Sarah Town

Interview by Nancy Friedman, September 13, 2020

Transcript

[0:10] Nancy Friedman: It’s Sunday, September 13, 2020. I wanted to mention that it’s been a pleasure meeting you, through this Raíces project, which has given the world the opportunity to learn more about you and the group of women that were chosen for this project, so it’s been very exciting and I’m looking forward to this interview to learn more about you. 

So I wanted to start off by asking you to introduce yourself and describe the folkloric artistic forms you practice and/or research.

[0:50] Sarah Town: Yeah, thanks Nancy. Yeah, it’s been really- I agree, it’s been great to meet everyone, and you and Yvette and your ¡Retumba!, like learn more about your ¡Retumba! project and the music that you do, and just everyone. It’s a really great group of women and it’s been a great opportunity. And I’m excited to talk about myself. It’s been really fun to try to like, just think through these questions and it’s a good reflective process too, for me.

[1:22] So my name is Sarah Town. I was born in the UK, but I grew up in the Midwest. And then I lived for a while on the west coast in the San Francisco Bay Area. And then I lived on the east coast in New York City and Princeton, New Jersey, still kind of oriented towards New York. And now I’m in Durham, North Carolina, where I have a postdoc at Duke University.

[1:54] I’m a capoeirista, I’m a dancer, musician, scholar, activist- not so much now, just as far as my time allows, but that’s something that’s kind of deep in my philosophy and my attitude towards life and towards the world. And I’m a mom, and that’s a huge part of who I am now, too. 

[2:24] You asked about the forms that I do. So I mentioned, when we exchanged messages about this interview, I was telling you how I couldn’t figure out how to explain what I do because I really feel like I’m pretty deeply engaged in a few different activities, and I guess I decided the best way to tackle that would be to just lay it all out because I think that that, even the aspect of juggling these things, and the ways that I see them as connected, is a valuable- is important to who I am and what I do. So I’ll just quickly describe…

[3:05] Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian cultural form that integrates martial arts, acrobatics, music-making, along with kind of like a sense of community and communal, ancestral history that gets reproduced through the movements and through the music. 

[3:28] The main form of Cuban dance that I do is rueda de casino and sort of Cuban social dance. I have studied a lot of Afro-Cuban dance too, but I mostly consider myself to be a social dancer. Rueda de casino was born in the 1950’s in Cuba right before the revolution and then became even more popular during the revolution on the media, and through public events where it was promoted as like a form of communal celebration. So it’s a social dance, a partner dance, but it also happens in the circle, so people exchange partners. And there are moves that are for the whole circle, not just for partners. I think that’s the main thing [I wanted to say about Cuban social dance]. 

[4:22] So as an academic, I am a music and dance scholar. Right now I’m teaching undergraduate writing through the lens of my work on popular dance cultures. And really what I do in my work is try to bring all the different things that are part of music scholarship- music theory, historical musicology, ethnomusicology- into dialogue also with different ways of approaching dance because I see Cuban popular dance culture as a union of those things. So that’s a little bit about my work, and me. 

[5:03] Nancy: That’s wonderful because research is such an important discipline. It’s the way that we learn about ourselves and the world that we live in, so it’s extremely valuable. I wanted to ask you to describe your first connections to your art form. Briefly describe the trajectory from the beginning to now.

[5:32] Sarah: I think I have kind of interestingly similar stories about my first connections to capoeira and my first connections to Cuban dance. I was just one day walking around- I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin- nd so one day I was walking around campus, right across from, it’s called Library Mall, it’s right across from a couple of big libraries. And I heard this sound, and I was like, “what’s that sound?”, and I started looking around and I saw a circle of people doing cartwheels and flips and kicks and ducks and interacting in this really, it was like they were meditating together. It was just a really beautiful thing, and it kind of like [sings “ahhh” on a single pitch] it looked like an oasis just outside of the world of everyone else kind milling around, going about their business.

[6:30] And it was capoeira, the campus capoeira group. And the instrument I heard, of course, the berimbau, which has this really distinctive sound, timbre, and kind of mesmerizing effect. It’s patterns tend to be very groove-oriented, repetitive, but there’s also lots of room for improvisation, and it’s a beautiful instrument. And the movements were so beautiful, and I just wanted to do it. It just drew me to it. 

