Berkeley Hosts Ethnic Dance Festival

It’s two weekends full of world dance from 28 dance companies.


Photo courtesy World Arts West

Survive and thrive is what you wish for families, nations, and, most certainly, arts organizations. They are the pulsating hearts of our lives. The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival has been in the business of safeguarding these pulses for over 40 years. Today, it is the largest company of its kind in the country.

Yet the SF Ethnic Festival still doesn’t have a home. Early on, it thrived in the city’s neighborhoods; from there, it performed for many years in the Palace of Fine Arts. But when that venue became unavailable in 2011, it moved to Zellerbach Hall. “It was a smash hit,” Julie Mushet, EDF’s longtime executive director, remembered. “Audiences were large and very enthusiastic.”

This year, EDF is back in Berkeley, beginning what just might be the beginning of a mutually engaged relationship. “EDF has performed at the San Francisco Opera House and will so again,” Mushet explained. “But the traffic situation in the Bay Area has become so difficult,” she said, that it warrants some new thinking. If people have trouble getting to world dance, she will take it to them. So in the future, there may be EDF in San Francisco and the East Bay and who knows, she contemplated, in long terms, also in San Jose.

This year’s Zellerbach performances present 28 companies, nine of them in their festival debut, and five of those make the East Bay their home.

In conjunction with the Afro Urban Society, The Bearettes are bringing some spectacular drill team performances that originate in historically black colleges. They may be familiar to some who watch televised college football games. The dancing is highly disciplined, tightly structured, and yet explosive in its enthusiasm.

The Ring Shout is an African-American practice that commemorates slavery and freedom. It is thought to perhaps have originated in the Islamic practices of walking around the Kaaba in Mecca. According to Oakland’s Awon Ohun Omnira (Voices of Freedom), the Ring Shout is not really a “dance” but a ritual.

For some three decades (1940-1970) Egypt was the place where belly dance thrived, both in cabarets and films. The Georges Lammam Ensemble will accompany soloist Nicole Maria’s Tahia Dance, a tribute to a star from that period, Taheya Kariokka.

Reminding us that Africa has over 50 cities of over a million people, Oakland’s O D K will present an Afro-pop duet based on popular music and dances practiced by youth in many primarily sub-Saharan urban areas. These artful practices come in many languages, Gweta, Azonto, and Shorkie among them. Yet they all talk above love.

Having new companies participate helps EDF to survive and to thrive, but the festival also depends on long-term practitioners whose commitment, expertise, and innovation keeps their specific art form fresh. Among them are the Concord Jubilee Dancers, Te Mana O Te Ra from Walnut Creek, and Oakland’s Diamano Coura West African Dance Company. They have been participants for many years, and this year, they won’t even have to cross the bay.


The 41st Annual San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, July 6-7 and July 13-14, $14-$68, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley,