Samar Adib Nassar



Published: June 22, 2009



Dance Review

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.

Amid such 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 Mexico.

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.