Winter 2021 In Dance


Anne Huang is the Executive Director of World Arts West, a regional presenting and arts service organization that supports over 450 Northern California dance compa- nies sustaining the world’s diverse dance and music tradi- tions. After immigrating with her family to the US at age 12 to escape political persecution in Taiwan and spend- ing her formative years trying to disappear into the white world, Anne turned to studying different cultural dance traditions and working with cultural artists on social jus- tice issues as a way to embrace her own cultural roots and heal the broken pieces of herself. She has worked exten- sively with cultural artists and culturally specific arts organizations on capacity building and resource equity advocacy. Her latest project was Live Arts in Resistance: Ancestral Knowledge, Art & Resistance, an interview series amplifying cultural artists’ social justice journeys, co-presented by World Arts West, NAKA Dance Theater and EastSide Arts Alliance. The following summarizes the common themes that arose in the LAIR interview series featuring CK Ladze- kpo, Charya Burt, Alleluia Panis, Kiazi Malonga, and Vic- tor Torres, conducted by Anne. Anne and Kerry also offer their reflections on these interviews. Collectively, their sto- ries illustrate seven key roles that culturally specific dance has played in addressing social justice issues. RECLAIMING CULTURAL TRADITIONS T here are multiple factors that have threatened the preservation of cultural traditions, artistic forms, language, and stories. Among them are genocide, colonialism, civil strife, transmigration, etc. Cul- turally specific dance has served as a powerful tool to keep culture alive. Charya Burt, an acclaimed master dancer, cho- reographer, vocalist, and teacher of classical Cambodian dance, grew up in Cambodia during the 1970s when over 90% of artists and educators were killed during the Khmer Rouge genocide. Her uncle Chheng Phon (Minis- ter of Culture in the 1980s) once said that culture is the spirit of the nation, and she has dedicated her entire life to reviving the Cambodian culture that the Khmer Rouge attempted to destroy. While studying at the School of Fine

Arts in Phnom Penh (known today as Royal University of Fine Arts), Charya realized how important it

was to be part of this culture rebirth and feels a sense of obligation to instill this spirit in young Cambodian Americans. Much of her work has been teaching youth in Cambodian communities in California and beyond, who were born into a deeply traumatized intergenerational community. The cultural elements of dance and music help them to know where they come from, and where they are going. Anne reflects that if you think of culture as a tree, the roots are the past, the trunk is the present, and the leaves are the future. If you remove the root, the entire tree dies. By nurturing the trunk, more leaves can grow. Charya’s deep cultural work is like watering the tree, laying the ground- work for an abundance of leaves to blossom. Dr. CK Ladzekpo, an African music and dance pioneer in the US and beyond, grew up in colonial Ghana in the 1940s and 50s where he was punished regularly in school for participating in drumming and dancing. Growing up in a culture centered around drumming and dancing, punishing him for it was tantamount to sending the mes- sage that he was not allowed to participate in his own cultural activities and rituals – that colonial forces were going to designate who he could and could not be. The British colonial regime sent the message that Christianity was good and his own culture was bad, with the goal of wiping out African cultural identity. Dr. Ladzekpo’s deep love for these traditional forms propelled him to con- tinue practicing them despite the punishment. He would go on to become the first professional artist from Africa to immigrate and settle in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was instrumental in starting the African music program at UC Berkeley as well as the first African Cul- tural Festival in the Bay Area. He has also served as men- tor of countless African diasporic artists. Anne reflects that by reclaiming his cultural traditions, Dr. Ladzekpo has reclaimed his people’s right to exist – a right that was denied to them by their colonizers.

Anne Huang

Kerry Lee

EMBRACING OTUR CULTURAL IDENTITY AMIDST PRESSURES TO ASSIMILATE F or many immigrants and children of immigrants, there is a constant tug-of-war between the tradi- tions of our ancestral lands and the pressures to assimilate into the dominant culture of our cur- rent place of residence. Culturally stpecific dance has been a portal to embrace our cultural roots and forge a sense of identity, combating a sense of shame that is often felt for being different from and/or unwelcome in the dominant culture. Dr. Victor Torres, a Full Professor in the Department of Chicano and Latin American Studies at California State University, Fresno and director of the university’s Los Danzantes de Aztlán Mexican dance program, character- izes the Zapateado (Mexican folkloric footwork) as his weapon of resistance and folklorico as a means to resist assimilation. After the Mexican-American War ended in 1948, Mexicans found themselves as strangers in their own land – no longer Mexicans in Mexico, but rather Mexicans living in the US. Subjected to intense discrim- ination thereafter, they experienced a sense of inferior- ity as being called “Mexican” had a pejorative meaning. Parents changed Mexican names from Juan to John, Jose to Joe, etc. and chose not to teach their children to speak

Spanish, because they did not want them to experience discrimination. A key goal of the Chicano movement in the 1960s was to counter this narrative by reclaiming their Mexican heritage and promoting positive self-identity. This was where folklorico came in – as a public symbol of resistance to assimilation and a tool to recuperate and pro- mote Mexican culture. For Dr. Torres, folklorico was the armor that would allow him to resist assimilation. For his children who grew up in white neighborhoods and were accused by Mexican immigrants of being too white, folk- lorico was their shield to defend their cultural authenticity. Dr. Torres’s story resonated with Kerry, who grew up in suburban Atlanta in the 1980s and 90s looking down on Chinese dance as inferior to western art forms such as ballet and questioning why her immigrant parents forced her to learn Mandarin Chinese. In her mind China- towns had the connotation of being dirty and low class, and the standard of beauty was having blonde hair and blue eyes. It was the act of performing Chinese dance hundreds of times for cheering audiences from all walks of life that slowly chipped away her sense of inferior- ity, empowering her to embrace her Chinese heritage as something that could be admired and appreciated by all types of people. Kerry and her mother Hwee-Eng Y. Lee co-direct the Atlanta Chinese Dance Company to instill


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WINTER 2021 in dance 25




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In Dance | May 2014 |

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