Yesenia Selier


M. Soledad Sklate interviewed dance scholar and teacher Yesenia Selier about how she developed Talking Diaspora, a new experimental workshop series she is curating with M. Soledad Sklate and Pat Hall. The first Talking Diaspora workshop will focus on Rumba: The Music and the Dance, and is on Saturday, April 6 from 1:00-3:00pm. 

Article by M. Soledad Sklate.

Q: What is Talking Diaspora?

A: I think Talking Diaspora aspires to be a space for an active conversation about commonalities and differences of the diverse cultural experiences of the African diaspora.

Q: How and why did you develop the idea for this series?

A: As a dancer, an actress, and a scholar, the opportunities to work with dancers, musicians, artists, and scholars have allowed me to explore the different aspects of the multiple cultural encounters of the African diaspora. I believe that these encounters deserve to have an open space where the artists, but also the general audience, can discover and explore the common roots, the evolution, and the differences of the diasporic cultural manifestations. For example, working with hip hop teacher Ray F. Davis, we discovered how patterns of Cuban dance correlate to hip hop patterns. On the other hand, this collaboration also made me realize the African influences in Cuban dance not recognized as African. The exchanges and encounters silently contained in each diasporic cultural manifestation are extremely powerful; it is this kind of exercise in “dance translation” that Talking Diaspora aims at unveiling.  Dance and music classes sometimes miss the historical and educational aspect of the dances and rhythms they teach. This series’ goal is to connect the dots about how and why those dances and rhythms have developed.

Q: How did you identify Cumbe as the appropriate place to host these workshops? 

A: Cumbe is a unique place in the city in the present time. It is the ideal place to start this type of conversation, where an in-depth discussion and understanding of the histories of diasporic cultural manifestations will contribute to the growth and strengthening of the community of artists and students in the field.

Q: What will be the focus of the first session?

A: In the first session, we will explore the “Rumba Craze.” Rumba is a curious expression in the African diaspora that goes beyond the African diaspora. There is our national understanding of Rumba in Cuba, but you will find abroad a multiplicity of styles, definitions, understandings of Rumba. We will look at the historical development of Rumba at the international level in the 1930s, which paradoxically took place while Rumba was forbidden in Cuba. The style spread internationally and was appropriated to mean different things in different places. As a consequence, Rumba can make reference to a party, a social mood, or a ballroom dance style. In the workshop, we will check the departure point of Rumba being internationally performed along with the particularities of the Cuban Rumba. We will examine the rationality behind the different embodiments of the Rumba.

Q: What will future workshops focus on? 

A: We will definitely have a workshop with Ray F. Davis to discover the connections between hip hop and Afro-Cuban styles. We are also planning a conversation with percussionist Hector Morales that focuses on Afro-Peruvian rhythms. We would love to have choreographer and teacher Ronald K. Brown, especially because there is a conversation happening between many diasporic styles in every single one of his choreographies. We would like to have all Cumbe teachers participate, to draw from the commonalities of the dance expressions taught in the studio. We also hope to have amazing guests such as Ned Sublette, who is a musician and expert in Caribbean musical flows. It is essential for dancers, musicians, and teachers to share their cultural knowledge in first person and transmit their experiences and understandings directly to the public. The idea is to also welcome scholars and academics who have made important scholarly contributions to the understanding of the evolution and development of diasporic cultural manifestations – such as Barbara Browning and Julie Malnig from New York University. It would be a dream to bring Farris Thompson from Yale, who is among the pioneers of this back-and-forth of the artistic production in the African Diaspora.

Q: Why are you so passionate about bringing this new series to the Cumbe community?

A:  I’m a strange creature in the field: I’m at the same time an active performer, a teacher, and a researcher. Thanks to this multiplicity of roles, I’m very aware of the different layers that exist in any cultural expression. The commonality between many diasporic expressions is that they happen in a community, among a group of people who have a deep understanding and appreciation for what they do. When these cultural expressions are isolated and presented away from their natural environment – in a dance or music class for example – we face the danger of simplifying their complexity.  Sometimes it’s difficult for students to understand the histories behind, and the importance of the dances they learn in class. Through Talking Diaspora, we hope to highlight the “wholeness” of those expressions and offer the respect they truly deserve.


About the writer: M. Soledad Sklate is a PhD student in the French Department at New York University, doing academic research on the intersection of literature and embodied cultural practices and manifestations rooted in African diasporic influences. She is an avid practitioner of Latin and African dances, and is working at Cumbe as a Media and Communications intern.