Setting out for Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre’s “Dance for World Community Festival” in Harvard Square last Saturday, I admittedly had no idea what to expect. But I wanted to learn more about the dozens of local troupes performing, and to see just how – or even if – dance could build community.
Occupying Harvard Street, it looked like your average street fair. Except that in addition to greasy food and kids in strollers and tables devoted to various causes, there were ample leotards and tutus and elaborate traditional costumes from other cultures. It didn’t feel at all strange to bump into a very well-built young man wearing little more than a giant headdress and a few well-placed bits of shiny, tasseled adornment, say, or a middle-aged woman tucked away in a corner, quietly doing a half-split on the pavement.
With performances running all afternoon at the four stages positioned around Mateo’s home base, there was a vast range of styles, cultures, and levels of experience, from corps of earnest young ballerinas to ethnocentric groups to the enthusiastic Hip-Hop Mamas to amateur swing dancers who look like they spend their daytime hours behind a computer or a microscope.
Sometimes scrappy, sometimes studious, the offerings were a wonderful reminder that “the arts” aren’t just something to experience in stately museums and theaters, but rather are happening all around us all the time, in sweaty dance studios and classrooms and church basements. And that dance in particular is all about community – people joining together in movement, whatever that means to them, whether release, celebration, expression, reinforcement of cultural identity or simple social vehicle.
“Dance is the perfect way to bring people together,” said Jose Mateo, taking in the scene on Harvard Street. “Music is wonderful, and we bring music with us, but not everyone can sing or play an instrument.” A grounding idea for the festival, now in its fourth year, is that by validating “every movement as real dance, literally no one would feel unwelcome.”
Like the larger initiative of which it’s a part, the event is intended not only to unite the local dance community but also the companies’ audiences, exposing them to new companies and cultures. “There’s an amazing amount of cross-pollination happening,” he said.
On the street in front of us, some suave young men had been whisking passersby into salsa steps, and just then, a little group of young ladies in traditional ornamentation – maybe Indian? – glided by.
“Look at that,” Mateo said. “Isn’t that beautiful?”
Photo credit: Justin Baker
(Note: the last photo is Kris Wilton interviewing Jose Mateo in the background)