World Arts West
SF Ethnic Dance Festival


Arenas Dance Company

GENRE: Afro-Cuban Folkloric
ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: Susana Arenas Pedroso
First Appearance in SF EDF: 2006

Susana Arenas Pedroso founded Arenas Dance Company in 2004 to preserve and promote culturally-rooted, ever-evolving Cuban folkloric and popular dance traditions while embracing creative innovation and hybridity. The company has performed at the Great American Music Hall, Palace of Fine Arts, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Herbst Theater, Chico State University, Laney College, Stanford University, ODC, La Peña, Ashkenaz, Black Choreographers Festival, CubaCaribe, SF Salsa/Rueda, Yemanja, Stanford Jazz Festival, and in the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival.


TITLE: Manos de Mujeres a la Obra (Women’s Hands at Work)
CHOREOGRAPHER: Susana Arenas Pedroso
DANCERS: Diana Aburto, Stella Adelman, Antinette Jackson, Tiffani Jarnigan, Luz Mena, Susana Arenas Pedroso, Jessica Maria Recinos, Juliana Romano, Tammy Ryan, Regina Tolbert, Mitzi Ulloa, Deborah Valoma, Heidi Weiskel, Lyndsey Williams, Tola Williams
DRUMMERS: Carolyn Brandy, Michaelle Goerlitz, Jules Hilson, Mena Ramos, Elizabeth Sayre
VOCALISTS: Christelle Durandy, Karen Smith, Regina Wells, Natasha Wild

In Manos de Mujeres a la Obra—Women’s Hands at Work—an all-female Afro-Cuban ensemble honors the spiritual resilience, strength of character, and vibrant sensuality of Afro-Cuban women, and celebrates the sacred nature of their work. The women are sensual and playful. They are clever and wise. They call out their womanhood one by one in the languages of their motherliness. They are mothers, daughters, grandmothers. And above all, they are strong women, holding life in their hands.

The opening invocation draws from Santería, the Cuban religion based on Yoruba traditions carried west by enslaved West Africans generations ago. A call and response between lead singer and dancers dressed in sacred white invites in the ancestors, the egun. Three orishas—deities—descend, manifestations of spiritual strengths of women. Ochún, orisha of sweet waters, wears yellow. She bestows radiance and pleasure in the body at play and of the hands at work. Yemanyá, orisha of blue oceans, embodies the fierceness of motherlove. Oyá, the rainbow-hued warrior of winds and cemeteries, proclaims fortitude in times of transition.

The women reappear dancing yambú, the oldest known rumba, a slow and sensual display of mature, knowing women. Dancers wear styles from 1950s Havana tenements; their retro Hawaiian prints are a nod to problematic colonial narratives of exoticism and Hollywood visions of undifferentiated island otherness: (Think Elvis singing a calypso in Blue Hawaii). The dance accelerates to guaguancó, the rapid-fire rumba typically danced between
couples. The dancers wash and clean, creating polyrhythmic patterns with brooms. They invest their mundane housework with joy and, citing signature orisha movements, celebrate work as spiritual practice.

Rumba, danced to the secular conga and clave rhythms, was born in late-1800s Havana and Matanzas from Bantú, Abakuá, and Spanish musical strains. The art form was added to UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2016, and it is the improvisational expression of Cubans, especially Afro-Cubans. Director Susana Arenas Pedroso calls it “the attitude of the people.” In contrast, the batá drum trio and rezos (prayers) are descendants of Yoruba traditions. Batá drums salute the egun and recount sacred narratives, evoking the spiritual presence of orishas. Although a growing number of women have crossed gender boundaries since the 1980s, it is still unusual to see women playing batá drums and rumba.


