The Beat of 24th and Mission

By Christine Joy Ferrer

If you stand at the corner of 24th and Mission in San Francisco and listen closely you can hear its heart beat. Its rhythm echoes from the windows of Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater (DMT). You hear it in the laughter of children dancing and youth bustling. The beat intensifies as you walk up DMT’s stairs with Japanese Taiko drumming and the colorful rhythms of dances from the African Diaspora: Cuban, Haitian, Brazilian, West African. Or maybe, it’s that Vogue and Tone.

Various communities overlap inter-culturally and inter-generationally in this space—drawn together by performances, festivals, and dance that’s accessible to everyone. People hang out in the halls or enjoy the Mission’s warmth on the fire escape. Even when classes have ended for the evening, their brilliant fire stays lit during the booming late night rehearsals of Ramón Ramos Alayo’s Alayo Dance Company or Allan Frias’ Mind Over Matter.

In the interviews on the following pages, DMT’s Krissy Keefer, artistic director of Dance Brigade and Grrrl Brigade, and Stella Adelman, theater/adult program manager, voice their opinions about the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community at the intersection of arts and politics.

In 1984, Keefer founded Dance Brigade, a high-powered social justice feminist, multicultural dance/theater company. In 1998, Dance Brigade opened the 140-seat Dance Mission Theater at 24th and Mission Streets in San Francisco. DMT’s mission is to continue the movement arts legacy of the location by engaging diverse Bay Area communities and artists in the exploration of contemporary social issues by creating, producing, presenting, and teaching feminist and multicultural dance and theater.

Birth of a Homogeneous Community

It’s hard to imagine the space at 24th and Mission as anything other than the DMT. But with the rapid gentrification of the area with its high-end housing, upscale retail, and expensive services, and consequent displacement and destruction of existing communities, especially low-income communities of color—it’s a very credible scenario. (See Wilson, pg. 101)

In the past, the owners of DMT’s home at 3316 24th Street used to offer Dance Brigade a five-year lease at a time. Most recently, Dance Brigade was offered a single-year lease with a $2,200 rent increase.

“When you lose access to property to make your ideas and have a place to live that isn't the majority of your rent, you lose creativity, you lose community, you lose wholeness, you lose diversity, and you lose the heart and soul of what made this area so incredible,” says Keefer.

“Valencia Street, Union Street, Hayes Valley—it doesn't matter,” she adds. “There's an identified consensus on what’s development and what’s serving the population. It all looks the same. It looks like an upper class mall. It's a corporate mentality takeover. Even if the individual restaurants aren't corporate, there is a corporate look and feel to the aesthetic. Is this really the culture we want to live in?”

The kind of gentrification this city needs is more community-led, with development that provides greater amenities, services, and economic opportunities. More parks, more public art and creative outlets, better schools, greater access to healthy food options, more jobs, increased public transportation—that’s what’s vital.

DMT recently joined Calle 24—made-up of various community organizations and Mission businesses including mom-and-pop restaurants, panaderías, an auto body shop, and record store—to collaborate and rally around the planning and development along 24th Street. Calle 24 has identified its own institutions that have been gobbled up by the expansion of the boutique and restaurant culture.

At the Intersection of Arts and Politics

In the wake of San Francisco’s current evictions and community displacements, Dance Brigade presented the installation Hemorrhage: An Ablution of Hope and Despair, which captures the current crisis in world affairs by focusing on the connection between global warming, war, racism and the continued attack on the rights of women. Using the Mission as its backdrop, it shows womanhood exiled from the city and evicted from homes.

“Everything Krissy does is political!” says choreographer and performer Allan Frias, who’s been teaching at the space for about 20 years, from back when it was called Third Wave. “She is very inspiring. She inspired me to do a dance show a few years ago about people in prison and police brutality.”

“They’ve assisted me with my productions and with writing grants,” he adds. “They’ve don’t turn their backs on people, especially those with low income. I treat this place like home. When I die, I want to be buried in a coffin in Studio Three.”

