Supporting Southwest-Based Latinx Dancemakers
Reflections on Dance in the Desert 2019
For the second annual convening of Dance in the Desert, thirteen Arizona-based dancers and choreographers gathered to dive deeply into Latinx choreographic practices and aesthetics, and examine what support would be needed to enrich dance in the American Southwest.
In 2018, the first Dance in the Desert took place in Phoenix, at Arizona State University, on the land of the Onk Akimel O’odham and Xalychidom Piipaash peoples.1,2 This second convening was held 115 miles southeast, at the University of Arizona in Tucson, on the ancestral lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation and Pascua Yaqui peoples3 — the Professional Development Workshops led by Liz Lerman and 2019 Dance/USA Fellow Ana Maria Alvarez were highlights.
Dance in the Desert is coordinated by a dedicated team of four women organizers, and is the concept of Yvonne Montoya. Montoya is a Tucson-based dancer, choreographer, Mother, the Director of Safos Dance Theatre, and a 2019 Dance/USA Fellow and Kennedy Center Citizen Artist Fellow. Even in its newness, Dance in the Desert (DITD) continues to be a unique opportunity for the Latinx dance community of the Southwest to gather together, deepen relationships, and expand research in the field.
The convening was centered around a number of focal points, which the dancers and choreographers found vital. These were identified from conversations and feedback from the first convening, and included subjects like: the AZ/Sonora borderlands and/or Southwest aesthetic; strategies for creating within the unique intersectional identities of the Latinx people living in the Southwest; the implications of Spanish colonialism followed by Anglo settlement on Latinx identifications in dance; and a range of choreographic practices aimed at support and innovation from an inter-cultural and inter- ethnic spectrum of Latinx perspectives.
Many of the dancers who took part in DITD 2018 returned for 2019. As they arrived in Tucson and began working together, a deep sense of reconnection and confianza, or trust, emerged within the cohort. The choreographers each arrived with pieces they wanted to devote time to and develop collaboratively, from re-envisioning past works to innovating new work in flamenco and other forms. The offering of time, rehearsal space, and community allowed each artist to focus on making — a rare opportunity, as each of the dancemakers play multiple roles in their home communities in order to foster their practice, personal growth, and support themselves. The week included informal showings of work, where members of the cohort offered thoughtful feedback to each other; as a result, pieces evolved quickly, blossoming into more developed and focused works.
What’s in a Name?
The convening name, Dance in the Desert, is beautifully multivalent. First, it is a provocation to answer the question: what can emerge when Southwestern Latinx dancers are given the space and resources to dive deeply into their work together? It is also a call toward the land; specifically, the Sonoran Desert, with its recognizable Saguaro cactus and abundant minerality. Finally, it is a desire to acknowledge the braided roots of mestizo4,5 identities, through decades of violence, oppression, and also celebration, which weave into and across the land and its people, bartering in meanings, creating and reframing culturas. It’s an acknowledgement of the Indigenous roots of many of the Latinx dancers in the area, and works to acknowledge and lift up the presence of Indigenous peoples and dancemakers in the region. This complex interweaving of history and relation is evident in so much of what is casually called “American” in popular culture, and yet manifests as many things at once, resulting in a multitude of experiences for Latinx people of the Southwest. The ethos of DITD is to recognize and create space for these embodied multiplicities.
Questions and Provocations
The first day began with discussion and choreography warmups led by Yvonne and Elisa Radcliffe. Questions were then posed to the dancers to reflect upon:
Describe the place you consider home; tell me the story of your name; tell me about the sounds, smells, and feel of your mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen; tell me the story of the first time you remember dancing; tell me how your identity as a Latinx dancemaker is reflected in the work you perform or create.
The personal and collective cultural value of centering the matriarchal continued throughout the week. On the second day, choreographer Liz Lerman led the group through a workshop focused on developing material inspired by creative intersection. Based on that idea, the group created a thinking grid to unpack the implications of Latinx culture in dance. The grid was drawn up on a large sheet of paper, with two axes forming a large table. The x-axis represented ideas associated with a Southwest Latinx dance aesthetic, and the y-axis represented techniques and parts of the body. A few emergent intersections were the body (hips, spine) and familial support, choreography and gritos, and linear/non-linear structures and the prevalence of the Spanish language.
When dancers from the region are given the space and resources to dive deeply into their work together, intersections of their Latinx identities and recognitions emerge, which more popular forums and institutions for producing work and teaching do not always enable.
