Reimagining Ballroom with Rufi Oswaldo

Episode Notes

This week, Rufi Oswaldo calls in from Calgary. A former dancesport competitor, Oswaldo is now the artistic director of Dancers’ Studio West. He’s here to talk about the constraints he felt within competitive ballroom – including rigid gender roles – and how he moved into contemporary dance and pursuing a PhD researching same-sex partner dance. You can read a full feature on Oswaldo in The Dance Current’s Summer 2022 issue and online.


Mensah / Photo by Mikka Gia

Esie Mensah: Greetings, everyone. I’m Esie Mensah. And this is Currently in Dance, where we jump into stories published by The Dance Current magazine. Growing up, I loved dancesport. And for those of you who don’t know, dancesport is competitive ballroom dance. When I watched it, there was an energy and a power in the dance that truly made it magical. But even at a young age, I could tell that the demands were high. Like many other genres of dance, the disciplines are rigorous and demanding on the body. Many dance genres consist of parameters, meant to keep order in the form. That structure, whether it’s Tango, locking, traditional dances from the Philippines or Brazil, there are rules that you should follow. However, in dancesport, the rules once created to serve its form and also restrict it from progressing. For example, dancing with a partner of the same sex in contemporary dance is normalized. However, in dancesport, it is taboo. So, what happens when you re-examine these traditional genres of dance and break away from what’s deemed normal?

[Music Clip]

EM: That’s a little bit of Rufi Oswaldo and his partner Geoffrey Michael Dollar, performing a same sex contemporary swing dance at Ottawa Salsa Convention in 2019. There is a power and a grace that Rufi exudes when he dances as he builds the story between two bodies. He told me he felt especially nervous for this performance. Here’s why.

[Clip: And it was because I was presenting non-Latin form in a Latin congress but more than that, it was a same-sex partner dance in a traditionally heteronormative space. That was something that I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams growing up.]

EM: Those nerves were quickly overcome when a long line of well-wishers congratulated them. They realize they had made a lasting impression. Rufi told me and our producer Ashley Fraser, that this was a small example of the beginning of the dancesport community becoming more inclusive. Throughout Rufi’s childhood and into his career, he would question where he fit in. As a result, he has made a commitment to expand beyond traditional frameworks. In the summer of 2022, he was appointed as the artistic director of Dancers’ Studio West. And he is also a PhD candidate at York University where he is researching same sex partner dance. I wanted to invite him on the pod today to discuss a bit about his work navigating traditional and contemporary dance spaces, and how it has shaped his artistic and academic journey. Greetings Rufi. Thank you for joining us.

Rufi Oswaldo: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

EM: I’m so looking forward to chatting with you. We had such a lovely time in our pre interview and hearing your story, I just wanted to start from the beginning for our audiences. So that way they can hear a bit more about you, your childhood and the first time you started to become interested in dance, what got you into it?

Rufi Oswaldo

RO: Wow, it was quite a fluke, actually. I am very grateful that things happened the way that they did. I was a kid moving around a lot. My parents moved from school to school, and I happened to join a school that had two classes left. When I arrived, one of the classes was young astronauts. And the other class was beginning social dance. And it was a bit of a coin flip, to be honest. But I decided to go into social dance. And wow, that was the best decision. I remember going in that day, and the music was playing, really stark fluorescent lights in a concrete studio. And there was nothing special about the space. But when I stepped in there, the energy just overtook me and I knew that I had found something that I would be deeply passionate about for the next, well it’s been 20 years now, more than 20 years.

EM: Wonderful. Oh, that’s wonderful. And you’re, you know, you were raised Mormon as well. And to think that, you know, Mormon for me personally, I wouldn’t have considered Mormon and dance, or social dance being a way in terms of guiding, you know, young youth to be able to kind of find themselves and discover who they are. So how did that how did that seed transform into career in dance?

RO: Okay, so the interesting part about growing up in Utah, which is where, where I, like grew up, there is a large contingency of Mormons there. And dancesport actually happened to be one of the activities that they promoted as, you know, a healthy activity between young men and women to keep them out of trouble. And so, with the support of, you know, my, my religious community, I dove right in. And it was never about pursuing a career, at first. It was about just finding that one thing that brought you so much joy and focus into your life, and so it wasn’t about taking logical steps down a path that would eventually, you know, land me as some sort of stable income. It was more like, I can’t get enough of this, how can I dance more? How can I? How can I be a part of something bigger than me? So it was, I think, just the space to experience that sort of unbridled joy and passion was definitely foundational to my trajectory.

