Dance of the Deities

Wearing a white, lacy, sleeveless blouse with a matching long, flowing skirt, Elena Garcia sways from side to side, snaps her head and shoulders forward and backward, and swirls rapidly around in circles to a loud Afro-Cuban chant coming from a boombox. Looking like a cork bobbing in a tub of water, she appears possessed. But no spirit has overtaken her -- yet. She is simply demonstrating the movements related to the Santeria deity Yemaya, her favorite of the orisha dances.

In the early Nineteenth Century when Africans were enslaved and brought to Cuba, they were compelled to adapt to Catholicism, the religion of their captors. Africans preserved their own gods by cloaking them as Catholic saints. Thus the orishas, a.k.a. santos, were born. In public Africans worshipped as Catholics. Behind closed doors they honored their deities in ecstatic Santeria (the way of the saints) ceremonies with songs and dances brought from their homeland.

Each of the fifteen orishas has a distinct personality and represents a certain principle. Numbers, colors, foods, chants, and emblems are associated with the deities. All except one claim their own specific movements as well. Garcia's undulating Yemaya dance demonstrates the smooth or choppy seas affiliated with the deity of fertility and the ocean. "She is the mother of the universe," Garcia says. "She's very tender yet very strong at the same time."

A one-time member of Cuba's National Folkloric Dance Company, Garcia specialized in modern dance. She was nevertheless forced to learn the Santeria dances as part of her training. Now the director of her own dance studio, Garcia finds herself more interested in spreading the folklore of her homeland than teaching modern moves. "I feel like that's kind of my mission, to expose people to the Cuban culture," she explains.

She and fellow Folkloric Dance Company veteran Alain Fernandez will do just that this Friday when they present Orishas in Cuba, a performance featuring seven orisha dances set to live drumming and chanting. The next day Garcia and Fernandez begin a series of workshops showcasing the orisha movements.

Students of all levels are welcome to participate, but it may take time for them to master the dances, which also entail a bit of acting. "You have to get into the character," Garcia says. "You have to learn what they represent. We won't insist so much on mastering the physical steps but on interpreting. It's almost a meditation. You have to forget about yourself and you have to interpret someone else." A little like being possessed.

-- Nina Korman

Orishas in Cuba takes place at 8:00 p.m. Friday, June 11, at Iroko Dance and Performance Center, 1860-A West Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $6. Dance workshops begin at noon Saturday, June 12. Individual classes cost $12; the complete series costs $75. Call 305-604-9141.

 
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