Moving Dialogs: Stomping Grounds
By Don Macica
My appreciation for dance as an art form (not as something I do at a concert after a few drinks) arrives in a secondary, or perhaps even tertiary fashion, following a love of music and an intense curiosity about other cultures, inspired no doubt by my own immigrant roots. I’m a percussionist, so rhythm is deep in my soul, even if my expression flows from my hands rather than feet. I rarely missed a performance of the much beloved Luna Negra Dance Theater when they were still around, but my attendance at dance shows has been quite a bit more inconsistent over the last few years.
After attending the Cultural Connections: Stomping Grounds panel discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center on April 14, I have a feeling that I might be getting back into the swing of things.
Present were the leading lights of some of Chicago’s ethnic dance organizations; David Carillo of the Mexican Dance Ensemble, Mark Howard of Trinity Irish Dancers, Irma Ruiz and Jorge Perez of Ensemble Español, and Amaniyea Payne and Babu Atiba of Muntu Dance Theatre. The reason they were all together is because Lane Alexander of Chicago Human Rhythm Project, is teaming up with all of these organizations in the coming weeks to stage Stomping Grounds and the Chicago Rhythm Fest, a series of neighborhood performances that will culminate in all five companies appearing May 13 at the Auditorium Theatre.
I haven’t been completely absent from the dance scene. Sones de México, perhaps the nation’s foremost organization dedicated to Mexican folk music, brought no fewer than three dance companies, including the Mexican Dance Ensemble, on stage with them at Millennium Park last September when they celebrated their 20th Anniversary. This spring, they did a collaboration with bluesman Billy Branch that included tap and Chicago-style step dancing side by side with zapateado and other Mexican folk dances. They quickly followed that up by pairing with the Irish Music School of Chicago in a show that featured both Mexican and Irish dancers.
Meanwhile, James Sanders, a good friend of mine who is a jazz violinist, composes for and performs music with Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre. Two years ago, Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic collaborated with River North Dance Chicago for Havana Blue, which may have been the single best performance I experienced that entire year.
All of which is to say that, I was ready for an interesting discussion when I took my seat. I was not disappointed.
Moderator Yolanda Cursach, Associate Director of Performance Programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art started things off by asking Lane Alexander to define percussive dance. His answer, I think, set the tone for the evening, going back to its origins as a practice to invoke the spirits, performed by priests. From that starting point it has evolved along with the unique cultural traditions of various ethnic groups until, finally, it became an art form, something professionally performed on a stage. Yet, Alexander maintains, when those performances occur, the spirit is still invoked.
Another consensus that seemed to emerge is that all of these forms are inextricably linked. The African root is perhaps most clear in Spanish and Mexican dance, where patterns of migration (North Africans to Spain, Spaniards and Africans to Mexico through colonization and the slave trade) carried cultural traditions that mingled with indigenous populations. More surprising (to me at least) were the connections to Irish dance. Mark Howard related how Galway was a port city and thus frequented by Spanish sailors. Even more startling was Lane Alexander's description of conscripted Irish sailors coming to America on the slave ships and being exposed directly to African culture when the kidnapped cargo was brought up out of the hold for fresh air and were observed stamping their feet. The mind fairly reels, no pun intended.
The spiritual dimension came up again and again, merging equally with cultural pride and a desire to hold onto, or in some cases reconnect with, ones cultural identity. Babu Atiba, a founding member of Muntu, spoke of the rise of African consciousness and overcoming the “shame” of being African. Amaniyea Payne’s passion was evident as she described how important culture was in combating adversity and the harsh realities that Americans of African descent still face. Mark Howard relates a “dance of defiance” practiced by the Irish in resistance to both the British occupation of Ireland and, later, the discrimination that Irish Catholics felt after coming to largely Protestant America. Irma Ruiz invoked the Spanish custom of passionate expression in all things when describing flamenco’s development and David Carillo spoke of Mexico’s debt to both flamenco and African traditions. Lane Alexander talked of the inherent ironies in the origin of tap. Derived from Irish and African-American traditions (that were, in fact, sometimes practiced as a way to ridicule the slave masters), it nonetheless was popularized through minstrelsy by white performers in blackface.
I think this brings us back to the spirit. Although the evolution of ethnic dance is often informed by tragic circumstances, there is little question that its expression is joyful. One only need take note of the facial expressions worn by the dancers. Or, we can pay attention to our own feet, which inevitably start moving in response to the rhythm. If you can’t feel the spirit, you’re probably dead.
Chicago, with its vastly diverse, yet for the most part segregated, population, is the ideal place for these traditions to take root, flourish and perhaps evolve again. Indeed, Alexander mentioned two other arts organizations, Kalapriya and Tsukasa Taiko, who call Chicago home. I would add the Puerto Rican bomba ensemble Buya (which means “good spirit” in the indigenous Taino language) to this list, a collective of drummers, singers and dancers that keep Afro-Puerto Rican culture alive through performances, workshops and strong community involvement.
As Chicagoans, we would be wise to take note of what our neighbors are doing and join them. There’s enough joy to go around.
Don Macica is the founder of Home Base Arts and a contributing writer to several online publications, including Agúzate and Arte y Vida Chicago. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.