The dense, expectant quiet in downtown's Japanese American Cultural & Community Center’s Aratani Theatre was broken as five California Indian women of the group Toveema, donning traditional fringed buckskin skirts, headbands and shell necklaces, gracefully danced from the wings to center stage. Softly intoning an ancient welcome song for the opening of the Dance/USA 2018 Annual Conference and Awards ceremony, the women tapped long wooden sticks into the palm of their hands as percussion instruments.
After the first dance, Tonantzin Carmelo, the lead singer, faced the audience and announced: “As California born-and-bred indigenous persons, we were asked to open the conference in a traditional way, honoring the First Peoples, the land and the oceans. Now it’s your turn.”
Made up of “documented descendants” of the Tongva and Kumeyaay peoples, Toveema led the audience of about 500 dancers, curators, producers and supporters alongside the national and international dance community, in welcome movements to ocean spirits and ancestors.
It was a distinctly California welcome, and simultaneously, a vindication for the city of Los Angeles’ Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA), which scheduled the inaugural DCA L.A. Dance Platform, a host of dance exhibitions, talks and performances, to coincide with the annual Dance/USA Conference, held June 6-9 for the first time in Los Angeles.
DCA L.A. Dance Platform was envisioned to “give dance practitioners opportunities to frame, connect, dialogue and showcase new and in-progress works.”
Ben Johnson, the new performing arts director for the Department of Cultural Affairs, the city’s grant-making arm for cultural, social and educational art endeavors across the city, told L.A. Weekly, “Dance is at the center of the social fabric of the city of Los Angeles. We have had a long and rich history of dance since the time of the Tongva and Chumash to now. Dance has become a tool to deal with issues, solve problems and express the creative genius of our community.”
For Johnson and his team, and Dance/USA, Toveema represents this “journey,” and Los Angeles’ hundreds of vibrant dance studios, troupes, theaters and performance spaces producing and cultivating some of the most innovative dance exhibitions and initiatives in the country.
Among this illustrious group were two of the night’s Dance/USA 2018 awardees and L.A. dance matriarchs: lauded dancer-actor-producer Debbie Allen, founder of the Debbie Allen Dance Academy, and renowned community leader and dance activist Lula Washington, founder of Lula Washington Dance Theatre, which is gearing up to celebrate its 38th anniversary in South L.A. Both Washington and her husband, Erwin Washington, co-founder and executive director of LWDT, received Dance/USA’s Champion Award for their constant, active presence, not just a dance company but as people who enrich inner-city neighborhoods and save lives.
The L.A. dance community thrives because of stalwarts like Allen and the Washingtons, as well as the grant makers and performance spaces such as Ford Theatres. DCA and Dance/USA wanted to acknowledge this synergistic communal exchange in a conference and never-before-seen exhibitions that unpacked past contributions, perpetual struggles, current triumphs and the continuance of legacies in the face of dwindling national arts funding.
Johnson and Dance/USA’s executive director, Amy Fitterer, wanted to highlight one ultimate message: Dance creates community and therefore creates safer, activated spaces.
“The mere act of dance has a sharing element to it, and that sharing creates a sense of connection between audiences and performers,” Fitterer told L.A. Weekly. “The topics that dance artists explore, such as issues about our humanity, are topics that cross boundaries, provide inspiration and can bring people together.”
In fact, when Debbie Allen’s saucy video reel of her life’s dancing highlights suddenly stopped working before her acceptance of the award, the crowd started singing the song from the theme song from the TV show and movie Fame, from which Allen gained her own, most-recognized fame. Allen’s statuesque, long-limbed daughter, Vivian Nixon, a dancer who also runs Debbie Allen Dance Academy with her mother, appeared and high-kicked one gazelle leg as demonstration of her mother’s incredibly legacy.
The room went wild, calling Nixon's name. “I’m not warm, guys, I’m not warm,” she demurred.
“Dance, Vivian,” someone yelled. Nixon called for quiet. “Debbie Allen, guys. This is about a phenomenal woman, Debbie Allen.”
“Thank you so much, Vivi,” Allen said, when she appeared. “I want to see you kick again. You don’t have to be warm, just leg up and bam.” Nixon's leg effortlessly hit tilt to honor her mother and again, the applause, activating the moment.
Allen’s acceptance speech was heartfelt, saying she rarely took time to celebrate herself. “I’m really grateful that I drew breath, my first moment of life, with the dance and the dance has shaped me, has defined me, has propelled me to do all these wonderful things that I do.”
In contrast, Erwin Washington laid out the ever-present monetary and sometimes civic struggle during his acceptance speech. “When you have a dance company, you have to do more than just dance and choreograph. You have to know the business side.”
When it was her turn to speak, in true audience participatory form, Lula Washington instead made the audience stand up and join her in singing “This Little Light of Mine” as she danced barefoot across the stage.
The night was indicative of many journeys to get longtime aficionados, dancers, curators, budding and established dance studios and international dance moguls in the same room.
Except for Toveema, no other dance performances happened that night; instead, what happened for DCA was the recognition and celebration of how intrinsic yet under-explored the role of dance is in the lives of Angelenos.
“Dance intersects with every community and every art form accessible to everyone young and old,” Johnson said.
From Aztec dancers who show up at human rights rallies to flash mobs to Dancing With the Stars filmed in Hollywood, dance as activism, dance as memory, dance as healing, dance as activation of “unused” alleys and street corners, dance as formation of community happens in Los Angeles. For Dance/USA, that scope of recognition and interwoven spaces widens to include the nation’s dance company as well as the international groups such as Dance Abroad and the International Association of Blacks in Dance, of which Lula Washington is on the founding board.
As Erwin Washington concluded, “When everybody works together, everybody benefits. If we can continue to help each other to do things together, we can continue to build dance in L.A. Because there’s always been great dance in L.A. — people just didn’t know it. We can help the world know.”