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Dance Heritage Coalition

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Ethnic Dance Festival Collection



The Ethnic Dance Festival grew from modest beginnings as an experimental neighborhood cultural event into a widely acclaimed San Francisco tradition that attracts national and international praise and respect. First organized under the auspices of the Hotel Tax Fund in 1978, the Ethnic Dance Festival was designed to provide performance opportunities for ethnic dancers in the Bay Area, to promote San Francisco's cultural diversity, and to increase public appreciation of ethnic dance forms. Ed Nathan, executive director of the Zellerbach Family Fund and a member of the Hotel Tax Fund Committee, first suggested the idea of sponsoring a neighborhood ethnic dance festival in 1977. He reasoned that a festival could provide fledgling companies which could not individually meet the Fund's guidelines with support and visibility. Members of the ethnic dance community, as well as city administrators, greeted the proposal enthusiastically. In 1978, the Hotel Tax Fund awarded $22,000 for the production of what would be the first city-sponsored ethnic dance festival in the United States.

Out of the forty groups who auditioned on March 4-5, 1978, judges selected fifteen companies to perform at three different neighborhood cultural centers in early May. The mixture of Polynesian, Spanish, Indian, Israeli, African, Filipino, Russian, and East European companies performed before sold-out houses, delighting their audiences with their energy and enthusiasm. For participating dancers, the festival generated much-needed publicity and bookings, while for members of the community, the festival drew together different ethnic groups and celebrated the cultural diversity of San Francisco.

The public's warm response to the festival convinced Hotel Tax Fund administrators to continue the event in 1979 and 1980. A fifty percent increase in funding allowed the festival to expand its participants and to present programs in well-equipped theaters. Unfortunately, the passage of Proposition 13 drastically reduced the amount of funding the Hotel Tax Fund could offer to arts organizations and in 1981, the Ethnic Dance Festival was defunded. The festival's demise stimulated a lively interchange between city officials, dancers, and city residents, who protested the abandonment of a multi-cultural event which helped to foster unity among ethnic groups. These challenges prompted consideration of new sources of funding and by June 1981, a plan emerged for co-sponsorship by the city of San Francisco and City Celebration, a non-profit organization devoted to presenting local dancers and musicians.

Under the leadership of City Celebration assistant director, Bruce W. Davis, Ethnic Dance Festival planners developed innovative strategies for promoting ethnic dance and raising its level of visibility and respectability as a dance form. Free admission to festival auditions allowed both the public and the media to experience many new groups and to mingle with performers. The festival also moved its performance site to Herbst Theater, which offered a better performance space and thus the opportunity to produce more professional-looking programs.

Critics applauded the new and improved festival but also called for slicker technical presentations. In addition, controversy over the selection and judging process for the festival provided new challenges for coordinators. To clarify the judging criteria used at auditions, an Ethnic Dance Festival Advisory Committee was established in 1984. This group inaugurated the practice of holding yearly community meetings with dancers to discuss the audition process. Of equal concern was the issue of whether to maintain choreographic purity or to recompose ethnic dances so that they would be more entertaining and hold the audience's attention. After much debate and discussion, the festival adopted an official definition of ethnic dance as "A communal expression of dance and music which is primarily derived from the traditional elements representative of a specific ethnic group or culture."

The mid 1980s marked the expansion of the festival to include a Dance-in-the-Schools program and auxiliary performances at Stern Grove and the Golden Gate Bandshell. New funding received from the California Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts allowed festival staff to work year-round and to augment festival activities to include the production of a ten minute documentary film entitled "And Still We Dance." Underwritten by the Hotel Tax Fund and produced by Searchlight Films, the documentary won an award in 1986 at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Attendance at both the auditions and the performances continued to increase, prompting the addition of a fifth performance at Herbst Theatre in 1987. Corporate funding from American Express and Pacific Telesis garnered more support for the festival and allowed for more professional-looking productions. In 1988, upon its 10th anniversary, the festival leaped into the national limelight when it performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The second decade of the Ethnic Dance Festival has been marked by controversy over whether the event should be expanded to include national and international tours or whether it should move back to San Francisco neighborhoods and retain its local focus. Under the new direction of Robert R. Allen, the festival drafted plans for touring and for including guest artists from other countries on the performance bill. These changes in the mission and goals of the festival, as well as the elimination of the juried selection process, sparked protests from the ethnic dance community. The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Coalition was organized to discuss complaints that the festival did not adequately represent San Francisco's ethnic dance community and had evolved into an event showcasing only a select group of dance companies. As a result of meetings between the coalition and Ethnic Dance Festival staff, public auditions were reinstated in 1991 and plans developed for a touring satellite series to perform in other areas of the state. Other innovations and expansions in the festival's format also occured. The Eleventh Annual Ethnic Dance Festival featured an Ethnic Dance Symposium held in conjunction with the meeting of the Dance Critics Association in San Francisco on June 9-11, 1989. Notable dance history scholars and critics participated in lectures and demonstrations addressing some of the critical challenges involved in viewing ethnic dance. In 1990, City Celebration received funding from the California Council for the Humanities to organize the first annual Ethnic Dance Symposium. This community forum consisted of panel discussions conducted by experts on such topics as the politics of dance and what constitutes "authentic" ethnic dance.

The dilemma of achieving a balance between a culturally authentic performance and one which is entertaining continued to challenge festival performers. During the course of pre-performance talks held in 1992, performers had the opportunity to explain various dance traditions and how they had been adapted for presentation on a western stage. The 1993 festival provided further insight into how festival performances preserve and present ethnic dance forms when several companies performed premier works. Through a satellite series performance held at the Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, residents of outlying communities also had the opportunity to experience the 1993 festival. Growing from three community concerts to a seven-day event at the Palace of the Fine Arts, the Ethnic Dance Festival has managed to maintain its original goal of providing performance opportunities for local dancers and, at the same time, has created an event which unites disparate cultures in a unique celebration of dance and of ethnic identities.

Subjects Table of Contents SCOPE AND CONTENT