A Vibrant World Onstage: Ethnic Dance Festival Turns 40

by Jean Schiffman

The beloved festival showcases social and folkloric dances by dozens of local troupes and soloists, most accompanied by live onstage musicians, each representing a specific world culture.

One summer, San Francisco’s Ethnic Dance Festival went missing.

Now, 40 years after its founding by Grants for the Arts, it’s hard to imagine a single San Francisco summer without it. The multi-weekend event showcases social and folkloric dances by dozens of local troupes and soloists, most accompanied by live onstage musicians, each representing a specific world culture. Rapturous audiences of all ages and ethnicities flock to the Festival annually. Last year, its first at the War Memorial Opera House, the energy between audience and performers was magical, says Grants for the Arts director Kary Schulman, with everyone spilling out onto the street for a joyous finale. There is nothing like it in the country.

So in 1981, the summer there was no Festival, loyal audiences were, naturally, indignant.

Created in 1978 by the city agency Grants for the Arts, performances were initially held at various small community centers throughout the city. The intention, explains Schulman, was to provide funding and support to dance companies that did not necessarily have all of the bureaucratic criteria in place to stage high-profile shows on their own. “They were groups that got together out of passion and a wish to preserve their heritage and express their
culture through dance,” she says.

But within a few years, the effects of Proposition 13, which reduced property taxes, trickled down: Grants for the Arts could no longer afford to sustain the ambitious Festival. Schulman, who’d started working at the agency in 1980, fielded plaintive calls from the public: “Where is the Festival this year?” So, recognizing the need to continue, the agency collaborated with the nonprofit World Arts West (then known as City Celebration) to produce a new iteration of the Festival. In a quantum leap, it would be held at the 1,000-seat Herbst Theatre. And auditions, held in November, at which about 100 groups compete over a few days for a 10-minute slot at the Festival, would be open to public audiences at a low admission price. Those auditions, says Schulman, are “one of the enduring hallmarks of the Festival,” which continues to be produced by World Arts West and enthusiastically supported by Grants for the Arts.

The Festival grew exponentially during a stable, two-plus decades at the Palace of Fine Arts, but in 2010, when the Palace, going into reconstruction mode during the Doyle Drive project, could no longer accommodate the event, it was nomadic for a few years, appearing at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and other local venues, including a few summers back at the Palace. Meanwhile the artistry, the production elements and the administrative infrastructure of the Festival have continued to grow.

Now, after presenting more than 600 dance companies and more than 100 different genres in its lifetime, the Festival celebrates its 40th anniversary at the prestigious Opera House, its second time there. At 50 feet, the stage here is narrower than the 70-foot Palace stage—significant for dance companies, some of which involve 60 dancers and most of which include onstage musicians—but the prime location, in the Civic Center, makes up for the deficit, as does its 3,000-seat capacity; last year’s opening there was by all accounts a momentous event.

“For a lot of people, myself included, it was our first time at the Opera House. We don’t necessarily feel that’s a place for us—and that has shifted,” says newly appointed co-artistic director Mahealani Uchiyama, a Hawaiian and Tahitian dancer, who, with Hawaiian and hula choreographer Patrick Makuakane and Latanya d. Tigner of Dimensions Dance Theater, is part of a triad of artistic directors to lead the Festival with the support of directors emeritus
CK Ladzekpo and Carlos Carvajal.

Uchiyama started out as a dancer in the Festival in 1985 (with her Hawaiian dance group, later as a North African dance soloist), then joined the staff and finally the board before taking on this new position. She says she can attest to the increasing levels of care and attention, of organization and preparation, that the Festival offers the dancers, most of whom are members of community-based dance groups throughout the Bay Area.

Does ethnic mean the same thing, in relation to dance, as it did 40 years ago? Uchiyama posits that ballet, modern and jazz could theoretically be considered under an ethnic dance umbrella, but for now, she prefers the term “culturally specific,” as referring to a common linguistic, cultural and geographic origin. In fact, says World Arts West executive director Julie Mushet, the Festival has considered rebranding itself as World Dance Festival, or perhaps World Music and Dance Festival, the musicians being an important part of the performance, but for now, securing a permanent home is the first order of business.

Among other issues that the Festival has considered over time: When an inherently social dance is choreographed and presented on a proscenium stage, is it losing some of its essential essence? “We’ve been successful at keeping the intention and methodology and beauty of some of those truly social forms,” says Uchiyama. “It’s important to include all the movement expressions of all the world’s people in such a way that we can all appreciate one another.”

This year’s program consists of four two-hour shows on two separate weekends, a different lineup each weekend, plus a free celebration at City Hall rotunda; countries represented are India, Cuba, Bolivia, Spain, Cambodia, Peru, Mexico, China, Liberia, Korea, the Philippines, Zimbabwe, the continental U.S. (Appalachia) and Tahiti. Among the groups are several new to the Festival this year: Ananya Tirumala (South India Kuchipudi), Atara Asthaayi Dance (North Indian Kathak), Te Pura O Te Rahura’a (Tahitian) and Ye Feng (Chinese contemporary). Eight world premieres, created especially for the 40th celebration, are included on the roster as well. A featured group is Nunamta Yup’ik Eskimo Singers and Dancers, presenting a dance from Alaska not seen for over 200 years. 

Many of the Asian dance forms that thrive here are relatively unknown in other parts of the country. “We’re here on the Pacific Rim, and that has made all the difference,” observes Mushet. Asian, classical Indian and Mexican folkloric are consistently particularly well represented at the Festival, but over the years, just about every area of the globe has been covered, including Africa, Australia, the Caribbean, Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, Polynesia. Of the festival, New York Times critic Alastair Macaulay wrote, in 2015, “I know of no regular event that more effectively, more movingly, recommends this country’s diverse inclusiveness…” Adds Mushet, “The artists all live here, they’re all around us. That’s part of the magic.”

Of the challenges that the venerable Festival now faces, Mushet and Uchiyama agree that the number one issue is the venue. The Opera House has been promised for 2019, but beyond that, no one knows. “And money,” adds Uchiyama. “We want to have an event that’s affordable for our community—we want them to come, but we have expenses.” Notes Schulman, “Every arts organization’s biggest challenge is sustaining itself in a city where everything is costlier, and where space is at a premium.” She sees the Opera House as the culmination of the Festival’s geographically meandering journey. She says, “The Opera House has probably never seen an audience like this in terms of ages, demographics, coming from different parts of the city and the Bay Area, the cultural sharing. This through line of showcasing the dance and the culture has reached an apex.”

July 14 & 15, 21 & 22 (also free
performance at City Hall Rotunda
July 6, noon)

War Memorial Opera House

301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco