The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival (SFEDF) auditions begin in a few weeks. The SFEDF, founded in 1978, is an annual concert featuring ethnic dancers from throughout Northern California. Organized by World Arts West, this festival has presented thousands of professional and amateur artists representing hundreds of very diverse ethnic communities. The performances take place over four weekends in June, but the auditions—open to the public for only $10—are worth a trip to the city.
After completing an application process, dancers audition before a panel of experienced artists. Soloists have five minutes and groups have ten to show their best work, with about 25 artists auditioning per day. One of the goals of the audition process it to provide critical feedback to the artists, whether they are admitted to the festival or not. At the request of the artists (and a fee of $10) the panelists comments are combined and sent to the performers before the festival. This gives the groups concrete recommendations on how to improve as artists, improve their chances of acceptance in the future, or improve their festival performances. In this way, the festival serves the Bay Area dance community with valuable feedback as well as by providing a world-class showcase.
In 2004, I volunteered (and they generously accepted) to sit with the selection panel at the auditions as an apprentice. It was a much more difficult job than I expected. Each day we had a packet of applications to review; for each performance we had a form on which to note our observations and make recommendations for acceptance to the festival. We evaluated each group or soloist for technical abilities, choreographic excellence, professionalism, and commitment to the historic traditions of their form. The more experienced panelists (who have been doing this for years) were able to provide fairly lengthy and specific commentary. Their observational skills, knowledge of many genres, and command of dance-related languages far exceeded my own. For all my own experience, I quickly became overwhelmed by the sheer number of performances and my critical eye became bloodshot with fatigue! So, Goddess bless these panelists: they have a very tough job.
As a scholar, I was especially fascinated with our lunchtime debates concerning the nature and definition of “ethnic dance.” As traditional forms of dance respond to contemporary life, as they rub up against other traditions, as they move from participatory to presentational dances, they are transformed. So, how do you know if what you are performing is still “ethnic”? The SFEDF website describes what they are looking for and indicates how they make this determination:
“The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival seeks to present traditional forms of dance, as well as artists who are developing innovative pieces deeply rooted in cultural traditions. We strive to present pieces that respect and maintain the integrity of a culture-specific dance tradition as its primary element. World Arts West recognizes that tradition is a living, evolving process and that many dance forms stem from multiple roots, and may be influenced by the context of presentation on our stage.”
The key, then, is in the roots and origins of the form and how fully they are retained in their current incarnations. When Fat Chance Belly Dance auditioned, their roots in North African traditions was obvious even through their American urban innovations. Hip hop could be justified because its origins clearly links it to a unique communal expression.
On the other hand, although classical dance from India (bharata natyam or odissi) is always included in the festival, Western classical dance—ballet—is not. This despite anthropologist Joann Kealiinohomoku’s argument in 1970 that, based on its reflection of Western European customs, myths, worldviews, aesthetics, and environmental features, ballet should be viewed as an ethnic dance. But if I remember our conversations correctly, the Festival producers resolved this problem by asserting that the Festival’s purpose is to represent the unrepresented; to place on the concert stage those forms of dance that are not typically performed there.
Attending the auditions is a great opportunity to see a wide range of forms, to observe the audition process, and to provide the auditioners with an audience. The 2010 auditions will be held at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre in San Francisco on January 16 & 17, 23 & 24, 2010 between 10:00 am and 7:00 pm. For more information and for the audition schedule go to