaspora in America, are particularly angry people. Where traditionally dancers literally used chains, we use mental chains in the contemporary diaspora.”
“Sun Ra said — the loop keeps the groove going, but it can trap you, that’s the funky part.”
“But if you take away the bump, is it still black?”
…but I really do love it
As a ‘newcomer’ to a tradition — with its centuries-old history, technique that takes decades to master, cultural contexts that are complex and often hidden — what does it mean to say we love something we don’t fully comprehend yet? Can we love the idea of a tradition as an entry way into the tradition?
How does it differ from loving, wanting to learn, being a practitioner of, identifying with …a post-modern or contemporary form?
My grandfather was apparently a beautiful Japanese Classical Dance performer. As a Tokyo-born Japanese/American with some intensive training of my own — and LOTS OF LOVE for the classical dance — I still feel this confusion. Maybe it’s relative — in classical dance contexts, I would label myself a ‘humble visitor/nothing but a novice’ of the form. That is how the culture would expect me to present myself. In contemporary dance circles, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that my work is singularly and powerfully influenced by this tradition. ‘Lucikly’ (said ironically), I look Japanese because I am physically Japanese. Therefore, in costume, I raise fewer eyebrows. But I will always feel equal parts access and burden.
Why do these distinctions matter? What if we just immersed ourselves in the practice of a tradition and let the outside world work itself out? What it is about traditional or culturally-specific forms that feels so forbidding, demands such scrutiny, and inspires such self-doubt? ”