Call Toward the Land in Consideration of Latinx Aesthetics
On the third day, Ana Maria Alvarez — a Los Angeles-based dancemaker and Founding Artistic Director of CONTRA-TIEMPO, a bold, multilingual LA dance company — engaged the group in a brainstorm centered on the qualities of a “Latinx aesthetic.” The purpose was not to define a singular aesthetic, but to articulate the possible multiplicities. The conversation was full, and rich with potential for further inquiry. A few of the qualities that emerged were “a deep connection to the land, sabor, passion, an aliveness of the center of the body, and an expansiveness in movement.” Keeping the fullness of Latinx identities central, Alvarez explained, “You don’t have to compartmentalize your parts in order to tell your story — your humanity. It’s rhizomatic, not a hierarchy . . . there’s a level of people’s humanity that needs to show up if you are creating this.” Toward the end of the conversation she acknowledged that “much of what found itself on the list is often not regarded professionally as the aesthetics of high art in the dance field.”6 Over the week it became clear that institutions with predominantly non-Hispanic White leadership may be unable to recognize the multi-racial interconnections embodied by Latinx dancers in the region. How do we change this? And how do these changes necessitate a value shift in the field of dance at large?
Other works-in-progress spoke specifically to the land and place. For example, Montoya’s performance, “Mestiza Mulata de Analco,” pulled from a deep personal history of family and place sited within Barrio Analco, a former Tlaxcala and Genízaro7 village in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The work moves intimately from indeterminacy of lineage toward the specificity of a well-researched family tree, invoking ancestral pain. This journey was performed together with dancer Ruby Morales, squarely rooted in the history of the USA, New Mexico, and the Native Southwest and invested in the healing process of those branches.
The Dance in the Desert Cohort At a Glance
The dancers and choreographers hailed from five different zip codes. Approximately half of all the participants were between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four; most of the choreographers were in their mid to late thirties. Terms used to identify oneself further within Latinx or Hispanic groupings included Colombian, Mexican, of Mexican descent, and Nuevomexicanx, suggesting the importance and interwovenness of place, gender, nationality, and ethnic identifications. Approximately one third identified themselves as “current students,” another third as “working dance professionals,” with the remaining third falling into the roles of “teacher,” “arts administrator,” and “arts presenter,” with some overlap, as respondents were allowed to select multiple roles.
Latinx culture in the American Southwest and its borderlands is visible in popular culture, yet the continued erasure of North America’s lengthy history of Indigenous colonization, eradication, migration, and relocation complicates the braided roots of mestizo identities. This produces identities that are of mixed-blood racial descent with combinations of Spanish, Indigenous, and African origins. What’s more, these embodiments are not always easily ascribed to clear identifications of race or skin color, though the history of the Southwest includes examples of the racialization of Latinos — particularly people of Mexican descent and mestizos, as “other” or “separate” from the Anglo population.8 Often, colorism, anti-Native attitudes, anti-Blackness, and pressures to assimilate into a monolithic Anglo-American identity have resulted in dislocations from these shared threads. The racialization of these identities is often held just outside of popular understanding, occupying a liminal space between race, definitive nations, and belonging, that destabilizes geography, history, and tools such as census forms.9 For Latinx people in the Southwest, this space of liminality is familiar, and often translates to invisibility within the dance field — something that DITD is intent on challenging.
Areas Needing Further Inquiry: Access to Dance and Dance Lineage
Of the members of the dance cohort who responded to the surveys, none reported having family members making dance or having worked in dancemaking, pointing to possible intergenerational access barriers to dancemaking as a viable activity or professional pathway. One respondent noted, “I am the first root of professional dancing in my dance lineage.” And another said, “My Nana danced when she was young. I remember seeing a photo of her as a young girl on stage with tap shoes on. She’s the only one in my family that I knew danced (outside of weddings and celebrations).” When asked specifically “How would you describe your dance ‘lineage’?” most reported it as being connected to specific people in their network. Many cited a lineage from influential teachers, rather than one more broadly associated with genres of dance or dance forms. Instead, these associations were shared and contained solely within understanding “styles” of dance practiced, as in the question “What type of dancer do you consider yourself to be (e.g., flamenco, modern, contemporary, etc.)?” To this question, respondents listed a number of styles, including vogueing, aerial, postmodern, ballet, hip hop, house, locking, modern, jazz, urban, Latin fusion, flamenco, tap, and experimental.
Certainly the phrasing of the survey questions had a degree of impact on possible answers, however, of note in the respondents’ answers was the perceived distance between “dance style” and “dance lineage.” This raises the question: would more equitable practices in the field of dance yield answers that articulated both a relationship to community and the broader world of dancemaking, both past and present? Dance practitioners are also part of a dance ecology, and history-in-the-making within communities is part of this expressive artistic medium. It’s therefore crucial that dancers — particularly emerging ones — understand themselves as belonging to that ecology.
