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Professor Profile: Cher Anabo - Willamette’s Dance Instructor for a Semester

Clara Nithiaparan

Staff Writer

Image courtesy of the Willamette website

Cher Anabo was the adjunct Dance Faculty and Artistic Director for the fall dance concert at Willamette University, “this place, displace/d...” but due to unforeseen circumstances, she has stated that she has decided to end her short tenure here and will not return for next semester.

Anabo uses she/her/siya pronouns. In addition to her work as a dance instructor, she also works as a wine associate and wine educator.

Anabo was inspired to take up a career as a dance instructor, somatic educator, and multidisciplinary artist and collaborator based on her research and travels from country to country. Her experience spans continents, from countries in South East Asia to the U.S. Her research fuels her thoughts around making sense of “being transplanted and moving to different countries…I mean I’m still moving and it’s kind of interesting.” She posited that for her, home isn’t tied to its normative association- rather, dance became her sense of home with its focus on movement, her partnership with her significant other and her collaborations with other artists. She commented that the colonization, recolonization and decolonization of the Philippines and other places that she lived in in Southeast Asia often makes her reflect on the idea of trying to find that sense of home, and sometimes not finding it: “How do I make sense of it as a nomadic, kind of transient, constantly moving, constantly dynamic sense of place without romanticizing what is home?” She emphasized that dance sustains her as a person and as a human being, and also serves as a medium through which she can express her cultural identity as a Filipino, her research, and her political and social advocacy.

Regarding the production “this place, displace/d...” and her inspiration for it, Anabo commented that most of her work usually has a political and social commentary, and that, “dance, for me is a medium where I can express a social crisis that is in front of my face”, and that homelessness and the houseless population in Salem, Portland and Seattle are very prevalent issues. Anabo added that being a transplanted immigrant and thus literally displaced gives her a unique perspective that she utilizes in her productions. She further reflected on the differences between some people’s ideas of being homeless and the actual reality behind it once one takes into account cultural and practical difficulties.

Anabo elaborated that some of her inspiration for the fall dance concert is rooted in her MFA thesis on human trafficking, and the question of “what does it mean to be trafficked?” which leads immediately to a focus on the body: “It’s about visiblizing the body, and oftentimes the body is not one body, but multi-bodies, multi-diverse.” Dance is a platform that has provided her with a forum to express her personal and political views on the social crisis that she feels should be addressed “not to proselytize, but as a call to action.”

Regarding how her career has shaped her thus far, she noted that it allows her to be dynamic and evolve with and through the world’s current situations. “How are we making sense of diversity, a word that is more like a buzzword…oftentimes misused, overused, oftentimes confused. We forget that it’s paramount with inclusivity, tolerance and accessibility.” She commented on the lack of diversity and accessibility surrounding dance around the world, and the diversity that she brought into the University. According to her, certain, “movement practices are often associated with the Western canon, the Eurocentric perspective of dance (ballet and tap, etc), but there are more movement practices that are oftentimes ignored and untapped and should be explored in academia…I feel like I brought that to Willamette University, and I think the school might take a little more time to invite that perspective.” She also commented that even though the word “diversity” is often used at Willamette, there is a lack of diversification within the curriculum, the staffing, the syllabi and the content of the lectures.

She noted that there can be a very diverse group of students on campus, but that diversity is still paramount to consider elsewhere within the University: “I don’t think that [the] administrators or just the general community is there yet…rather unfortunate…” further adding that “there’s a lot of energy in the campus that is untapped and in terms of diversity, the Chinese immigrants and the Native Americans were already here in the area, so…[they’re] already inherent and already part of the culture, and I wish that we could highlight, acknowledge and visibilize that, and educate and mentor our students to understand that.” She noted that since she’s only worked at Willamette University for a semester, it’s hard to comment on how extensive the University’s strategic initiative is for the next 5-10 years, but said that this has to be a priority.

Regarding the reason behind her departure, the University commented that they could only say that she “left to pursue other opportunities,” and that, “it is not uncommon for faculty in part-time positions to move around.”