EM: There’s something about, you know, the joy of dance, that it can really help you, you know, for my career, that joy was the reason why I left university to pursue dance full time. So how did that shift from joy to, you know, now carving a path going down academia, like it opened up so much for you? What was that, that catalyst?

RO: Yeah, well, first of all, congrats, that’s not an easy decision to make. So, I commend you for doing that. But it’s, it’s a bit of a no brainer, you know, in in a few different ways. One, it’s that pursuing joy should be something that we don’t have to think about. It shouldn’t seem like a sacrifice. And so often in our society, it is kind of portrayed as this thing that you have to do at the expense of legitimate career or a serious career. But I think that it was really the only thing that captivated my imagination in such a way to lead me down continually in that sort of rabbit hole. And it was when you when you see a catalyst, I wouldn’t be able to pinpoint a specific moment where I was like, This is what I need to be doing with the rest of my life. It was more like I couldn’t imagine my every day without some sort of dance physical practice. And so, it was just a continual sort of everyday catalysts that, built on the day before that, you know, just one of those simple pleasures that gives life its sweetness.

EM: Thank you so much for that, Rufi. I’m going to ask you about your time and coming to Canada, but we’re going to take a quick break. So more with Rufi when we come back.

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So, Rufi, what inspired you to come to Canada?

RO: A lot of reasons. A lot of them that I won’t get into but mainly personal. I have family here and it was a way for me to be closer to family.

EM: And so, you, you traveled you went to Montreal and had also obviously been in Calgary, Calgary is where you are now what was that? What did you learn from your time being both in Montreal or living in Montreal as well as Calgary.

RO: I think every place that I’ve lived has taught me something special, and that I’ve also left a part of myself in those places. So, you’ve mentioned Montreal and Calgary, I’ve, I grew up in Utah, and I was born in Guatemala. And even in each of those places, I moved around a lot. And so even neighborhoods will have a special place in my heart. The specific moves that you talk that you asked me about, about Montreal that was a part of my service as a Mormon missionary. So, I was still very much a part of the church at that time. And I volunteered to, to do a proselytizing mission in Montreal for two years, I worked there full time on my own dollar, in order to share a message that I thought was, was good at the time. And eventually that became a moment of reflection and a realization about certain parts of me that actually were not compatible with a religion. And I decided to part ways at that time, but my time in Montreal was very instructive, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. You know, despite how, how complicated or how different it may seem to the outsider, it was somewhere where I learned a lot about myself and the world.

EM: Hmm. And, and it’s obviously it’s beautiful. We as obviously, as artists we reflect on, on sometimes the things that go wrong in our lives or the things that that might help guide us down a path that we may not even realize that we’re moving on to. And so that leads me in to focus on your PhD. When you were thinking about contemporary dances well, for me, when we think about contemporary dance and academics, we can see a history, you know, through institutions and research of how those two things fit together. You know, but for me, dancesport, personally, I don’t see, it feels very underrepresented in Canada, like in the academic stream in Canada. So, what are your thoughts on that? And then as a follow up, what do we gain or lose from theorizing our practices?

RO: I think to kind of frame the answer to this question, I have to admit that from the outside looking in, I am a collection of disjointed parts that don’t make sense. So, the idea of artistic practice and academic inquiry are sometimes at odds with each other. And to kind of zoom out and kind of make sense of these fragments that are all swimming in the pool of who I am, I would say that all my artistic and academic career come from the same place. And this place is trying to find a place for myself, trying to create a space for myself, and thereby creating space for people who are like me, or people who, who share similar values as me. So, when we speak about going through, first ballroom, and then contemporary and then back to ballroom in the same sex sort of context. And then when we talk about going from art, artistic practice, to academic inquiry, those are all efforts to try to make all of these pieces that I had no control in, kind of creating for myself, giving them the space to work together. To focus more specifically on my academic training, and the sort of opportunities and limitations that we gain from artistic practice and academic inquiry. It’s always ambiguous, there’s always benefits and always drawbacks. So, in terms of benefits, being able to dance with my whole mind, and my whole body is so empowering. As, as an artist, you might zero in and focus on some things so narrowly, that it’s, it’s difficult for people to relate to that. And then on the flip side, when you’re based exclusively in language or in text-based inquiries, it’s hard to feel like they’re alive, it’s hard to make books feel really vibrant sometimes. So, I do require both of them to feel a sense of balance, and a sense of holism in my practice. I think I’ve been very blessed in terms of my capacities, and my desires that I do really require creative and intellectual stimulation. I will say, though, that there, there are some limitations that I would put the Academy is a Western institution, and it is text based. And so as much as I would like to feel a sort of synergy between the mind and the body, the Academy does impose certain structures that make it really difficult to straddle those divides. My hope, though, is that by participating in both circles, that I can change both, that I can bring this sort of a sense of criticism, and yeah, critical thinking to the to a more embodied form and bring embodiment to a more disembodied academic practice.

