Essay by Alleluia Panis
The afternoon light came through the large windows revealing a spacious gym with hardwood floors, and cream- colored walls. My classmate Jane, a modern dancer, invited me to my first ever modern dance class. It was a short ride on the 30 Stockton bus from school to the free after-school program taught by Klarna Pinska under the Neighborhood Arts Program in the Salesian Gym on Filbert Street in North Beach. I recognized Rose, sitting with her back to us; her straight brown hair down to her waist, she was playing some classical tune on an old upright piano. I recognized three other girls from school: African-American Barbara with her short Afro and the ruddy-cheeked white girl Gaye were both tall, stunningly beautiful and trained in gymnastics and ballet. There was shy Susan, the only other Asian girl. Klarna Pinska, in her sixties, wearing a moss-green leotard and white mid-calf tights, slowly stood up from kneeling position and walked towards us. It was 1970 and I’m this immigrant girl about to take her first formal dance class, whose only done some folk dancing in grade school in the Philippines and one semester of dance in high school.
We learned dances by Ruth St. Denis and performed them at various elementary schools. Klarna made me feel not too different from the other American girls even though they had more training than I did and they were of course, American girls. I was surprised when she started teaching me the solo Nautch Dance. I wasn’t ready and didn’t have the confidence to learn it, let alone perform it. But the idea that she thought I could do it somehow made me feel proud. Although it would take me an hour to get home by bus, I attended every week. In addition, it was free. Looking back, I’ve realized the dance classes became a much needed respite from the daily struggles of my immigrant life.
I was most fascinated by her stories of early American modern dance innovators like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn, and Charles Weidman, who she personally knew. She would tell of their individual styles and their courageous ways of exploring movement and choreography. As a young person in a new country, these stories comforted my young mind in hearing artists creating and inventing despite conventions of the times.
As a young person uprooted from the homogeneity of my home county, I found the vividness, the boisterousness, and robustness of the sight, sounds, and scent of North Beach and Chinatown a marvelous adventure of familiarity and foreignness at the same time. She introduced us to book readings at City Lights, beat poetry at Enrico’s Cafe, free art exhibits at San Francisco Art Institute, and cappuccino and opera singing servers at Cafe Trieste. On my own, I explored Chinatown’s dim sum shops, and kung fu movies. Klarna gifted us, her students, the joy of dance, encouraged our curiosity for learning and participation. Klarna created a safe place for me to learn and be myself. Most importantly, she taught me that I have choices and exciting possibilities of what my American life can become. As the recipient of the first ever San Francisco Art Commission’s Artistic Legacy Grant, I am grateful for the ways the Neighborhood Arts Program dance class inspired me and sent me on my way as a working artist and community leader.
Alleluia Panis is a director, choreographer, and non-profit arts leader. She has created over twenty full-length dance theater works that have been presented on stages in the United States, Europe, and Asia. She has received numerous awards, including the inaugural Artistic Legacy Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2017. She is the Artistic and Executive Director of Kularts, the nation’s premiere presenter of contemporary and tribal Pilipino arts. Her newest dance/film/theater work, Incarcerated 6x9, will premiere in May of 2018 at Bindlestiff Studios.