“Dance and celebration, in marginalized cultures is a way of rebellion and of strength,” said Jamaica Itule-Simmons. “It’s religion, it’s tradition, it’s identity, it’s people’s lives and how they relate to each other and how they interact with each other.”
Itule-Simmons is the executive director of CubaCaribe, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco, whose mission is to “preserve, promote, and present the vibrant cultural and artistic traditions of the Caribbean and it’s diaspora.” In cultures around the world, physical movement has been a way to express struggle, emotions, and unity. Through organizations like CubaCaribe, Bay Area artists can carry on and honor these traditions for wider audiences.
Often, cultural celebration and preservation are the motives behind the formation of the Latinx dance communities of the East Bay. However, with the Bay being such a large region, it is common for Latinx groups to feel spread out and to lack a sense of unity. Latinx dance centers provide a space where people can connect over their backgrounds and practice their traditions. Tainah Damasceno, the associate artistic director of Brasarte Dance Center in Berkeley, said, “Brasarte’s mission is to preserve and disseminate Brazilian arts culture here in the Bay Area because Brazilians are a pretty big community here, but pretty largely invisibilized.”
Damasceno explained, “Generally, what people think of when they think of Brazilian dance is bikinis and feathers, which there is a lot of, but that is definitely a very specific style. We have a lot more to offer than that.” At Brasarte, they aim to honor Brazilian dance and expand it to the community. Before Brasarte moved to West Berkeley, it was located on Solano Avenue in North Berkeley. Being located in such a wealthy area highlighted the importance of representing their culture in the midst of gentrification. “We were probably the only Latinx community space, or any sort of space that wasn’t ‘whiter’… we bring this culture to different parts of the East Bay that have underrepresentation,” said Damasceno.
Elisa Pasquini, a Berkeley native who practices capoeira at the United Capoeira Association of Berkeley, understands that the role of dance in Latinx communities is centralized around tradition and connection to history. “It’s been a really nice way to stay connected with Brazilian culture while growing up here, so capoeira really brought me closer to my roots.”
To Itule-Simmons, the Latinx dance community of the Bay Area is rich with diversity and culture. She observes this in the dance performances at CubaCaribe’s annual festival. “They range from Afro-Peruvian, to traditional Mexican, to hip hop, to African, to Puerto Rican, to Brazilian, and that brings collaboration, innovation, and change over time,” she reflected. Being made up of several cities and regions, the Bay Area provides a wide network of dancers to coordinate with each other and work together.
Damasceno has made similar observations about this unique aspect of the Bay Area. “I live in Temescal, in Oakland, and there’s a really big Ethiopean and Eritrean community. You can go to Fruitvale and see a more Latino community. … In West Berkeley, you can see Tibetan and Pakistani communities,” she said. This diversity, especially among Latinx groups, has sparked cross-cultural connections that lead to artistic innovation and creation.
Capoeira, like many other dance styles, has historically been used to unite people and fight against common struggles. It still has this role in many Latinx communities today. Starting on the plantations of Brazil, slaves from Africa created capoeira as self defense. Pasquini described this saying, “They had to disguise it because they couldn’t get caught practicing it, so they would make a circle and play music, so that the slave masters would think they were just singing and dancing.”
Some call capoeira a martial art, while some call it a dance, and the history explains that it can fit both titles. In current times it is still used as a resource to protect the underprivileged. “The favelas in Brazil are in the hills and are basically where the poorest of the poor live. There are a lot of drug problems and gang violence. People will go to these communities and help teach kids capoeira. It gives them discipline and keeps them tied to culture,” said Pasquini.
Though the diversity of arts and culture in the East Bay is unique and desirable, it is also what works against the minority communities who define it. Rent prices and the cost of living are mercilessly rising and pushing small cultural centers and their artists out. Damasceno explained, “It’s definitely hard, as these big companies move in and rents start to skyrocket, and it’s difficult to maintain our prices accessible for the community.” Itule-Simmons elaborated that many of the dancers for CubaCaribe, which is located in San Francisco, have been pushed into other cities farther out. She added that the pandemic has not made things any easier by putting the performance economy on hold. Under normal circumstances, dancers are contracted for events, classes, festivals and performances. “Now, there is a lot of struggle with getting jobs or trying to do it online, which is also really hard,” Itule-Simmons reflected.
Over time, dance in Latinx communities has evolved and grown. However, it has always served a consistent purpose: to instill resilience and unity during times of hardship. During an ongoing pandemic, unprecedented political tension, and wildfires evidencing climate change, dance has supported Latinx communities in the East Bay and continues to provide an artistic outlet. In Itule-Simmon’s words, “It really is a way to survive.”