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Op-Ed: On Water and Space

by Isabella Mojares for The Dance Journal | photo credit: Emily Barton 

“… the only real maturity is one in which the self is so small it disappears and so large it encompasses a great many more than one.” — Cheryl Walker in an aside, reviewing Adrienne Rich’s Diving into the Wreck

With the month of May being Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage month, I felt compelled to write something for the Dance Journal. Nearing the end of the month, I figured, if I couldn’t attend a performance by an Asian-led company or cultural organization, why not just write about myself? But then, after jotting down some notes and half-formed thoughts, I realized why I’ve always had some difficulty in writing about my Asian identity: I wouldn’t be writing the piece for me. I could write about the dances of my motherland and how, when I first saw them in real life, I was enamored. I could write about how in awe I am of Stella Abrera and that Filipina ballerinas do in fact exist. “Difficulty” might be the wrong word. To write about these things would not necessarily be hard, but they would feel inauthentic.

In Jonathan Burrows’s “A Choreographer’s Handbook” — a book I was assigned in a college choreography class — he writes: The mess is also quite seductive. The thought of mess, of seduction, and the seduction of mess, has lingered in my mind for the last three years. To me, in making this claim, Burrows acknowledges a few things: that there is value in having others understand and express interest in our work, that artistic work is often a mess, and that that mess can, in light of itself, be interesting.

Having come across these words as a novice choreographer, they held a certain gravitas of both magic and comfort. The idea of being alright with the messy was stressful; it meant that movement could be jerky, that wouldn’t always make sense or look pretty, and what mattered the most was that it was my personal exploration, it came from my brain. It was my mess. And there is someone out there who will find it seductive.

As a young dancer, I never had the best spatial awareness. During across-the-floor exercises I wasn’t too good at sticking to a straight path; I often bumped into my classmates, my flailing limbs encroaching on their personal bubbles. Despite this inability to keep to myself, one of the most frequent critiques I got from dance instructors was to dance BIGGER. I knew they didn’t mean spatially. For a girl who took up so much space while moving, I hated owning that space. I remember my cheeks getting hot whenever we did shoulder rolls during warm up. Seeing my reflection in the mirror, I remember thinking I shouldn’t look like that. It didn’t look right to see my body emulating my teacher’s movements. She was an adult, a former cheerleader, my teacher, a real dancer.

The summer before my final year of college, my parents and I took a pilgrimage of sorts to the Philippines. Neither of them had been back to their home country in nearly 30 years and I had never been, period. Fresh off of this time in my motherland, fatherland, everyone-before-me-land, once I got back to campus and began work on my thesis project, I had big dreams of creating a piece somehow about my experiences. The dots that started connecting when I met my mom’s cousins for the first time, the feeling of standing in my great-grandmother’s house, my paternal ancestral home. The feeling of unearthing things that were there all along.

One of the very first dance contacts I made upon my move to Philadelphia was Ani Gavino. Learning that she had performed at Fringe, among other exciting highlights in her bio, I felt waves of both wonder and relief: there is a Filipino person out there who has done these things! Sometimes, just learning of someone’s existence gives you a sense of possibility. Ani once told me that she thinks Filipino dancers move like water, that it must be in our blood. It made a lot of sense to me. There is a flow to the movement of people who come from an island country. My body knew this before I did, liquefying every gesture, long before I thought to consider where that fluidity came from. I am amazed by this innate sense and the ways we unknowingly are our own first instructors.

Water, like all liquids, takes the form of the container you put it in. By nature, it has no shame and splays outward, filling each corner without a thought. There are plenty of times in my life where I have found myself overly aware of the space I am taking up. Whether literal, like when I need to shift my cart in a grocery store aisle to let someone through, or intangible, like the moments when my face flushes with the realization that I am the only brown person in the room. Unlike the water my family grew up surrounded on all sides by, I have been conditioned to reduce: take as little space as you possibly can, don’t insert yourself somewhere you don’t already fit.

To write about being a Filipino dancer would be less about owning my space and more about fitting into the space another person allowed me. I don’t believe that individuals of marginalized identities should always be asked (or expected) to make work “about” or in response to their experiences. By nature of their artistry, their personhood, any work they make already just is. I dream of a world where we uplift choreographers, dancers, artmakers of color — not just in May, or February, or as part of a grant, or to check off a box — but on the regular.

Taking up space, however, is not enough on its own. It is also a matter of owning the space, reveling in it, sending our energy into all corners of it. Dance is a gift because it turns the metaphor of space into a lesson; to take more of it we have to make ourselves bigger, not just in the flesh, but in the mind, too. To create a dance is an exercise in space-making. A choreographer places bodies in space and, in turn, the work created is the choreographer’s means of asserting their presence in space. We take up space in hopes that others will make room for us. We dance with exaggerated gestures so that we are seen from the back row. As dancers of color, when space is not made for us, we find ways to make room for ourselves.

Back again to the water. The same way a river holds parts of every place it has flowed down in the past, I carry all that has come before me, whether I realize it or not. And, in the same way an ocean is unapologetic in the way it crashes onto the shore, I will own every inch of space I have, even if I have to carve it out myself.

Maraming salamat to Ani, Luisa, and Sevon, who are a part of my next chapter. We were brought together by movement and are held together by the Philippine sea.

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