For a Latin American dance lover the high point in life is to dance at a carnival. There are two most famous carnivals in the world that we all know of, the Rio de Janeiro and the San Francisco carnivals. Dance lover travel from far land to these street parades, either to participate or to witness atleast once in their lifetime.
Recently, I was in United States of America (USA) for my assignments. Inspite of hectic schedules and to relax between assignments, I took a trip to Hawaii. Thanks to my friend Dr. Daniel Susott, a world renowned Latin singer and owner of tree houses on Oahu Island in Hawaii. I could not have asked for a better holiday than this. The environment around tree houses was peaceful and clam. Filled with rare and exotic plants and trees, with organic fruits and vegetables cultivation was awesome there. One day, Dr. Susott pushed me from the Hammock and took me to an evening of music and dance where he was singing at a Latino bar.
To my surprise, he introduced me to the legendary Adela Chu. Dance lovers surely know her as she is one of the founder members of San Francisco Carnival way back in 1979. She is dynamic dancer and known as ‘Grand Queen’ of the carnival.
Meeting Ms. Chu was the best part of my whole trip. She has such a magnetic personality that each person at the bar could not resist to see her. With a broad smile, she greeted everyone there and hugged me tight when Dr. Susott introduces me to her. She instantly said ‘Man from Gandhi’s land’.
For me, meeting Adela Ma’am was like a dream come true, because I only heard, read and seen her pictures in books and other publications. Apart from being the Queen of the Carnival, Adela Chu has mastered and studied modern Ballet, Flamenco, Samba, Caribbean, Jazz, Balinese, Hula as well as Yoga, Tai Chi and Capoeira. She is most famous for her eclectic choreographies that integrate Jazz, Afro-Caribbean and Latin movements.
I wanted to dance with her but could not develop the courage to ask her. However, when she sat beside me and smiled, my nervousness disappeared and that time I chit-chat with her and brought some information from her to share with you through this column, here what she said when I asked her:
What made you start the San Francisco Carnival?
I belong to Panama, where dance is lifestyle. However, when I moved to San Francisco for teaching dance to college students, here life was boring. I needed some spice in life, so I asked the management and my 300 odd students about it. They motivated me and then I suggested the idea of a Carnival where all students would dance and celebrate life. That is how it all began in 1979.
Tell me more about it, how did the small 300 odd students street parade turn into an Iconic and world famous Carnival?
We were 300 dancers on the float attracting about 500 people circling the famous Precita Park in San Francisco, playing drums, dancing in elaborate costumes and in general having fun, one could feel the energy of something that was happening at the right place and at the right time. Without any permits we had hit the street but were not having any idea that over three decades later the seed that I was planting would grow into a multi faceted multi cultural event that attracts millions around the world.
How was your first reaction after that Carnival?
When I came back to the starting point after the carnival; there was no one. I was totally heartbroken and was about to burst into tears when one of my students came there and told that those 500 people were in the line behind us dancing and singing.
Organising a carnival would have been difficult for you alone?
I was not alone; I had support of a few dear friends. At the college, I had huge classes with 95 students in some classes with 15 or more musicians. I split them into comparsas and created different choreographies for each group. The entire Mission joined me in the affair with Marcus Gordon organizing the musicians and Margaret de Jesus bringing her Money comparsa. The lineup included Jose Flores with his Dandis, Jon Calaway, Johnny Santos, Bobby Cespedes, Tobaje, Rudy Ortiz, to name a few of the Mission youth, destined to become luminaries and legends in their own right. There was the Rainbow Comparsa, which Pam Minor lovingly clothed artistically with every colour of the rainbow. This act led to the creation of the Costume Bank of the carnivallater on where Pam Minor worked for many years.
Our theme of the Carnival was the Americas, and I had written a song called Samba Dorado which began with the words “Golden dream of Spaniards lust, ah Brave New World” co-authored with Claudio Amaral of Viva Brazil.
A Carnival needs lots of promotion and preparation how did you manage that?
I hired other dance teachers Bira came in to teach Capoeira, Marlene Rosa Lima for Samba and Joni Haastrup to teach African dance and drumming, all progenitors of the dance forms that would later become so popular. I myself was into Afro Caribbean Jazz and after me came in Blanche Brown. Other sources of great inspiration were poet Elaine Cohen, my constant friend and co-conspirator; Sir Lawrence. “Sir” who built an outrageous costume and paced the Carnaval; and many of my fellow dancers from the Dancer’s Workshop, including Benito Santiago, who for years participated in many ways in keeping the Carnival alive. Of course, the beautiful visuals of Nancy Hom, who created the Carnival posters of the first few years did much to give this Carnival a distinctive flavour.
Carol Wiley volunteered, Marcus, myself, “Sir” and Pam all agreed to put our 2 cents in. We were later joined by John Santos and a few years later by Marta Estrella. Yes, organizing an event is stressful. After my doctor advised me to give it because of spleen I reluctantly left the Committee knowing it was in good hands.
So was this your first Carnival as an organiser?
Actually, this Carnival, which is my brainchild, was not the first Carnival I had done in San Francisco. I tried to do Carnival on 24th and Mission as part of Ana Halprin’s City Dance in 1975. I was one of the performers in her Dancer’s Workshop group at the time and had taken the task of creating a dance experience for the 24th St. Bart Station.
In 1976, I created a Carnival at the Masonic Temple for Esalen in which 100 people participated. I was gone for a year to Brazil and saw two Carnivals—one in Rio and one in Bahia. They were fabulous but very different to the one I know in my home town Colon, where Carnival was a street party and everyone participated.
What is your message to all those who worship you as the Queen of Carnivals and who come from far and wide to be a part of the celebration?
The San Francisco Carnival is still going strong and thanks to all of you for helping to keep my baby alive even after 35 years! The Carnival has become a source of living, breathing inspiration to countless artists in a community hungry for expression of their prolific talent.
Adela Chu is one happy-go-lucky lady. You’ll rarely see her without her broad smile or without a kind word. Her secret? Dancing and music, which she considers to be among life’s necessities “like eating or breathing to me,” she says.
Before I hugged her and said good bye I told her “Ma’am you must have been born under a lucky star, as not everyone gets to realize their dreams!” to which she replied to me with her broad ear to ear smile ‘Give a kiss on the Cheek you Care for, Give a damn for the Dreams you’d dare for… Why should we limit our lives, Can’t we make this a Paradise?.
(Sandip Soparrkar is a well known Ballroom dancer and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with National Achievement and National Excellence Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on email@example.com)