On Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House, at the conclusion of night one of the 40th annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, all the dancers from the evening came back to the stage for a curtain call. As artists representing everything from Tahitian folk dance to ancient Alaskan Yup’ik Eskimo ceremonies flooded the stage, it became a sea of reds and yellows, blues and purples, glitter, feathers and fur. Although they were all parts of different dance troupes representing different cultures from different countries at different periods of time, now, in the final moments of the performance, they stood smushed together, clapping their hands and shaking their hips.
The first night of the festival contained pieces from Mexico, Tahiti, the Philippines, China, Spain and beyond. Throughout the evening, only one thing seemed constant across nearly all the performances: an emphasis on community, on spectacle and on a thick and steady drumbeat. The costumes worn by the dancers were as extravagant and intricate as the dances being done onstage. Some pieces, especially folkloric ones, included set pieces and props, creating not only a compelling dance but a compelling narrative.
The Parangal Dance Company performance had the dancers sword fighting, swinging the swords violently toward each other while still maintaining a smooth effortlessness. Another featured a monologue in which the speaker thanked Mother Nature, the mothers onstage and the mothers in the audience. This praise of femininity and domesticity proved to be cross-cultural, and it was a familiar strain throughout many of the pieces.
While not an explicitly feminist show, the night featured predominantly female dancers, and more sensual dances such as the flamenco were done with the women celebrating one another and dancing for each other rather than for any male gaze. In other dances, such as an Afro-Cuban dance and one modeled off of Mexican folklore, women danced with brooms and laundry baskets, using the traditional markers of femininity as objects of power, smacking the brooms along the ground to make music and dancing around with colorful silks pulled from the depths of the baskets.
In addition to inclusivity of culture, the night was also inclusive of all ages and body types — a truly rare diversion from the majority of professional dance performances. While some dances such as the one from the Chitresh Das Youth Company focused on precise movement, the Afro-Cuban dance by the Arenas Dance Company felt more like a natural uninhibited explosion of bodily energy as the women stomped and swayed to the beat of the drums and the rhythm inside their own bodies. Yet every dance, whether it was methodical or free-spirited, played as a jubilant celebration of culture and femininity.
Beyond the communities the dancers had created among themselves onstage, the audience was filled with family members and friends who cheered loudly when they saw their loved ones onstage, shouting out their names. Despite the ornamented surroundings and grandiloquent architecture of the San Francisco opera house, the venue was filled purely with lovers of dance and lovers of people.
The evening also contained incredible music stylings, with almost all of the performances utilizing music made by musicians on the stage. In many of the pieces, dancers stomped their feet and yelled and hollered, becoming musical instruments themselves.
By the end of the night, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival had offered those in attendance something that is hard to come by for such grand scale performances: an intimate look into a cultural tradition. As the performance world continues hurdling forward into the future of theater, dance or the next big thing, the festival served as a look back into why dance is such a celebrated art form in the first place: community, connection and joy.