We Have Stories to Tell and Share

A Conversation with Joti Singh of Duniya Dance and Drum Company

By JILL RANDALL

Duniya Dance and Drum Company is a San Francisco Bay Area company that has been creating since 2007. Its social justice-focused work amplifies voices from the South Asian and African diasporas. Led by Joti Singh and Bongo Sidibe, they are artistic partners as well as life partners.

I got to sit down with Joti in February 2024 to reflect together on the company’s incredible work over the past 12 years and hear about the exciting projects for 2024. Duniya is exploring a wide range of topics and partnerships. Teaching is also integral to Joti and Bongo’s artistic life.

Note: This article was first published in Stance on Dance’s spring/summer 2024 print issue. To learn more, visit stanceondance.com/print-publication.

A drummer in the background with two brightly dressed dancers in the foreground with one leg raised and both arms raised. They perform outside with skyscrapers in the background.

Duniya Dance and Drum Company. Photo by Amal Bisharat.

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What was the first project you and Bongo worked on together? What brought you together?

Bongo and I are married. So I guess that was our first project!

Duniya had started before Bongo was in my life, as Duniya Dance Company. When we came together, we changed it to Duniya Dance and Drum Company because he is a drummer. Aside from doing South Asian dance, we incorporated West African dance and music.

I remember our first bigger-length performance at La Peña in Berkeley, California. That space was so accessible. They made it in such a way that we could present a pretty full production. We did a performance called Lanyee. We brought in artists from LA for that. We presented it later again at Dance Mission.

If you had only one or two sentences to describe Duniya Dance and Drum Company, what would you say?

Duniya is a South Asian- and West African-based performing company that centers community and storytelling. The stories we tell serve to put our communities’ histories and present struggles and joys front and center, bringing traditional art forms into the contemporary social justice lens.

What is on your calendar for 2024? And, what are your current artistic curiosities and themes?

We have two major projects. One is the African Arts Festival. This will be the fifth time we have done it. Previously, we had done it every three years. This time, we are doing it after just two years. We are trying to see if we can do it a little more frequently. We present Bay Area-based companies exploring the African diaspora. It is a free outdoor festival, which includes children’s activities, food, and vendors.

The first year we did it in the Mission on the street in front of the Baobab restaurant, co-presented with the African Advocacy Network. Then we did it at McLaren Park. This year we will be partnering with the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, who we have worked with multiple times in the past. The support from Yerba Buena helps with putting up the stage, paying for the venue, and we don’t have to deal with the city…it is much easier! It will be on Saturday, September 7th.

The other project we have is Raices et Résistance. This is the culmination of a multiyear collaboration with Susana Arenas Pedroso and her company Arenas Dance Company. This project explores the postcolonial relationship with Guinea and Cuba. Guinea’s first president Sékou Touré was aligned very closely with Castro’s government in Cuba, and therefore there was a lot of artistic exchange. Cuban music has actually had a huge influence on contemporary Guinean music. That performance will be in late October. We have a NEFA grant for it. It is exciting to know we have the opportunity to tour it a little bit next year.

In terms of choreographic curiosities, last year I premiered a piece called Ghadar Geet: Blood and Ink. This performance tells the story of my great-grandfather Bhagwan Singh Gyanee and the Ghadar party, which was a group of South Asian radicals based in the Bay Area fighting for India’s independence from the British in the early 1900s. When we did it last year, it was presented by When Eyes Speak, a South Asian choreographers festival, and in conjunction with the South Asian Radical History Walking Tour. Two community historians and activists, Barnali Ghosh and Anirvan Chatterjee, do this radical history walking tour in Berkeley. They curated a walking tour in San Francisco at important Ghadar party sites. They also talk about other histories: queer South Asian histories, post 9/11, even earlier history like the 1700s. Fascinating stories. Folks went on the tour and then ended near Dance Mission Theater and watched our performance.

We put so much into this performance and into this project. I am looking to do it again somewhere! But, at the same time I am struggling with disillusionment with the presenting model and the power dynamics. Presenters have certain things in mind of who their audience is and what their audience wants to see.

I am excited to be working with Eastside Arts Alliance to present some pieces of Ghadar Geet: Blood and Ink this August. In addition, filmmaker Priyanka Suryaneni is making a documentary film about my project and family history.

I also have been writing poetry. Like many, I am asking, “What is the purpose of dance and my work when a genocide is happening?” I wrote a poem for Refaat Alareer, and dancer Priti Ramaprasad performed with the poem at the recent Artists Against Genocide event at CounterPulse.