Further support and research for DITD makes three things possible. First, illustrating that Latinx dance aesthetics do not fit neatly into predominant notions of value. Second, that Latinx dancemakers from the American Southwest and its borderlands face barriers to belonging within dance forms, or establishing their own. Third, that access to more regional training opportunities would be doubly beneficial. Addressing each of these areas would advance the form, as well as enrich new and established dance lineages and networks.
What Is Our Call to Action?
On the final day of the convening, the choreographers participated in an afternoon of showings in the Stevie Eller Dance Theater Studio 301 on the University of Arizona campus. The dancers then departed to their respective cities, full of memories and eager to bring what they had learned back to their home communities in Douglas, Phoenix, and Tucson.
Opportunities to study, develop, and show dance should represent the peoples and cultures of a place equitably while being responsive to its history. The identities and experiences of Hispanic and Indigenous people within the host region are frequently deeply intertwined. As of 2014, Arizona had a 31% Hispanic population with 90% being of Mexican origin and 72% being US-born.10 There are also twenty-two tribal Nations located primarily within the boundaries of the state of Arizona, comprising over 400,000 enrolled members.11 Practices of representation and responsiveness should also take into consideration histories which have been erased or obscured and create opportunities that meaningfully address centuries of ongoing White supremacy in the Southwestern US and the borderlands. These opportunities should not predetermine the style or aesthetic of work or expected legibility of work presented by the dance artists of this region, who create from a multitude of perspectives and also share commonalities. Our lives are constantly shifting tectonic plates of overlapping identities
More broadly, cohort-building through professional development opportunities, rehearsal opportunities, and celebration for Latinx dancemakers in the region not only benefits individuals, but the field as a whole. Perhaps what the dearth of recognition calls for in the long term is a re-imagining of the cultural values of dance as a social function of interdependent roles, including not just performing and witnessing but also bolstering support for dancemakers within communities of color fieldwide. The cohort’s response to these needs is the hashtag #weexist and the group hopes to reconvene in 2020. ¿Otra vez? Yeah!
J. Soto is an arts administrator invested in the intersectional histories and present of communities of queer people of color and disabled people, and how to create more equitable practices and access to resources in the arts and dance field. He has written for Original Plumbing, Apogee Journal: Queer History, Queer Now Folio, and American Realness 2018 Reading Series, as well as the forthcoming Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive. He lives and works in New York City.
Special thanks to Yvonne Montoya, Anna Needham, Erin Donohue, Gabriela Muñoz
- “NativeLand.ca.” Native Land, Native Land Digital, 2015, https://perma.cc/FN3W-C6QV. Accessed September 16, 2019.
- “Culture.” Gila River Indian Community, 2015, https://perma.cc /MMC3-L3YT. Accessed September 15, 2019.
- “The Tohono O’odham Student Association at The University of Arizona.” InvolveUA: Your Link to Involvement at the University of Arizona, Campus Labs, https://perma.cc/FA86-26BF. Accessed 15 Sept. 2019.
- Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana. “’Mestizo’ and ’Mulatto’: Mixed-Race Identities among U.S. Hispanics.” Pew Research Center, 10 July 2015. https://perma.cc/UZ3S-TY4L
- The term mestizo, meaning “mixed,” can be deeply personal and have several meanings, each reflective of identity, place, history, and present. For some, terms like mestizo (in italics) or mestizaje (in italics), which refer to the larger phenomenon of interwoven identities, have been used to obscure or erase Indigeneity, while others use them to connect with Indigenous roots.
- Alvarez, Anna María. “Professional Development Workshop-Dance in the Desert” May 18, 2019.
- Burnett, John. “Descendants Of Native American Slaves In New Mexico Emerge From Obscurity.” National Public Radio, 29 Dec. 2016. https://perma.cc/M3C4-KEQE
- Orozco, Cynthia. No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: the Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. University of Texas Press, 2009. 26–39.
- Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana and Lopez, Mark Hugo. “Is Being Hispanic a Matter of Race, Ethnicity or Both?” Pew Research Center, 15 June 2015. https://perma.cc/H2NF-4BLT
- Demographic and Economic Profiles of Hispanics by State and County, 2014. Pew Research Center. https://perma.cc/FL6W-5B5T
- Arizona State University. The State of Indian Country Arizona. Vol 1. Phoenix. 2013. https://perma.cc/9L27-PBH9