Forty Years of Heart and Spirit: A Conversation with Bayan Jamay and Elvia Marta | By Maya Kitayama

Elvia Marta and Bayan Jamay Photo by Rebecca Wilkowski

Elvia Marta and Bayan Jamay
Photo by Rebecca Wilkowski

Maya Kitayama: Could you briefly explain your training and performance background?

Bayan Jamay: Oh, well how long do you have?

Elvia Marta: I’ve been dancing since I was 19. I started with Afro and modern, and I danced with local companies here in the Bay Area. I also danced with San Francisco Opera Ballet, Halifu Osumare and have been teaching for about 40 years in the community. I was on the East coast for a year and three months, and I danced with two companies over there and taught a million classes a week. I have a BA and teaching credential from SF State and I am the dance director at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts here in San Francisco. I just completed my 33rd year there, I’m going to do one more year and then I’m going to retire, but I am going to stay connected to the school and continue to teach my adult classes here. I love teaching here. I love the space because, aside from the obvious professionalism of the space, I love the embracing, the welcoming, and the love that exist here. It’s just a really harmonious place to be and that’s really exciting because that’s not always true of everywhere you go. This is an amazing home to be in. I performed for a long time, I don’t anymore so I’m just teaching and taking classes six days a week.

BJ: I’ve been teaching in the Bay Area since ‘77, and before that I was teaching in Boston for 3 or 4 years, slowly building up the level of my class. I teach intermediate modern jazz blues, which is sort of loosely based on my root, which was Alvin Ailey second generation Consuelo Atlas, who was a soloist as well as my mentor, and she gave me the style. She has since passed away and so my mission is to keep the style going. I teach twice a week, I don’t perform. I used to be in a company years ago, but performing is not my thing, teaching is my thing.

MK: Could you explain modern-jazz blues in your own words?

BJ: It’s a mixture, it starts with Ailey’s style, so it has Horton, Graham, Limon, ballet, gospel.

EM: Afro-jazz.

Together: It’s a fusion.

BJ: And we do a lot of contemporary music, and some of it is really old, but we do complete pieces of choreography, so that people don’t have to be a company to get a chance to dance. We both do long combinations that fill up a piece of music, then we move on to the next piece of music.

EM: And it can be anywhere from three minutes to six minutes.

BJ: We train technique, while a lot of jazz classes and contemporary classes just do a warm-up. We work on technique a lot at the beginning of class, because there is a lot of technique involved in the style and so we want to make sure people are developing that.

MK: Is the style something that you two have created and let evolved over time?

BJ: The name came from Consuelo.

EM: Yes, Consuelo who danced with Ailey and Bayan were on the East coast. I was here, and one of my main teachers was Raymond Sawyer who was connected to Ailey. So we were getting the same thing on the two coasts from that root of Alvin Ailey. When we met, it was like “wow,” we were both doing the same thing and we ended up dancing with the same company that she was already in and I auditioned for.

BJ: Also, she came from an Afro root initially. I came from a ballet root initially. We got this style, and we feed each other, so it’s been continuously evolving.

EM: The essence of Ailey is still very strong. It’s very gutsy. Sometimes dance can become intellectual for people, and we’re all about the heart and the spirit. Even though you’re working on technique and that can become a mental exercise for many people, we try to teach it in a way that people are still in their heart, and so they’re feeling what they’re doing, and not just thinking “oh, my hip goes there and my foot goes there.” It’s really important for both of us to have the spirit and the emotion that is part of dance be alive and well. It’s something that sometimes people just take out for whatever reason. I’m not judging by any means, we won’t do that, but I think it’s an important part that needs to be included.

MK: Between the two of you, for your classes at ODC, what do you believe is important to communicate to your students?

EM: Of course the spirit and the emotional component, but also the technique. Because technique is really important, I think that having technique allows you to free yourself and we want our students to be as out there as possible. Now, in order to be out there, you need to have a foundation, so we really teach with that in mind all the time. Personally, and I know Bayan feels this way, I feel that dance is a vehicle, as humans, for us to fly in a different way from flapping our wings and going up. The spirit, it’s able to just take off, spiral out. I always have that in mind when I’m teaching. That I want people to abandon themselves so much…

BJ [Nodding]: I was just gonna say “let go.”

EM: Yeah, let go. So they can actually feel themselves in a different sphere, if you will. Because it is possible to do that.

BJ: I also try to tell my students to ride on the music. To stop dancing from their brain, and become the voice or the instrument, or whatever we’re dancing to, and to try and forget in a way that it’s a dance class and ride on that.

MK: In the opposite respect, what has teaching taught you over the years?

BJ: Everything about life! I’ve learned everything about life is simulated in that room.

EM: Well, dance simulates life, and vice versa. Everything that you’re working on in there, you can step out of the studio and go into life and find that there is a correlation between the two, they are not separate at all. And I know that for me too, I’ve learned so much about myself and my strength and my power. I don’t mean power in the way of greediness, in the way that people sometimes think of power. By power, I mean believing in myself, and believing in the work that I’m doing, and learning to be really authentic because you know, you’re naked when you dance and you cannot be coming from a place of lie, you have to be honest. All of that has been cultivated into this really refined place for both of us. And it’s a really beautiful thing. One of those things that’s beautiful about teaching too is that you learn from your students, and the things that they can do, the things they cannot do, how to help them do it, how to help them through their own insecurities, and stuff like that. By trying to help them connect to their power, you are actually in the process of learning even more for yourself. Dance has given me everything, because I can go way, way back. I started when I was 19, I needed something to save my life and dance pretty much did that for me. It really saved my life from unfortunate situations and really challenging stuff.

BJ: It’s a passion for both of us.

EM: We don’t dance because we want to dance; we dance because we have to.

BJ: And teaching has been my passion, performing I don’t care about, choreographing—I choreograph for class, but my passion is teaching.

MK: Do you find the connection between you and the students is more rewarding for you?

BJ: We come to class a half hour before; we hang out with our students. The only time there is a difference in level, is when we’re in the room starting class, we’re the teachers, and they’re the students. As soon as we leave that room, we’re all together.

EM: Our classes are a community. Many of our students have been with us for 20, 25, 30 years.

BJ: Some 40.

EM: From the very beginning. We socialize outside of the studio, sometimes we decide to have dance parties, or you know if somebody is having a birthday, we go to that, or we go out to dinner. And if somebody is having a hard time, with either illness or something like that, we are all there. I mean, we are a true community; it’s not just a dance class. I tell this to my teenagers, I tell them dance is a vehicle for more, and that is definitely something that has happened. You know, through dance we have been able to create this community of people that we can trust.

BJ: It’s a very regular group of people that come. People drop in, some stay, that varies, but there is a core group that has been traveling together.

EM: And they’re all friends, and they socialize outside separate from us. They get together outside of class. It’s really funny, because if you could indulge me for just a second, when we were in Boston, we had this woman who did our [astrological] charts. And it was right before we were coming back to San Francisco. She said “I know you’re going to San Francisco and you’re going to go teach dance, but really what you’re going to go do over there is create a community.” And we’re like “hm, okay.” And I believe in community. I’m from Panama originally, and the village is a community there. It’s not like single house, nuclear family, it’s like the entire village takes care of all the kids. I very much believe in community, so when she said that, it was very exciting for me because it’s nice to be a part of a group of people who are honest, respectful, talented and caring. It’s just a beautiful thing to have, and I wish everybody could have that because it makes a difference in one’s life.

BJ: To add to that, that’s one of the reasons I love teaching here. Because this studio in particular feels like it embraces everyone. Doesn’t matter what style you’re taking, doesn’t matter if you’re doing exercise or ethnic or ballet.

EM: And it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a professional.

BJ: I Iove walking into this lobby and seeing people talking to each other, some are reading, some are eating; there really is a community here.

EM: And people actually acknowledge each other, which is a big thing. Dance is funny that way, because while it’s global, because people all over the world dance, dance can be weird too, because people can become so self-absorbed and stuff that it can be cold and here it just doesn’t matter when you walk in here, and who you run into, it’s absolutely stunning.

BJ: And the front desk folks are always taking care of us, and are warm. I just feel taken care of here.

EM: You run into Kimi, Brenda, KT, company members or other teachers, there is a connection, it is absolutely beautiful. I can spend the rest of my life here, we both can.

MK: Going back to your classes, do you both utilize a similar structure?

EM: We have our own individual classes, we just happen to teach the same style, and we happen to teach the same students, and we can sub for each other. But she has her own warm-ups and stuff that she does, and I have my own thing.

BJ: And she takes my class and I take her class.

EM: If we’re in the same room and something happens to me, she’ll take over the teaching and vice versa. But it’s our own style. And we’ve had adversity in our lives, you know surgeries and such. So she’s taught my class many times, I’ve taught her class many times, we keep things going because we believe in consistency. We rarely go away to anything, vacations and stuff.