[7:04] And so, a few years later, after I had graduated and moved out to the west coast, and was still doing capoeira, I was in a dance studio, Rhythm and Motion, I don’t think it exists anymore, I think it moved to a new space and I’m not sure what it’s called now. But they used to host all different kinds of world dance classes and movement classes like capoeira, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Haitian, Brazilian. And so I was waiting for my capoeira class and again, I heard this- a different, but similarly unique sound, something that I had never heard before [imitates sound], and I was like, “what is that?” It sounded kind of like marimbas, but it sounded like percussion, and I went, I followed it with my ears, and I peaked in the room, and saw José [Francisco] Barroso’s Afro-Cuban class with live percussion, and the dancers just doing this incredible, just beautiful movement, like undulations in their whole bodies, really grounded movements. It just captured me, it captivated me. And the music was batá, the drums were batá, and they have this really beautiful, melodic, interlocked kind of sound, and their melodies and rhythms at the same time. And so again, I was like, “I’m gonna come back to this class, I want to do this class.” 

[8:41] Yeah so, it’s, in both cases, and they both, that’s like my life now, really, in a nutshell, these two moments where I heard something, and saw something and then wanted to dive in and just learn more about it. 

[9:07] So then my trajectory got a little more complicated. Because I was really, really involved in capoeira for a long time. I would go to class like four times a week. I performed with our group. I taught workshops, I taught ongoing classes for kids, and helped out at the studio. Even when I wasn’t in my capoeira group’s classes, I was going to other groups’ classes and rodas, and was super involved. And then at a certain point, I needed to take a break, and around that time I had already started getting involved in Afro-Cuban dance, and through Afro-Cuban dance into Cuban social dance, and so that became super important and I was going to lots of classes and events, and live music events and dancing ruedas everywhere I could and learning all about it. Even before that, I had gone to Cuba for the first time, to take dance classes, and just to see what it was like there because there’s so much mythology about Cuba, even now. Even now, after Obama went there himself, and Beyonce and Jay-Z and all the stars went there a few years ago. Imagine, twenty years ago, people thought, still thought it was this weird…I don’t even know what people thought. It was like this secret communist mystery just south of our borders, and so anyway…

[10:49] I was also classically trained in piano as a kid. And so around that time too, my mom was trying to get the family upright piano off of her hands, and sent it to me. She was like, “either you take this or it’s going to the junkyard” or something. I was really into piano when I was young, I loved it. It was another thing like- it’s not quite the same like I didn’t hear piano and say, “what is that?” and go seek it out, but I had the opportunity to study it and I found that I really loved it. So I was happy to get back into it, but I didn’t want to play alone. I didn’t want to sit for hours studying Beethoven sonatas and things and then not even have anywhere to perform them. 

[11:42] So I started learning Cuban piano, Latin piano and Cuban piano. People started recommending musicians for me to listen to, especially for the piano parts and I started learning a little bit about jazz theory, so that I could read charts and create my own montunos. And I took some lessons at- now this is where I’m going to have to make corrections to this interview later because I’m going to mess this up– City College of San Francisco, I took piano, Latin piano class with Rebecca Mauleón. I took some private lessons with her too, and the Jazzschool in Berkeley, California, not Berklee, Massachusetts, or not Berklee in Boston but Berkeley in California has like a little community jazz center, and I was in a Latin ensemble there.

[12:40] Nancy: Yeah

[12:42] Sarah: So I got really into the music, so I’m still working in non-profits. So that’s where the activist part of me comes in. I was doing community organizing and working in non-profits in the Bay Area and all of these activities that I was really passionate about were just all just side gigs, they were like hobbies, you know, and I was teaching and making money, but it wasn’t my main career. It couldn’t be my main focus because for financial reasons, I had to have a job. 

[13:16] Then eventually, I got back to- I also really love to do research. I mean, I think that you mentioned this in the opening, I think that doing these forms is always research. I don’t think you have to be in school to do research, and in fact, you know, I wrote my dissertation about Cuban popular dance culture, but most of my research I didn’t do in school, I did it dancing and in community and making music and talking to musicians and talking to dancers, and what I was doing all along. Gathering information, learning the meanings behind all the things we were doing. But there’s something about the academic structure that I also like. I like to write, I think, it’s a really valuable way to process your ideas, that when I’m in an academic setting I don’t do as much, I’m more just out there doing the art and not reflecting, reflecting but not reflecting in the same kind of long form way.

[14:26] Nancy: Right. Experiencing it for the moment, at the moment. But research, when I mentioned research as important. It’s the documenting, the documentation also of that research. But as you said, research is always going on. If you’re an inquisitive human being, you know, it’s always there. 

[14:50] So I wanted to ask you to describe one scholarly achievement or artistic or cultural achievement which you’re particularly proud of and how it came about.

[15:05] Sarah: Yeah, this is a fun question and I spent a while thinking about it. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I have a few actually, which I hope is ok, and I’ll make them fast. 