As Islamophobia rises, it always affects my community. Putting our brown bodies front and center – “Here’s what we do. Here’s how long we have been in this country. Here we are loud and proud.” That is always relevant and important.

We have a ton of Black History Month gigs. I am working on programming at the moment.

Bongo plays a djembe drum on stage outside while a crowd of people dance in a line on a path through the grass.

Bongo Sidibe. Photo by Amal Bisharat.

Do you still have your school in Guinea?

We don’t. When COVID happened, it transformed into a place where folks could come and get COVID supplies. It was a great learning experience. It served its purpose, and then the community needed something different. The space is still there, currently being used as housing. That is what is needed. Sometimes you feel like you have to keep something going, but this was a moment to listen and to pivot.

But, we are still leading trips to Guinea! We plan on doing one in December. Write to me at joti@duniyadance.com to find out more.

People can come for any amount of time. The trip will last two and a half to three weeks. Bongo will be there for one month. Folks take dance and drum classes every day. There is an island off the coast. We usually take people to the village and see that side of life. One of the greatest things about the trip, and what drew me to Guinea, is it is the opposite of here in the Bay Area. People are the center of everything. There is a lot of need, and as folks living in the west, it is valuable to see. People prioritize people. An unforgettable experience.

Heading into the topic of teaching: What would you say is the intersection of teaching with your artmaking? Or, what does it mean to be a teaching artist?

Teaching is such an integral part of Bongo’s and my identities as artists. Teaching for me is about making what we do accessible. Doing forms that are not a part of the mainstream. It is upon us to teach people about what it is we are doing. Bongo is in at least two schools each day Monday through Friday and teaches adults on Saturdays. As I was growing up in this country, I did not experience learning dances of other cultures.

For me, teaching is how I work to create community. I love to see students of mine who meet in my class and become friends. Some of my closest friends I have met in classes. There is such a community-building aspect of classes. To be the teacher facilitating that and creating an environment that is open and inclusive is really important.

For me now, I am teaching a lot less. I still teach at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts high school in San Francisco (SOTA). I started the world dance program there and directed it for four years. But I could not direct that and lead my company. I love the kids, so I still get to go and work with the kids. Some of the students have then come and danced with Duniya. At SOTA, they get four years. After four years of training with me, they know a lot about what we are doing. It is pretty cool.

Being a teaching artist means we get to share what we do. To share our perspectives and stories into more places. When I go to a school and see some Punjabi kids and they connect with the music, they have an experience I never had as a kid. That brings me so much joy. I know for Bongo too, when he connects with young Black boys at schools, that has a different weight for him.

I think it is really important to bring up the topics of rest, self-care, and burnout. What that means for you, Bongo, and your collaborators. It can feel relentless: teaching, rehearsing, performing… plus the grant writing, finding venues, and connecting with presenters. What supports you?

I have learned over the past two decades to say “no” better and to prioritize certain kinds of performances. Every day, every month, focusing on mission-driven work. To keep coming back to that. Is this feeding our mission? We don’t have to just say yes.

As I get older, my body is drawing some boundaries. I cannot teach every day AND do all the other things, including raising two kids. I have hired a grant writer and managing director. It is great to be in this place with staff, getting help, and not being afraid to spend money on that.

Paring down my teaching schedule helped me feel a little less overwhelmed.

But it is seasonal. Production season is so busy. After productions, I need to make space for care. Building in that time. Finding things that can feed us in a different way.

The older I get, the better I get at drawing boundaries. I cannot afford to not take care of myself.

Joti smiles and lifts one leg while one arm extends out and the other folds into her chest. She is performing outside in a bright green and purple costume.

Joti Singh performing at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival. Photo by Bruce Ghent.

Last question: What do you look for in a dancer?

I usually say, “50 percent their dance style and how they understand the technique of what we are doing and 50 percent who they are and how they mesh with the other dancers.” I feel blessed that we have been a relatively drama-free group. I think that is because it is not a competitive environment. We don’t look for people trained in both forms, but rather people trained in the relevant form – meaning we have two separate branches of the company: the South Asian and the West African, because they require their own individual training. I am willing to work on people’s training if they are dedicated and lovely to be with. Aligning with the stories. Community mindedness. And, picking up the choreography and hanging in rehearsals. When we are doing auditions, people will answer the question. “How do you align with our mission?” This is dance with a larger purpose. All our work is political because of who we are in this country. We have stories to tell and share.

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Find out more on Duniya’s website, including video links and online classes.

Jill Randall is a San Francisco Bay Area-based dance artist and the Artistic Director of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center.

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