TITLE: Oya: The Female Warrior/Oya: La Mujer Guerrera
COSTUME DESIGN: Adriene-Amadìs Harrison
SOLOIST: Susana Arenas Pedroso
DANCERS: Stella Adelman, Carmen Aguirre, Isabel Estrada Jaminson, Jasmine Holsten, Monica McDuffie, Christina Navarro, Cynthia Renta, Kristin Sague, Morgan Simon, Mitzi Ulloa
MUSICIANS: Colin Douglas (bata), Vanessa Lindberg (singer - coro), Matt Lucas (bata), Michelle Martin (singer - coro), Andy Ryan (bata), Carol Steel (singer - akpon)

At the confluence of the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean, lies the relaxed yet spirited subtropical island of Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean. Cuba’s culture is a mix of African, Spanish, and indigenous traditions that blended together to produce unique forms of language, religion, music, and dance.

The slave trade brought many Africans to Cuba, and while they belonged to various ethnic groups, a majority were Yoruba, from the region now called Nigeria. The traditions so vital to Yoruba life were carried on and mixed with Spanish and native influences on the island, resulting in an Afro-Cuban religious practice known as Lucumi, derived from Yoruba's traditional religion Ifa. Lucumi, meaning “my friend,” became known as Santería (way of the saints), which was the term originally used by the Spanish colonizers to mock the African’s seemingly exaggerated worship of saints. During Lucumi ceremonies, the dances, songs, and rhythms honor spiritual deities known as orishas, which represent different natural phenomena. In order to maintain their own beliefs in the new context of Spanish-ruled Cuba, devotees disguised their faith in the form of Catholicism, often linking their orishas to specific Catholic saints. Thus, their original traditions were transformed into something unique and new. By the late 1950’s, the music and dance associated with these traditions became recognized as a national treasure and promoted internationally as Afro-Cuban folkloric dance, with national dance troupes and schools re-interpreting, re-choreographing, and adapting the rituals to modern stages.

Arenas Dance Company presents a new staging of Oya: the Female Warrior, based on the orisha Oya, who is identified with wind, lightning, rainbows, fire, tornadoes, hurricanes, and the marketplace. Oya is a warrior, whose strength is said to be equal to or greater than that of a man’s in battle. She is often referred to as the one who "puts on pants to go to war," rides into combat on a horse, and is associated with change and righteous anger. She is connected with the nine tributaries of the Niger River, and she is synchronized with the Catholic saint, St. Teresa, and Our Lady of Candelaria.

Oya’s costume, a multi-colored skirt, represents the colors of the rainbow. The dancers hold irukes, or horsetails, to whip up the air, creating the energy of storms. The swirling movement of the skirts and undulations of the torso also reflect her connection to whirlwinds and tornadoes.


TITLE OF PIECE: Las Dos Aguas-The Two Waters
COSTUME DESIGN: Adriene-Amadìs Harrison, SOLOIST COSTUME DESIGN: Lourdes Almaguer
NARRATOR: Lisa Frias SOLOISTS: Yemaya: Susana Arenas Pedroso, Oshun: Isabel Estrada-Jameson
DANCERS: Oshun: Carmen Aguirre, Jasmine Holsten, Traci Stovel, Mitzi Ulloa, Tammy Webb, Yemaya: Cora Barnes, Tanicia Bell, Adriene-Amadìs Harrison, Rufina Jones, Vân Minh Ņguyễn, Parousha Zand
MUSICIANS: Jesus Diaz, Colin Douglas, Mathew Lucas, Andrew Ryan, Michael Spiro, Coro: Vanessa Lindberg, Morgan Simon, Carol Steele

In the 2006 Festival, Arenas Dance Company presents Las Dos Aguas – The Two Waters, which depicts characteristics and qualities of two strong female orishas of water. Yemaya represents maternity, the salty water of the ocean, and she is associated with the colors blue and white and the Catholic Virgin of the Rule (Virgin de la Regla). Oshun, depicted in yellow and gold, symbolizes fertility, joy, the sweet water of the river, and is linked to Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity (Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre). Everything in life starts with water; as the river runs into the ocean, salty and sweet mix, mother and daughter intertwine; maternity and love weave in and out of each other.

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