[15:20] So one of the things that I am really still proud of and happy about is, you know, I took a long break from capoeira, and then I came back to capoeira. I found the right time and the right place and I was able to start training with an old friend of mine that I had met when he first came to the United States, who is a now a mestre, Mestre Zumbi. So I started training with them, as much as I could, which is harder, as a single mom getting a PhD, but you know, so like a couple times a week if I could. And after a second batizado with him, I got a green cord, and that’s the achievement that I am really proud of. It means that I’m an instructor, an Instrutora, in his group. It’s not the highest rank at all, I have a long way to go. But to me it felt like I deserve it, you know? I’ve put in so many years and so much time in capoeira, I have so much knowledge that I have already contributed and will always contribute to the community, but also a lot of roads. It just felt like a really good place to be and I felt it was an achievement. I made the decision and I had to make lots of sacrifices to come back.

[16:46] Another thing that I’ve been proud of recently, kind of surprising, it came out of nothing really. It came out of being stuck at home during coronavirus and feeling really isolated from from humans in general, but especially from arts and arts communities. And so I just started making little videos about- like, I would learn a song…Also last summer I spent some time in Ireland and I learned some Irish songs, and I’ve been continuing to do that a little bit. So I’ve been working more on my singing. So I started making little videos of songs that I had learned. These little minute videos that I put on Instagram and social media. And then I also started learning some choreographies. Lots of artists have been posting little dance challenges online, and so I start just setting myself little goals of “learn this choreography, post it online;” “learn this song, post it online”. And people were really, have been really positive about it, and it’s made me feel really productive, and I am actually learning a lot from this process and I don’t usually do stuff like that. Usually I’m just out dancing with people or performing or whatever it is, but then not “social media-tizing” it, but this was a time to do that. And so now I have a little record of that, and that makes me happy.

[18:26] And there’s one more thing, which is a scholarly achievement that you had asked about. And that is this lecture that I produced recently. I produced it this year as part of a series of digital lectures on American music that’s sponsored by the Society for American Music. And they’re all sort of lectures of different aspects of American music. And so my lecture is based on my research on female, women dancers, women casino dancers, Cuban social dancers. And particularly their role as leaders in social dance and in the rueda de casino the circle, that is a group dance. 

[19:12] And that was, it was first a conference paper, when I was still finishing my dissertation, and that also won an award. But the chance to make it into a lecture video for a general audience was really super fun. I actually had to apply twice to be selected, but it gave me a chance to go through a lot of my footage that I hadn’t looked at in a while, a lot of my own archival field footage that I made over the years, and think about how to present this research in a really interactive, multi-media kind of way. I got to work with the Technology Engagement Center here at Duke, and the guy I worked with was great. His design ideas were great…it’s a lecture video, it’s not animated, or fancy, but I think it’s really, it was an exciting project, and now it’s out there. 

[20:17] And you know, I’ve gotten good feedback from scholars, but more than that I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback, from the dancers who are in it or who know other dancers who are in it. Because it’s about our community, and so to be able to kind of reflect back to them. They knew I was working on this project for years, and they weren’t seeing anything, any results. Because I’m not like a reporter, or I don’t know, it takes a long time for these things to come out. But they were really excited about it, and one of the pieces of feedback, which has also kind of has pushed me to kind of think about another project, came from some of the men who said, “what about the male follows?” Because the focus is on the female leads in the dance, which is reversing the traditional gendered dance roles, so the counterpart to that is male follows, right? Men who, instead of leading in the dance, follow. I thought that was a great idea and so now I’m thinking about how I can make that happen.

[21:26] Nancy: That’s interesting, that’s different. Yeah, I find that sheltering at home in combination with the social media makes you want to reach out through social media. So even though it was not typical for you, it was something new that you developed. You know, every situation, good or bad, really does spur on a pioneering kind of approach so that’s one…

[21:57] I wanted to ask you, what are some aesthetic or community values in your form that seem to exclude women from certain spheres and/or from hierarchical positions of power?

[22:13] Sarah: Yeah, that’s a big question. I thought a lot about this question this morning as I was preparing to chat with you and I guess what I started thinking is that- I will get to things within these communities- but I think that it’s important to acknowledge that I think that a lot of times there are structural, intersectional factors that come from outside the communities that lead women to be excluded in some way. Here is an example from my experience as a capoeirista. So in every- this is my other thing- in all of these fields- whether it’s capoeira, Cuban social dance, academia, women are overrepresented in the sort of entry level, beginner, intermediate student, to the beginning performers. So they’re obviously interested in it, they’re obviously engaged. They’re doing the work, they’re there, right? And then when you get to the top level, as this question suggests, where are they? They’re gone. It’s like, they’re completely underrepresented. So what happens? Is it just that they’re bad? Is it they’re just not able to do stuff? No, I don’t think so. But what is that all about. So here’s an example from-

[23:43] Nancy: Interesting question that you posed, yeah.

