The Crossroads: My Core Values in Dance

What do I value in my dance practice—what is non-negotiable?

What would I lose if I did not dance—why do I dance?

These questions, posed by the great Faustin Linyekula in a series of workshops and conversations mid MFA-program, unraveled a rich and deep reflection. By using the crossroads as a structuring logic, I created the below visual representation that helped me make sense of these questions.

crossroads values smaller.jpg

THE CROSSROADS   ✚

A space of in-betweeness. Liminality. Possibility.

The cross is a symbol we find again and again in spiritual practices throughout the world.

I am particularly interested in how it manifests in Afro-Latin cultures, whose spiritual ancestry is greatly rooted in the West African Yoruba tradition of Ifa. As my elders have taught me, the cross in Ifa (and its descendants, Candomblé, Lukumi, Voudon) symbolizes two spectrums that meet at the center, one spectrum that represents past <--> future and the other spirit <--> earth. A person is at their happiest/healthiest when they are in balance amongst these four points.

The cross also symbolizes Eshú, orishá (deity) of the crossroads. A trickster by nature, Eshú opens possibilities and communicates between earth and the divine.

In this organization, I am relating each of the four points to a core value of my dance practice and assigning them one of the four elements—Lineage (earth), Process (water), Tension (fire), and Liberation (air). And at the intersection, enacting as/with/through/alongside Eshú, is dance.

 

CORE VALUE: LINEAGE (earth)  🌱

Where do my dance practices come from? Who are my teachers and elders? How is my work living in relationship to those who have come before me, and indeed, paved the way for me?

This core value could also be called ancestry or a politics of citation. Understanding that dance does not (and cannot) exist in a vacuum, we must reflect and be responsible as dance artists for who and what we are citing in our work. To let go of this core value is to run the risk of cultural appropriation, plagiarism, or buying into the white capitalist notion of individualism, i.e. the “genius artist”.

 

CORE VALUE: PROCESS (water)  💦

To be in process is to be constantly shifting and evolving. Western capitalist culture places much greater value on product over process. It encourages constant “production” which requires a formulaic way of working that has little or no space for experimentation and failure. Without these two things, we run the risk of getting stuck in unhealthy and ineffective ways of working that are not aligned with our values (and probably running us into the ground).

Am I making space for process and reflection in my work? Am I open to the possibility of shifting the way I am working? How can I value question-asking over answer-seeking? Am I learning from past mistakes or simply re-enacting the same patterns for the sake of “saving time” and efficiency? In this moment, do I need to pause and reflect or fire up and go? 

Another way to think about this core value could be praxis. To be in praxis is to find fluidity and connection between practice and theory; to do-reflect-do-reflect-do continuously and cyclically.

 

CORE VALUE: TENSION (fire)  🔥

In Theater of the Oppressed, the person leading a workshop or creative process is never called a facilitator. They are called Jokers. This is because the word “facilitator” comes from the Latin word facil, meaning easy. A facilitator, then, is expected to bring ease into a process. Theater of the Oppressed is not interested in this. Instead, it is interested in what we might call “difficultaters”, people who are problematizing and questioning ideas so as to create as many alternatives possible. Playful, creative, provocative—a joker.

I start from the premise that systemic oppressions are always already present in our lives (“the personal is political” ring any bells?). So what would happen if we leaned into that tension instead of ignoring it? If we “stoked the fire” and never settled for final answers, but embraced (playful) criticality as a practice? Could we generate more strategies and possibilities for survival and resistance?

 

CORE VALUE: LIBERATION (air)  🌬

The orishá Oya is the deity of the winds and storms. She represents profound transformation. Not small changes, but irreversible shifts, like the kind that comes after a hurricane—it annihilates everything, forcing us to re-build from the ground up.

I am interested in a dance practice that is working towards this profound transformation, what I see as personal and collective liberation. Because as Audre Lorde said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own”.

To feel change like a powerful gust of wind, as thousands of people mobilize in the streets overnight.

To feel change subtly, as your breath slows down, air flowing through your nostrils, lungs and belly, returning you to your body.

To be free like element air.

Can our dance practice support, instigate, enact this?

 

THE INTERSECTION: DANCE (eshú)  ✚

Like Eshú, dance lives at the intersection of these four points.

When we are too firey in our work, we burn out. When we are too concerned with lineage, we get stuck. When we are too fluid, the work loses its shape. When we are too airy, we lose our ground.

Dance is the constant movement and interplay between all four values/elements.

Always tricking us, always surprising us.

Generating endless possibilities.

150 Words About the Spine

consider this.

a spine that meditates on its vertebrae. 

porous cartilage. connective bone tissue. 

DNA collected from thousands, millions of ancestors.

becoming a witness to its many cells/selves.

