When the tap and zapateado footwork of all-female rhythm ensemble La Mezcla rings out unaccompanied on a raised wood platform, it is only in the strictest sense of the term, a cappella. But springing from the polyrhythmic complexities, percussive sounds and dynamic physicality of Founding Artistic Director Vanessa Sanchez’s choreography are countless foot-spoken narratives expressing under-told Chicanx, Latinx, and indigenous stories.
The third season of PBS/KQED’s If Cities Could Dance, a web-only video series, airs an episode on May 19 featuring La Mezcla performing at landmark locations in San Francisco. Selected for their historic or cultural significance, Sanchez said the sites honor the history and cultures in which her work is based.
“The sites we chose for the shoot are in San Francisco’s Mission District, the hub of Latinx Culture, on Ohlone Land: The Latin Rock House, Balmy Alley, The Carnaval Mural at the corner of 24th Street and S. Van Ness, the mural “Y tu, y yo y Cesar” on York Street, and the streets of La Misión.”
The traditional and contemporary tales and the cultures in which they find their roots are kinesthetically animated by the company’s four dancers: Emmeline Gonzalez-Beban, Kirsten Millan, Sandy Vazquez, and Sanchez. Live music for some dances comes from Monica María, who sings and plays traditional Son Jarocho (Veracruz sound) stringed instruments (leona and jarana) and Elena de Troya, a percussionist featured on cajon (box drum).
One segment filmed in front of the “Casa Bandido” mural adorning the Latin Rock House in San Francisco’s Mission District bears special significance. The mural was funded in part by a state grant obtained by the nonprofit Precita Eyes Muralists Association and painted by muralists Max Marttila and Fred Alvarado and youths in the organization’s Youth Arts program. Depicting over 80 local Latin rock legends — Carlos Santana, salsa singer Mala Rodriquez, the bands Malo, the Prophets, and others — Sanchez said the house mural is more than merely a vivid, colorful backdrop. “Dancing in front of the Latin Rock House allowed us to honor the legacy and influence that Latin rock has had on our work, while giving it a mujer-centered, tap-dancing twist.”
Translated from Spanish, mujer becomes woman and La Mezcla’s all-female empowered performances with Sanchez’s choreography has generated a surge of local and national interest. Sanchez received a 2019 Dance/USA Artist Fellowship and a New England Foundation for the Arts 2019 National Dance Production Grant for her work Pachuquísmo! The company’s social-justice focus aims beyond artistic excellence and high entertainment values to include education, illumination, and broader awareness of the stories and significant cultural contributions of people of color.
During the unusual challenges of the coronavirus pandemic that is disproportionately striking communities of color, she said:
My work is 100 percent rooted in the voices and needs of my community. Even though times might get difficult, the need for female of color representation, Chicana narratives, and black and brown bodies on contemporary dance stages only grows more relevant as white supremacy continues to oppress us. This is what keeps me going and pushes me to continue training, creating, and educating.”
KQED’s series continues after La Mezcla’s San Francisco: Chicanx/Latinx Tap Dancing (Zapatap) episode with segments and dance companies filmed in San Juan, Puerto Rico (June 2), Albuquerque, New Mexico (June 16), and Houston, Texas (June 30). Interactive features include a shelter-in-place video dance chain letter with artists including Atlanta-based Jalaiah Harmon, creator of the viral TikTok dance “Renegade”; how-to dance videos; curated music playlists; and interactive maps of the featured cities. A short, basic tap-dance tutorial by Sanchez will be posted on May 19 at the If Cities Could Dance link on the KQED website.