[23:48] Sarah: Yeah, I mean, so in capoeira, before I was a mom, back in my swinging single days…or I’m still single, but you know, before I had a kid. With my friends we would, I would train, like I told you I’d train four days a week, I performed all the time, we did workshops in schools. I taught in schools as well as ongoing workshops. I would go to my friends’ rodas. I would go to my friends’- in different groups- batizados. We would go and play rodas in the park. We would go to dance parties, like warehouse parties and we would do rodas, in the parties. We did capoeira all the time. We would go to the beach, we’d go to the park. It was just always capoeira. And really, like everybody who does any art knows, that is how you get good at the art. You do it all the time, in different settings, with different people, different contexts. You love it and you live it and you just do it. 

[24:51] And so, you know, as soon as I had a kid- I had left capoeira before that, but coming back to capoeira now with a kid, I realized, I can’t do that. I can’t go- I can hopefully go to class once or twice a week. Definitely can’t go to the batizados on the weekend. You know, I was always, when my son was smaller, I had to be there for him. I was exhausted. I was also getting my PhD, I just couldn’t go out. Now he’s older, he’s all into soccer and band, and so I’m driving him to soccer practice. Driving him to soccer practice, racing to capoeira, going back to soccer to pick him up. You know, you have to find time for that. 

[25:33] So I think that- the thing is that, I think that women often have these other responsibilities that they- and they make choices, and they’re affirmative choices. They say I want to be with my kid, I want to do this other thing, I want to take care of this person. Whatever, I want to be in this relationship, whatever it is. They have these other responsibilities and so they aren’t able, they just can’t put in the same time that maybe their male counterparts can and so that’s outside of any of the forms, it’s just a reality of how time is finite in some way in our lives. 

[26:12] But I do think that also there are definitely ways that each of those forms kind of excludes women or “puts women in their place”. So for example, in capoeira- there’s so many different elements to capoeira. There’s music, there’s the martial arts part, there’s the acrobatics part. There’s technique, but there’s also strength, there’s also just like, having the aggression, having the character, the challenging character to be unafraid to go into a conflict, but also having a playful character, capoeira’s very playful. But I don’t think they’re equally valued in most class settings and in most rodas, that I have witnessed at least. 

[27:08] My capoeira style is contemporânea so that’s a particular style that’s very physical in some ways. But I think that the way that those things are valued differently skew towards big bodies, you know, big upper bodies, strength, physical strength that pretty much will automatically prefer a male body over a female body, you know? Any of the acrobatics are, if you have a bigger upper body than your hips, they’re easier for you, it’s just easier to do it without really having the technique. And technique takes longer to build, right? You have to trial and error, figure out the technique. Take downs are another way that it’s much easier to take down a smaller person, you just get inside them, all you need is a little bit of extra force. You don’t need to use the right technique, and the person’s off their feet, and you have “won” that little encounter, right? Whereas a smaller person, like I am, 5’2”, 120 lbs., I’m one of the smaller people. If my timing is perfect and I come in and do the right, [demonstrates with body], do the right sort of technique, I can take somebody down, I could take anybody down. But I don’t always have the perfect timing, you know, and so most of the time, if I’m facing off with someone who’s bigger than me- not most of the time, I don’t know- it’s harder to be successful. And so I think that that’s a way that women are just made to feel less successful, in that environment. And not only made to feel that way, but also made to look that way to their peer group.

[29:04] Nancy: Yeah, you have to keep in mind your personal best is always the thing that you want to achieve, you know? And there is a niche in every aspect of life that you can fit into, but I wanted to know if you found the same truth in Cuban music because Cuban music doesn’t have that physicality, it’s music. And we all know endurance is not an excuse because women have great endurance, just based on their raising children and running around. So I was just curious if you found the same restrictive kind of attitude, either coming from yourself, it sounds like, or coming from people in Cuban music.