 

leaking. pulsating. collapsing. rolling. arching. folding.

praying.

a spine like a crossroads. (laroiê exú)

a warzone. (ogun iê)

a river. (ora yeyeo)

a bridge. 

 

a bridge between 

publicprivate. 

spiritflesh.

headpelvis.

memorysensation. 

oldworldnewworldfirstworldthirdworld.

GloriaCherríeCeliaMarthaCardi.

 

a spine that shapeshifts and travels through space and time,

  across borders,

  under fences,

  over walls,

  on rhythm, 

  off rhythm.

  made for impact, labor, movement. 

 

a spine like a mountain.

stable.

solid.

immovable.

immutable. 

it whispers mantras, odus, ladainhas, cantigas y boleros. 

it breathes in and out. 

in. and. out.

 

it is so still.

s.     t.     i.     l.     l.

legs standing. tailbone dropping. belly softening. shoulders releasing. scapula widening. chest opening. crown rising. lungs breathing. 

breathing.

breathing.

breathing.

 

What is my relationship to black dance?

Note- this reflection was written as part of an on-going MFA Dance program class on HIstory, Theory & Criticism of Contemporary Dance. The question "what is black dance?" is an important and valid question to ask, with no simple answer. To dive more into this conversation, I recommend the following readings: "The Black Dancing Body: A Geography From Coon To Cool" by Brenda Dixon Gottschild (book) & "I Am Black (you have to be willing to not know)" by Thomas DeFrantz (article). 

My relationship to black dance is one of indebtedness. 

There would be no Latin dance without black dance. 

So much of Latin dance is black dance. 

What was that meme I saw a couple years ago? The difference between African-Americans, Dominicans, Jamaicans, and Brazilians was a boat stop? Something like that.

Brazil is a majority black country, to be a non-black Brazilian is a little bit paradoxical. Quite literally everything I grew up with, from food to music to dance to language, was directly created or deeply shaped by my African ancestors. Ancestry is something I think of often.

Ancestralidade.

Egun. 

When I was in Brasília for Christmas a couple years ago, my tio mentioned in passing that my grandpa, vô Miguel, "had a black grandmother". That was how he said it. This was the first time I ever heard of her. Who was this woman? Why didn't he say her name? And why did he phrase it so awkwardly? After all, she was his great grandmother, my great great grandmother. But somehow, she becomes less a part of our history, our family, if we say she was "vô Miguel's grandmother". As Brazilian as samba or futebol, sweeping blackness under the rug like it was never really there. 

Or maybe I'm just reading too much into it. 

I remember in an interview a little while ago, the interviewer asked me how I learned to dance samba. I told her the same story I always tell. 

I was 6 or 7 years old, and my family had been living outside of Brazil. We moved back to Brasília, and at a family barbecue my cousin Camila came up to me insisting that I learn how to dance samba. "How could you be Brazilian and not know how to dance samba? And how are you supposed to learn samba living abroad? I'll teach you!". And what happened next I remember clear as day. In my confident 6 year old voice I told her, "I know how to dance samba!". And I showed her. Pa pa pa, pa pa pa. Feet and hips moving, I did my little passinho de samba for her. And she shut up. 

I tell that story a lot. It was one of the first moments I saw myself as a dancer. It's also pretty mysterious, because no one had "taught" me prior to that moment. My parents can't dance for shit, and I had been living in Tokyo & Buenos Aires from ages 2-6. 

Who knows. Maybe I saw it on TV. Or maybe in our little Brazilian enclave in Tokyo or Buenos Aires I saw someone do it. Or maybe memory really is fickle, and when I thought I was showing Camila a samba step it was actually total nonsensical footwork. 

But at that interview, when I was telling the story, the interviewer had a different theory. 

"Maybe it's ancestral," she said. 

And when she said that, my whole being resonated, recognizing there was some truth in that statement. When I first started training in Afro-Latin dances many years ago, it felt both foreign and totally familiar. Like I was remembering something I already knew. Rhythms and movements that didn't require a whole lot of explanation. They just made sense to me. 

But to say "it's in my blood" feels too reductive and simple. My samba training didn't start happening in a classroom until I was much older. But even before that, yes, I was training. At family barbecues, weddings, street parties, and my parents' living room. The dance classroom truly is anywhere people are dancing. And folks sure were dancing in the senzalas of Brazil, enslaved Africans on plantations, embodying joy and play as resistance in its most profound sense. 

That is, in many ways, my relationship to black dance-- learning this embodied knowledge of radical joy and playful resistance, through the dances of my African ancestors. 

But what does it mean to be practicing these dances as a non-black person? What does it mean to practice Brazilian dances as a non-black Brazilian? What does it mean to live in, and as, a paradox?