A Dance of Their Own

For two dancers, the MFA dance program provided an artistic forum to explore their cultural identities through deeply personal performances.

Alicia Bomba
For her thesis performance Deep Listening, MFA student Alicia Díaz collaborated with percussionist Héctor “Coco” Barez. (Photo: Tania Fernández)
December 09, 2015

By John DiConsiglio

Growing up in a small Texas town, MFA dance student Felicia Avalos knew little about her father’s past as a undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She had heard the bare bones of his story: He lived in Ciudad Juárez; his mother pulled him from school at 13 to support his family; in his early 20s, he began crisscrossing the U.S. border in search of work. When Avalos pushed for details, her father always held back. “He was very quiet about what he’d gone through,” she said.

While choreographing her dance thesis project, Avalos persuaded her father to sit for hours of conversations. As she listened to him haltingly describe the hardships he faced on his path to citizenship in America, Avalos not only gleaned insights into a chapter of her family history, but she found connections to her cultural identity and inspirations from her dance traditions.

The result was The Beast: A Daughter’s Document of an Undocumented Journey, Avalos’ MFA thesis performance that she recently presented at Dance Loft 14 in Washington, D.C.,—and which Professor of Dance Maida Withers described as “an extraordinary, passionate and deeply personal experience.” 

The Beast employs a variety of styles—Thai boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, Argentine tango, Mexican folk dancing—to recreate her father's journey. Against the backdrop of a wire fence representing the U.S.-Mexico border, Avalos uses dance to depict his experiences as a soldier in the Mexican army, a lettuce-picker in the fields of California and a laborer in the mercury mines of Nevada. During the performance, dancers scale the fence behind Avalos; many of them are either the children of undocumented immigrants or have made the hazardous journey themselves.

Felicia dancing

Felicia Avalos’ thesis performance, The Beast, was inspired by her father’s immigrant journey. (Photo: Stephen Clapp)

A desire to reconnect with her Latino roots similarly inspired Alicia Díaz, another of Withers’ graduate students, as she crafted her thesis project. Díaz had an idyllic childhood in Puerto Rico, she recalled. Her mother was a distinguished professional dancer who trained her daughter in their home studio from age 3. Her father was a prominent intellectual, and her grandfather had been a founder of the Puerto Rican Independence Party in the 1940s.

At the age of 12, Díaz immigrated with her family from San Juan to the suburbs of Princeton, N.J. “It was an immense culture shock,” she said. “I was uprooted from all that was familiar to me and introduced to an America where I had to navigate difficult racial and class politics.”

The only Puerto Rican in her public school, Díaz struggled to find her footing with her new classmates and her new culture. “My life became a constant dance between being white or black—when I was actually neither,” she said. She was most at home on a dance stage. But even as she performed with prestigious companies like the Princeton Ballet and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, Díaz felt disconnected from her artistic roots. “I was doing ballet and jazz and modern dance, but I didn’t even know how to salsa,” she said. “I had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t a real Puerto Rican if I couldn’t salsa.”

Her thesis performance Deep Listening, which was presented to a packed house at the Pregones Theater in the Bronx, confronts what Díaz described as her cultural “inbetween-ness.” Deep Listening builds on the traditional Latino style called bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican genre created by slaves in the 17th century. Collaborating with noted Puerto Rican percussionist Héctor “Coco” Barez, Díaz designed an “improvised conversation” between musician and dancer. The abstract work—unlike Avalos’ Beast, Deep Listening has no narrative—is accompanied by Barez’s drum, a converted rum barrel called a barril. Díaz’s movements in her blue and red bomba skirt are designed to invoke nostalgia for the Puerto Rico she left as a child. “I think of it as my origin myth,” she said.

Following its success in the Bronx, Díaz was recently invited to perform Deep Listening at the University of Puerto Rico.

Alicia Dancing

Alicia Díaz in her thesis performance, Deep Listening. (Photo: Hiroyuki Ito)

“Alicia and Felicia, solo dancers in their projects, combine their personal stories and their amazing talents and give us performances that are moving and beautiful,” said Withers, who attended both dancers’ premieres. “They have worked very hard to bring these creations to life.”

An Inspired, Hybrid Program

Since its inception five years ago, the MFA dance program within the Department of Theatre and Dance has attracted an array of professionals, from performers to choreographers to teachers. Its online learning component—students often dial into class through Skype—has opened the door to dancers from across the country and around the world. Alumni hail from as far as Chile and Russia. The most recent class included university professors, dance company veterans and a high school math teacher, all with a mix of styles ranging from modern dance to tango.

Designed for mid-career professionals, the program emphasizes a curriculum that allows dancers to continue their education without putting their lives on hold. “We don’t teach basic techniques that take them back to their undergraduate days,” Withers said. “For these students, that’s a distant memory.”

“The program was built with someone like me in mind,” said Díaz, who, in addition to being a student, is an assistant professor of dance at the University of Richmond and the co-founder of the Agua Dulce Dance Theater, originally based in New York. “It’s designed for people that have an established dance career and are transitioning to future steps. That’s precisely where I'm at.”

The program culminates with the thesis presentation—a dancer-created combination of an academic paper and a performance in a professional venue. “It’s our responsibility to find a location that’s willing to take our show,” said Avalos, a D.C-based dancer who has performed with companies in Chile, Argentina and Israel. “It’s one of our biggest challenges, but it’s good practice for being a working-dancer.”

In today’s dance world, Withers noted, a higher learning degree is a veritable must-have. “The bar has gotten higher and higher,” Withers said. “More and more, you need an MFA simply to apply for jobs.” Still, she stressed that students’ like Avalos, who juggled her MFA studies with a full-time dancing career, have a motivation that goes beyond a piece of paper and a tenure track.

“There’s no guarantee of any job in this business,” Withers said.  “These students have a passion for dance. They are seeking an intense experience that will provide growth and change and fulfill their artistic ambitions.”

Avalos credited her faculty mentor with cultivating the confidence she needed to embark on an ambitious and personal production like The Beast. Withers challenged her, she said, to explore topics that struck close to home. “She brought me out of my shell. She encouraged me to push my boundaries,” Avalos said. “I wouldn’t have had the courage to make The Beast without her.”