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Breath of Understanding 

Pondering the questions raised by the international reach of the Ethnic Dance Festival

Wednesday, Jun 19 2002
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Is dance a universal language that can be understood by anyone? Or is dance many languages with rules one has to first learn in order to understand and appreciate the various dialects? For the past 24 years, the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival has been posing that question, and every year it finds a new way to answer through an international collection of dance arts unrivaled in the country. This weekend and next, 22 groups from Filipino, Haitian, Korean, and Hawaiian traditions present myriad dance forms, from temple dance to celebration dance, at the festival, held at the Palace of Fine Arts.

Dance can be thought of as a physical variant of spoken language, with syntax and a code of grammar. As festival director Lily Kharazi explains, that means some aspects of dance are initially incomprehensible. A woman from the interior of Mexico, for instance, is unlikely to know that a traditional Indian dancer is telling a story about Krishna, or recounting a well-known tale from the Bhagavad-Gita. To fully understand what she was watching, the Mexican woman would need a primer explaining the dance's story line, the mudras (or hand gestures) that embellish it, and the reason for the dancer's furious footwork.

But, Kharazi notes, this need for a lexicon doesn't mean that the woman would have no response, or be incapable of deducing certain qualities and emotional moods from the Indian dance -- or even of liking it. Viewers begin with a physical, kinesthetic reaction to movement, rhythm, and shape, Kharazi says, building visual pictures of what they see at the same time as they respond to the musical dimension of the dance. Even if reason lags, viewers of dance can respond substantively, and on many levels.

"When you are touched by dance, there's that moment when you teeter between the intellectual, linear, rational world and the nonintellectual, feeling world," Kharazi says. It is this deep physical and spiritual reach of dance, its ability to cross the boundaries of culture, that the Ethnic Dance Festival seeks to explore.


At its most successful, the festival builds invisible bridges between dance traditions through juxtaposition that allows audiences to be struck forcibly by the links and echoes among seemingly disparate cultures -- while avoiding the perilously saccharine notion of "It's a Small World, After All."

This weekend, Kharazi has fashioned a triptych of three female soloists who at first glance seem as similar as kimchee, refried beans, and pineapple.

First-time festival participant Hearan Chung, a Korean master dancer who is considered a "holder of important invisible properties" at home, will perform an exacting shaman dance called salpuri, which has its own honorific: "important intangible cultural properties 97." Shawna Kealmelekuuleialoha Ngum, a native Hawaiian of mixed descent and an expert in ancient hula, will perform a seated solo dance of the hula noho tradition. And Mercedes Metal, an accomplished flamenco artist who trained for years in Spain, presents a solo in the Andalusian tradition called siguiriya con ilanto mio.

Each woman is accompanied by what Kharazi calls "deep song," or a vocalization that springs from a mournful, spiritual dimension that appears in all three traditions.

In each solo, Kharazi says, there is a connection between head and heart, allowing the women to enter what she calls deep, internal space -- the zone of prayer and the unknown -- that links human beings to the sacred. But the solo role also has a social dimension, she notes, that bestows on a woman the power of spiritual and cultural leader.


In her small apartment in Millbrae earlier this month, Chung, who came to the U.S. from Korea only a year ago, ponders the similarities of dances from far-flung cultures. "Because we are all living together, though in different countries, with different faces, our thinking is one," she says. "Peace joins us. Breathing is the same for everyone."

Then the 41-year-old rises to demonstrate some phrases of salpuri.

"Korean dance is in and down, and the breath is ...," she inhales, holds her breath, then exhales. The rhythm is a courtly 4/4, with the first count strongly accented, the third count slightly less so, giving the dance phrases a billowing shape of accumulating tension and partial release. The breath moves the mover, and the mover controls the breath, a duality that seems apt for a shaman dance, which is a dance of exorcism that rids the environment of unsettled spirits and ushers the dead to a peaceful place.

The following week, Ngum is in a dance studio in San Anselmo, teaching a class with students ranging in age from 10 into their 50s. The predominantly female dancers are decked out in bunchy, brightly colored cotton hula skirts that give even the thin among them an earthy amplitude. Their hips shimmy, their feet peek out, their hands undulate as the percussionists pound and beat their gourd drums.

Ngum shows me her seated dance. I can feel the sea and air spilling out of her sensual, rolling movement, even though I understand none of the Hawaiian-language chant that links a lover to the moisture, the breeze, and the fecund foliage.

Like Chung, Ngum began dancing at the insistence of her grandmother, and overnight fell in love with hula and began an all-consuming quest for her lost Hawaiian culture. She learned the language, the chants, the dances, and now is a master teacher whose solo work plumbs the depths of feeling, and embodies the matriarchal power, of Hawaiian women.


If Chung and Ngum perform constrained but highly articulate solos, Metal unleashes herself like a cracking whip. Yet even Metal's solo has a narrow zone of intense expression: her face. "If there is no facial expression," Kharazi says, "there's no flamenco."

And no one needs a dictionary to understand a face.

About The Author

Ann Murphy

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