Volunteering @ the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

I have always been curious about behind-the-scene’s processes from the deep-down roots of cultural action to the workings of a theatrical production. With that as my driving force, I volunteered to work a morning shift (9:30-3:00) for the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival auditions. I arrived at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco for a 9:30 am orientation with Eyla Moore. Eyla is a calm but decisive volunteer coordinator and a delightful woman to work with. My group was assigned to the auditorium itself. Our job couldn’t have been simpler: guard the exits (no one is allowed in during an audition) and make sure no one was eating or using cameras. (That’s the trickiest part since people seem to have had their phones embedded in the palms of their hands so you couldn’t tell if they are working an app, texting, or sneaking some video of their kids.) The rest of the time, we were free to watch the auditions.

In addition to providing the artists for the Festival, auditions serve the artists by giving them a chance to perform for an audience made up of more than just friends and family. The auditorium was at least 80-85% filled with a range of people representing the Bay Area, all of them fans of dance, and all appreciative of each performance. The four full days of auditions also provides children with a rare opportunity to see a variety of world dance in a less-formal atmosphere than a concert provides. Adults pay only $10 and children under 16 get in free. Each performance is no longer than 10 minutes and there is a 5 minute break between each, enough time for the judges to make notes and for kids to noodle around. Some bring their children every year and others seem to attend with small packs of kids. I saw several parents leading their kids in and out, changing seats, or just running the stairs in-between performances.

When the children were seated they watched (in the five hours I was there) 16 different dance soloists and groups performing Chinese, Balinese, Latin American, and Indian classical forms (6 entries from India in the morning alone and another 5 after lunch!). Many performances were unpolished and not yet Festival worthy. Only two performances were memorable to me. One was a young girl—Chandra Ayu Davis who is maybe 10-12-years old—performing an elaborate and quite long solo in Balinese classical dance. The second was Ganesh Vasudeva who performed a classical South Indian dance. He was gorgeous, his foot stomps sharp and his mudras precise. Look for him; you won’t be disappointed.

Lunch was provided to the volunteers and gave us a chance to get to know each other a bit. I was especially pleased when dance ethnographer Yvonne Daniel joined us. Ms Daniel (kind of a star in my world) was one of the panelists, selected for her expertise in Caribbean dance, about which she has published many articles and books. We were joined by event videographer Kirk Schroeder and Patti Trimble who writes the program notes. Somehow, we began a discussion of limits and ambiguity of the category “ethnic.” Ms Daniel has considered this subject at some length, having emphasized these debates (how to classify dance as ethnic or classical or folk et al) in her tenure as professor at Smith College. She also informed us that she wrote the Festival’s position on the subject in the 1980s as the Festival leaders tried to define its intentions.

The audition rounds are now complete and the selections will be announced by the end of February. You can find them at the website of the Festival producers, World Arts West, or at the Festival’s Facebook page. (And while you are there, take a look at the video of the young boy in the lobby. I would have embedded it but I couldn’t figure out how.) Once the Festival has been cast, the artists come back to the theater in full costume for the official photo shoot (Bonny Kamin and RJ Muna are brilliant dance photographers) and for interviews with Patti Trimble for program details. Then come dress rehearsals and the Festival itself in June. There are opportunities to volunteer at each of these events as well so if you are interested contact faiza@worldartswest.org.

I had a wonderful time meeting other dance afficionados, artists, writers, producers. I indulged my need to be fully embraced by dance, to be surrounded by dancers, and to be in service to the art I love.

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