JT Torres: Performance Research

 The banner of “Secrets Under the Skin,” from Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby’s/University of Alaska’s .edu page. 

Jill found me. This is an important distinction to make, she
often reminds me. She’d read my MFA thesis, a novel about my grandmother’s life
in Cuba—a
life filled with spirits and ambiguous religious convictions. When she found
me, I was teaching developmental writing at University of Alaska-Anchorage, my
third “home” in three years. I had taken to a peripatetic life of my own,
wandering with the wind, as grounded as a ghost.

Jill is the Chair of the Dance Program at University of
Alaska-Anchorage. She had lived in Cuba
and devoted the majority of her research to investigating the connection
between the Arará in Cuba
and the Ewe in Ghana.
“You are exactly whom I’ve been looking for,” she said. We
first met in her office. The snow outside her window, illuminated blue by the
brief couple hours of winter daylight, filled her office with a dreamlike aura.
Books spilled from her floor to ceiling shelves. Papers piled on the floor. I
had to move a VCR from the chair in order to sit. She spoke like she’d known me
for years, like she’d been looking precisely for me.
“Want to go to Cuba?” she asked. I’d never been. I
felt like a fraud writing about the island, claiming it as part of my identity,
especially in her presence. I didn’t know whether she was genuinely asking me
or mocking my spurious claims to the country.
“You want magic realism?” she asked without waiting for my
answer. “I’ll give you magic realism up the wazoo.” Her round glasses clung to
the tip of her nose. Her hair had streaks the color of river ice. She scavenged
her office for documents of her research: paintings completed by artists who’d
traveled with her, grants awarded to her, photographs taken by a documentarian
who’d recently accompanied her to Cuba. She tossed papers and books
around, looking like someone who couldn’t remember where anything was. And yet,
her voice had the conviction of a seer.
The name of her project: Secrets
Under the Skin
. She believes in performance, both as a demonstration of
religious belief and as a methodology for research. Dance is not just art, it
is a sacred act. Research is not just data collection, it is a human
connection. She studies the ways dance fills dancers with spirits. In our case,
this is quite literal. In Arará ceremonies, such as the Festival of San Lazaro,
which Jill and I would eventually witness in Cuba, dancers call down the spirits
of their pantheon to possess their bodies. This was the world my grandmother
spoke of. This was the world I tried to write in a novel without actually
experiencing myself.
“Performance is the only way to understand,” she said,
handing me a painting of a shrine she’d visited in Cuba. Reds and yellows lit up the
image. The brushstroked sunset graced the purple-draped shrine of San Lazaro,
leaning on his crutches. The painting felt like a door I was afraid to open.
“If we go, we will dance, we will chant. We will have a misa for your
grandmother. I had one. The roof lifted off the walls. You’ll never be the
same. But if we go, you have to commit. You have to be all in.”
Commitment was something I didn’t know much about. I was
supposed to commit in Alaska.
I’d moved there with my girlfriend, who was supposed to become my fiancée, who
was supposed to become my wife. Before that, I’d lived in Colorado
and Georgia alone while she
finished nursing school in Florida.
She often complained about our living apart. I often relished a life without
Once we moved in together, at the farthest corner of the
continent, we walked around with an edge. I loved Alaska,
still love Alaska,
but at the time I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that I didn’t belong. Always
in the back of my mind was the thought of flight, a reminder that any commitment
was an illusion. A year had gone by in Anchorage
and I still had my books in boxes and a majority of my clothes in suitcases.
My career also reflected this state of Kenko-esque
impermanence. I was on a term contract, which was set to expire in May. I had
applied to PhD programs in the state of Washington
as a backup plan. My girlfriend was on contract at Alaska Regional
for another two
years, which meant we’d live apart again. Nothing in my life came close to
signaling I was capable of committing.
Before leaving Jill’s office, I gave her the most honest
response possible: “I need to go to Cuba.”
As I walked out into the chill of late winter, I became
filled with doubt. Could I afford Cuba? Would the university provide
me a grant if my contract is not renewed? Was it safe to travel to Cuba? I was
born in Miami, Florida;
