By Lou Fancher
Busting out the best moves and music beyond bedrooms, kitchens, backyards and the internet—space restrictions enforced by the pandemic due to public health safety concerns—the 2023 Bay Area Dance Week (BADW) festival has taken the area by storm.
A return to live, in-person performances, open studio rehearsals, classes, lectures, demonstrations, workshops and community dance jams pumps up the momentum after a three year hiatus with entirely free access for dancers of all levels. Hoisting the flag of inclusivity isn’t a shallow gesture; it’s a call to all to make dance an essential part of everyday life, whether it’s as a viewer, a professional practitioner, or as an amateur or novice participant.
The first BADW festival sprang up in 1998, when artists, administrators and organizations dialogued and collaborated to create a project aimed at showcasing the area’s rich, diverse dance scene. Dancer’s Group, since 1982 the primary dance service organization in the Bay Area, assumed leadership as presenter of the programs in which over 200 dance entities and artists participate each year.
With tracking data showing more than 2,500 artists and 20,000 attendees climbed onboard during the years prior to the pandemic shutdown, the 10-day festival’s triumphant return is clearly cause for wide-spread, serious respect and exuberant celebration.
The 2023 festival kicked up its heels with six events on April 21, just one day before the official launch on April 22 that featured a series of dance classes at Yerba Buena Gardens led by Rhythm & Motion. Mini-classes and pop-up performances at that venue were held throughout the day and hosted by Dancer’s Group in partnership with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
On the very next day and continuing through April 30, opportunities to participate in or witness multiple dance styles and traditions—folkloric, Congolese, Tahitian, Bhangra, jazz, modern, classical ballet, hip-hop, Bollywood, somatic, Latin, salsa, hula, contact improvisation and more—filled the cultural to-do lists of people in San Francisco and in the East Bay, North Bay and South Bay.
With the last days of the festival still to come as this article goes to print, two veteran dance professionals who continue to present or produce ground-breaking art speak in separate interviews and encourage latecomers of all ages and levels of dance experience to join the party. Reflecting on the history and hoped-for-future of the industry’s Bay Area scene, Wayne Hazzard and Keith Terry expose ongoing challenges and express never-ending positivity about dance’s transformative power.
Hazzard, the executive director of Dancers’ Group, said although many people believe the pandemic is over, he counts himself among others who hold doubts, but are processing that position. Part of working through the trauma of the past three years, regardless of a person’s “it’s over” or “it’s different, but not over” stance, is recognizing the value of the lesson learned. Specific to artist and dance organizations, Hazzard says technology to share performances and classes virtually was a huge gain.
Dance available online also offers access to the international community and scales up collaborative possibilities. For residents of the Bay Area who may be traveling far from home or studying abroad, a favorite instructor remains available. “I think we’ve only scratched the surface of possibilities,” says Hazzard.
“I grew up with Star Trek and wanted the watch we could talk to and space travel. We now have those things. So now, I’m imagining a hologram that comes into your space, and you can dance the salsa with them. And what’s to say a large screen TV could not become more dynamic and be 3-D or be more interactive through AI in a way that puts you onstage at the Paris Opera?” he continues.
It’s encouraging to hear a professional who might have become jaded over time express such exuberant thoughts. The complexity of dance in modern times—and often throughout its history, if an expert or scholar of dance is asked—often involves grappling with a tangle of issues. There are injustices, inequities, systemic racism, ageism, and gender bias and a body image matrix stoked with conflicting values.
On the most basic level is a question: Who is allowed to participate, and what shape, size, form and ability meets with approval?
Hazzard says holding onto the position that only certain bodies can do specific movements and perform specific positions of a genre is particularly prevalent in classical ballet. “It’s clearly also racist; the idea that white people should be the only people doing balletic forms of dance. The ballet model is still holding onto excluding more than inviting, and I think it’s behind why they ask, ‘Why can’t we draw more young people into these works?’ I tell them it’s because young people today don’t relate to the idea of ‘I don’t have a dancer’s body,’” he says.
“What does that even mean?” Hazzard asks. “Every body is a dancer body. That’s why Axis, a company with physically integrated dance, and Skywatchers, who work with marginalized people living in the Tenderloin, are growing new, younger audiences and are indications of why limiting participation is wrong.”
Coming from a position of genuine investment in diversifying the art form, Hazzard says expanding the definition of what a dancing body can be is integral to the festival. “Can the BADW festival add something instead of diminishing?” he asks. “As a kid growing up in the ’60s, everything I saw was so big: the opera, symphony and ballet. Now, there are smaller groups that are in the community, sharing studios, making and showing work that’s maybe not yet working, but it’s great to be there and see the beginnings. There’s beauty to be seen in creation and evolution.”
If more artists presented during BADW are creating work embedded in communities or addressing injustice, racism, inequality and a lack of diverse voices in the dance world, Hazzard is pleased. “If they feel highlighted now, I say hallelujah. This means we’re paying more attention to Black and Brown bodies. We’re seeing ourselves as together more than separate. Who is the ‘we’ in those statements? There’s the ‘we’ of the dance community, and the ‘we’ of the audience. We’re coming together and seeing the vastness of what dance is and can be,” he says.
