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Inspired in a Yoruba sculpture-temple, Santiago’s fifth grade students conceived the drawing above with chalk on blackboard in 1996.

 

 

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Dancing with the Saints

Dancing with the Saints
by Miguel F. Santiago
Paperback, 117 pages
$12.00 plus $4.95 S&H
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“In ‘Dancing with the Saints,’ Miguel Santiago has begun with his experience as a dancer to proceed to unravel some of the secrets of a dance ritual that belongs to his heritage. As a native Puerto Rican, his ‘Blood Memory’ is imbued with the traditions of Christian Catholicism and of the Yoruba heritage of Santería.”

—Emma Lewis Thomas, Ph.D.

Excerpts from “Dancing with the Saints”


Foreword by Emma Lewis Thomas, Ph.D.

A figure enters the stage... cloaked in black, the head hidden from view, the feet reaching out from beneath the murky folds of cloth tentatively, yet full of energy... darting, sliding, grasping the floor in soft black slipper-shoes that cannot contain the restlessness of the feet scurrying along, carrying the figure as dead weight above the animated toes-arches-heels that almost take on a life of their own, like two small animals pursuing prey, moving instinctively and purposefully across the floor.

The face emerges... first the eyes, dark and brooding, isolated from any recognizable human visage... the eyes stare out, joining the feet in creating a triangle of tension that shoots through the air, a space that the figure inhabits, reluctantly, clearly, encapsulated in time and space. We join with eternity here, an external figure that relentlessly dances death. Anger shoots out in sparks of energy that emanate from beneath the cloak like sparks in a sacrifice. Are we, too, a part of this ritual?

Between the face, distorted by emotion to an inhuman mask, and the jabbing pounding restless feet, a shape hidden within the cloak speaks to us of anger…of fear of the unknown…of death, inexplicable, unexpected, final. The dancer moves upstage, explodes, moves towards us again, drawing us into his turbulent path. Then, quite suddenly, an external calm descends; the dancer accepts, reluctantly and inexorably leaves the space, moving with care and a particularly fierce calm dignity.

What is the dance experience? Each individual creates it internally, finding within him or herself the necessary perceptive apparatus to receive the message. To the extent that this experience is shared, the process is re-created over and over, time after time, throughout human history to allow the transition of experience from person to person, the transition of experience from generation to generation, from people to people, from culture to culture. Martha Graham aptly sums up this process in her last work, “Blood Memory,” when she writes: “For all of us, but particularly for a dancer with his intensification of life and his body, there is a blood memory that can speak to us. Each of us from our mother and father has received their blood and through their parents and their parents’ parents and backward into time. We carry thousands of years of that blood and its memory” [1991:9-10].

Can we escape our blood memory? Each dancer moves from the basis of this collective heritage, as Miguel Santiago moved in the dance described above. His personal vision of what he was dancing about might be wholly contemporary, a reference to today, to the moment of his own expression…an undeniable truth. Yet this truth is grounded in a reality that goes beyond the individual to encompass the perception of a collective, be it the audience present in a theater or the participants in a ritual. For are not these two, for all practical purposes, the same?

In “Dancing with the Saints,” Miguel Santiago has begun with his experience as a dancer to proceed to unravel some of the secrets of a dance ritual that belongs to his heritage. As a native Puerto Rican, his “Blood Memory” is imbued with the traditions of Christian Catholicism and of the Yoruba heritage of Santería. As a child, he experienced an unorthodox treatment of spiritual healing related to those customs described here. As an adult, he was sent to a mainland university where his studies deepened his understanding and honed his skills in two forms of communication: journalism and writing, movement and dance. One used words, one was wordless. In graduate school, he centered his creativity on bringing together these earlier studies in a thorough investigation of Santería, proceeding both as an inside informant, who has experienced the transformation of healing, and as a cool and detached researcher, combing the university archives for information to illuminate the processes he understood instinctively as a child and accepted on faith. He spent many hours immersed in books, articles, and scholarly essays in different languages; more were spent speaking with university researchers concerned with Santería as a ritual, and interviewing santeros in the Los Angeles community and in his home land. His research methods, adapted from models drawn from anthropology, history, cultural studies, journalism, and movement analysis, focused upon the dance experience within the ritual.

In 1992, he created a lengthy choreography explicating this ritual in the form which expresses when words fail: in dance. Participants (audience members) understood, both initiates and outsiders. Today, he presents us with a volume that goes beyond the experience of Santería as a particular ritual utilizing dance as a transformative process. His last two chapters move the reader to the universal experience of movement as transformation, shifting from the particular to the general, arguing for the commonality of human capability, the undeniable heritage of human understanding that goes beyond words. Santiago joins with Einstein in his rebellion against privileged frames of reference; the experience of dance as transformation relates not solely to the initiate, but also becomes a modality for the transformative process.

Have we not, then, come full circle? Are we not back at the beginning, understanding the basis of movement as an essential element of human understanding?

In pondering his theory of relativity, Einstein began with the premise that “Everything moves.” By looking at speed in a different way, he transformed the way we perceive space and time. In explaining Santería, Santiago allows the reader to look from different vantage points at the material presented, bringing a new way to perceive it. His insights would have pleased Mary Wigman, who urged her pupils with these words: “You have experienced in your own body everything that is known as dance technique. It has become second nature with you, it is what you possess. And if I may give you any advise, then let me tell you: Discover it all over again and in its living relation and immediacy from person to person…Our task lies in serving: to serve the dance, to serve the work, to serve humankind and to serve life.”

“Keep the artistic fire from being extinguished, dear friend - hold high the torch!” [1966: 109-111].

 

Emma Lewis Thomas, Ph.D.
Associate Dean, School of the Arts, UCLA
Professor of Dance History

 

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