BJ: And we rarely cancel class, unless the studio tells us we have to.

EM: We have our own thing, because I’m my own person. We’re married and we’ve been together for 39 years, and just got married last year in April because it’s legal. But I need to be a pillar by myself as well as she does. And so we’re two pillars standing side by side and we support each other to the end. And if either one of us needs to lean, we’re there to hold the next person up. But it’s important to be an individual too because your own personal journey cannot be sacrificed. And we’re on this journey together, but we also have our own personal journeys. We came from different places, experienced different things.

BJ: It’s nice because we feed each other.

MK: Is there one really special moment or memory that was particularly significant or inspiring that has managed to stick with you?

BJ: I can tell you one thing that changed my life, which is the first time I saw Consuelo Atlas teach a dance class. She had just left Alvin Ailey and somebody brought me to her class. I had been doing ballet for exercise, didn’t care about it that much. And I saw her teach and my heart just fell out of my chest, and I thought, “that’s what I want to do with my life.” And I started taking class with her 8 times a week, and eventually she started me teaching. I would say that’s the biggest moment for me.

EM: Well, if we’re gonna go way back there… There are so many things that have happened in the studio in terms of connection with adult students and for me also at the high school with my teenagers, because I’ve been doing that for 33 years.

BJ: She’s been a mom.

EM: I have a million things that I could speak about; it’s really hard for me to pick one thing.

But in terms of dance, how it changed my life, it would be the person who told me I should dance when I was 19. My school had an international week and my sister and I decided to do salsa dance, because we grew up in Panama and Panama is a dancing culture where everybody does salsa. We brought our brothers and I was in my last semester of high school and the teacher there saw my sister and I dance and she came to us and said, “you need to dance.” And we were like “huh? What do you mean we need to dance?” And she’s like “you need to take dance classes, and start training.” I didn’t even know that you could be a dancer. Panama is a dancing culture but I didn’t know you could go to a studio. I had never taken a class; I had no idea that you could do that. And so she introduced me to the life I live today. And it did change my life. Like I said earlier, it helped me with all kinds of things when I needed help. But this person, Yvonne McClung is her name, is really integral in what’s happening with me today. I was 19, I’m 64 now and I’m still on that path that she opened my eyes to.

BJ: It’s interesting though, we both have the same kind of thing where we got struck by lightning and it took our lives in a different direction, like we both took a right turn.

EM: In terms of students, the connections with the adults, I mean they’re all just amazing, and we all have a communal relationship as well as individually with each person and that has been just absolutely incredible. And with the kids? To be able to be a mother without birthing has been like a gift. And I love those kids so much, they’re amazing. Just absolutely precious, and I like feeding them so that they can grow to be not just beautiful dancers, but incredible human beings.

MK: What sets ODC apart from other dance centers and other dance schools?

BJ: The openness, the willingness to embrace each other. The variety of styles that are offered. The beautiful space, the people who work here. I love being here. It’s home. We both came from Rhythm and Motion. We came on the tail of Rhythm and Motion’s exercise classes, we taught at Rhythm and Motion for 20 years, it was a wonderful experience, but it wasn’t a studio like this.

EM: It wasn’t like a major dance force.

BJ: And it’s really a pleasure to have all these different people come through and we get to teach them.

EM: What sets this apart? I mean that’s a really big question. And it is an important question. I’m going to say one of the main things that set this place apart is people’s behavior towards each other. That’s a big one. because being in the dance community, not just here but other places too, you get to experience so many things, some up, some down. But there is a consistency here of caring, loving, respecting, embracing and cherishing everybody in respect of who they are and what they’re doing that I really, really love. And I think that’s unusual in many ways. You may go to places where the experience can be good, you may have a lot of very beautiful people and stuff like that, but there are inconsistencies as well. And here, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a negative energy from anybody. Teacher, student, office worker, front desk, it’s just the positiveness of this place, it’s infectious, it’s incredible. And I wish that that was carried throughout all the dance communities everywhere because dance is difficult all by itself and I don’t think you need to have any negativity around it, it’s hard enough and I think that supporting each other, it’s really what we need to be doing.

Bayan Jamay teaches Thursday evenings at 6:45pm and Saturday afternoons at 2pm. Elvia Marta teaches on Tuesday evenings at 6:45pm and Saturday afternoons at 3:30pm. 

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