DMT serves a diverse group of Bay Area artists, master teachers, audiences, and students of all backgrounds. Many female artists, artists of color, and culturally specific ensembles consider it their artistic home. DMT offers affordable theater and rehearsal space for low-income communities, plus artist development programs and dance instruction for adults and youth.

Stella Adelman, DMT program director and theater manager, was born and raised in San Francisco’s Mission District and is one of the lucky ones who still lives there in a rent-controlled apartment. She first set foot in the space in the 1990s when it was Third Wave, and her mother took lessons from Haitian dance teacher, Blanche Brown.

“I got tired of being dragged along to watch and one day I decided to dance,” says Adelman. “Like most of us here at Dance Mission, once you're in, you're in for life. The community here is real. A lot of times people try to make community. I don't think it's something you can set out to make, per se. It’s something that has to be authentic and has to come from a heart.”

About 400 youth, ages two to 18, and about two thousand adults come to DMT on a regular basis to learn world dance forms. Its productions bring in 15 to 18 thousand people per year. The city should be investing in cultural centers like the DMT, which empower a community. And if the city doesn’t, the people will.

Dance Mission has collected $10,000 in donations thus far. To donate now, please visit dancemission.com. Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for reimaginerpe.org and contributing editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. She is also the founder of eyesopenedblog.com. Interviews transcribed by Daniel Salazar.

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Interview with Krissy Keefer
Interview with Stella Adelman

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Dance Mission Theater's Krissy Keefer and Stella Adelman speak on the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community.

Interview with Krissy Keefer, DMT Artistic Director of Dance Brigade and Grrrl Brigade

Dance Mission Theater's Krissy Keefer voices her opinions and concerns about the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community at the intersection of arts and politics.

Interview with Krissy Keefer

Christine Joy Ferrer: Tell me a little bit about who you are, and your role at Dance Brigade’s Dance Mission Theater.

Krissy Keefer: I am an artist, an activist, and a mother. I’ve been running Dance Mission since 1998, but I’ve been an artist my entire adult life. A group of women [and I] formed the Wallflower Order Dance Collective in Eugene, Oregon and performed all over the United States, Europe, Latin America, and Canada doing very bold feminist dance theater. That’s a 40-year career at this point. I’ve been creating social justice art for nearly all of my adult life. I run Dance Mission with those principles and out of a strong feminist belief about equity and fairness and multiculturalism. I really try to dig into the hearts and minds of struggling people everywhere in order to create the kind of art I make.

Ferrer: How are the arts used as a catalyst for social change?

Keefer: Throughout history there have been art exhibitions, performances, and writings that have served as wakeup calls for the communityIsadora Duncan, Guernica, Stravinsky, Pablo Neruda, Lorca, all the Nueva Trova artists and poets from Latin Americathey all reflected and led the people in an understanding of their current conditions through art. That is very powerful, transformative, and threatening to the status quo. I like to think of myself in that tradition of art and social justice. I also think that sometimes people who aren’t necessarily artists [think of] artists as being an anomaly, [art as] something separate from what’s actually happening in the daily lives of people. For me, art isn’t separated, it’s my whole life. It’s something you do, like taking out the garbage, washing the dishes, or running a business.

You don’t have any culture in the world that does not have art, just like you don’t have any culture that does not have food. Art is people. Art is life. Art is. I just choose to use my art and my talents to further a social agenda. I get a lot of questions about how art changes the world. Well, it’s any way people organize. Thought patterns change the world, and I happen to do it through dance and theater.

Ferrer: How do artists explore social issues on the dance floor and foster collective action in the streets?

