For years, Cecilia Marta has given students a taste of her culture in her classes at Broadway Dance Center.
As a Native Panamanian, Cecilia grew up in a one- bedroom apartment with seven other family members. Dancing, music, and drumming were a way of life, and her community and family instilled within her a sense of love and stability that is still with her today. Before coming to America, she knew nothing about our dance culture, and her eyes quickly opened to a whole new world. She eventually traveled all over the world and learned more about herself and her movement.
We had the fortunate opportunity to sit down with Cecilia to learn more about her upbringing and the secrets to her longevity and health. Her advice and tips are sure to motivate any dancer to get back into the studio and train harder!
What was your childhood like growing up in Colón, Panama?
I was born in the ghetto in Colon, which is outside of Panama City. We were a family of eight in a one- bedroom apartment; three boys, three girls, mom, and dad. I grew up dancing; not as in training, but for us dancing was a way of life. We drummed as well, not necessarily on drums, but on walls, tables, and on each other’s heads. We would dance for each other and with each other, and the girls would partner with the boys. Somehow we managed to have a lot of celebrations. We used to have parties that consisted of people dancing their butts off all night long.
I was always outside enjoying the sun, playing with bugs, or playing soccer. Soccer by nature is rhythmical; almost everything I did was related to rhythm and dance. We didn’t have a refrigerator, so I grew up eating fresh food when we had food in the house. Inevitably, even though there are a lot nasty foods out there, my tendency as I grow older is to go back to how I was raised. So I eat a lot of fresh foods, like vegetable juices. Although we were poor, my upbringing served a great purpose. I am very grateful for dance, music and great food. I am staying very healthy and maintaining a great sense of self. I managed to gain a great deal of longevity thanks to my upbringing, my parents, neighbors, and community. That sense of community is still very strong for me. Even though I have been out of Panama, Panama is still in me.
How did your childhood affect your work today?
I would say my childhood has completely affected my work! I came to the United States when I was nearly 13 years old. I didn’t know anything about dance studios or being a professional dancer. We didn’t have the funds to investigate that kind of stuff. It was not until our high school dance teacher saw my sister and I doing salsa that I considered making dance a career. She walked us to a dance studio in San Francisco, and it was then that my sister and I began our venture into the dance world, knowing nothing about it. Both of our lives changed that day. It’s pretty amazing. We are still friends with that teacher today, and she has been very supportive and an amazing mentor through the years. My upbringing has served an amazing purpose. I am still reaping the benefits of it, and I give thanks for it all the time.
Can you tell us about your World Jazz class?
World Jazz came to be from all my years of traveling and exploring different genres of dance. The travel I have done in different countries has exposed me to different cultures. Since I was born in Panama, I found myself being very sensitive about arriving to a different country and dealing with the natives of the land. Just when you think you aren’t being influenced by certain people, you may find you have been influenced. I left New York after fourteen years and moved back to San Francisco, where I started my dance training. I taught at a studio, and it was there that I met my most important ballet teacher. He gave me great training and took me in. It was then that I started to explore myself and my own movement.
I remember reading an article about a DJ from India living in London. I went and bought his music and listened. Right at that moment I felt like I was changed. I ended up doing choreography I had never done before, and a whole world opened up for me. So when I came back to New York, I felt that to call my work “jazz” wasn’t doing it justice because I was playing with so many genres.
I have traveled to so many places and I have been back to them so many times, that I feel like a citizen of each country I’ve traveled to. I feel like a citizen of the world. I have this relationship with spirit and I have been blessed enough to study so many different genres of dance. The idea of World Jazz has become even clearer as I grow older, and it has become very easy for me. I don’t plan on choreographing a certain way, it just happens. I open up and listen to the music; the music inspires me. It’s almost like a bridge has been built, and as I walked across it I found something new. I decided to tap into them as opposed to disregard them or be afraid. I am really grateful for that exploration.
How does music play a part in your choreography?
I am a music freak. When I first came here from Panama I started Junior High in San Francisco. My first thought was that I wanted to study music. My mom had a new husband and he ended up saying no and I never pursued it. I feel like I have great taste in music because I am so connected to it. I call music my lover. I tell the dancers that study with me that when you think of music as your partner, you are always connected to it and that eliminates the idea of having to work hard.
One of the blessings I have experienced in having a company is that I had music composed for me. I was able to be on different ends of the creation of music. I would hear the music and tell a musician or arranger what to do. I would actually be a part of producing. What I feel I experienced is further education in music. I learned how to create a sound that I am inspired to choreograph to.
Music plays an integral part in my work. I have been blessed enough to venture into choreographing by way of just hearing specific rhythms and then having music created after. Most of the time, I have the music first and then am choreographing to that, but one time I challenged myself. I have also used live music on stage for one of the pieces that I choreographed. It’s been an amazing journey for me.
Can you tell us about the Cecilia Marta Company and what you’ve been up to?
I had just got back from a trip to Japan and I was working at the original Broadway Dance Center. There was a lot of inspiration in the air and Richard was very supportive of what I was doing. One night I was talking to my roommate about how I had choreographed and performed, but I had never put on my own show. I wanted to direct, choreograph, and rent a theater. I decided to venture into what I called Project 1990. I did two of those. I had a lot of amazing dancers in class so I asked them to join forces with me. Because of the work that went into that and all that I learned, I was inspired to start a company.