Percussionist, rhythm-dancer and Body Music educator Keith Terry has worked within the dual frames of music and dance for more than 40 years. A summarized resumé includes appearances solo or with one of a half-dozen groups he has founded on NPR’s All Things Considered and Morning Edition, and at Lincoln Center Vienna International Dance Festival, the Roxy, Skirball Center (Los Angeles), SFJazz, Vancouver Island MusicFest, Woodford Festival in Australia and more.
Terry’s International Body Music Festival, founded with Evie Ladin and debuting in 2008, shows the influences of Terry’s expertise as a drummer and command of a wide range of music styles, from Japanese Taiko to Balinese Gamelan to North American tap, Ethiopian armpit music, traditional vocal or centuries old throat singing and others. The annual Body Music festival is a project of Oakland-based Crosspulse, the nonprofit Terry created to bring cross-cultural rhythmic art performances, recordings and education to audiences worldwide.
On April 30, a happy calendar coincidence has Crosspulse offering its “Free Fry Body Music Jam” at the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center in Berkeley. “We started the monthly Body Music jams in January 2020,” says Terry. “We had one jam, then we had to shut down because of the pandemic. We’re instigating a second start and might go to other locations in the future if there’s interest at Ashkenaz.”
The jam is inspired by Fritura Livre; a monthly gathering of people who engage in improvisatory Body Music jams in São Paulo, Brazil. “It’s held outdoors, and about 200 people show up. I turned it into our version, and most people who show up are curious. Some are hesitant or shy, but it’s totally accessible. We have two facilitators and gear it to a middle level. Even if someone’s a beginner, we work with everyone to make it inclusive to all levels,” says Terry.
The jams are mostly non-verbal. Instead of speaking, instructors rely on call-and-response, imitation and gestural directions to lead people to make rhythms with their hands and bodies and use their voices, mouths and breath sounds to vocalize. “It progresses, building on parts and then maybe moving to different key signatures or melodies. As much as possible, we find keeping it non-verbal is more direct,” he explains.
“If I speak a lot, people get into their heads, instead of just staying in their bodies. The editorial mind comes up, instead of the flow of the less analytical head. Ideally, that means they learn to trust their bodies. They’re concentrated on embodiment instead of on the thinking part of rhythm and movement,” continues Terry.
According to Terry and supported by current research concerning body-mind connectivity, Body Music is becoming a focal point for neurologists and psychologists. While leaving the actual gathering of scientific data that proves creating rhythm, sound and movement with the body is beneficial to physical and mental health, he has witnessed with his own eyes the art form’s physiological and emotional outcomes.
“We don’t address trauma held in the body specifically in the festivals, but self-touching and moving or singing with other people in synchronicity does increase expressions of empathy,” he says. “As we come out of the pandemic, Body Music has the ability to connect us to ourselves and to other people.”
Citing a dramatic example, Terry refers to workshops conducted in countries other than the United States. In refugee camps and in communities experiencing revolution, war or violent uprisings (he prefers not to name them specifically due to an abundance of realistic caution and to keep participants from suffering retaliation), he sees repeating patterns.
Encouraged to freely dance, sing, improvise, make with their hands and feet complex rhythms—or cry and laugh together—their bodies become vessels of kinetic joy. But as they depart, anticipating the oppressive conditions that will greet them outside of the sometimes secret meeting spaces, their bodies collapse, shoulders slump, faces and eyes drain of expression, voices are quieted or entirely silent, he points out.
Even so, Terry says there is joy to be grasped and held onto in the artistic and educational aspects of sharing Body Music. “I really love when children get the power of this work and adults find it accessible and meaningful. But where I’m most excited is where I can see people’s minds changing,” says Terry.
“At one workshop, two different groups, one from Greece and another from Turkey, showed up with only suspicion and avoidance for each other. During the festival, they found they shared the same folk songs. Soon, they became intensely interactive and now, they even take vacations together, all because their realities changed,” notes Terry.
“Similarly in Bali, we did a piece with 50 Balinese from five different villages, including two that had not been in communication for 100 years. They had had a falling out that lasted for decades. We intentionally put them together, and they had to break their pattern. I hear they are still working in collaboration,” he continues.
Terry says the Bay Area dance and music scenes are large, with infrastructures and economics that make practicing the craft enormously difficult, especially for young dancers and musicians. Heralding the breadth of work from culture-specific traditional dance to contemporary works, he is hopeful but realistic about future measures that might provide increased opportunities through partnerships and collaborations.
In the coming months, in addition to the jam on April 30 and ongoing monthly, Crosspulse will bring Body Music to local audiences at the Freight & Salvage in May. Plans are underway for next year’s International Body Music Festival in Athens, Greece.
One final piece of advice as the festival spins out its remaining rhythms and revelations is to check the BADW festival website, which includes a calendar, but also a link to Bopsidy. The online platform is updatable and allows anyone to create and promote events or to register for participation as a dancer or simply, a lover of dance.