Coastal Choreophilias: Loving and Dancing in Santa Cruz

Santa Cruzan’s love of dance has produced a deep and diverse community of movement artists. The depth and breadth of this community was illuminated at two recent events celebrating the founders of dance in Santa Cruz. On Saturday, January 20, hundreds of dancers and musicians congregated to celebrate the wonderful life of the late Armando “Mafufo” Fojaco, a beloved Middle Eastern drummer and teacher who had been accompanying Santa Cruz dancers since the 1970s.

On Sunday, January 25, another community of dancers gathered at Cabrillo College to celebrate modern dance and its developments in Santa Cruz between 1959 and the present. And while this event was not intended as a tribute to Roberta Bristol—the very much alive 88-year-old grandmother of dance in Santa Cruz—nearly every dancer who presented at Prime Movers spoke about her affecting influence. Armando and Roberta express in their lives and legacies the joyous human drive to dance and make music and each helped to make Santa Cruz a vibrant center for dance.

Armando and Crystal at Crepe Place

Armando and Crystal at Crepe Place

Uncle Mafufo, as Armando was affectionately known, radiated love. His infectious smile, his glittering eyes, and his obvious delight in playing drums made him one of the most beloved individuals in the world of Middle Eastern dance and music in America. But here in Santa Cruz, his home, he was held in special affection. His influence extended across four generations of bellydancers here from Delys’s classes in the early 70s, to the second generation in the 80s including Sahar, Caroleena, and the Marianna’s; through the 90s with Beth Frue, Helené, SeSe, Rossah; and into the millennium with instructors/performers Palika, Janelle Rodriguez, and Crystal Silmi. Armando played for so many dancers and instructors over these 40 years that to name them all would fill pages.

As “Uncle Mafufo” he taught most of us how to play North African rhythms on doumbek and frame drums which enhanced our ability to dance with those rhythms. He played and recorded with many bands: Sirocco (Middle Eastern) and Nuba (Tunisian) with Sol Suliman, Orient’al (Egyptian) with Michael Gruber, several Latin bands, and with—well, I’m only guessing here, but—with anyone who asked. He just loved music and musicians loved him. How he could maintain peaceful relations with so many artistic egos over such a long period is, in itself, a testament to his peaceful countenance.

Armando’s passing last December seemed to mark the end of an era. On January 20th, hundreds of dancers and musicians came together to pay homage, to remember, to share back what he gave all of us. Held at the Kuumbwa Jazz Club, we feasted on potluck dishes, music, and dancing for four hours.

Amel Tafsout offers a danced prayer

Amel Tafsout offers a danced prayer

Flamenco dancers opened the event, followed by a large band of Middle Eastern musicians. Dror Sinai chanted a prayer; Amel Tafsout danced one. Sahar performed an exquisite tribute. The Feldthouse family joined the already crowded stage to play Balkan rhythms and Latin sounds concluded the day.

Many other dancers and musicians performed that afternoon…and many more would have but for the time limits. I’ve no doubt it could have gone on late into the night. Such was the influence of this man. I knew Armando only a little, something I will always deeply regret. Nonetheless, Armando’s life-affirming presence was so strong, that I only need to close my eyes to remember his face, his smile, his kind words and my heart is filled with contentment.

Roberta at her birthday last year continues to encourage us to dance

Roberta at her birthday last year continues to encourage us to dance

Prime Movers, presented by Cabrillo College Dance Department and Tandy Beal & Company, was a beautifully produced celebration of the roots of dancing in Santa Cruz County beginning with the establishment of two centers of higher education: Cabrillo College in 1959 and the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1965. The spirit of exploration and innovation was strong in those days and teachers were free to create courses that were wildly improvisational, courses they weren’t even sure they could teach. But they did, and they and their students continue to bring this long legacy forward.

The walls of the lobby of Crocker Theater were covered with a timeline of dance at Cabrillo College, each decade represented by photographs, news clippings, and programs. Pens were strategically left on a table so people could add their own remembrances. On another wall was drawn an ancestry tree with branches and roots. At the top, Roberta Bristol. Along the branches and roots were note cards listing the teachers who influenced the teachers. Anyone who wished to could add their own note showing how they fit in this ancestry or to the ancestry of dance itself.

The roots and branches of dance in Santa Cruz

The roots and branches of dance in Santa Cruz

In the beginning was Roberta Bristol who founded the Cabrillo College Dance Department in the schools first year. Appropriately, she opened the evening telling a brief story of those early years and how she proceeded to create what became a mecca for the dance-curious. One by one, 28 local dance teachers* came to the stage and spoke briefly about their own beginnings and contributions to dance. Repeatedly we heard about how Roberta tricked people into teaching: “Roberta told me I should teach a course. Roberta introduced me to…Roberta had complete confidence in me…Roberta arranged for me to come to Santa Cruz…and I never left.” Roberta, even 50 years after her first classes at Cabrillo College, remains the heart and soul of modern dance in this town.

Roberta and Rita perform at the Santa Cruz Dance Salon

Roberta and Rita perform at the Santa Cruz Dance Salon

The women who spoke (and they were all women) built on the early foundations at Cabrillo and later at UCSC. They were founders themselves of college and high school dance departments, local dance studios, performing companies, and performance venues and stages throughout Santa Cruz county, legacies we continue to enjoy.

Although the majority of the celebrants fall under the rubric of modern dance, also represented were the ballet, Mexican folklorico, tango, bellydance (Sese Gedes), African, and Brazilian instructors. Each of the 28 spoke in tones of  gratitude, humility, and generosity towards their teachers and students. These attitudes of enthusiasm and cooperation reflect the earliest days of dance exploration in Santa Cruz, a time that several referred to as “the wild west.”

Interspersed with the monologues were short dances, corporeal illustrations of the work these celebrants are producing. Historical photographs of the artists projected on the back curtain accompanied their stories. All combined—the sound of the celebrants telling their own stories, the dancing, the slides, the timeline—the program helped to illuminate the history of dance in Santa Cruz. What a great way to learn history.

Both Roberta and Armando could be counted on for kind and encouraging words. They make every individual feel that his/her contributions are valuable, however modest they might be. Armando will be sorely missed, but we who had the opportunity to know him, carry his heart within our own. Roberta is still encouraging us to keep moving no matter what kind of movement it is and to keep getting out there to support dance. Will do, Roberta.

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One Response to Coastal Choreophilias: Loving and Dancing in Santa Cruz

  1. lorraine kinnamon says:

    Beautifully summarized Renee as always! Thank you for sharing about both teachers who gave and continue to give to the community with such inspiration. Lorraine

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