[29:58] Sarah: Just on that point, yeah, it’s definitely internalized. The internalized thing matters and you can totally fight it, but it’s a lifelong battle. But also it’s, I think that optics are important as well because if, for example, in the roda, if you always sort of fail to take down this other guy. Like I’m a green cord, this guy is a green cord, let’s say. He’s bigger than me. Every time he goes in to take me down, he gets me, and every time I go in to take him down I am like 50 or 40% successful, everyone witnesses that. And really the peer group and the community impression is really important in the way the hierarchy works and the way informal forms of  respect are granted in the community. And all of that works together to sort of make someone successful in real terms, like getting another cord, getting classes, getting respect, you know? I mean, people know the bodies are different, but it still matters. 

[31:07] But to the second part of your question…yeah so Elizabeth Sayre and I- I got to interview her- we were talking about rumba, right? Which, kind of a little bit different from what you- yes, women are super strong and have endurance and determination and there’s no question about it, but rumba is a very physical form of performance. It’s very heavy, uses muscles, uses your hands, uses your body, you’re sweating, you’re singing from your chest. And rumba- this is the same kind of, similar to the capoeira example- where women are going to be sometimes cooking or sometimes taking care of household business that men are not taking care of, especially in Cuba. They’re just not going to be at every rumba, they’re not always going to be granted a seat at a drum. This is my observation, I don’t try to perform rumba, but it’s definitely super male dominated, and not for lack of women who want to perform. 

[32:23] I think it has to do with similar biases where they, women, are considered not to be able to cut it and people don’t really want to give them a chance, especially not at the height, at the peak of an event. Maybe in the beginning, or at the end, or in less intense moments of a whole rumba event, they’ll let, not only women, also men who they don’t… This is my observation, like in rumbas in different places, maybe you have- I’m sure you have more experiences and different experiences. 

[32:59] In the Cuban social dance setting, my focus has been on leads and this narrative that women don’t lead and they’re not leaders and women are supposed to follow. So part of what I do in my research is talk about how, yes in public social settings traditionally women didn’t lead because it was unseemly, just like men would never follow because we’re supposed to be reproducing, performing heterosexual courtship and so that’s a big no-no, to have people switch roles or whatever. But in different settings and in practical terms, there are often more women dancers anywhere. 

[33:50] So Cuba has these boarding schools called becas, they produced, they created after the revolution. And lots of people, lots of dancers learned to dance in becas and lots of women learned to lead in becas because they would do a rueda, in a recreational, like between classes or after lunch. And there was always like one more or two more girls standing around who wanted to dance. And the girls- women know how to dance, they’re good dancers, you know? One of my friends who went to a bequa told me that she usually followed, but her friends, her female friends would lead when they were in their dorms and just messing around and trying moves. So there were lots of settings where women were leading, and they were always leading and that’s part of how they were always helping maintain the culture, helping preserve it, and helping develop it and keep it alive. 

[34:48] Also, the quinceañera, the girls’ fifteen, “Sweet Fifteen” birthday party, that usually have choreographies where girls and boys are paired together. It’s super traditional, you see it in the movies and sometimes you still see it in real life, in people’s parties that- often they’d use new different kinds of things that are less formal now. But anyway, up until the 80’s in Cuba, many girls did these choreographies, and a lot of times, the girl who was the quinceañera would be part of doing the choreography, and she would be teaching her guy friends how to do the lead, how to do their part as lead because she knew. 

[35:36] And so these are all arguments that I make to say, now as Cuban dance culture circulates internationally, comes here to the United States and all of us women are like, “we don’t want to wait for a guy to follow, there’s no guys at this party. We’re not going to wait and we’re not going to follow.” So there’s a different kind of demand to allow women to learn to lead and also to lead in more public settings. But it didn’t come out of nowhere and it didn’t just emerge here, it has this whole history of female leadership in Cuba, and so that’s part of my argument…even though the narrative is the opposite. The narrative says, “no, women just keep time”. Literally people say things like that.

[36:28] Nancy: Well yeah, I think it’s our job to disrupt the narrative. It’s a wonderful thing that I have discovered in the Raíces meetings that we have had. So it sounds like the social circumstances and the social stigmas are things that keep women out of the scene, you know, or restricted in what they do. As you said, early on, you seem like- I teach in schools, we take out the drums, and all the girls rush up to play, and what happens to them? Where are all the girls now in the profession? So that’s a good point, those are the areas that are holding women back, I feel like. I, as a percussionist, I have incredible endurance and I can play…when I was a student, beginning, it was hard, you have to keep it up, and you think, you’re a woman, and you’re beginning and you really can’t do it. But in fact, when you play a lot, and it becomes second nature to you, I can play forever. So that thing, there’s no…

[37:44] Anyway, I have another question for you. What do you see in your future as an artist or a researcher, in your form, and in the future of your art form/cultural tradition in general?

