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An unexpected moment in a quiet Cuban store provided an epiphany of sorts for Daniel Phoenix Singh. The store’s proprietor, an elderly woman, was dancing in the aisle with her teenage grandson. A friend who was with Singh quickly apologized for interrupting, but the grandmother was nonplussed.
“We just dance when we’re together and have nothing to do,” she said.
It was a sign of how dance can be an integral part of everyday life.
“I found a way in which dance was central to their lives, but it wasn’t fractured from other stuff that was happening,” says Singh, who visited Cuba as part of a dance exchange program. “The dance is about being poor, about being rich, about being happy, young, old, all the different things had a place in dance for them. That was just amazing for me.”
Daniel Phoenix Singh
That understanding of the role dance and movement play in the lives of people and their cultures is what drives Singh’s work with his own dance company, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh & Company. His distinctive approach to dance performance has garnered the company increasing notice — it’s not unlikely after one of Singh’s performance for the audience to find itself dancing, as well. It’s all part of rediscovering the human joy of movement.
“Then they have a way to connect what they’re physically doing to what they’re physically seeing on the stage, kinetically as opposed to analytically,” he says.
But audience involvement can be a particular challenge.
“It’s not always easy to find a theater that will let you have a dance party after a performance,” Singh laughs.
Singh arrived in Maryland as a teenager when his family emigrated from India. During his youth in Chennai he had pragmatically planned for a career in computer technology, but things changed when he became an American college student. A ballet class at the University of Maryland seemed an easy way to fulfill a physical education requirement — instead, it offered a way to fulfill himself.
Not that going on to earn a masters in dance ended his technological pursuits — by day Singh is a director of information systems for the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
“They’re very excited that their computer person can dance as well,” Singh says with a broad smile. “There a very few places that would be excited about that.”
It’s also given Singh the ability to pursue his work with Dakshina. Formed in 2003, Dakshina — a Sanskrit word meaning “offering” — pursues an eclectic and inclusive path, combining influences and motions from many different cultures and communities, and always with a focus on the social justice issues near to Singh’s heart.
This weekend the company launches its 2006 season with its annual spring show, featuring a performance of “By the Light,” a work by the late local choreographer Eric Hampton. The performance will also included original work by Singh and Afro-Cuban dance company AsheMoyubba.
“I always like to look at the broadest definition of dance,” he says. “I want people to look at dance in the broadest possible sense.”
If you look closely at the dance, you can see the world.
METRO WEEKLY: Is your audience primarily people who are very knowledgeable about dance, or do you get a mixture of the well-versed and non-well-versed?
DANIEL PHOENIX SINGH: People who have had some exposure to dance usually tend to be the biggest part of the audience. And then we have a few who come in for a different reason. Some might come in because they knew Eric Hampton or some might come in because they’re into African-Cuban culture.
MW: Is there a fairly tight-knit dance community in D.C.?
SINGH: It’s a very tight and very small dance community. [Laughs.] Everyone knows everyone.
MW: Does that make it harder or easier for you as a choreographer and head of a dance company?
SINGH: It strains the resources because D.C. is not a state — since we don’t have [that type of] funding, we’re competing for a smaller pool of funding. We’re also competing for a smaller audience pool, and you’re competing for a small pool of dancers. All of us are trying to get the same four people to dance in every show, so once in a while it can get a little strained. [Laughs] But I think the advantage of having a small community is that you are able to support each other in ways in which, say, New York wouldn’t be able to because there are so many people there that you couldn’t possibly go to everyone’s performance. Here, we can kind of take care of each other in that way.
MW: Washington has a fairly large and vibrant theater community, and a lot of musical performance as well. How do you see dance fitting into the overall D.C. arts scene?
SINGH: Dance has a hard time getting an audience because it can’t do a three-week run like theater. There’s just that one weekend people have to make it to a performance. So I find that it’s harder to develop an audience for dance. There’s a bigger theater community in D.C., as opposed to dance companies that are smaller and don’t have such a huge structural or physical presence. Dance has a harder time.
MW: Has forming your own company changed how you work within the dance community? Has it given you any advantages over those challenges?
SINGH: It made me articulate my mission and my goals. Until then it was just, ”I want to make dances.” Now it’s, ”How are you different from all other companies?” I had to say that I want to look at dance in the broadest spectrum possible from social dances to communal dances to dances on stage. I wanted to look at dance that does work for social justice issues. That was the biggest theme for me, to form my company to look at dance in the broadest spectrum possible and to find a way to actually have an impact on the community and social justice issues.
