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Voices Fall-Winter 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Dance and Diaspora in Brooklyn” by Kay Turner and Nicole Macotsis here.
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Volume 32
Fall-Winter
2006
Voices

Dance and Diaspora in Brooklyn by Kay Turner and Nicole Macotsis


The Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) presented its third annual showcase, workshop, and symposia series, “Folk Feet: Celebrating Traditional Dance in Brooklyn,” in 2006. The Folk Feet project—begun in 2003—works to identify, document, and publicly present the range of traditional dance practices in Brooklyn. A particular goal of the project is to understand better how migration, diaspora, and immigration mark the ways traditional dances are performed. Brooklyn’s critical role as a major site of immigration— historical and ongoing—makes our borough a veritable dance floor of diversity. African American, Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, German, Italian, Greek, and European Jewish dance traditions have been practiced here since the nineteenth century. After World War II, these traditions were joined by those from Yemen, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Caribbean West Indies, including Haiti, Trinidad, Tobago, Jamaica, Guyana, and others. In recent years, Dominican, Senegalese, Brazilian, Mexican, Ukrainian, Georgian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and numerous other dance practices have been added to the mix. In fact, continuing waves of immigration have brought the borough to a peak of dance expression: there are more traditional dancers and more distinct types of dance performed in Brooklyn now than ever before. The wave theory of immigration helps us quantify dance traditions, but what qualifies them: what makes them retain their social importance and aesthetic particularity? What pressures cause dances to change?

A Yemeni's men's social dance, bara'a
A Yemeni men’s social dance, bara’a, performed by members of the Brooklyn Yemeni American Association at Folk Feet 2005. Photo: Jeff Berman

In the twenty-first century, changes in modes of learning and increased interaction across ethnic and national boundaries invigorates old and new dance forms. Internet communication and cheap air travel make the homeland less a memory and more an active reality. Many of our dancers regularly spend time in their native countries specifically for the purpose of studying or performing dance. Sonali Mishra returns to India to study with her Odissi dance guru; Leonardo Dominguez travels to the Dominican Republic with young members of his Conjunto Folklórico to immerse them in rural merengue traditions that are rarely seen in New York. The widespread practice of trading videos and DVDs makes it easier to learn dances, to keep current on new moves, and to spread the practice of dances that might otherwise remain isolated. Especially among young traditional dancers, videos and DVDs are primary learning aides. La Troupe Zetwal, a group of young Haitian women featured in Folk Feet performances, regularly trades dance videos from Haiti and other parts of the French Caribbean.

Ease of travel and communication has a flip side: exile, forced or elected, brings dancers to the United States who cannot or will not return to their homelands. Religious and ethnic turmoil is a primary cause. Anup Kumar Das was a well-known performer in his native Bangladesh, but his traditional Hindu family hails from a province that is now under threat by Muslim factions. Anup came to New York with the Bangladeshi Cultural Tour in 1995 and elected to stay. Among the numerous dance traditions he performs here are Hindu sacred dances, such as baowl, which are currently suppressed in his homeland. Within the closeknit Sherpa community, just beginning to form in Brooklyn and Queens since 2001, dance is exclusively performed in intimate social and religious settings. Hailing from Himalayan Nepal near Mount Everest, most Sherpas in Brooklyn are practicing Buddhists who have fled a difficult and dangerous political situation in their home country, where neo-Maoists raid their villages, steal, vandalize, and sometimes forcibly conscript the men. When they are performed in New York as part of ceremonies of social cohesion, Sherpa dances—such as the welcoming dance called sherbru, and sili, the wedding dance—help stabilize a community new to the chaos of urban life in the West.

For immigrant communities new to Brooklyn, traditional dances generally are continuous with those practiced at home. A sherbru danced in Brooklyn is virtually the same in look, steps, and social purpose as those danced in Katmandu. But traditional dance for many older and more established communities serves a different purpose. Among communities as distinct as the Swedish and Panamanian in Brooklyn, dancers emphasize similar aims of preserving the regional arts of the homeland from the historical past—especially the integration of dance practice with precise detail in costuming. These are not the costumes, nor necessarily the dances, one might observe as part of social commerce in Sweden or Panama today. Rather, they are old-country expressions that live primarily in the new country. Brooklyn was once the heart of a vibrant Scandinavian community that worked New York Harbor and lived in the Bay Ridge area.

In the face of widespread dispersal to the suburbs of New Jersey and Long Island in the 1960s, the Swedish Folk Dance Society (founded in 1906 in Brooklyn) has become the Swedish Folkdancers of New York (founded in 1967), a group dedicated to preserving Swedish regional dances and costumes. The group is seen at celebrations such as Midsummer and the Lucia pageants still held in Brooklyn in December. Celebrating their one hundredth anniversary this year, they are the oldest continually active folk dance group in the United States.

Sherpas from Nepal have sought refuge in Brooklyn
Due to the severity of the neo-Maoist insurgency in their homeland, Sherpas from Nepal have recently sought refuge in Brooklyn. Most are practicing Buddhists, whose dances reflect ancient traditions of worship and community life in the Himalayas (2006). Photo: Dixie Sheridan

Immigration reform is a central concern in the United States today. Congress debates in Washington, while the immigrant masses march in the streets. What is little remarked by arguing politicians—but is, of course, widely proclaimed by folklorists—is the cultural contribution, the artistic debt, that we owe to immigrants then and now in this country. Brooklyn is privileged to have artists such as Yasser Darwish, the Egyptian tanoura master, call the borough his home. Folk Feet began as a project to recognize and serve traditional dance artists who richly enhance Brooklyn’s cultural landscape. The project was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and a $15,000 grant from the Emma A. Sheafer Charitable Trust to expand programming and services to artists. At BAC Folk Arts, we like to say that Brooklyn is the world—the world of dance!


 









Kay Turner is the director of BAC Folk Arts, the folk arts program of the Brooklyn Arts Council. She is currently working on a new project, Brooklyn Maqam, on Arab music traditions in Brooklyn and recently curated “Here Was New York: Vernacular Images of the Twin Towers” for the fifth anniversary of September 11. Kay directs the Folk Feet project with dancer and dance ethnographer Nicole Macotsis, who recently joined the BAC to manage the expansion of services to Brooklyn’s traditional dancers.



Anup Kumar Das performing baowl, a Hindu mendicant dance form
Anup Kumar Das performing baowl, a Hindu mendicant dance form that can no longer be practiced in the Muslim-dominated province in Bangladesh where Anup was born and raised (2005). Photo: Jeff Berman



What is little remarked by arguing politicians—but is, of course, widely proclaimed by folklorists—is the cultural contribution, the artistic debt, that we owe to immigrants then and now in this country.



Yasser Darwish practices Egyptian tanoura
Yasser Darwish practices Egyptian tanoura, a colorful secular variation of the hoopskirted Islamic Sufi spinning tradition (2006). Photo: Jeff Berman





This article appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Fall-Winter 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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