From Structural to Spiritual, The Dance Community Thrives in Diverse Ways
By: Mikaela Casas, Grace Rogers and Mary Hart
Compared to other major cities in Texas and across the nation, Austin’s dance community is not as broad and far-reaching. There are under twenty major dance companies in Austin as opposed to New York City, which boasts hundreds of companies and studios ranging from ballet to hip-hop to various forms of African dance. Although Austin’s dance community is small, the people who teach and participate in performances and classes are providing a much-needed influx of vitality and enthusiasm to the community in major ways and redefining the public’s perception of dance in a more personal and experiential way.
Up until recent years, when people thought of dance, the first image that would pop into their minds would be that of a ballet dancer. While ballet is known for its cultural significance in western culture, there are various forms of dance, like Orisha and Rumba, dance forms that have indigenous roots in western Africa, that have been around for much longer and are only recently being discovered and practiced by people on a wider scale.
Maya Berry, a classically trained ballet dancer from New York, who studied ballet in the city as well as abroad in Europe, now teaches an Afro-Cuban dance class in the African-American Heritage Center right next door to Franklin’s Barbecue on 11th street in East Austin.
It’s quite a departure from what Maya had spent the majority of her life pursuing. Maya has been dancing from the age of three, with experience in ballet, jazz and tap, “the triple threat” as Maya refers to it. In her late teens, Maya moved to France for conservatory training in classical ballet, but Maya had a difficult time there. “And then, that experience…uh…didn’t go so well. It was very traumatic,” Berry says laughing. “Being a black woman, in Europe studying ballet, there was definitely a lot of scrutiny of my body. “
Seeking a more accepting atmosphere, Maya returned to New York City, where she began studying with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, a historically black dance company and school formed by Alvin Ailey, one of the major pioneers of modern dance, who was born in Texas. Maya went on to be a part of several other contemporary dance companies in New York, but soon realized, “I did not like the dance business. I loved dancing, but I didn’t like the business.” Maya went back to school to study the connection between anthropology and dance, and in 2005, decided to focus on Afro-Cuban dance.
Although African Diasporic dance is very different from classical ballet, Maya has brought one major thing from her past to her present: discipline. That work ethic is required in most forms of dance and the people who practice it all have another essential ingredient in common, an intense love for dance.
Jason Vaughn, the house dance instructor at Ballet Austin, has only been dancing for about 10 years. During that time, he has studied and become proficient in many different forms of dance from breaking to hip-hop, to house and various forms of African dance. His enthusiasm and love for dance is contagious, often breaking into a wide smile as he describes his early days studying dance, “I used to drive 45 miles, three times a week, just to learn b-boying.” None of that dedication and sacrifice for the art form would exist without intense love and appreciation for it. When asked to put into words what dance means to him, Jason says simply, after pausing to think, “Dance is love.”
Tonya Pennie, of Lannaya Drum & Dance Ensemble, who practices and performs with Jason, would agree. She has been teaching African Diasporic dance in Austin for over twenty years and has extensive dance training, primarily in West African and South African dance forms. Lannaya Drum & Dance is a multicultural dance company that puts focus on inclusiveness. The company is made up of dancers of varying backgrounds and cultures and seeks to “expose and educate audiences to authentic and progressive interpretations of drum and dance of the African diaspora.”
For Tonya, it is not enough to just have a superficial understanding of West African dances, but to know the history and motivation behind the movements. “We like to know, what is it that we’re singing, what is it that we’re performing, what’s the history, the motivation behind it?”
Dance today as opposed to dance as it has been known in the past has shifted towards a need for a deeper understanding of the art. Knowing the history and various interpretations of indigenous dance forms, to realizing that dance can be a spiritual connector to the deepest part of your soul are ways of thinking about dance that are becoming more prevalent in today’s art world.
The ability of dance to bring communities together is apparent in the small but bustling dance community in Austin. People of all walks of life and from all over the world are now represented in Austin and are infusing their love and commitment to the art form in companies and schools from Ballet Austin to Lannaya Drum & Dance bringing previously little-known dance forms to the spotlight.