Dancing Community: The Dance of Social Resistance

Kara Brooks, Arts Editor

In celebration of Latino/a Heritage Month at Oberlin College, Ana María Alvarez, OC ’99, came to Oberlin this past Tuesday to provide a public lecture, as well as instruct two master dance classes. After studying at the North Carolina School of the Arts and training with the Urban Bush Women, Alvarez, a Cuban-American choreographer, created CONTRA-TIEMPO, a dance program at University of California Los Angeles Lab School, which is now the focus of her work.

CONTRA-TIEMPO serves not only as an arts education program, but also as a dance company suitable for concert stage. “We struggle with communicating to people that we do both and that we do both well,” Alvarez said.

Activist performance work is a key element of the liveliness of CONTRA-TIEMPO. Alvarez calls herself a “dance activist” and explains that a great deal of her job is to re-teach people about different forms of dance, such as salsa, among others.

Alvarez stressed the vital give and take between the education program and the dance company. One student assignment is to attend a concert stage performance and to respond, through dance, with an interpretation of the pieces they saw. The students receive encouragement and a tangible grasp of what level of skill they could one day reach.

The CONTRA-TIEMPO dance company is informed by its students as well. Alvarez related the story of a poem written by a girl in sixth grade and how it inspired a piece on black and Latino/a unification. The assignment was to respond to the Langston Hughes poem, “Let America Be America Again,” and the student integrated her family’s personal experience of immigration to the U.S. into the format of the Hughes poem. Alvarez described the raw power of the girl’s piece, which remains one of CONTRA-TIEMPO’s most popular and has particular resonance in its home base of L.A.

Alvarez played a clip from Dancing With the Stars to illustrate how severe the misconceptions of salsa dance have become: When we think of salsa, she pointed out, we think of sex. She emphasized how this perception the media promotes is a “dumbing down of a culture” and allows no room for political or social discourse.

In their efforts to reshape these social misconceptions, CONTRA-TIEMPO teaches proper salsa dance. The main element that must exist between two salsa partners is “resistance.” As Alvarez described, one must push up against one’s partner, creating a new experience each time. One particular partner experience could be sexually driven; however, this should not be the expectation. Salsa is a dance form that occurs between family members; it is a celebratory dance and is meant to create a connection. You just listen to your partner, and, in fact, much of the dance is improvised. You don’t always have to follow the choreography; you shouldn’t blindly follow the steps.

“[Salsa] is fundamental and a metaphor for our society,” Alvarez explained. “Our resistance gives us all a voice.” Her message resonated: If we are not against an issue, it is almost as if we are a part of it.