Finding Meaning in Dance with Mi Gente and Forklift Danceworks
From Fabiola Ochoa Torralba, Summer 2018 Forklift Fellow
I first learned about Forklift Danceworks when I met Allison Orr during a leadership/mentorship program with Dance/USA in 2015. As one of my first jobs out of graduate school in Michigan in 2018, I looked forward to being under the hot Texas sun, riding my bike, swimming in the waters of Yanaguana, and weaving back into the world outside of academia. The smiles and enthusiasm that I was greeted with by the Forklift staff made it easy to immediately feel a part of the team. The Nadamos Dove Springs project would carry this sentiment throughout the summer enticing dozens more from the local community to become a part of its happening.
My fellowship was a perfect combination of all of things that I love with dance. This includes block walking, speaking and writing in Spanish, dance making, community leadership development, learning from grassroots leaders, and developing intergenerational relations. As a previously trained cultural worker and political organizer, I often feel pulled in two opposite directions between activism and dance. Because of socio-cultural difference between contemporary dance and social justice work, this sometimes this leads me to question my role in the field.
For the first time in my life, I was working in a professional dance context that allowed all of these elements to coexist in a way that was closer to my grassroots and direct engagement training. The project was situated in Dove Springs, a majority African American and Mexican American community with an increasing Latin American immigrant population in Austin, Texas. Having grown up myself in Black and Brown working class neighborhoods in San Antonio, Texas, I fell right into my comfort zone. I realized that the assets that I brought to Nadamos Dove Springs were my familiarity with and knowledge of how to engage with these particular communities. My asset was my cultural competency and lived experience.
As a Spanish speaking Mexican immigrant, it is rare that I get to work with people that I identify with in dance. “Who do we usually see on television, in magazines, and in newspapers? Who do we see and who do we not see on stage?” I asked this to the Spanish speaking majority group of seniors and adults that I worked with for the production. We waited backstage during the opening night of Nadamos Dove Springs carrying the same jitters that I recognized from working with elementary dance students during recitals. They were just as excited about their performance and knew almost immediately what I meant by my questions. “If we don’t make our presence visible then we will always be invisible,” I stated.
On my bike and on public transportation over the winding and hilly roads of Austin, I took note of who got on the bus. I saw the changing architectural landscape throughout the city and the demographics of riders change with it. Riding the bus was my part of my research practice giving me a sense of the socio-economic context of the city. As a once undocumented person, I was familiar with invisibility. For example, there is a division between who we see in front of the house and those who work in back of the house. These are concepts I learned in the service industry while working in restaurants. On the bus, I was able to see who provided the physical labor of the city and occasionally, through newly gentrified spaces or neighborhoods, who reaped the benefits of this work. I realized that the “Keep Austin Weird” mantra that makes the city cool and appealing to highly educated students and professionals is only possible because of the labor of working poor native and immigrant communities who are struggling themselves to maintain their own presence.
Amongst the performers, we gathered in a circle to hold hands and give each other our blessings as we waited for the cue for the opening number. I shared with the cast that the only reason that I was a dance maker was because I had dance teachers that looked like me and that I related to. I wanted them to understand the impact of our visibility. Had it not been for this, I would have never believed that dance could be a professional career option for me. I learned recently, that this was not the norm from other dancers of color however. Almost all that I have spoken to have only had White dance teachers, highlighting our lack of representation in the field.
“We need to see ourselves beyond just labor. We need to tell our own stories with our own bodies,” I said to the performers backstage. They affirmed their connection to what I meant by this as they nodded their heads. I noticed an immediate shift in the group’s energy as their gaze widened and their chests expand with breath. Tears rolled down a few faces with the realization that after the performance, we may never see each other again. It was in this moment that I was reminded of why I needed to be in this field. I needed them just as much as they needed me. Together we put our hands in the center of our bodies and chanted “Si Se Puede” lifting our arms and spirits. What a privilege it is to be able to work with “Mi Gente.” What a joy it is to be seen together.