Samar Adib Nassar
Published: June 22,
In San Francisco,
Thinking Globally, Dancing Locally
Photographs by Terrence McCarthy for The New York Times
At the Ethnic Dance
Festival, from left: a Chinese lion dance by Leung’s White Crane Lion
and Dragon Dance Association; Samar Nassar, a Lebanese belly-dancer;
and Savitha Sastry in a classical South Indian dance.
SAN FRANCISCO — The
performers of a Chinese lion dance, leaving the stage, meet the soloist
who will present a Bharata Natyam dance of temple consecration from
South India: they pay wary respects to one another. Once her own number
is over, the soloist encounters the Peruvian men who will succeed her;
they have a little question-and-answer session in footwork, though her
feet and theirs make it clear how different their languages are.
What other city in
the world has anything like the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival?
Residents of the Bay Area perform the dances of their original cultures
— from across the globe, styles with radically different purposes — to
an audience that does not consist primarily of those already familiar
with those forms.
Some (not all) of
the transitions I have described — apparently new this year — were
lightweight, yes, but very appealing.
Who could not love
the way the Lebanese belly-dancer, sharing the stage after her solo with
four young male hip-hoppers, did a little number with them waiting on
her? Really, these transitions were little triumphs of pluralism and
multiculturalism, sweetly demonstrating how the exponents of different
cultural forms can coexist with no loss of pride or fun.
Each of the
festival’s programs contains at least nine items; a different program is
presented each weekend over four weeks. I heartily envy the Bay Area
residents who can see the three programs I must miss, with works from
Korea, Japan, Indonesia, French Polynesia, the Philippines, Ukraine,
Russia, Liberia, Congo, Spain, Scotland and Ireland; Native American
dances, too. Yet the program I caught last weekend alone included dances
from China, India (two), Peru, Mexico, Lebanon, the United States
(hip-hop and Hawaiian hula) and Cuba (two). Each presentation lasted 10
to 20 minutes.
smorgasbord conditions, the range of dance sociology was remarkable. The
Bharata Natyam female solo, with the performer dressed in elaborately
decorated silk and her bare feet dyed red, was one of consecration. But
there was nothing sacred about the 1950s nightclub behavior recreated by
the Mexican women of Los Lupeños de San José. Adorned with jewelry,
flowers, high heels and dresses that made much of their generous
embonpoint, they and their smartly attired men were here for secular
purposes: to have a good time, with danzon, cumbia and, most infectious
of all, mambo, forms that developed elsewhere but quickly caught on in
At one point, a
woman turned away from the audience, arched back to display her face and
cleavage to us and, with her ample bosom uppermost, gleefully shook it.
The Cuban rumba looked less profane than this, but the festival’s
excellent program book, full of first-rate stylistic information, points
out that the “rumba was originally condemned by the Cuban elite as
overtly erotic, and was danced only by marginalized Afro-Cubans.”
Samar Nassar, the
Lebanese belly-dancer, flaunted a flamboyant red brassiere, a wide
expanse of bare midriff and a red skirt starting low on the pelvis. She
demonstrated virtuoso bumps, grinds and rapid but complexly rhythmical
undulations and isolations of pelvis and ribcage. (Many Muslims would
object not to the dance itself but to its being performed in front of
strangers.) What surely nobody could miss — the transcendent element —
were the joy in performance and the intricate professional skill: they
made this woman look liberated and entirely empowered.
The other Indian
dance, Kummi Adi (from the Tamil Nadu state), performed by the Sanhiti
group, was both sacred and secular, a carnival dance that invoked the
gods and nature. The mood was intensely social, communal; we might have
been at a family wedding.
No decoration was
more picturesque than that of the Chinese lion dance by Leung’s White
Crane Lion and Dragon Dance Association. This very pretty and
relentlessly adorable lion — performed by two men — blinked and batted
eyelids at us and backed away from the limelight in shyness, only to
rush back and claim applause; quivered in exaggerated fright at the
height and distance of a jump; scratched its hind leg with its head; and
occasionally extended a coy paw. You had to laugh. And you had to
admire: This lion was an acrobat, jumping, reversing directions and
rearing high on its hind legs.
The only dance that
didn’t much interest me was Luis Valverde’s zapateo negro from Peru,
played as if by a tamale seller (a tamalero) on the streets of Lima.
Though you could see how the zapateo footwork — tapping heel and toe,
sometimes adding various slaps of the hands — became a Peruvian
tradition combining elements from different cultures, this version
seemed, in winsomely tourist manner, mainly to feature the lowest common
denominators. But even this added to my dance knowledge. There must be
other examples of zapateo negro out there; I’d like to see them.
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The young American
hip-hoppers of the Imani’s Dream company performed “LYFE Radio Station
143.7,” arranged as questions and answers about love, as heard on a talk
radio station and punctuated by songs, with everything, even the
questions, arranged by the choreographer Caprice Armstrong in dance and
mime. This — all deadpan and objectively delivered by the 25 dancers —
was the cutest example of hip-hop I’ve ever seen, with nice examples of
popping, boogaloo and liquid dancing all set as character effects.
Two dances from Cuba
did much to illustrate the theory that no single place on earth is a
richer source of cross-fertilizing traditions of musical and dance
rhythm. With the Obakoso Drum and Dance Ensemble, the main interest was
musical: this is Cuban dance that keenly preserves the traditions of the
Yoruba people in Nigeria today.
But the rumbas of
Las Que Son Son — to music that illustrated African rhythm more
powerfully than most rumba does — brought feet, pelvis, shoulders, spine
and arms all fully into play. Like most of the works here, this was to
live music (the two Indian entries were regrettably set to taped music,
though the detailed musicality of Savitha Sastry’s Bharata Natyam solo
was impressive). The Las Que Son Son musicians played on as all the
program’s dancers, group by group, returned, dancing, to the stage to
share the final applause. An extraordinarily happy program.