Monday, May 19, 2014

Danza Azteca and Resistance? Rethinking challenges to dominance through dance.

Not too long ago, I wrote about dance as resistance and cultural exploitation in a Venceremos periodical in Salt Lake City. I wrote about the current danger of folkloric and cultural dancing as becoming entertainment and therefore assimilating into a commodity lacking context and intrinsic value. I’m writing today to reevaluate my stance—this is for me personally—and providing an alternative lens by which view to dance, resistance and appropriation.

There’s a group using Azteca dance as a form of exercise while granting what they believe to be a shared cultural experience. Activists and fellow Raza reacted in angst and frustration—do did I—at the purchase of a dearly cherished identity into fitness; why are people selling our traditions? Distorting the meaning of ancient belief into a conditioning physical program that promises you to shed 50 lbs. or less in the-faster-than-average speed of a week! Why are we giving our pearls to swine? Why? Then my question becomes, well why not...
I do not suggest that there is no risk of appropriation—particularly when the title of this article advocates for the replacement of Zumba for Danca Azteca—that might very well happen. But what I do see here is a chance to reintroduce an alternative-knowledge under an evolved framework. As we continue our entry into a new century with innovative strategies of community engagement, of adopting diverse but intersecting struggles, of activism and the neoliberal agenda that constantly molds itself to our activist response, we are left wondering whether or not our reactions are reproductive to the nature of oppression or if they are authentic methods of resistance.
I wrote the original article as a warning to dance groups that such efforts were oftentimes counter productive to what they were trying to achieve; that instead of spreading cultural wealth, they were entertainers similar to Rome and her games. I feel this was unfair of me.
The event that led to me making such accusatory statements was a cultural night in an LDS chapel sponsored by my Spanish-Speaking congregation. Families, children, and youth were dancing and I was disgusted by how they all seemed so focused on performing versus the context or narratives of such acts. Did they not know that these very dances were based in resistance? To resist, to keep and preserve identity? But I judged too harshly, because I’m sure they did know. They were aware. That night, was their moment to lay claim to a White space. Their defiance to Whiteness and class oppression, was their agency to dance how THEY wanted to dance, WHERE they wanted to dance, and whatsoever they chose to dance. That night, was their moment to shine, as a community, as one. That night they danced to pass their knowledge onto their children. They danced to say we are not foreigners for we are dancing our knowledges, our memories, right here on what “you” claim is your ground. We belong. That was their resistance, by solidifying their narrative in a space that is traditionally not theirs.
Then I think of the student groups at UVU and BYU, Cultural Envoy and Living Legends, and aren’t they just performing? Do half of them even know what they are dancing? Why they are dancing it? Is there context? Is there blood…and memory? The truth? Some might very well be lost in it; ignorant to what they are acting out and sold on the merits of their “performance” as “culturally rich.” But tell that to a young urban boy who grew up thinking that he was, as an identity, something so foreign to the conceptualization of the American body. Share that animosity to the boy who grew up with concrete and steel with nowhere to place roots because he felt he never had any.
He was just Brown. Brown as Brown can be. So where his friends. They never had a clue either. So when he saw those students dance in his chapel—which was a sold out car mall in a decaying barrio of Brooklyn, NY—he saw something that he felt was missing his whole life, he felt the hole filled. There was so much more to who he was than what the concrete and steel had hammered into him his whole life. He saw the raw appeal to ancestors; he never existed till that moment. It seemed alive to him. That moment, he planted roots, and his journey began to find out who exactly he was. Is that moment not the product of resistance? A personal revolution for a Brown body?
Umi Vaughan is a Afro Cuban artist that came to Salt Lake City recently to present on his recently published book: Rebel Dance, Renegade Stance. His work exposes how Afro Cubans use dance to maintain identity and preserve Blackness in an economy that can easily exploit their heritage for the tourist dollar--this argument is also historical in nature. He shares that there are many contradictions among these communities in terms of dance and resistance, but these are their contradictions and no one else’s. This is their struggle, something they must negotiate on their own without interruption of outside forces because that’s where true violence lies. Nevertheless, the outcome doesn’t change. Cuba is one of the few places where the Yoruba religion exists in an entirely unadulterated form. That is incredibly rare outside of Africa. They have managed to keep Africa within their island, among their people. This has been done through dance. In other words, dance is there resistance. Dance is Black.

I close by not voiding the article Veneceremos published, but by challenging it. Too often we become so immersed within our activist role that we often miss the small ways in which marginalized communities create their own alternatives to resistance. We forget that we too can become the oppressors to our communities. Cultural dance can very much reproduce and enhance the tokenization and oppression of communities of color, but it can also be a multifaceted and clandestine approach to resistance. So how is Danza Azteca resistance? I don’t know, but the response should be understood as complex and simultaneously impactful. It could very well become the next Zumba, and if so, what if a new narrative develops around fitness? Can our health not be cultural in its intuition? Can our people not become the new face to healthy bodies through a re-immersion of ancient dancing? Our Dancing!? Can this not be a new way, a more complex way to resist and learn again what was taken from us?

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