Keefer: Artists are smart and capable of making a lot out of nothing. They are forceful when they want to be in getting their ideas across, so artists are good representatives of social change. They’re good negotiators and they pitch ideas well. Just being present and participating in activities that are already happening is really helpful to those organizations. There are a lot of art actions happening. The ones that are shutting down the Google buses are doing a lot of artistic displays as part of their process. Demonstrations against the war were highly visual and creative in terms of dance, music, drumming, puppets, and elaborate artistic displays of culture and resistance.

Ferrer: What happens when art isn’t happening from the ground up?

Keefer: The ground is usually poverty and the up usually means entitled and well paid. I have a personal belief system that what comes out of a community that is struggling, unfortunately, is the most powerful. The art that’s highly institutionalized with an extreme amount of professionalism and an enormous amount of money actually stagnates impulse. I think that’s why you have masses of people around the world imitating African culture from the United States via hip-hop, jazz, or whatever. These people have struggled their entire lives and their art reflects the deepest sort of humanity, struggle, wisdom, and beauty. They’ve had to have that in order to survive. Unfortunately, rich white people don’t actually have to do anything to transform because they’ve got everything at their disposal all the time and all their needs are constantly met. The art that comes out of that class of people isn’t that interesting.

Ferrer: How has the work of Dance Mission, as a multicultural community space, impacted the greater good of the Mission?

Keefer: When we moved in here this was a corner with lots more drug activity. There was a fear factor that I didn’t actually ever really feel, but a lot of people projected a lot of negativity onto it. I think that having the children’s program come in so strong actually helped keep the neighborhood moving. When you have parents and kids walking up and down the stairs everyday, all day long, it changes the character. Probably 1,200 people come through our building a week.

We’ve enriched the lives of a lot of kids. Traditionally, Latino families do not target modern dance as a path for their families or children. We’ve provided an opportunity for children and immigrant children to actually pursue modern dance as a career—or a pathway into high school, like the School for the Arts. We perform a lot here. Dance Brigade performs at Brava too. I’ve been around for a long time, so I have established strong relationships with people since the 1980s. We’re doing solidarity work for El Salvador, Nicaragua, and all of those struggles that happened [such as] the non-intervention movement.

Ferrer: Tell me about your experience with gentrification as a Mission resident.

Keefer: Today, Valencia Street is like a death zone. Valencia has a huge culture and backstory of being the lesbian Mecca. In the 1970s, lesbian businesses flourished up and down Valencia Street, anchored in part by the Women’s Building. Then, that whole area was really big for the next wave of lesbian artists like Michelle Tea. Now it’s nothing of interest to me—no vitality and no creativity. It’s a destination place for the 30-something crowd bar culture, restaurants, furniture stores, and boutiques. This area was cheap real estate where people without any money could move in, make a cultural expression, and gather in their own interests. People aren’t going to discover themselves on Valencia Street anymore.

It’s heartbreaking when the government colludes with the developers to tell us what our communities should be and look like. Whose idea was it to sprinkle the glitter on the sidewalks down Valencia? What they’re telling us by doing that is, the dirt and natural grime and accessible real estate for people to live together is no longer there. Now it’s going to be a restaurant… an upscale restaurant. You’re going to have to look this way to get in and you’re going to have to agree that getting this kind of food is actually the food that you want in order to be there.

I feel like we’re in a civil war here. There’s a general hostility between people making $150,000 a year starting salary and artists who are in their 50s making $40,000 a year. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t been affected by this, and I also feel like people have a deep anxiety about getting evicted. It feels very unstable and scary. The easy, relaxed situation is diminishing.

I’ve lived here a long time and watched lots of economies rise and fall. I’ve watched city governments and how they operate. This winner-take-all mentality is operating so seriously right now in terms of real estate. California’s in a major drought with many communities actually potentially losing their water source. What are the plans around that? Why are they just extracting more resources from the earth, building more high-rises, more high-end housing; where are the people in Northern California, who don’t have any water, going to go? I’m always stunned at the lack of a big picture among city officials and how much everybody falls into the trap that capitalism needs to be protected. If you can make money on your property you have a God-given right to make that money. That holds precedent. It’s business. Why does that dominate the landscape when there are so many other factors? It’s like gun control. Yeah, the Second Amendment says we have a right to have guns, and the Third Amendment says you have a right to make as much money as you want and those things dominate everything. It’s not indicative of a healthy, forward-thinking, female-centered, or any way of looking at how we need to live as a group of people.

