“I was one of those kids always on the bleachers when their mom or dad was taking classes,” said Stella Adelman, a lifelong dancer specializing in Haitian and Cuban styles. “One day I got tired of watching and started doing.”
Adelman learned her craft at Dance Mission Theater, now celebrating 20 years at 24th and Mission Streets, where she works as managing director and oversees adult programming. Dance Mission, as it’s known, was also where the San Francisco born and raised Adelman began to understand that though she may excel, she will always be a visitor in the world of Afro-Caribbean dance.
“I’m very aware that as a white, American, Jew, doing a dance that’s not from my cultural background, I have to be able to be told no. It’s what you sign up for,” she said.
“I fell in love with Haitian dance thanks to Blanche Brown, the matriarch of Haitian dance here in the Bay Area,” said Adelman. Brown is among those scheduled to be honored at Dance Mission’s anniversary celebration at Herbst Theater next month featuring past and present performers with diverse sensibilities, whether feminist, Chicanx, or hip hop.
“There will be certain times when as a dancer you’re told, ‘Not for this show, not for this company,’ and you have to be ok with that,” said Adelman who began studying with Brown at Dance Mission as a middle-schooler.
“I also went to Camp Winnarainbow, Wavy Gravy’s circus camp in Laytonville,” she said, where students from all backgrounds gather to experience the outdoors and exchange culture. It was there she learned the Haitian rhythm and dance, Nago.
Adelman likens the questions she asks herself as a white dancer of a historically black art form to what a newcomer to The City might consider.
“It’s ok that people are new, but how do you participate in the culture that is here now, that has always been here, that struggles to stay here, that has created all you enjoy so much? Are you just consuming it, or are you actively participating and giving back?” she said. “And when you’re told, ‘hold up, that’s not cool,’ are you pausing and listening?”
Adelman reckons she fine-tuned her sense of when to speak up and when to stand down from a Mission upbringing by parents whose dinner table conversation often turned to matters of social and racial justice.
“My dad made a series of films for California Newsreel, starting with Race: The Power of Illusion, looking at race and public health,” she said. Her mother worked in theater arts with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Pickle Family Circus and Make-a-Circus and also studied Haitian dance with Brown.
Striving for racial and cultural equity through dance carried Adelman from her studies at UCLA to a two-year stay in Cuba and into New York’s public school system where she worked as a sixth grade math teacher in the South Bronx where she started an afterschool Haitian and Cuban dance program for a largely Dominican and Puerto Rican student body. Adelman believed she could forge a deeper connection with her math students if she was allowed to demonstrate her joy of dance . “This is what I have to offer, this is my vocabulary,” she said.
“The dean was amazing, an African American man, born and raised in the neighborhood, and he had a problem with a white person teaching brown and black kids about their culture,” she said. “I understood his point and we agreed to continue to check in around it.”
The dean eventually became a principal of an arts school, “And he invited me to be its dance teacher,” said Adelman. “That speaks to the power of dance,” she said of its ability to communicate where equations and words can fail.
Returning to The City and Dance Mission 14 years ago, Adelman declares the state of Bay Area dance strong, as long as performers can afford to stay here.
“The recognition that folkloric and traditional dances have long roots and that the lineage has to be respected lends all dance a kind of sacredness,” explained Adelman, who identifies with her Jewish heritage culturally, but not religiously. She’s encouraged by increasingly frank and frequent public conversations about racial justice, cultural difference and gentrification issues in spaces like Dance Mission.
“People are talking more about ‘What does white allyship look like, making sure their participation doesn’t take away,” she said. “It isn’t isn’t about making it about oneself, it’s about building the greater community.”
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8
Contact: (415) 826-4441, https://
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” A guest columnist, her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.