I recently had the opportunity to work with the amazing dancer Kimberly Miguel Mullen at her Afro Cuban Folkloric dance workshop in Nevada City, California. Nevada city is situated on the beautiful Yuba river and is a thriving tourist and drum and dance community as well.
I had been following her activities for several years in the various dance and drumming communities and was excited to finally meet and play for her. The classes were very exciting and well attended.
I found her to not only be an exceptional dancer and dance teacher but a very interesting and inspiring person to simply be around as well. I thought I would do an interview with her and share it with you all here.
MP: Where are you from, what is your heritage?
KM: My father is Portuguese/Irish from Hawaii and my mother is Pilipina who is from California. I was raised in Woodland, California – a rural town of Sacramento near Davis. Now that I live in the big city of Los Angeles, I appreciate growing up in a small town. My mother’s parents migrated from the Phillipines to the US in the 20’s (Grandfather) and 40’s (Grandmother). My grandfather was a farmer in Northern California. My grandmother was a nurse. They had a big orchard and built Convalescent hospitals and cared for the elderly. I have the
fondest memories growing up riding around with my Grandpa on his tractors, playing in the orchards and being surrounded by elderly folks who I was told were my Aunts and Uncles.
MP: How long have you been dancing?
KM: I come from a religious and musical family. My mom played the Piano and Organ for Church and also played the Accordian, Guitar, Harp,
Chimes, etc. She encouraged my two sisters and I to play a musical instrument. I grew up singing and playing the Alto Saxophone.
When I was 3 years old, I started performing – singing for Church and dancing for the elderly folks at the hospital. I took Jazz and Tap dance lessons as a kid and went to Jazzercise classes with my mom and her friends.
When I was middle school, I excelled in sports and played Volleyball from the time I was 7 years old to 19 years old. One of my dreams was accomplished when I was recruited to play for University of Oregon’s Volleyball Team.
After my freshman year and being awarded Co-Rookie of the Year, I decided to stop playing volleyball and return to dance. After a family trip to the
Caribbean, I transferred to Portland State University to pursue an academic focus on Caribbean Studies and dance. PSU has one of the best Caribbean studies programs in the US. My mentors and teachers, Kofi Agorsah and Candice Goucher are the two most informed authorities on the topic.
MP: Have you studied other forms of dance?
KM: I grew up dancing Jazz and Tap and I train in ballet, modern, and Silvestre technique, and Tai Chi alongside AfroCuban, AfroBrazilian and AfroCaribbean forms of dance. I study all forms of dance to expand my vocabulary and my ability to express myself through movement.
MP: Where did you first learn Afro Cuban dance?
KM: My first AfroCuban dance teacher is Catherine Evleshin. I studied with her at Portland State University. PSU had a strong student-base dance organization called The World Dance Office that I had the honor of managing while I was a student. This enabled me to bring Master teachers to PSU to give workshops and that advanced my skills in the form.
One of the first Master teachers I brought to PSU was Teresita Dome Perez who was a principal dancer for the acclaimed AfroCuban Folkloric Dance Company – AfroCuba De Matanzas. I studied with her for 13 years. After I graduated from PSU, I traveled to the Caribbean and did some dance research in Puerto Rico with Anthropologist, Halbert Barton on AfroBomba on my way to Trinidad and Tobago to complete an internship at the Tobago Museum.
While I was living in Tobago, I was invited by Anthropologist, Yvonne Daniels of Smith College to travel to Cuba to train with a team of researchers to study with the national dance company – El Conjunto Folclorico Nacional de Cuba. This is one of the highlights of my career.
When I returned to the states, I moved to New York and was training with Richard Gonzales and Xiomara Rodriguez. I received
a phone call from Teresita who told me she was teaching at UCLA. Soon there after, I moved to LA to study with her at UCLA and received my Master of Arts through the Department of World Arts and Culture.
While living in Southern California, Juan Carlos Blanco from Raices Profundas was living in San Deigo. He became a mentor and teacher to me since 1999. Over the years, I took trips to San Francisco to train with Susana Arenas and Jose Barroso, Silfredo La’O Vigo and Ramon Ramos Alayo. While completing my thesis I had the opportunity to apprentice with the Director and Founder of Raices Profundas, Juan D’Dios during one of his visits to Portland, Oregon which was a very profound experience for me to learn from one of the original/founding members of the Conjunto Folclorico Nacional.
While completing my course work at UCLA in 2002, I was introduced to Rosangela Silvestre and became immersed in AfroBrazilian dance and
became a member of Viver Brasil Dance Company and trained with Co-director, Luis Badaro. I traveled to Salvador, Bahia and lived there on and off for 5 years learning Portuguese. I studied dance at the Escola de Danza with Vera Passos and studied with members of the Bale Folclorico Nacional – Gustavo Caldas, Nildinha Fronseca and Jose Ricardo de Souza. Cultural ambassador of AfroBrazilian culture, Dona Cici of the Pierre Verger Foundation became a mentor
MP:What brought you to Afro Cuban dance?