why would I wait until Alaska to find someone
with whom to travel to Cuba?
And—why would Jill trust me so easily after meeting me only once?
It took me a couple nights before I could tell Erin, my
girlfriend, about the offer. She said nothing at first. Instead, she continued
cutting pieces of chicken and scooping them into Tupperware containers. Her
eyes were puffy and her curly hair webbed around her silent face. It was her
second week on night shift. During her first week, she cried each night before
leaving to work. The silence was an improvement.
“You can barely speak Spanish,” she finally said and packed
her dinner in her backpack. “Is this serious?”
How could I answer that?
Arará is a religious tradition founded upon serious belief.
Their tradition is mostly oral, preserved by the younger generations only when
they sing cantos and dance steps alongside elders. Percussive musical styles
reach back to African roots and have been passed down by virtue of younger
drummers playing during ceremonies. These styles are crucial to the community.
Each style plays a particular role in inducing the spirits to possess those
dancing. If a possession does not occur, there is deep disappointment. When a
possession does occur, others dress the individual in the colors representing
the occupying spirit and guide the individual to the nearby shrine. The
sacredness of a present spirit means validation for everyone. It means their
lives cannot be denied. All of this I knew from reading. All of this I would
learn from witnessing.
After I explained this to Erin,
she started to cry. Although, she assured me it was because she hated working
nights. “I was so excited to move to Alaska,
I committed to a contract that is killing me,” she said. She wiped her tears,
smearing eyeliner. Strands of her hair stuck to her moist cheeks. “Once you’re
in Cuba,”
she said, “there’s no backing out. You hate dancing.”
I nodded. It was true. I never viewed writing as performing
but as the complete opposite. Because I didn’t dance, didn’t speak, didn’t
boldly enter the world, I hid in my den and wrote. What did I know of
performance? Erin kissed me and left for work,
leaving me in an apartment that did not feel empty, despite my being alone,
because of the thousands of thoughts filling my head.
What did it mean to commit? When I first moved to Alaska, I went to get a
haircut. The stylist, a snide girl in her twenties with a voice like calving
ice, asked me, “What are you running from?” Before that, in Colorado,
my neighbor told me I might like Boulder
if I stayed long enough. Jill’s methodology for research somehow carried
personal application. She followed strategies employed by
anthropologists/memoirists such as Paul Stoller and Ruth Behar. For them,
cultural identity is defined by a series of choices, conscious or unconscious,
made within a set of specific guidelines. Because those guidelines change from
culture to culture, we can only learn through participation. Researchers who
merely observe miss everything. There’s too much distance. In order to truly
understand a particular culture, we need roots. We need to “embody” the lives
we witness. We need to become “vulnerable observers,” to use Behar’s words.
To commit is to perform. To perform is to be made
If my evasive nature—“running” from state to state—obviated
any opportunity to be made vulnerable, what made Jill think I could commit to Cuba? I’d spent
my life moving in the opposite direction, northwest.
The second time I met with Jill in her office, she radiated
expectation, even though her grin suggested she knew what I’d say before saying
it. I asked if she believed ceremonial possessions were actually real. “I
believe in their power to believe,” she said. “Otherwise, there’s nothing to
write about.”
Jill wanted me to write the stories I would learn in Cuba.
She wanted her data to be captured in narrative format, in a style similar to
the way the stories are told. Performance
. She believed in art as a form of ethnographic representation. She
believed I could contribute to her already prodigious project. She believed,
even if I did not believe I was capable of such a contribution, because, as she
often reminds me, she found me.

JT Torres is a PhD
candidate at Washington
State University
His upcoming novella will be included in
Weathered Edge, alongside Don Rearden and Sarah Birdsall, by VP&D House. He had
an essay in
Best Food Writing 2014. And,
yes, he recently returned from Cuba
with Dr. Jill Flanders Crosby. The resulting
research will inform a cultural memoir about Arará, Santería, and his own
connections with Cuba.

2 thoughts on “JT Torres: Performance Research”

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top