If your definition of “ethnic dance” consists primarily of non-professional, enthusiastic dancers in colorful costumes at the local community center, think again.
This year, five companies performing for the first time at The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival expand traditional notions of what ethnic dance is.
The term "ethnic dance" is rooted in a specific people’s identity. Yet practices change over time, and new ones evolve as communities become more urbanized and culturally intertwined.
This year’s Festival program still includes plenty of time-honored communal and ritual practices from around the globe, transferred to the stage. But, more intriguingly, the newcomers are putting their own stamp on what ethnic dance can be.
Hilit Maniv rethinks flamenco
Flamenco dance from Andalucia is closely connected to Arab and Roma cultures. But for hundreds of years, Southern Spain also had a thriving Jewish community until its citizens were expelled. In the Petenera, for which she uses Ladino (a music of the Andalucian Jews) and Spanish music, Israel-born performer Hilit Maniv dances the story of a fierce Jewish woman’s lament for herself and her people.
Ballroom meets ragtime
When white America’s genteel ballroom dance encountered the syncopations of African American ragtime around the turn of the last century, sparks began to fly. Almost overnight, ragtime dance became a passion in this country. The steps were simple, the music irresistible and people were crazy for the waltzes, quadrilles and “animal dances.". The Academy of Danse Libre presents a selection of what the visitors to the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition might have seen – and danced.
A new generation thrives with Indian dance
Last year’s festival dedicated a whole evening to India’s refined classical dance traditions. Not for us, say the kids of Gurus of Dance. Theirs is a different world. The company’s hallmark style is influenced by Bollywood, where Indian folk traditions get thrown into a joyous mashup of Indian movies and Broadway musicals.
Urban African dance travels to Oakland
In South Africa, the Black Township Theater came to life in the 1970s in Johannesburg as a form of resistance to Apartheid. Reflecting a culture that was vital but also severely stressed, dancers created choreographies that were rooted in the past yet spoke to and about their lives at that time. Featuring Zulu and Xhosa dances, Jikelele Dance Theater pays tribute to that painful period. The company'snine dancers honor that past while also claiming these works as their own.
Harlem sweeps the country
Although born in the Rural South, African American vernacular dance came to national prominence during the jazz age in the dance halls and clubs of Harlem. But it kept moving and changing. Tracy Barlow and her partner Ray F. Davis dance the evolution of this indigenous American art across the country. They take with equal ease to the lindy, hip-hop, house dance and more recent choreographic genres such as get lite and cypher. The duo models their show, Skit, Skat, How ‘Bout That after the bravura dance-offs that traditionally occurred between competing lindy hop couples.
The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival runs June 5-27 at the Palace of Fine Arts and Marina Green, San Francisco.