Some in the audience were crying. Others were silent but no less moved. Happens frequently during performances at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, but this was different. This was San Francisco City Hall, in the Rotunda, where Ohlone dancers -- men and women from the Native American tribe that thrived in San Francisco centuries ago -- were performing a ritual that signified their historic presence in the Bay Area. The event on June 3, 2011, attended by Mayor Ed Lee and other city officials, marked the first of several dance ceremonies that Rumsen Ohlone (a particular tribe within the greater Ohlone nation) are doing with the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. Emotions reached a peak when Lee presented Rumsen Ohlone chief Tony Cerda with a plaque that recognized the tribe's history and its return to the city of its roots.
"City Hall was so moving," says Julie Mushet, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival's Executive Director. "People were moved to tears. It was an incredibly inspiring opening ceremony."
The most prominent Ohlone event occurs this TODAY, Saturday, June 18, 2011, when a Big Time Gathering, a unique Native American setting that features dancing, music, storytelling and crafts displays, takes place at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The Rumsen Ohlone and other California tribes (including the Elem Indian Colony Tribe and the Pit River Maidu Tribe) will perform from noon till almost midnight, and will do a ceremony that honors the Native American burial sites that are under the YBCA's property. The Ohlone lived in San Francisco for thousands of years before the arrival of Spanish colonialists in the mid-18th century. The Ohlone diaspora -- engendered by Spanish rule, made worse by Mexican rule, then solidified when the United States took control of California in 1848 -- badly diminished the tribe's numbers. The Rumsen Ohlone, whose population is now about 2,000, are centered around the Southern California city of Pomona. Many people mistakenly believe that the Ohlone people no longer exist, says Mushet. The last Big Time Gathering in San Francisco was in the 1830s, she says.
"I'm hoping more people in the Bay Area will become familiar with (the Ohlone's history) because it's an incredible story," Mushet says. "Twenty-thousand (Ohlone) were living here for millennia and in such a short period of time were decimated and those that survived fled to save their lives. But to now have the indigenous culture here -- sharing the culture -- is beautiful."
Now in its 33rd year, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival has always showcased an indelible span of dance, and this year is no different. Among the dance groups participating: Ballet Afsaneh, whose name in Persian means "mythic story." The Bay Area dance company performs dances that are rooted in the Silk Road that once cut across Persia, India and China. Its performance this Sunday, June 19, 2011, will feature Persian poetry, a large canopy of silk, candles that represent flames from Zoroastrian traditions, drum and reed instruments, and a panoply of dancers in a piece that's titled "Roya" or, in English translation, "The Dream." After each dance troupe's performance this Sunday at YBCA's Forum theater (the program also has Gamelan Sekar Jaya, Kiyonomoto Ryu USA and Jenny Fong), audience members will be invited to dance themselves -- the first time the festival is featuring what it's calling a "feet-on experience." YBCA performances on June 25 and June 26, 2011, will also have this audience participation.
For years, the audiences have asked for it, and the festival has wanted to accommodate the requests, but the festival's previous main venue, the Palace of the Fine Arts Theatre, had no real space in the aisles or by the stage for dancing. An informal interaction between dance groups and audiences would occur in the lobby of the theatre after performances, but it was just that: informal. (The festival has left the Palace of the Fine Arts Theatre for at least three years, Mushet says, because Caltrans has appropriated the venue's parking lot while the agency works on the Doyle Drive Replacement Project. Without a lot, attendance at the festival would have been badly curtailed.)
The dance groups are welcoming the greater audience participation. "We do it often (at other performances) but we haven't done it for the festival; we're very excited," says Ballet Afsaneh artistic director Sharlyn Sawyer. "Dance is such a big part of Persian culture and Iranian daily life. You wouldn't know it from the news, but for people at every happy occasion -- weddings, births, celebrations of any type -- dance is always present."
The audience participation and the reaction to the Ohlone ceremony at San Francisco City Hall are examples of how powerful dance can be. Dance changes people's inner lives, said the Harvard-educated philosopher Baker Brownell, who in 1939 wrote a book comparing nine art forms, including music, poetry, painting, sculpture and architecture. "Dance," wrote Brownell, "is life, or becomes it, in a way that other arts cannot attain. It is not in stone, or words or tones, but in our muscles."
This molecular level of dance is one reason why the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival will always find rapt audiences, whether it's at City Hall or another venue like YBCA's Forum.
The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival continues June 18-19, June 24-26, and July 1-3, 2011, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. For tickets and information visit sfethnicdancefestival.org.