Dancing in the District

By Jaelynn Grisso

Dance conveys a culture without words, and dancers in Washington share the cultures they love from around the world. Each has unique characteristics, from dances of everyday activities in Central Asia to tributes to great kings in Africa.

A rhythmic pounding begins. The tapping of feet. The beating of drums. Dancers kick, twirl, jump and tap, hoping to transport the audience into another culture.

Washington – a city with more foreign embassies than metro stops – is a mosaic of international culture. Pockets of populations originally from areas thousands of miles away live only blocks apart. As international populations grow, they bring their art with them, including dance.

“Washington is very much an international city,” Carla Perlo, founder of the dance theater Dance Place, said. “Not only because the embassies are here, but you have people from all over the world who come here.”

“It makes it very appealing for people working in a wide range of dance genres,” she said.

Perlo founded her dance studio in 1980 and hoped to give studio space to a diversity of dances, including world dance. Three years later, Assane Konte began his West African dance company KanKouran. Konte, who speaks four languages and is now learning Japanese, toured the world performing traditional African dances.

“I lived in many places, you know … but I always have the idea that this will be the place, because it’s an international place,” he said about choosing Washington for his dance studio.

While Washington has a prominent West African dance following, other world dance companies have found their niches. Maru Montero, who began her career in Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, founded a Latin American dance company in her name in 1992. A few years later, the dance scholar and performer Laurel Gray founded the Silk Road Dance Company, specializing in dances from Central Asia and the Middle East. Carpathia, a dance group focusing on folk dances from Eastern Europe, began just a few years ago in 2011.

Many of these smaller companies play a prominent role in their communities, a role sometimes overlooked by larger companies.

“They’re doing their job, too,” Montero, of the Maru Montero Dance Company, said about the Smithsonian and the Kennedy Center. “But there’s a lot of work here, in this community.”

Dancers and dance-lovers alike can gain a deeper understanding of cultures differing from their own by understanding the depth of the dances and dispelling the myths. By understanding the technique in Mexican folk dance, the grace and nuance in high-energy West African dance or the multiplicity of Middle Eastern dances outside of belly dancing, perspectives begin to shift.

And, for those whose heritage begins outside U.S. borders, world dance can be a means of understanding their own culture. Sepida Farshadi, for example, was raised in Iran but couldn’t learn Persian dancing until coming to the U.S.

“The power of dance, it’s really the embodiment of a culture,” Gray said while describing a Persian dance performance at the White House earlier this year. “You don’t need words, you don’t need to understand language, but you do need to understand gesture.”

“It brings about an understanding and an acceptance that’s really terrific,” Perlo said. “That rubs off on the rest of our lives.”

To find out more about some of the world dance companies in Washington, click on the regions in the map (or click here for West Africa, here for the Middle East and Central Asia, here for Latin America and here for Eastern Europe.)

Sean McMinn and Sarah Fulton contributed to this report.

Reach reporter Jaelynn Grisso at [email protected] or (202) 408-1493. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Correction: This article incorrectly referred to the type of facility Dance Place is and misspelled its founder's last name. Both have been corrected.

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