The second annual Ethnic Dance Festival brings rhythms from around the globe to Santa Cruz
Other than American Indians, the United States really doesn’t have much of a history in the world of ethnic dancing. Immigrants from abroad brought the rhythm and music from their native lands to our shores and created myriad hybrids that Americans claim as their own—but truth be told, they are merely the coalescence of ethnic dances from across the globe. For this reason, many people choose to adopt the dance of an ethnicity other than their own in a fervid attempt to gain connection to a movement larger than themselves.
The topic of why dancers choose a dance that is not the same origin as themselves so intrigued UC Santa Cruz student and Project Manager of Santa Cruz Dance Hana Campbell-Cyr that it became the topic of her Community Studies senior project. “I focused on Santa Cruz and why people here are attracted to ethnic arts other than their own,” Campbell-Cyr says. “What I set out to do with this paper was look at Santa Cruz, because for its size it has a pretty eclectic community of ethnic dancers.” Her goal was to find out the various reasons that people adopt dances from other cultures and determine what benefits they get from it and what draws them to it. Her research found that it was more than simply exercise or a penchant for the particular dance style. “It’s about fostering cultural connections and spirituality,” she explains. “It’s a way for people to connect to a different culture. You may not even speak the same language as someone, but you can connect through dance. People are craving a spiritual connection and they can find it through ethnic dance.” A common theme that Campbell-Cyr discovered is that many dancers feel that American culture is restricting. “People are looking for connections and dance is an amazing communal activity. It can form new sub communities and connections. I am so excited that I am involved in the local dance community,” she says.
Ready to explore ethnic dance for yourself? This year’s Ethnic Dance Festival brings together scores of performers showcasing the dances of more than 12 countries as diverse as Japan, Brazil, Argentina, India and Mexico. The free event—which includes performances, dance lessons, music and ethnic food—extends over two days. Last year the festival drew hundreds of eager participants, and is expected to create quite a stir once again. “People really loved it,” says Abra Allan, founder and director of Santa Cruz Dance. “It’s a great experience and free to the public.”
An interesting aspect of the festival is that many of the dancers participating do not necessarily hail from the countries their dance represents. “We live in a society and culture that doesn’t have a lot of history,” says Crystal Silmi, a local belly dancer who teaches at Motion Pacific in Santa Cruz and at Dance Synergy in Aptos. “In general, people from the U.S. are looking for a sense of belonging, and a sense of something to belong to. By nature we tend to congregate toward being in a group or tribe where we are trying to find identity. People want to find an identity, even if it’s not their own,” she explains. Silmi, whose heritage is Middle Eastern, lived in India for a year and did her senior thesis on temple dancers there. “I had an almost kinesthetic cultural type of connection with the music and the movement, and now I’ve been doing belly dance for 10 years,” she shares.
If you have ever pondered learning a new dance for yourself, the Ethnic Dance Festival is the perfect time to tap into your own connection to another culture. The festivities include a full day of dance performances on Saturday, followed by dance lessons on Sunday which will allow participants to choose the style or country they are drawn to and go from there. “As a liberal minded place, it’s important to get an idea of these different arts and societies from around the world,” Silmi says. “It can make us think in different ways and enrich our perspective.”
Campbell-Cyr hopes that the Ethnic Dance Festival will be a boon to the local dance community by giving exposure to local dancers. “The festival helps them promote themselves and show the value of their work,” she says. “I hope the event will really open people’s eyes to the variety of ethnic dance in our community. I think that the ethnic dance festival can really break down cultural barriers and strengthen our community as a whole.”
The Ethnic Dance Festival will be held on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 25 and 26. Saturday will feature free performances from 2 to 5 p.m. in Mission Plaza Park, 144 School Rd., Santa Cruz. Sunday will feature free dance classes from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the 418 Project. 418 Front St., Santa Cruz. For more information visit santacruzdance.com.