Birthing a Company: Part I

For the record, I never wanted to be the director of a dance company. Maybe artistic director one day, when in my 60s, at a University with a joint appointment in Mexican American Studies and a Dance Department. I would probably need a PhD for that, but I digress, I didn’t set out to be a Director. And definitely not an Executive Director of an emerging (read: no money or other resources) non-profit art organization in a grossly underserved region in the West. No. All I wanted to do was choreograph. Choreograph and dance. So how did I get here…?

I wanted to be a choreographer for as long as I could remember. I was creating dances at the age of three to my Strawberry Shortcake vinyl record. I had all of these ideas for dance, props, and the costumes. I loved costumes. Fast forward to the early 2000s. I was in graduate school for Mexican American Studies and auditing dance classes in the University of Arizona Dance Department where I studied as an undergraduate. I was also dancing for a handful, let’s say two-ish, of local modern dance companies in Tucson. And I was miserable.

The Tucson dance crowd at that time was very very clique-y and I was not a part of the in-crowd. The very white, very granola, group of women who comprised the core of the modern dance community at that time thought they were very progressive, but when it came to the social issues that were exploding in Arizona and around the nation at that time – specifically in regard to the 2006 U.S. Immigration Reform Protests, they just didn’t get it. As I was leaving rehearsals or board meetings and a comment was made about my “role in the community” or my then job as Adjunct Faculty in the Mexican American Studies Department, remarks were always made in a snarky semi-sarcastic way that made me question their sincerity. I interpreted these remarks as snide comments, microagressions. And I usually was also the only woman of color in those companies. My short curvy body most definitely did not fit in with the taller thin frames of the other dancers. And when one dancer who was complaining about “all Latinos having muffin tops” or “Mexican food being the unhealthiest,” (and by the way it isn’t), combine with the faces I got when someone, heaven forbid, had to lift me, I took it personally. Microagressions. When I was cast as Zorro or an African slave on an auction block because “I was Latina and that was the closest thing.” I took it personally. (And I am sure that one is much more than a microagression). I felt otherized, ostracized, I did not belong and it was blatantly obvious. I was not a part of the exclusive club. There was absolutely no place for me in that dance community.

Yet, I did not think of leaving Tucson because at that time, I was in one of my dream jobs! As I previously mentioned, I was Adjunct Faculty at the University of Arizona’s Mexican American Studies Department teaching fun classes like Chicana Feminisms, Mexican American Social Perspectives, and Latina/o Representations in the Media, to name a few. I loved that job. I loved teaching the upper division courses and the subject matter inspired me artistically. I could see all these great pieces coming to life in my mind’s eye. I knew that I could take what I was teaching – cultural competencies, participatory action research – and fuse them with the contemporary performing arts to make something relevant for the Latino/a communities in the Southwest. In graduate school, I was indoctrinated by my professors and academic elders that if I had a platform and a chance to have my voice heard, that I, as a woman, a Latina with ancestry from rural Northern New Mexico, as a first generation college student, needed to use that platform to do and say something meaningful for the greater good. I struggled with the fact that I was on stage dancing as a piece of seaweed in rehearsals then 15 minutes later I was protesting immigration policies that could affect my future husband. It felt like cognitive dissonance.

Despite my feelings of “other” in the dance community, I pushed forward, the stubborn woman that I am. I stayed in the companies longer than I should have. I thought out loud at rehearsals about a company that served Latina/o audiences. A company that could apply Chicana epistemologies to modern dance. I was so excited about the possibilities. When I shared my ideas with one of my directors at the time, she told me that “your people don’t watch modern dance.” I was undeterred.

In spring 2006, during the time of the immigration marches, the time leading up to the Arizona State Legislature passing SB 1070 and HB 2281, controversial immigration and ethnic studies laws, I decided to choreograph for one of the company’s choreographer showcases. I worked with two Latina dancers with folklόrico dance backgrounds, both of whom were not in the company, to create a solo piece performed by me in silence. The piece entitled “Estatus: Unsent” incorporated elements of folklόrico and social dance (salsa and reggaetόn) and spoken word in Spanglish, which was my main mode of communication with my friends at that time. The piece was about one woman’s passionate journey through a courtship with an emotionally unavailable lover. It was more dance theater than post-modern dance and it was completely different than any other piece in that showcase. I took pride in the fact that I was using different aesthetics, aesthetics that represented my experiences and those of my friends in a more meaningful way.

Performing this piece of choreography with this company was a terrible experience. My text was questioned and censored in front of the entire cast the night of dress rehearsal, because I used words like “chingado” and “cabrón” in my piece. This happened despite the fact that me and my co-collaborators gave the directors a transcript of what I was saying, that we translated for them from Spanish to English, six weeks in advance! Moreover, the show that my words were censored in featured a piece about gynecological exams with dancers in booty shorts with their ass cheeks hanging out that did not get censored! 10 years later and I am still angry. I put another giant check mark in the box of microagressions. But the icing on the cake came when I overheard another dancer, a dancer I met my freshman year at the UA who I had known for eight years at that point in time, say “My family doesn’t want to see a Mexican woman screaming on stage.” It was obvious to me that she wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Stubborn as I am, I stuck it out with that company for one more year, then I quit dance for the second (and final) time in my life.

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