I’ve had my company on and off since 1992. It was dormant for some time when I went back to the West Coast. I restarted it in 2008 when I came back to New York and we were invited to perform in a festival in Quebec, CA. We’ve performed for Summer Stage in Brooklyn and Summer Stage in Central Park, Latino Commission on AIDS, and Dancers Responding to AIDS. I was really honored to perform in Central Park! I didn’t think they would ask us. It was an amazing process. Through another project we actually met the person who organized Fashion Week at Waldorf Astoria and he invited us to perform in it. It was about creating a piece of choreography on their U-shaped platform that the models used as their runway. That was awesome!
Recently, we were invited to participate in the Summer Stage 2014 Harlem Dance Caravan at the Marcus Garvey Park. It’s under the Summer Stage umbrella but they bring in different companies to perform on the same stage and my company will perform one piece. In April I am going to Brazil to teach a work shop. I mentioned to them that I have a company and that I wanted them to perform over there. That’s a conversation for us to have, but I already planted the seed. That’s basically what I am constantly doing.
I have dancers from all over the planet. I feel that my dancer’s represent World Jazz pretty well. We represent all of the people as opposed to everyone having to look a certain way. The main focus for me is finding and connecting with dancers that have a very strong sense of self and intuitiveness. Their intuitive character plays a strong part in World Jazz.
What do you think the secret to your longevity is?
I haven’t stopped training, exercising, and dancing. I participate in my classes I teach and do some of the exercise that my students are doing. There are certain rituals that I have such as meditation, breathing, and yoga. I do different kinds of yoga that has been very helpful in maintaining my physical body, strength, and my core. For a lot of my students I tell them I treat myself like a queen. I know that has contributed greatly. I also have to say my parents and ancestors have a lot to do with my longevity. It has a lot to do with where and how I was brought up, and how I lived in a community. I have a memory of what I was given and the kind of love that I was exposed to. The neighbors loved you as well as your family members. I feel like that kind of energy and love holds you up through the years, even when times get rough.
I can’t say it’s just the dance and the training; it’s a combination of being consistent, disciple, eating well, and my connection to people, family, and the universe. I feel like there’s a rhythmical vibration that I pay attention to that really helps me. Quiet time is so important. When I share that information with my dancers they say they don’t know how to be quiet. If it stresses you out to think about meditation then don’t close your eyes. Just sit quietly, turn the lights down, and chill out for 5 minutes. I have honored that aspect of my life and I feel like that has infused me with energy and it keeps replenishing me.
I am no different from everyone else, I get tired. I am able to take time to slow down my rhythm and vibration so that I am able to keep going. That serves an amazing purpose for all of us. It’s the matter of me acknowledging that it works and honoring it. I tell my students the warm up is a meditation, class is meditation. You have to be present and breathe properly.
What are your tips on how to train a dancer?
It’s not just about how to train a dancer. What does training mean? What is training? I feel like we are living in a time where so much has been commercialized. I feel like the dance community shifted a bit when hip-hop got popular. There is nothing wrong with hip-hop; I admire hip-hop artists because they have something very organic, animalistic, and fierce. For a lot of people they remain within that environment pursuing only what they already know, as opposed to stepping outside of it to learn other things. A lot of the kids don’t understand the concept of training. They think it’s about doing something they already know. Part of my teaching has been based on educating those that are interested in learning. I tell them the whole idea of training is to repeat the same thing at least three times a week. Twice a week is doable, but the more you do it the more your muscle memory strengthens. We are attempting to do great at something we forgot because too many days have gone by and the muscle memory is weak.
For a lot of people I feel like they are waiting for someone to convince them that they should be training as opposed to having that excitement and knowing what they need to do that day. A lot of students think going to class means following their friends or going to classes that are popular. It becomes a little bit competitive. Competition doesn’t equal to gaining training. It actually kind of takes you to the opposite extreme of what training is. You’re not focusing on self-acknowledging what you need in order to succeed.Part of the training is to have the disciple to acknowledge everything that I said. Without the discipline we don’t get to tap into what that training is. It’s about being wise enough to find the proper teachers that will help you. If you’re not getting any attention don’t take it personal, but go to classes where you will get attention. Our jobs as teachers are to look at you and help you understand what needs to be corrected.
Part of what I am passing on is basically how I train and what my teacher did to help me. I was consistently present in class, even if I was out late night. I would always be in ballet class at 9:30am. When I started taking ballet at age twenty-four, I took it seriously and started to take it every single day. I wasn’t trying to be a ballet dancer, so it wasn’t about having to prove anything. It’s about being smart enough to say that you want ballet, need ballet and you know it’s going to help to transform your body and mind. Rather than thinking of the destination, acknowledge the process. The process is actually the sweetest part of the journey. To make a real dancer the training is extensive. When you put in the time and take care of your physical body and mind, you gain longevity. I am still here and dancing. In fact I am probably stronger than ever. Your muscles are a support system and I call the muscles an army. When that army works together you have magic. We are the magicians and we create the magic based on the knowledge that we have gained.
Do you have any more advice that you’d like to share with dancers?
Trust your voices; trust what you feel, and what you hear. That’s your intuitive nature speaking to you. I feel very blessed because of the way I was brought up. I was able to trust that as a child and that has been my guiding force throughout my life, and it hasn’t steered me wrong. I don’t believe that I am capable of that only because I am from Panama. I believe we all have that ability. I feel that because a lot of people don’t take that quiet time they kind of disconnect from the concept of “I can.”
We have to begin to own the idea that we are capable of a lot more than what we think we are. We don’t’ have to feel like we have to set the clock and accomplish this or that by a certain age. Individually, we all have our internal rhythm and we have to trust and honor that internal rhythm because that’s our clock.
Photos courtesy of Cecelia Marta; Photos by SPINKICK PICTURES, Thomas James, & Tim Grant