It’s really important that the city support and preserve their cultural centers or you will have the most boring city on the face of the planet. It will be rich people of one age group, and it’ll be a bedroom community for Silicon Valley. There’ll be a complete corporate takeover. Those young people will leave eventually because there will not be anything here for them either.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for Reimaginerpe.org and contributing editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. She is also the founder of eyesopenedblog.com.

Interviews transcribed by Daniel Salazar

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The Beat of 24th and Mission
Interview with Stella Adelman

Interview with Stella Adelman, DMT Theater and Adult Program Manager

Dance Mission Theater's Stella Adelman voices her opinions and concerns about the current social and economic conditions in San Francisco’s Mission district and DMT’s commitment to its vibrant community at the intersection of arts and politics.

Interview with Stella Adelman

Christine Joy Ferrer: What is it that places Dance Mission Theater at the crossroads of arts and politics?
Stella Adelman: What we do, I’d call social activism. Dance Brigade, the dance committee that runs Dance Mission Theatre (DMT), consciously decides to address issues facing the present day—be they global warming, our embargo against Cuba, gentrification, or immigration.

Dance Brigade is a feminist dance company. We really support the female artist, artists–in- residence, and various cultural performances and festivals. And we curate our festivals [to feature] social-political themes.

For example, we did the Manifestival for Social Change: Like Oil and Water – From Gaza to the Gulf, right after the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It focused on the oil spill and oil politics in the Middle East right when we were pulling out of Iraq. It also looked at water issues in general, the privatization of water, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The CubaCaribe festival has become a way for Cuban artists, especially those who have recently immigrated to the States, to showcase their work. Ramon Ramos Alayo co-founded CubaCaribe to tap into the large talent pool represented by the significant community of Cuban and Caribbean artists who live and practice in the Bay Area. He leads by example as an immigrant who has figured out how to master our crazy capitalist system. Dance Brigade went to Cuba with Ramon to perform and since then there’s been on-going dialogue between DMT and Cuba.

Grrrl Brigade program is DMT’s explicitly pro-female, intensive dance/leadership development program designed to provide high quality dance training, performance opportunities, and a sense of self-empowerment to San Francisco girls, ages nine to 18. It’s a female empowerment program through dance and music. Girls are given the chance to take up space, be seen, and heard. We also work on staying affordable—art is not just for the elite.

Ferrer: DMT recently became a part of Calle 24 Latino Cultural Corridor (formerly, the Lower 24th Street Merchants and Neighbors Association), which was created in 1999 by a group of long–term residents, merchants, service providers, and art organizations concerned with quality of life issues in the community. Can you tell us a little about that?
Adelman: We had an ongoing conversation with the city to get the stretch of 24th Street from Mission Street to Potrero Avenue officially recognized as a historic district like North Beach, Chinatown, and Japantown—to get some leverage for funding and to draw attention to the cultural, arts, and community service organizations that exist [there] and have San Francisco recognize [them as] important cultural and city institutions. Hopefully, it will lead to some legislation in terms of how many coffee shops and restaurants can be on this street because everyone is scared about real estate and what’s going on. Dance Mission doesn’t even own its building, so we can get booted at any time.

But as part of Calle 24, we’ll have this whole organization behind us to put up a fight and the city, too, will believe in us. I’m a bit hesitant [to talk] about the city’s funding as it only gave to a handful of organizations on 24th Street and the way that [the money] was divvied up was kind of controversial. What if the city did it just to pat itself on the back? Then it could say, ‘Since we gave you that, we don’t need to do this.’ I’ve heard others say: ‘What about the rest of the Mission?’ Or ‘It’ll be like the Latino petting zoo where people will come and look at it as a Disneyland for Latino arts and culture.’

