As one of the most pluralistic cities in the country, Miami is home to diverse enclaves from Haiti, Argentina, Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Nicaragua and others. Aptly, Miami is called “the gateway to the Americas” and we are a pivotal city in the global marketplace of business, trade, culture, finance and if you didn’t know it — dance.
To embody a city you must taste it. This is a city for the senses. Just as we taste and smell the sun-kissed saltwater on our skin, or the tree ripened mangoes in our backyards, our landscape is built for ingestion and internalization. Just as any Miami palate is familiar with gallo pinto, cafecito, jerk pork, joumou, or a parillada, the Miami flavor is also made up of muscle and bone, syncopation, down beat, clave, and the ever elusive “hold.” Miami is a city to be tasted and danced; and with the variety of dance offerings on any given weekend, dance is no longer just for spectacle, dance becomes breath, identity, family and mothering.
Last week I attended the 14th Annual Ife Ile Dance Festival directed by Neri Torres, whom could be considered the godmother of Afro-Cuban dance in Miami and part of Miami’s royal family of Cuban music and culture, including her brother Ezequiel Torres, world renown master drummer and drum maker, and her two nephews Arelan and Aruan. The festival kicked off with a panel discussion at Miami-Dade Wolfson campus titled “Dance traditions and urbanity.” An eclectic panel covered topics such as the differentiation between “urban” and “urbane,” Peruvian dance, Baltimore club dance, Haitian folklore, and “Caribbean” dance. Neri closed the discussion with overview of Cuban rumba and a live performance.
The daylong festival offered the rare opportunity to dance alongside live drummers. After taking the Yemaya workshop, the Afro-Cuban deity that represents the universal mother, the ocean, and nurturance, we sat down with Neri Torres and discussed the festival.
What is the most important thing you would like people to take away from the festival?
We would like the attendees to get educated about Cubans, their culture and the contributions of their traditions around the world. Particularly, I highlight the attention to the Afro-Cuban segment of the Cuban population, often ignored, however fundamental in the development of Cuban idiosyncracy. Moreover, we aim to create a cross-cultural understanding by being in conversation with all other Diasporic traditions (from America, Latin America and the Caribbean) with which we share a common history.
Why dance and urbanity for the panel?
Because we are trying to trace the effect of traditions on the different cities and groups, and vice versa. Also, we are curious about how traditions change either by addition or defect, accommodating to particular social landscapes. What remains of them, what transforms them and how? My focus this time has been the particular case of rumba and its impact in pop culture around the world. The other guest panelists discussed related topics in their respective cultures.
What can rumba teach us about life in Miami?
Rumba and many other Afro-Cuban rhythms and dances, echo in Miami’s underground scene. We can hear its influence in the so called “sound of Miami” from K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Pitbull, the infamous bootie dance, and of course our very own Gloria Estefan. It is safe to say that rumba is the music and dance complex that represents Cubans wherever they go as a cultural group, whether some may disagree with it. You can see its sensuality in the way people dance here… or the gestures in an animated conversation — even more the enchanting way of the tumbadoras [congas] resonating all over the city. Rumba lingers because Cubans have been the heartbeat of Miami for many years.
After the conversation and a rumba workshop, I headed over to Belly2Abs Wellness Dance Studio in Coconut Grove, where I was giving the second installation of my month-long dance intensive “Dancing my (mother’s) Body.” That day interdisciplinary artist and contemporary dancer Carlota Pradera gave a guest master class for us that included contact improvisation and vocal exercises. We continued to excavate our relationships with our bodies and our mothers.
Later that night, I attended the closing performance of Ife Ile in Little Havana. This is where the day’s dance moves came into practice. Onstage Neri Torres performed her famous embodiment of Ochun, the Afro-Cuban Orisha (deity) of love and fertility. She and her company members brought the audience to their feet in a frenzied group rumba and comparsa, a popular carnival dance.
That Saturday, Miami was pregnant with dance. Dance was both mother and daughter/son. The body of a dancer inhabited movements from the Afro-Cuban pantheon, Egyptian belly dance and European and American contemporary dance. Our cells traced migrations, conquests, syncretism, and the postmodern quest for innovation, fusion, and reframing of bodies and identities. The workshop performance for Dancing my (mother’s) Body, will be presented by Arts at St. Johns on Sunday, Sept. 9 at 2:00 p.m. and will feature Belly2Abs resident company Fusion Gitana, directed by Zizi Zabaneh; www.artsatstjohns.com
This article first appeared in the Miami Sun Post