MW: How hard is to incorporate those kinds of issues? How hard is it to get those kinds of issues within the framework of dance?
SINGH: Some of it is a subtle way of using things, like using the music of Mercedes Sosa, a very outspoken political activist from South America — I’m not being political in my dance, but by using her songs I am able to start influencing the work I do. Sometimes the dance is very political, like doing a gay duet and having people say ”Oh, we can’t bring you into our schools because you have gay content.” You can do it subtly by the music or the costumes, or you can be in your face and do it in ways that make people sit up and notice you. But you burn bridges or lose access when you do that, so you have to juggle both.
MW: You’ve been blocked from school performances because of gay content?
SINGH: There are some national school programs that work with dance companies and several of them have turned us down because we tend to have gay themes in our work. When we try to do community dance parties for National Coming Out Day or Pride Day, it’s been very hard to find a venue that will give it to us free of charge. They’ll support another cultural month and host it free of charge. But if it’s gay-related they feel like they can’t take sides or that’s the position they take.
MW: Is it frustrating to know that dance is often viewed as an art form that’s gay friendly, but then have to deal with venues and people who apparently are not quite so gay friendly?
SINGH: Yes. I think it’s nice to have the freedom of just being who you are when you do your work. When you’re dancing it’s like the most intimate part of your life and you’re free to be where you are and who you are. But then the logistical parts of it don’t mesh well, so it’s again about finding the balance between doing what you want to do and finding a place that will show you as you are.
MW: You grew up in Chennai, India. What brought you to the U.S.?
SINGH: My parents moved here, so I didn’t have much choice.
MW: Was it a hard move for you?
SINGH: No, I think it was at the right point in my life. I had just finished high school and I was ready for something big. I think it just happened at the right point in my life also to develop as a person and as a gay man and all those things. Life is much freer for a gay man here than in India.
MW: Did you know you were gay when you were in India?
SINGH: I wasn’t sure at that time. It wasn’t until I came to the U.S. that I realized that I was gay.
MW: Why do you think that is? Was it something about the U.S. or was it something about your upbringing in India?
SINGH: Probably because until I was 18 I didn’t know the word ”gay.” I didn’t know how to articulate what might be a part of me. I didn’t even know how to frame it in my mind. It could have been there all along but I didn’t know how to name it. Coming here and hearing those words and seeing a positive affirmation of that kind of made me feel like, ”Oh, that’s what it is.”
MW: How has being an immigrant to the U.S. affected your being a part of the gay community? Is there an impression that people have of what the gay community is that doesn’t necessarily include people who aren’t from the U.S.?
SINGH: Simple things, like immigration. Most people take for granted their citizenship status — I had to wait several years to get my citizenship status and for me to ever get a family member [to emigrate] from India or adopt a child from India, it’s going to be a huge struggle. Especially because India is not, say, Sweden or Denmark. Things like that affect me in more direct ways than other immigrants from European countries.
The other thing is, like you said, most people have an impression of what the gay community is like. I had one incident where I was at Club Chaos and someone actually said to me, ”You know, if you were white I would date you.” So you hear things like that. And I think that person sincerely meant it as a compliment, like, ”You’re perfect except you’re not white.” You just kind of deal with it and you roll with the punches.
MW: Does stuff like that happen fairly often?
SINGH: It still happens, surprisingly more than I thought it would. Because I don’t fall into the white or black category — and I’m not even Latino — I’m just in a different category altogether. I don’t know necessarily that it’s racist. I just think they don’t know any different. One of my friends says, ”You can’t help a fish for being in the water.” It’s that kind of thing. Over time, I think it’s changing.
I think that most gay people are constantly educating the straight people about who they are and fighting stereotypes and prejudices. When you’re a gay person of color from a different country, then you have all these little places where you have to keep telling and explaining and breaking down stereotypes. It’s partly my responsibility to educate people. There are times when it gets frustrating and I call up my friends and say, ”If one more person says this to me I’m just going to just scream.” But most of the time I just feel that I can use it as an opportunity to educate that person.
MW: What’s something that causes you to call up your friends in frustration?
SINGH: Stuff like, ”I only date all-American persons.” What does that mean? I think of myself as an American now. Or when they say things like ”boy next door.” Those are stereotypes which don’t necessarily even have a racial connotation to them, but when they say ”all-American” or “boy next door” or “the average person” they think of mostly white people. I think I find that annoying that people don’t include me in those kinds of categories that they put themselves or their friends into.