EM: There’s so much information in that Rufi and but it’s beautiful because you know, dancing with your whole mind, it opens up people’s you know, being, spirits, physical self in a way that actually allows you to believe that like, oh, yeah, you know, I can dance with my with my whole mind when I’m trying to think about, you know, academia and my work, you know, I do Afro fusion. So, thinking down the road of going down, of joining the institutions is definitely something that I would love to move towards, but thinking about the barriers that are in place, for people of color, for people that dance outside of traditional forms, there are massive barriers, and I hear them all the time. And so, I appreciate you speaking about that. Because, you know, in these institutions that are changing, that are welcoming diverse thought and diverse beings, it’s important that we expand beyond the norm to really understand how do we create a better landscape with dance? You know, it’s really for me, it’s, it’s really important. And so, to bring in the next question. How did you land on this topic of research for your PhD?

RO: So, my topic of research is “Haptic Performances of Same-Sex Partner Dance.” And again, that links directly to trying to create space for, for different experiences. I’ve focused on masculinity, not because there aren’t enough things that talk directly or indirectly about masculinity, but I think that we need to, we need to give the onus of the solution on to the people who are most frequently responsible for their, for their existence. So, the onus of solving toxic masculinity is with men or male identifying people. So, it’s, it’s much less of a, it’s a criticism on masculinity and how it is that we can create space for caring masculinities and yeah, and empathy. So, to cycle back to this observation that you made about the different barriers that you mentioned, they do exist. And because I have received enough abilities to work within the school system, this topic is the one that I feel that I can best address within the Academy and receive support in order to then veer off and create more space for, for communities later on. So, it’s that age old idea of working within the system to change the system. And it’s, and it’s through this topic that I feel that I can, I suppose, leverage seems calculating and manipulative somehow. But if that’s the only word that’s coming to mind, but it’s to leverage the, the opportunities that I have, in order to provide more space for others.

EM: No, definitely use what you got, and use it to your advantage. You know, and using that to your advantage, actually, obviously allows you to be able to open up further doors for so many people to be able to think about things differently. And hopefully for them to also find ways to work within the institution and to also expand the ways in which that it might keep you a little bit smaller in thought, but even then, that can actually grow a lot of opportunities. And, you know, in our pre interview and even something that you just mentioned, you’re you speak a lot about the duty to your community and why is it important for you to represent all of who you are in your work?

RO: That’s the only gift I can give. Simple as that. Everything else would be a farce. And so, I do feel, I love that word duty, even though it’s kind of funny at the same time, duty. Sorry, that’s my immature moment for the day. I do love that because in a talkback that I had in a show I hosted recently, I asked about artistic freedom. And most of the artists responded that they felt most free when they were part of a community. And I found that absolutely fascinating, that for me, community implies responsibility, it implies accountability and dialogue and, and having to negotiate constantly with other people, share space. And that was their idea of freedom. And I feel that my sense of duty comes from the same sort of place, that I really am not anything without my community. And there is nothing that I would want more than to, again, provide space for people to just be themselves to give the gift that only they can give as well.

EM: That’s so beautiful. It’s so beautiful, you know, community is everything. And obviously, as folks of the global majority, you know, community is embedded in our heritage and who we are. And so, it’s beautiful to find, you know, for people to find freedom, to find themselves within the communities is wonderful. To jump into the next question for you, I know that there has been much growth over the years since you debuted your performance with your partner. But what do you see as the new standard? Or do you see the growth as becoming a new normal, in the dancesport world?

RO: That’s a very good question. I can’t comment or control or, you know, forecast what the dance world will think, do, say, in the future, that’s outside of my hands. But given the response that I’ve been receiving, in terms of just following the performances that I’ve offered, also the interest in my research, I can see that there is a momentum, there’s a sense of openness and direction with and maybe an appetite to, to provide more space for I guess, authentic expressions within the dancesport world.

EM: Mm hmm. Yes, appetite. I was like, that’s a fantastic word. You know, in terms of just to be able to describe that, but we are going to step away for a quick break, you got to pay these bills. Thank you, Rufi. We will be right back.