[38:00] Sarah: That’s a great question. So I guess for my future, my personal future, I see as both certain- has elements that are certain and uncertain. And the uncertain elements really have to do with the academic job market. I’m here at Duke, which is a great place to be. Durham’s also a great town. I’m in the second year of my three year postdoc, and the academic job market has been really rough, I guess since 2008, is what I’m told by generations of scholars who came before me and had served for years as adjuncts and lecturing, like one year lectureships and things. 

[38:48] It’s only gotten worse with Covid. There’s like one job so far this year that I could even apply to. And then, it’s a really specific market as well, you know? I have a profile as a scholar, and so, you know, say there’s one hundred music positions- that would be a ton- but just imagine there’s a hundred music positions that open up next year. There might be like five, there might be like fifteen or twenty that are broadly like a music scholar who…does a bunch of stuff, that I do some of those things. But there’s only going to be a handful that are like, someone who works on Latin American popular forms or transnational popular dance cultures, or you know, whatever phrasing kind of fits me more specifically. So it just feels like a real crapshoot and it’s kind of a hard position to be in because I have a kid and I’m not twenty anymore, and I need to think about our stability. 

[40:00] I love this work, I think I have a lot to offer, you know, at a time that music…there’s like a crisis happening right now in music scholarly communities, related to the racism and sexism and colonialism of the academy and particularly music studies that have been around forever and just suddenly now people are noticing- it’s not that suddenly now people are noticing it, but now it’s reached this critical point, and I think that my work as a scholar really speaks to that, and has been speaking to that all along. But am I going to be the person that they hire, that they see as most adequate for that position, you know? There might be other- I don’t know, it’s just hard to say. That’s an uncertain thing, a big uncertain. 

[40:56] The certain part is I’ve been a capoeirista for decades. I’ve been a social dancer, a Cuban social dancer, I’ve been on that scene also for decades now. And I’m not going to stop, you know? I love music, I’ve played piano, and now I’m doing more singing. Either way, it’s a huge part of my life and so how, what shape that takes, I don’t know, but they’re definitely going to still be there. 

[41:31] As far as the forms themselves and where they’re going, you know, I mentioned already, music studies in academia is going through a real hard, soul searching time right now and I think that that’s a great thing. And I hope that it turns out, I hope that it moves in a positive direction, I hope that departments find a way to decolonize themselves so that it’s not all revolving around European history and then the territories of the world, but that people can think differently about what it means to study music and talk about music and what kinds of skills music students need to develop and want to develop and, you know, what is it? What is music scholarship? That’s a question that I don’t think music departments currently really answer in their structures and in their practices.  

[42:32] I talked about Cuban social dancing where it’s sort of like there’s this growing presence of women in leading and lead positions. There’s still a long way to go, I would say. Still if you see choreographies and even if you see women leading in the choreographies, like publicly, public presentations, they’ll be wearing hats or vests, or they have something to signify that they’re actually “men” as opposed to just being women and leading, you know? So I think that there is steps and then the male follows are still also even rarer. I know a lot of men who are good follows, but I have yet to see a performance where men follow. 

[43:19] I was looking back at this one performance by a group in D.C. called Saoco. Because they had these jackets and they were black on one side and pink on the inside, they were reversible jackets. And so at a certain point, some of the ladies take over and start leading in the choreography. And I thought that they started leading the men, but when I went back to look at it, no they just started leading other women. So, a choreography- and that was one of the more progressive choreographies I have seen and that was from like 2014 or ’15. Anyway, there’s still a ways to go to think about the dance as a social practice that isn’t- doesn’t have to be tied to heteronormativity in public settings, you know? And in performative settings.

[44:17] Nancy: I’m sorry, go ahead

[44:19]  Sarah: Sorry, I was trying to be complete. And so, capoeira, also there’s many more women leaders, like Amazonas who’s part of our panel leads her own school now and she just got a promotion to Contramestra, I think, which is awesome. And in general, there’s more female leadership at higher levels in capoeira, overall. But still, it’s barely making a dent in, you know, that legacy, and just the numbers, the underrepresentation. And I don’t think it’s really made a dent in the values that I was talking about, where weight, strength kind of “outweighs” technique or outweighs these other kinds of contributions that- and other kinds of skills and strengths that might more often apply to female capoeiristas.