MW: How does that inform your dance?
SINGH: I think I use it in an abstract way in dance. I look at relationships between people on stage and what holds people together and what pushes them apart. The other way is creating work in which men are dancing and moving in ways in which it is affirming for me and comfortable for me and hoping that people will see it and be able to see more than just the two men dancing together, to see the other bigger issues behind it and start assimilating some of that into their thought processes.
MW: You said that “gay” wasn’t something you could name until you got here. How about your family? Are they aware?
SINGH: I’m kind of removed from my family. My brother is a Methodist minister and for him it was just not something he could work through. We decided on very friendly terms to live our separate lives and not tread on each other’s territories, so to speak. My mom kind of deals with me because I’m her youngest child and she wants to keep me a part of her life. Could I have had a more supportive family? Yes, very easily. When I see most of my friends’ families, I wish I had one of those families. But my definition of family has extended past the physical family to the bigger family I have now. In that sense, I feel that I’m better off now than I have ever been before.
MW: Was your family Christian before moving to the U.S.?
SINGH: They were hard-core Christians. In Chennai, Christianity traces its history all the way back to St. Thomas the Apostle, who came to India. He actually died and his body was entombed in India. There was a large Christian community with several huge, huge churches. But the calendar tends to organize itself around mostly Hindu religion, and so it’s kind of like being here in the U.S. and being Jewish: You get Christmas off, you get Easter off but you don’t get any Jewish holidays off. Although we got Christmas off in India. Everyone celebrated almost every religious holiday in India. I remember celebrating the Hindu holidays and the Christian and the Muslim because every block, every family was a different religion so all the holidays meant more sweets for the kids. [Laughs.]
I do Indian dance which is based on a lot of Indian mythologies or religions, including Hindu and Muslim. And even then my family was very upset that as a Christian I was doing dances that portrayed other gods or things like that.
MW: Given that people tend to think of India as Hindu and Muslim, are people surprised to find that you come from a Christian family?
SINGH: They always ask me what’s my real name? And I’m like, ”My name is Daniel.” They have a hard time believing that I was named Christian growing up in India. So that’s one thing that people always assume, that my name is not Daniel when I grew up. They do assume I would be some other religion.
But I’m not a Christian, either. I think of myself as an atheist. I’m very spiritual — I practice yoga and that’s more about empowering yourself and divinity in humans. Although I don’t believe in any organized religions, I’m spiritual.
MW: Was that harder for the family than the gay thing?
SINGH: I think they just decided I’m going to go to hell and it didn’t matter which category I was going to hell for. I’m gay, I’m an atheist, and I’m like everything else that’s going to send me to hell. They figure that if they pray hard enough someday I might change. [Laughs.]
MW: You’ve spoken earlier about the importance of different kinds of dance, including dance as part of particular cultures. How do you see dance as part of the gay community’s culture?
SINGH: For gay men dance is a place to affirm their bodies and their sexuality in ways in which they are not able to in many other places. The body is very important to gay men and so dance is another way that they affirm their bodies and their sexuality. In D.C. we have a gay salsa group, the D.C. Cowboys, salsa at Club Chaos every Thursday — I find that so exciting. The dance scene in the gay community is huge, it’s almost like a trance-like place. I sometimes go there with friends and we dance, dance, dance and like it’s suddenly 4 a.m. That’s what dance does to you. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke — dance is what does that for me. There’s the physical rush that people get out of dancing that the gay community has tapped into.
MW: Do you see dance as a growing part of the local arts community?
SINGH: I think it’s growing but slower than I would like. People still think of New York and California as the places for dance. I would love to see dance grow sooner and faster but I think it will have to come from a community place rather than from the city or from foundations. It will have to be the community driving the movement forward and saying it is something we value and want. I think D.C. is perfect for that, because of the immigrant communities and the gay community — all these communities that rely so heavily on dance — have a huge presence here. If we can tap into that energy and tie these groups together and find a way to sustain dance that would be wonderful. That would be my dream to connect the immigrant community, the gay community and the other dance communities, rather than all of us trying to work in these little pockets. That would be ideal.
Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh & Company performs its annual spring show Saturday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Feb. 26 at 7 p.m. at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre at American University. Tickets are $20-$50 and can be purchased by calling 202-885-2587 or visiting www.dakshina.org for more information.