CONTRA-TIEMPO, a highly acclaimed Los Angeles-based dance theatre group, has performed throughout the U.S. and the Americas. Artistic director, dancer, and choreographer Ana Maria Alvarez and her group have been compared to Alvin Ailey - high praise indeed. But Contra-Tiempo goes further. In the 2018 evening-length composition JoyUS JustUS, Alvarez (a.k.a. Mama Activist) and her dancers shout to the world that “joy is the ultimate expression of resistance.” I had the good fortune to view several excerpts of JoyUSJustUS featured in a recorded program for on-demand streaming for kids. The work was performed through the Schaefer Center‘s APPlause! K-12 Performing Arts Series on the campus of Appalachian State University.

Alvarez has an impressive CV, including grants, fellowships and artistic residences for her work. She was named a Doris Duke Artist in 2020 and awarded an inaugural Dance/USA Artist Fellowship, among other accolades. Alvarez holds an MFA in choreography from UCLA and a BA from Oberlin College. What I find so remarkable is her ability to collaborate and connect with fellow dancers, musicians, and storytellers. Through this collective, she reaches out to the wider community.

This sixty-minute program retells stories of community members through dance. People who have been mistakenly referred to through the lens of “deficit-base” narratives come alive as artists, activists, and teachers. The dances, spoken word, music, percussion, and costumes jolted me into submission - to watch, clap and enjoy. Oh, and yes, to dance.

There are three excerpts from the dances that tell stories. The first, “Joy,” began with a soloist on the beach. Dressed in blue and white, she invited us into her space with open arms she arrived free and ready to begin a new story. Her muscles were strong, her face was fierce, her feet were swift, and her body was fluid. The simple drumming and humming kept her in center stage. A small fishing boat passed in the background as her undulating figure captured my imagination. Children who have visited North Carolina’s beaches will identify with this scene.

The dances evoked joy; including the second excerpt where individuals were captured through 21st-century digital magic. Salsa, hip-hop, and free-forms melded into dances originating from neighborhoods in Los Angeles. The videos enlightened me that dance takes place wherever there is a bit of space, even a small living room. Bare feet, sneakers, dance shoes - they all work. But dance can reflect deep sadness, regret, fortitude, and strength. The third excerpt included a “Black Lives Matter” sign, stories of personal hardship, loss, and family.

The last section began with a rhythm lesson using claves. These beautiful, resonant sticks commonly used in Afro-Cuban music are a favorite among drummers. A member of the company taught a basic four-beat rhythm to clap in call and-response with the final dance.

Finally, children were invited to a “Call to Action” through rhythmically spoken word. The Study Guide for this event is well crafted and adaptable for K-12 students; it is also a snapshot of meaningful curriculum design for the arts. What better way to share their work than by teaching a rising generation of community leaders? Bravo!

I left my computer happier and more determined to use my voice as a writer. We are fortunate to be a nation of immigrants, and as long as we welcome our new neighbors with open arms, we are better for it.

When you are able, catch a performance of CONTRA-TIEMPO’s JoyUS JustUS. In the full-length version the audience will see costumes by Charlese Antoinette, Emily Orling‘s altar quilts, lighting by Tuce Yasak, music by d. Sabela grimes and Las Cafeteras, and more dancers who collaborated with Alvarez.

This program presented by the Schaefer Center is available until March 23. The performance is free, but registration is required here.