[45:26] The other thing that’s been happening in the capoeira community recently, is a lot of discussions again, open discussions about race, which haven’t ever been absent. But this year has been a year where people are reexamining race and racism in their communities, and rightfully- it should always be happening. I think that’s still an area of tension, you know, and maybe it will be for a really long time, but it’s good that the conversations are happening. And it’s good that the communities are still communities. Capoeira communities just like Cuban social dance communities tend to be really racially diverse, really diverse along many different lines- class, gender, sexual orientation, just…ability, age, body type, especially the social dance communities, in terms of body type. But that diversity is really important. Those spaces that are community spaces where people can come together and have a shared practice and have a shared space, a space that’s not controlled by some other institution, but is really controlled by them, are so important. And then the fact that they can have conversations about these really important issues- gender representation, race representation, racism, microaggressions, colonial histories, all that stuff is really, I think there’s a lot of hope in that, you know? Because on the other hand, academia, trying to have those same conversations; not going as well for them. There are just, there’s so much more institutionality and, I don’t know, guarding of territory, and anyways. So it’s great, I feel really lucky to be part of those communities and conversations.

[47:38] Nancy: Absolutely, absolutely, they’re gems. It’s a great opportunity to be involved in diversity and pushing that. It’s really…because I feel really, the attitude has to change. People’s attitude has to change. That’s the bottom line. And everyone has to be valued. So that in itself is describing diversity. If everyone’s going to be valued, we’re talking about everybody.

[48:13] I had another question for you, but we’ll both just keep an eye on the time, if you could. What does it mean to you to practice African diasporic, folkloric art forms, or research the folkloric arts and culture of the African diaspora?

[48:34] Sarah: Yeah, so that kind of relates to what we were just talking about, in a way. I can say that it really means a lot to me, it’s a really important- it’s a fact that I carry with me and I’ve always been aware of. So there’s a capoeira song- I was thinking about this question today too- there’s a capoeira song that says, “Hoje eu sou livre/Mas pra livre hoje eu ser/Muita gente morreu”. And it says- oh gosh, I’m going to get emotional, oh god, I was like “No, breathe, breathe, breathe.” [The lyrics say] “Today I’m free, but for me to be free today, many people have died”. 

[49:35] Nancy: Yes.

[49:38] Sarah: I think that that’s- it’s an homage to ancestors, right? It’s an acknowledgement of one’s ancestors, and that’s a really important thing that capoeira always has present. So my ancestors are not African, they’re English and Irish and they’re peasants, like they’re farmers. My uncle has done some research about our family history and I guess, actually, they were miners in northern England, underage miners, like minor miners. And so we owe everything to our ancestors, where we are today, how I can be here today doing this, training capoeira, studying, writing scholarly papers about Cuban social dance, it all is built on the work that they did. But aside from my family ancestors, I also, because of my membership, my participation, my responsibility to these communities- capoeira, Cuban social dance and culture, cultural communities- I also feel like I have this other set of ancestors that I owe everything to, that I owe the ability to study and to perform and to be part of those communities.

[51:07] Nancy: Yes.

[51:09] Sarah: So that’s something that’s always kind of present. Oh my god, I’m so mad that I’m getting all teary. I think it’s an important statement and I don’t want to be all like-

[51:21] Nancy: It is very important. It’s very important to acknowledge the ancestors and the people that came before us. And it’s interesting that certain concepts just dissolve all the prejudice and hatred that exists in the world, certain concepts, and that concept does. Because once you honor your ancestors, as you said, and the people before you, you can no longer really hold onto any prejudice.

[51:50] Sarah: Yeah, I mean, I think, yeah exactly. It’s important to acknowledge. I don’t think it’s always acknowledged. In fact, that’s sort of an issue that has come up this year, amongst all the conversations about race. And as a white person, I could, it’s almost like I need to be more explicit and more clear about my ancestors, who are my teachers and where do they come from and who is…but as you said also, it’s about valuing every single person in the community and so you can model that not just by talking about your, the indebtedness of the community to ancestral struggle, but also honoring all the work of all of the students and all the successes and failures and getting back up on your feet of the students in the room, and making each of them know that they’re part of the continuing history of the community.

[52:58] Nancy: Right. Just as the concept of “white privilege” is such a fallacy. Rather than respecting your ancestors as a concept that opens things up, that “white privilege” closes things down. It’s a concept that has to die. It doesn’t exist, it’s not real, it’s artificial. Just as excluding women, it comes from the same vein. It’s a concept of exclusion and it’s not real. It’s evil, basically, those concepts.

[52:37] I wanted to know, is there anything else that you would like to discuss? Anything. This is the opportunity to speak your mind and say anything that’s on your mind.

[54:03] Now we’re in a very interesting time. It’s frightening, but it’s an interesting time in this world, what’s going on. The turbulence and all, but no, go ahead, think of if there’s anything that you- that’s what I wanted to talk about.

