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  • Neri Torres: Preserving Afro-Cuban Dance in the United States

    Production, editing: LaQuinda Grimes
    Videography: Charlie Weber
    Interview: Dan Sheehy
    Photos provided by Neri Torres, Nelson Alvarez, Karime Arabia, Library of Congress

    Studying dance ethnology, also known as ethnochoreology, was not always the most obvious path to combine my passions for a dance, history, and production. But, since I began my video production internship with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, my interests have been finding me in ways that can only be described as fate, or magic.

    “Magical” is a great word to describe this piece.

    Someone who knew about my very specific obsession with exploring and presenting cultures through dance suggested I watch the raw footage of an interview, tucked away in our vast collection of cultural treasures in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives. In 2007, Smithsonian Folkways director Dan Sheehy and media producer Charlie Weber sat down with Neri Torres in her dance studio and captured her story. In this interview, she touches on the history of Cuban identity and the immense influence of African culture in Latin dance and music as she recounts her experience maintaining Afro-Cuban tradition in the United States.

    Torres is the founder and executive/artistic director of IFE-ILE, a Miami-based nonprofit organization “dedicated to the preservation, promotion and advancement of Afro-Cuban culture through dance.” She started her company in 1996 after arriving to the United States from her place of birth: Havana, Cuba.

    IFE-ILE is one of the foremost promoters of Afro-Cuban culture in the United States through the work of their traveling dance troupe and music ensemble, workshop and lecture series, and annual dance festival. The presentations and performances incorporate an array of Afro-Cuban dance and music traditions spanning folklore and religion to today’s popular movements and sounds.

    The dance of the Orishas is a large part of the IFE-ILE repertoire. These performances are based on the sacred ritual dances of a worldwide Afro-Cuban religion referred to as Santeria or Regla de Ocha. It is a syncretized belief system in which today’s practitioners seamlessly adhere to the practices of both the Lucumi faith of West Africa and the Spanish Catholic faith of Europe, with the understanding that the two religions are separate yet parallel in a non-conflicting manner.

    Another chief principle of Torres’s organization is to recognize the contributions of the West and Central African people who were brought to Cuba as slaves in the areas where she feels Afro-Cuban culture is not properly credited. She advocates for the proper acknowledgement that the Yoruba peoples (modern-day Nigeria), the Bantu peoples of the Congo, and Fon peoples of the Dahomean region (modern-day Benin) helped shape the artistic staples and everyday lives of the island nation, alongside the largely Spanish influence of its colonialists.

    There were many themes in her passionate retelling that I immediately identified with as a dancer, an African American woman, and an advocate for the preservation of cultural heritage. I was fascinated by her energizing personality and innate wisdom as she spoke about the deep connection between her art, heritage, and life and an ancient belief system rooted in the consciousness of nature—a belief that originated in Africa and, like both our bloodlines, was ripped from the land but found a way to survive.

    This project could not be timelier with the recent renewed interest and changes in the relationship between the United States and Cuba, plus the announcement of a future Cuban program at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. My research into the topics Torres discusses in this piece provided me with a new understanding of groups of people from faraway lands and a culture that, under different circumstances, could have been my own.

    LaQuinda Grimes is a dancer, choreographer, documentarian, creative producer, and co-founder of Cue the Lens Inc. nonprofit organization. She will graduate from the University of Limerick in Ireland in 2016 with a M.A in ethnochoreology.

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