If the street is recognized, I think it will radiate out to other parts of the neighborhood. All parts of San Francisco have deep roots in Latino culture and art. California, in fact, used to be Mexico. DMT recently got involved when [Calle 24] was extended through Bartlett. This is a good first step. [There are] folks moving in who don’t put down roots. They’re here for a little bit but when they want to start a family or something they leave. Having this kind of a transient community leads to a lack of community.

Dance Mission is very much involved with what’s going on in the Calle 24 community. Knowing the folks at the panadería, the corner bodega, and the different arts organizations on both personal and professional levels means that if anything happens, we will possess the power to do something about it. There’s power in the masses and we can call on each other for support when necessary.

Ferrer: How has DMT’s work as a multicultural community dance and arts place impacted the greater good of the Mission? With the Mission being ground zero for gentrification culture in San Francisco, what has been your personal experience with gentrification and the development of high-end housing, upscale retail, expensive services, privatization and such, and how has it affected DMT?
Adelman: I’ve seen a lot of artists and activists forced to leave, and that’s heartbreaking. Yolanda and Renee, who started Galería de la Raza, are being evicted. Dance Mission’s lease was renewed only for a year and the rent was raised. I was born and raised in San Francisco and want to have my own kids here. I have absolutely no idea if I’ll be able to do that [or] find a two-bedroom house or apartment—not on any salary I’m making.

What’s super interesting, too—why is it only getting ‘cleaned up’ now when white, rich people are moving in? Everyone deserves safe neighborhoods… clean streets… good schools. Yet, they’re not given any preference until the demographics change. That’s what’s wrong.

This corner—24th and Mission—has always been a movement arts space. I think in the 1920s it was a ballroom and in the ‘60s it was a boxing ring. Third Wave moved in and it became a dance studio in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We’ve been here since 1998. This space has always celebrated the movement arts. There’s a legacy to uphold. The windows are huge and when you look out, you’re connected with the community—you see the protests, hear the proselytizing, see the demonstrations. The sound of our music and drums also wafts out the windows, from Alfie Macias’ baterías to the Taiko, Haitian, and West African drums. We offer work exchange opportunities for people who want to take classes and also rent the theater out for shows. It’s amazingly affordable, so we get a lot of people who wouldn’t come in otherwise.

The arts are changing in San Francisco. All this money is being put into the mid-Market area to ‘clean it up.’ It’s an area of San Francisco, like Bayview/Hunters Point or the Tenderloin, that ‘tourists won’t like.’ One of the ways to clean up is to put money into arts organizations that can move in and buy buildings, or to encourage specific organizations to do high-end projects there. A surprisingly large portion of grants for the arts goes to the symphony and to the San Francisco Ballet, while there are many other smaller, community arts organizations getting less funding.

I’m always in favor of more money going towards the arts because the arts get shafted all the time, but something about this makes me uncomfortable. It’s like a top-down approach—an artificial pumping up of an area, versus looking at and investing in organizations that are already working within the community, to help them succeed and expand. Doing this would facilitate the organic nature of things and strengthen communities.

That’s what makes DMT successful—its organic way of working. Our staff has either volunteered or interned first. Artists run into each other in the hallways and decide to collaborate. Our office is always open. We’ve built relationships and the artists have thrived from our support—whether by doing their publicity and writing proposals or just by providing encouragement.

More than anything, DMT pushes people. We see artists and we see their potential. To have that kind of support system is invaluable. It’s organic, authentic, and really community-based.

Christine Joy Ferrer is the web and design editor for Reimaginerpe.org and contributing editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment. She is also the founder of eyesopenedblog.com.

Interviews transcribed by Daniel Salazar. This interview has been condensed and edited.

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The Beat of 24th and Mission
Interview with Krissy Keefer