Her teaching style is tailored to the students and the participants who take her class, especially since at Willamette University, the theater program doesn’t have a dance program tied to it, and dance classes can only be taken as electives. She focuses on getting to know the students, and once she does, she adjusts the syllabus according to the learning experience of each student in the class. She also emphasized the importance of the somatic experience in her classes, where students are told to be present, to physicalize and embody the dance they’re learning so that they can communicate bigger ideas through their bodies.

Anabo also mentioned that she’s a researcher who investigates colonization, decolonization and neocolonialism and their effects on how identity is formed, and that she likes to translate this into her choreography and teaching methods. In her choreography, one way she decolonizes a practice or a methodology is by going beyond what the norm is. “An example [is] not using the 5,6,7,8 [counting method], but using a lot of vocalization and [having a] focus on somatic breath, where practice and theory work in tandem,” she stated. Contrasting Western dances and the Western teaching methodology wherein movements are taught through counting, in a lot of Southeast Asian dances, students watch their gurus and follow. She further stated that dialogue within the body is important, that there should be a focus on the body as the main instrument, as a tool and medium in and of itself. Finally, she emphasized her desire as a researcher and educator to contextualize dance in history. For example, for a dance from Cambodia she might tell her class, “this is a lens, one perspective, but it doesn’t mean that it’s conveying everyone in Cambodia.” She added that history is often ignored and haphazardly used and misused by directors. “The idea of one story, one narrative and one tradition” is not really how we should be making sense of the world, she pointed out. She illustrated this with an example of a person talking about bamboo dances, who said that it’s a traditional dance from the Philippines, to which she then asked the person to define tradition, and further questioned, “what part of the Philippines, because there are 3000 islands and a 170 different ethnolinguistic languages in the Philippines.” If you’re from the Southern part of the Philippines, that’s not actually the traditional dance. In the U.S., we are frequently limited to our Western perspective and our Western educational system, which provides us with a lens of a very small scope on whatever we’re trying to learn.

Anabo also analyses contemporary movement practices in the diaspora with a focus on the continuously evolving, shifting identities of a diaspora. She often tries to broaden the perspectives of her students’ understanding of certain contemporary dance practices. An example that she frequently presents is an attempt to change the room’s general perception of Hula (within which a lot of contemporary dance practices are infused), of Hula dancers, and peoples’ immediate association of these dancers to all be girls in grass skirts and coconut shells. Such a socially constructed association is the result of commercialization and commodification, she’ll point out. Her question then will typically be, “how did you see that; contextually how are you making sense of [things] if I show you a kane (male) hula.” People are often surprised that male dancers have the gracefulness needed for Hula, to which she responds that in the ancient tradition of Hula, the male and female are actually one. This inseparability of female and male characteristics in Hawaiian, Cambodian and Indonesian cultures is something that students are not typically used to seeing, but such a decolonization process allows them to compare what they’ve seen before with what they’re seeing now (in addition to male hula dancers, she also likes to show mahu (transgender) dancers). She further emphasized that in her work as a teacher and choreographer, she tries to address questions that could entail bias, and also questions the intention and positionality of the choreographer and the director.

She values the opportunities she had to adjudicate some works while teaching in Singapore, where she was able to gain some dance-specific curriculum training in contemporary techniques. Specific knowledge from that experience that she’s found to be particularly useful is the subject of how Southeast Asia or Singapore makes sense of the contemporary versus how the U.S. curriculum makes sense of contemporary dance technique.

In her free time, she and her partner like to play around with different concoctions and create new cocktails. The reason she works with wine on the side is because, “as a teaching artist, it’s one of the most unsustainable financial institutions,” she stated. She also likes going to the beach, camping, and teaching yoga. She enjoys reading the works of Nietzsche, Plato, and Aristotle, and loves Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For intellectual reading, she likes to come back to Anzaldua and borderland and border theory, both given that immigration is significant right now, and that, “as an educator I just have to kind of think of what’s going around [in] the world as well, and keep that optimism simultaneously.”

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