KM: My academic studies that I was pursuing at Portland State University with Professors – Catherine Evleshin, Kofi Agorsah and Candice Goucher brought me to study AfroCuban culture and dance. I found dance as my tool to connect with people and learn about their lives and their culture. The deeper I became immersed in the dance forms, the more I became aware of the richness and sophistication of the culture. It’s a lifetime study that takes a lifetime to grasp. After 17 years of studies, I still consider myself a beginner.
MP: What have you been doing with your dance career?
KM: been teaching, performing, and choreographing AfroCaribbean, AfroCuban and AfroBrazilian Dance forms for over 10 years. I love teaching classes, workshops and traveling to dance and engage with students from all over the world. Dance has brought me to Asia, Latin America, and all over the US to study, train, perform, and teach. I feel blessed and fortunate to have this life. After dancing with various dance companies for many years and completing a national dance tour with Viver Brazil Dance Company, I became a solo artist – self-producing and performing my own material. My favorite thing about being a solo artist is the ability to collaborate and work with other musician and artists. A few years ago, I had the honor of working with Rosangela Silvestre on a duet performance called, “Essensibility: A Performance of
Essence and Sensibility” that was based on her solo show, Faces of Nature.
Last year, I collaborated with grammy award wining percussionist and musical composer, Alberto Lopez and acclaimed Singer/Song Writer, Mia Doi Todd and performed my first full-length solo show called Yemanja: Mother of the Deep which was an all time career high for me. Another favorite dance moment of mine was performing with the late legendary Cuban Conguiero, Francisco Aguabella at Town Hall in New York City in 2009. He was being honored for National Heritage Award and he brought me along to dance with him. We were very close and he mentored and inspired my career. He was like a grandpa to me.
I am Adjunct Faculty Professor at Occidental College that is a home base for me when I am not traveling. I have taught at Loyola Marymont University, CSULA, UCLA, and PSU. I love teaching at the collegiate level because I can integrate my cultural studies and academic background into my teachings alongside the actual dance practice.
In 2005, I started working with a Bollywood dance and yoga personality/artist, Hemalayaa Behl dancing and choreographing for her Dance DVDs which eventually led to creation of my own line of DVDs which are produced by Acacia. I have 4 Titles that I created for the Dance Fitness market
that crosses over traditional dances forms in the mainstream markets. I am proud that my first DVD, Dance and Be Fit: Brazilian Body was awarded, “Best Dance DVD” in 2009 by Health Magazine. It is most humbling to receive fan mail from people all over the world who benefit from these workouts. I have gained so much knowledge about myself through the study of other cultures. It’s a priviledge to share this knowledge with others through various platforms that I work.
MP: What is your philosophy about what you teach, what do you want other people to learn from you?
KM: I am inspired by the African-derived belief system that revolves around the concept of, “Aché” that means vital force energy. Aché is the inspiration for my creativity in all of my teachings and performances. I consider my classes more than a technique class but a process oriented, transformational study of our individual mind, body and spirit that connects us to ourselves and others.
I want people to experience joy, love and freedom in my classes to experience a safe and empowering platform to express all the different facets of who we are.
MP: What happens in your workshops?
KM: In my workshops, we dance and sing to live drumming and learn about the African Yoruba deities called the Orichas/Orixas (divine energies or elements of nature) and embody their mythological stories through movement. We begin by grounding our selves in the present moment by filling our bodies up with breath to connect to ourselves and to the breath of our classmates and timing of the drum rhythms. Then we begin warming up and opening our mind and bodies with through series of standing body isolation exercises that stretch, tone and strengthen our muscles. At the end of the warm up, we set our intentions for our practice and bring our awareness to a place of gratitude. Then we move across the floor in dance lines or a free form style with guided steps while connecting songs and steps to each other.
The steps build starting with the feet and then move up the body so that by the end of the class we are fully engaging each part of the body from head to toe. Once we accomplish the experience of executing the full step we can begin to embody energetic characteristics of the deities and begin to tell stories of their lives through movement. While the energy builds and is at a heightened state, our senses become activated and focus shifts to a collectively mind-set. We begin to connect to the drums, the songs, the movement, the space, and our classmates in a profound way that instigates an overwhelming feeling of joy, love and freedom that enraptures you and gives you the sense of great meaning and purpose in your life.
MP: You are doing a retreat soon in NY, can you please explain it to us and tell us about it?
KM: In Hudson, New York, I will be offering a 3-day dance retreat at the beautiful and inspirational Won Dharma Center. For three days, I will be facilitating dance movement that connects the sacred dance forms of the AfroCuban and AfroBrazilian cultural practices to the Won Dharma principles of achieving a heightened sense of self.
Through a combination of mediation courses offered at the center and my dance teachings will engage students in a profound mind, body, spirit journey. My goal is for students to come away from the retreat a renewed perspective on their lives with tools they can use in their everyday lives to connect to themselves on a deeper level to inspire healthier, and joyful lives.