Meet the Man Behind the Scenes of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

Carlos Carvajal performs a Filipino dance in the 1960s. Carvajal is now the co-artistic director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. (Courtesy of Carlos Carvajal)

Standing in front of a mirrored wall, dressed in khakis, a sweater and black ballet shoes, 84-year-old Carlos Carvajal taps along to the music. He’s rehearsing with a group of ballet students at a dance studio in San Leandro.

While the students watch, he moves his arms gracefully to demonstrate how to strike the proper pose. It’s effortless after all these years.

Carvajal is the co-artistic director for the annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival opening this weekend, and an accomplished ballet dancer and choreographer.

Carvajal strikes a pose while rehearsing a ballet as a young dancer.
Carvajal strikes a pose while rehearsing a ballet as a young dancer. (Courtesy of Carlos Carvajal)

He got his start when he joined a folk dance class in San Francisco as a teenager. “The moment I got into the folk dance class it was, I always say, like a duck taking to water because it was the most natural thing in the world for me to do,” Carvajal says.

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He tried ballet soon after, and his talents led him to dance with ballet companies in France, Germany and his native San Francisco.

When Carvajal came back to San Francisco in the late 1960s, the city was at the height of a new wave of thinking, he says. It was the perfect environment to exercise his creativity. He did just that when he produced a dance for the San Francisco Ballet in the 1970s to music composed by Terry Riley.

“[The composition] was called 'In C,' got terrible reviews by the critics," Carvajal says. "I mean just awful."

And the reviews for his ballet weren't much better. Undeterred, he decided to strike out on his own as a choreographer and started the San Francisco Dance Spectrum.

He says he enjoys stepping back to see the entirety of his production as much as dancing: “People have said, ‘Don't you miss not being on stage?’ and I say in return, ‘Do you see all of those people up there? That's me.' "

At his new company’s studio, he hosted Flamenco Dancer Rosa Montoya when she got her start in San Francisco. Indian classical dancer Chitresh Das performed there as well.

It was there that the seeds for the Ethnic Dance Festival were planted. Carvajal helped bring the dancers to a larger stage at the festival. It was the first time dancers from such diverse backgrounds came together -- in 1978.

Carlos Carvajal (right) works with two groups performing a cross-cultural transition piece for this year's Ethnic Dance Festival.
Carlos Carvajal (right) works with two groups performing a cross-cultural transition piece for this year's Ethnic Dance Festival. (Kyoungil Ong/San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival)

“It’s unique in the entire world," Carvajal says. "There is no place in the world where I know of a festival of this caliber, of this variety and excellence, except here in California."

Carvajal was named artistic director 10 years ago. As a person who loves folklore, he says, this was “like a fulfillment of a total dream.”

As Carvajal watches an old video in his San Francisco home, he notes that his age has, of course, slowed him down a bit. While he talks, a younger Carvajal appears on the grainy black-and-white screen, leaping across the stage.

“At the age of 84, I always say I don't dance like I used to when I was 20, of course. And no one does, and I don’t expect to and I never wanted to,” he says.

Carvajal rehearses with his ballet students at a dance studio in San Leandro.
Carvajal rehearses with his ballet students at a dance studio in San Leandro. (Paayal Zaveri/KQED)

Watching him teach, it’s clear Carvajal still has the grace and spirit seen in that old video. It’s hard to tell he’s in his 80s as he demonstrates his choreography. And his students, like Jaliya Wilkinson, feel inspired by his enthusiasm.

“It makes me feel energetic and it just sort of brightens up the environment as well, too,” Wilkinson says. “It makes me want to work to my fullest potential.”

For this year’s Ethnic Dance Festival, Carvajal will program the shows and design the stage. The dance space is a sacred space, he says, and he’s honored to lend his unique touch to the event.

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