[54:23] Sarah: Yeah, I think that the time- the thing about this time is that, or one of the things that I’ve noticed, is that some people want- it is a really hard time, it’s uncomfortable, and compounded by pandemic and, in the United States, elections, and just lots of things are happening at the same time. But you know, the race and gender and inclusion conversations are, I don’t know, I think they’re the most important ones to have. And the thing is they’re not going to go away. We’re not going to just have these conversations this year and then it’s going to be all fixed. These are legacies that are hundreds and thousands of years old and it’s not- it’s a way you have to live your life. You have to just live, constantly aware of your- of holding inclusion as a value that you- that’s close to you, that’s close to your mind, and is constantly, you’re constantly enacting it. It’s not…

[55:40] In many of the spheres where I see these conversations happening, like in academia again, there’s a desire, this discomfort, that people just don’t want to feel. They’re in the hot seat and they’re like, “let me get out of the hot seat”. They want it to be over. They want to figure it out, “let’s fix this, let’s set up our departments this other way and it’s going to all go away and we can all go back to doing our stuff.” No. It’s not- when you’re inclusive and you’re letting everyone be there, it’s always work because there’s always people who are different and they’re going to disagree with you, they’re not going to understand where you’re coming from, they’re going to do things differently from you. And you have to talk about, and you have to make it- find a way forward together, and that is hard, and it’s always going to be hard. But it’s a beautiful thing, it’s a necessary thing. 

[56:38] And really, I think capoeira, again, to bring that back, shows a way to do that. Social dancing and interacting physically and negotiating space and finding a common rhythm and a groove to move to, that happens in social dance as well. Those are models for how we can- or playing music as well, playing with an ensemble and thinking about finding the timing. When I play piano in an ensemble, I play a little bit a head of the beat, I’m very, as you can see, I’m excitable. And that annoys people, it annoys some of the people that I’ve played with because it makes you feel like they’re constantly pulling me back. But that’s, that’s how that should be. If we were all laid back then it would just get slower and slower and we would never- no one would dance, we’d all go to sleep.

[57:44] Nancy: Exactly. When you put a band together, if you have a drummer that speeds up like you, you get a bass player that lays back so that they work to have a cohesive group that’s in time. So there’s always going to be a difference, nobody’s perfect. It’s a balance.

[58:09] I wanted to say something else that came to mind, is that childbirth is painful, but the benefits are great. I think we have to look at this like childbirth, the time we’re in right now, like giving birth to a child.

[58:23] Sarah: The benefits are great and then you have a child for the rest of your life. So yeah, exactly, it’s painful, you get a benefit, but then it’s not over. It’s just the beginning of cleaning their diapers, and potty training them, and getting them to put on their own clothes, and do their own homework. It’s a lifelong- stay out of trouble… That’s a great analogy.

[58:54] Nancy: And the beauty of folkloric music is, I find, is that it tells about the human experience, in each different culture. And that’s the beauty you find in capoeira. It lets you into the experience of Brazil. And the musicians always do that, they bring their experience and sharing. That’s the beauty of folklore, I find.

[59:21] Sarah: And living folklore. I mean I think that we didn’t- folklore means different things in different contexts, but to me, it’s something that is constantly evolving and it’s reflective, like it’s almost “popular” in its own way. It reflects the people that are creating it. So there’s a traditional side of things where people believe, “oh certain things must be maintained and it reflects our roots”, but there’s also the real day-to-day reality of performing folklore and if you look at rumba performance groups like [Adonis y] Osaín del Monte or Rumba Timba from Matanzas, they’re doing crazy stuff. They’re completely not trad- they’re very aware of the traditions and their roots and can do that as well, but what they’re doing is also pushing it in a new direction.

[1:00:15] Nancy: Yes

[1:00:16] Sarah: And folklore creates that continuity, like historical continuity, but also a continuity with the community that makes that possible and makes- gives our lives meaning and gives us a voice to talk about them.

[1:00:33] Nancy: Yeah, that’s a good point because “life goes on, never changes”, but the mistake in that would be, and the past folklore from centuries ago, or however many years past, is established, and the new is not a threat to that. That would be the misconception because life is always changing so we can’t stop that, we can’t stop time.

[1:00:56] Sarah: Can’t stop, won’t stop. 

[1:01:01] Nancy: John Lewis said, “keep going.”

[1:01:05] Sarah: Mmmm hmmm

[1:01:09] Nancy: So that’s great. I really enjoyed talking to you, and it’s been wonderful.

[1:01:18] Sarah: Yeah, thanks Nancy.

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