INTERVIEW: Deborah Quaniam of the World Dance Institute

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WonLande West African Dance and Drum Company.
Photo by Ruben Durand

The World Dance Institute was founded by the Dance Department at Central College, Houston Community College System. Its mission is to focus on the study, preservation and performance of traditional, cultural dance. By drawing on the wealth of artistic experience in Houston’s international community, new generations of teachers and students will experience disciplines that have enriched humanity for thousands of years. I had a chance to speak with Deborah Quaniam at HCC about her work with world dance.

Can you tell us something about what we will be seeing on the upcoming event on December 2nd?

DQ: The student performers of Central’s World Dance Ensemble will be performing Spanish Flamenco in the Gitano (Gypsy) style. Flamenco evolved in southeastern Spain from the blending and interaction of several cultures: Spanish Andalusian, North Indian, Arabic andHebrew. The World Dance Ensemble will perform the “tablao” form, a solo improvisational flamenco with only the accompaniment of palmas (clapping) and cante (song). They’ll also offer “Amigos Tangos” a theatrical piece choreographed by Cynthia Cupach.

When did you first become interested in world dance?

DQ: Cynthia Cupach asked me to serve on her Master’s Degree committee; she earned her degree in World Dance from Antioch College. Antioch allows students to create their own plan of study, and to use local authorities as instructors. Following Cynthia through her plan reinforced my perception of the amount and quality of world dance available here in Houston.

We also have a very diverse student population: over 135 nations are represented on our campus. Unlike the U.S., where dance is often considered trivial and unimportant, in most other cultures, dance is a vital, essential aspect of cultural life. By concentrating on world dance, we were able to relate personally to many of our students.

How did WDI come about?

DQ: In a perfect world, we would have a real building, with libraries of books, and videotapes, and musical instruments. We would have rooms of costumes, and dance studios. But buildings cost money, and buildings need personnel. We decided to go virtual until we can afford a building. But the major purpose of the WDI is to share information, with each other and with anyone who is asking. A website is the logical place to be in this age of technology.

How does Houston rate on the world dance scene?

DQ: We have world class performers and teachers in: Flamenco, classical Indian dance, classical Bali dance, tango, folklorico of Mexico and most Central and South American cultures, Russian folk dance, other folk dances of Eastern Europe, Irish dancers, Chinese classical dance, Japanese classical dance, Brazilian martial arts.

How do students benefit from training in world dance?

DQ: Much of academia within the U.S. only admits ballet and modern dance as being worthy of college credit. That is a very myopic and self-serving view point. Our culture has a lot to learn from the dances of other cultures.

Do you think there exists a global way of moving where dancers can learn to access qualities and rhythms from around the world?

DQ: The human body is the same all over the world. There are just so many ways to move your legs and arms. Dance training in one style usually translates into increased facility in learning another style.

Is it possible to actually gain a more global perspective by dancing other cultures dances? How can this change the world?

DQ: When a person studies the dance of a culture, she also studies the music, the costuming. Gender roles are usually immediately apparent in dance forms. People dance about their religion, their mythology, their history. Dances change over time, so a particular dance is usually the product of a particular time in a civilization. Knowledge is power. The more we know about another person, the more likely we are to regard this person with an open mind. The history of dance chronicles the diasporas and resulting fusion of great civilizations.

What are your hopes for the WDI?

DQ: We originally hoped the WDI would help us imbed world dance in our curriculum. We have achieved this goal. At the present time, HCCS teaches World Dance, African American Dance, and Folkloric Ballet. We teach dance appreciation from a global point of view. Our plan now is to imbed WDI in the cultural life of Houston as an example to the rest of the world.

HCC presents the World Dance Institute’s Winter Concert on Friday, December 2nd, at 7:30pm at Central’s Heinen Theater, 3517 Austin at Holman. For reservations and information, call 713-718-6570.

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