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Yes. So, another space you are serving your community is your role as Artistic Director of Dancers’ Studio West, also known as DSW. How have your experiences in your career both artistic and academic prepared you to lead this organization?

RO: I had received numerous compliments in a show that I produced through DSW very recently. And I felt that they were wholly undeserved. I’ve done a lot. Yes. And I do want to honor the sort of effort that I’ve put into these festivals. But I felt that they were wholly maybe misdirected, because my job was to step out of the way. And there has been a sense of relief from the artists with whom I’ve had the pleasure of speaking, they’ve expressed that sometimes the expectations that they have, or that they think others have on them, have really limited them. But when I’ve stepped out of the way or provided a sense of, of kind of a blank canvas for people to experiment with new ideas or to develop existing ideas, they have sensed a sense of support and freedom. I think that my personal life, my artistic and academic career have prepared me to kind of adopt this stance. Most recently in my academic world, in my academic training is my role as an ethnographer. So, an ethnographer is an anthropologist and basically it means writing down certain things. And there are a lot of discussions regarding positionality, as well as bracketing the self. So, one idea is that you are very much involved in the research that you’re conducting. And by nature of you conducting this research you are causing an effect, your presence is felt, you are changing things by doing this. So, we can’t be a fly on the wall, we can’t write as if nobody is actually there, there was a man at that, no, I saw a person in the you know, it’s you have to, to be present. At the same time, you have to reflect critically on your own biases. And in the course of pursuing to become a better ethnographer, I feel I have become a better person. Because I have had to really critically reflect on a lot of uncomfortable truths about the society in which I was raised, and about how those views have informed my own. And so, by doing that sort of work, I have been able to be really present, but also remove my biases from harming the places where I’m observing. So that kind of balance between being present, but allowing space for things to unfold naturally, I think has really informed and, and supported my sort of approach to serving as the artistic director. And all of that has been facilitated by my life as a multifaceted individual who has had to be different things in different
spaces. An energetic artist, and director engaging and being assertive and clear in my directions, but then shifting and becoming a very teachable person focusing on listening as I as I read my books, or attend lectures, and all of the shifts that I have to do on a daily basis regarding my gender and sexual identity expressions, as well as being a Latino and in Canada, speaking Spanish one second and speaking English the next has given me the sort of flexibility to bring out the tools that I need in the appropriate time.

EM: Wonderful. With all that you said, how does now that funnel with creating a vision, creating aspirations for the future for DSW?

RO: I think that factors into my acute awareness that I can’t do this alone, and that I am one person, and that it’s not about me, and that for any sort of service to resonate, it has to be in dialogue with the community for whom the service is intended.

EM: Yeah, you know, Rufi I can’t wait to meet you. I’m just gonna tell you that right now. I can’t wait till we meet and break bread because there’s, there’s just so much, and so much richness, that I really hope that people are taking this in and continue to support you on your journey. I have to say, Rufi Oswaldo I thank you so…

RO: Nice!

EM: Yeah. Yep. I’ve been working on it, guys, you know, my name is not one that’s easy to pronounce. So, I wanted to make sure that I shout out the people with how they say their names and making sure they’re pronounced properly. So, I’m actually going to get you to say it quickly.

RO: Sure. My name is Rufi, Rufi Oswaldo.

EM: Beautiful. Thank you so much, Rufi, for this conversation for your time, for the gems, for the knowledge that you have shared, I hope, I have learned so much from the short time together and I really hope that audiences do as well. Rufi Oswaldo is the artistic director of Dancers’ Studio West. He is a PhD candidate at York University. You can find him online @rufi.oswaldo, and if you need to read more about Rufi you can find a full feature about his life and work in the summer issue of The Dance Current available on newsstands July 6. If you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe to Currently in Dance wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode. Currently in Dance is brought to you by The Dance Current with support from Canadian Heritage. The Dance Current gratefully acknowledges Currently in Dance season sponsors Timothy Ziegler and The Shoe Room at Canada’s National Ballet School. Our sponsors and advertisers are not involved in the editorial process. The show is produced by Ashley Fraser. Our consulting producer is Nicole Inica Hamilton, our executive producer is Grace Wells-Smith. Our sound engineer is Chris Dupuis at 1990 Studios. Our editor and composer is Jamar Powell, and I’m Esie Mensah. Thank you for listening to Currently in Dance. Subscribe, listen and don’t forget to move.