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Jessica Perez: Ragam and Ritmo

How an ancient dance form, performed live, connects many worlds.

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Image courtesy of Gauri Saxena

By Jessica Perez

I’m Dominican. I love merengue, perico ripiao—boleros from way back; Felipe Pirela’s Quisqueya will always bring tears of pride to my eyes. In my heart, the Dominican Republic is paradise, and that will never change. But mi tierra shares space in my heart with South Asian culture. I can’t ignore it: I’ve fallen in love with a culture that in some very significant ways is similar to my own. These are cultures with pasts as noble as they are complex, progressive in the pioneering spirit of their people, but still deeply rooted in their traditions, for better or worse. Both communities emphasize the power of family and relationships; they have incredible artistic sensibilities, especially in music and dance.

But let’s be real: it’s not all about the party—mi gente and my cousins from across the oceans have a problem with wealth disparities, toxic masculinity (domestic violence, sexual assault, and brutal hate crimes against LGBTQ, for instance), colorism (mejorando la raza isn’t too far from the “Fair and Lovely” mentality), corruption in government (ineffectual and crooked cops get away with all kinds of criminality in DR and in India), and vigilante justice, to name a few. As a poli-sci addict, these all set me “awf”: but I can’t run away from my blood, and, by the same token, if I’m going to love the fun and beauty of South Asian culture, I have to wrangle with its dark side while being mindful of my lane.

A timeless Bollywood movie transcended language and culture and made two of the strongest women I know get misty-eyed and nostalgic.

Socioeconomic and political issues notwithstanding, I love my culture, and I love South Asian culture just as much. I really believe Dominicans and Indians are only a language apart, and what is that really? We all know that music and dance transcend space, time, and boundaries. I’ll never forget watching DDLJ (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge) with my grandmother and mother. We very rarely connect over non-Dominican things, but wouldn’t you know, a timeless Bollywood movie transcended language and culture and made two of the strongest women I know get misty-eyed and nostalgic in a way I cannot explain. Without the help of Spanish dubs, subtitles, or a quick synopsis, two women with decades between them, and no connection to South Asian culture, suddenly found themselves tapping into the sort of universality of feeling that makes poets put pen to paper.

All this has led to realization after realization, a trip full of surprises: I’ve found the same steady, powerful rhythms of los palos in the rhythm of Garba in the City; when I can’t get my hands on a home-cooked pollo guizado, I get my dose of Sazón with some Indian food; when my novela isn’t playing, I watch my favorite Hindi films. I can’t salsa for my life, but I’m stumbling my way through the classical dance forms of Kathak and Bharatanatyam.

NYC is one of the only places where I can travel to DR and India on less than 10 bucks, and be back in time for supper.

NYC is one of the only places where I can travel to DR and India on less than ten bucks, and be back in time for supper. This city is home to a strong, growing South Asian performing arts community: I found Navatman, and, through Navatman, I learned about Drive East. Drive East is a week-long marathon of SAPA concerts that showcases artists from around the world; the styles of dance and music are as diverse as the list of regions the performers come from: in the past, Drive East has hosted dancers in Kathakali, Odissi, Mohiniattam, Sattriya, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, and musicians in Hindustani and Carnatic styles, with some fusion in between.

Up until Drive East 2014 I had never seen a live dance performance, period, much less with live music. The sheer diversity and talent was stunning; no audience member wanted to blink, for fear of missing a second of the performance. There was magic everywhere: in the knowing grin of the musicians, and the flick of a dancer’s hand; I’ll never again underestimate the spellbinding power of a perfectly raised eyebrow or the undeniable charm of a drummer’s fingers on a table.

At Drive East 2015, I watched the event go up from behind the scenes, and it was especially enlightening. The effort and time that went into the event made it clear that Drive East means just as much to its creators as it does to its audiences. They were just as much spectators as they were the brains behind the operation, so that even they were running up to the theatre to sneak peeks at performances at every possible moment. I’ll have the same opportunity to see this happen again at Drive East 2016, and the anticipation has been ever-mounting: I’ve watched Navatman curate a festival like no other in New York, from Rukmini Vijayakumar’s soon-to-sell-out performance on opening night, to Prince of Dance’s Bharatanatyam/Odissi performance, to Sunanda Nair and Yamini Kalluri’s “Rare Arts of India” performances of Mohiniattam and Kuchipudi, respectively—see the lineup for previews—I am ready to soak in SAPA like a sponge.

Seeing communities of color celebrating themselves on their own terms is a precious source of empowerment for communities that can find themselves fighting for space to tell their stories honestly in our melting pot of cultures. In the past few weeks the world has been wracked by violence, and amidst the great debaters and the politicians, cross-cultural healing is hard to do. What better place to heal and feel safe than the Afro-Latino Festival of New York, for example?

These spaces connect people from various walks of life, regardless of race and gender identities; here, we come together not only to celebrate our differences, and the dimension those differences give to our lives, but to recognize the fundamental similarities that make us global citizens. In a nation divided by a general inability to empathize with each other, cultural events that come straight from the source humanize us all in a way we never expected. They put hundreds of faces to labels that can come to feel monolithic. In my experience, Latino tends to mean Puerto Rican or Mexican to non-Hispanic Americans; they forget, or don’t know that Latinos are in Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Chile, and of course, La Republica Dominicana, among others.

Bharatanatyam as we know it today is one of the many Indian classical dances that were criminalized during the process of colonization.

By the same token, I had no idea India was home to so many different cultures and performing arts styles: Odissi, Kathak, Bharatanatyam, Mohiniyattam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Hindustani vocal, carnatic vocal, sitar, veena are only a few of the hundreds of dance and music forms in India. These dances are more than just entertainment: they’re all specific to region, and in their own ways chronicle the history of India. Bharatanatyam as we know it is the result of the enormous effort to bring respectability back to one of the many Indian classical dances that were criminalized during the process of colonization. Kathak’s Persian influences are an undeniable product of the Mughal Empire.

There is so much to experience, and so many ways to do so. I’ve gotten plenty of good advice from people from all walks of life, and one of my favorites came from a teacher at Navatman. We were sitting in a delightful restaurant called Pongal, celebrating the company’s successfully hasty move, and, upon hearing what I planned to order, he said “At a restaurant like this, you should order something you won’t get just anywhere.” Live life in New York like you’ll never find this experience anywhere else: take advantage of as many things as you can. The next time you’re at an Indian restaurant: ask the waiter for his recommendation; the next time you’re looking for latin music, dig deeper than “Suavemente”; don’t stop at Bhansali’s Devdas, watch Roy’s 1955 masterpiece original; check out Repertorio Español for live shows in Spanish; volunteer at Drive East to see live shows at a discount; just when you think you’ve seen enough, push further. It’s the most rewarding decision I’ve ever made.

Jessica Perez is a PAMP/PAEP Scholar at the Navatman School where she learns Indian classical dance and music. She is a Jersey City resident and is pursuing Polisci at Rutgers University.

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