Zoot Suits and Zapateado: how this SF dance team channels chicana resistance


Editor’s Note: KQED Arts Award-Winning Video Series If cities could dance is back for a third season! In each episode, meet dancers from across the country representing the iconic movements of their city. New episodes air every two weeks.

At the heart of the Mission, the throbbing beat of the neighborhood’s dense and vibrant mix of Latinx cultures comes from the click of heels and toes of tap dancing.

that of San Francisco La Mezcla dance company, founded and directed by Vanessa Sanchez, uses dance and song to tell stories about Chicana history, culture and resistance. Mixing tap dance and zapateado (rhythmic Mexican footwork), Sanchez describes La Mezcla’s unique dance style as “zapatap”.

Vanessa Sanchez de La Mezcla (Photo by Elie Khadra)

“Tap dancing was one of those styles that made sense to me,” says Sanchez. “I’ve always been a bit of an outsider and that explains why I do what I do now, because a lot of dance formations and schools are not necessarily suitable for dancers of color entering space.”

Zapatap draws inspiration from the history of the tap as a form of African-American resistance; on the tradition of Afro-Mexican dance and music of his jarocho; and, in the last show of La Mezcla, Pachuquísmo, on the history of the Chicanas in zoot costume in Los Angeles in the 1940s.

Tap dance originated in the United States at the beginning of the 19th century, at the crossroads of African and Irish-American dance forms. When the slave owners took away the traditional African drums, the slaves began to dance with drums to express themselves and maintain their cultural identity. Metal tap dancing first hit the market in 1910 and the dance form quickly became a mainstay of Broadway. (Fun fact: May 25 marks National Tap Day, the birthday of first tap star Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.)

His jarocho was born a world away from the tap, but also has its roots in an era of oppression and resistance. Developed in Veracruz, Mexico, its sounds are a blend of African, indigenous and Spanish influences, due to the city’s history as a colonial port and hub for the transatlantic slave trade. Musician Andres Huesca brought his son Jarocho to Los Angeles in the 1940s; in broad American pop culture, perhaps the most recognizable variation is Richie Valens’ 1958 hit, “La Bamba”. At the heart of the musical form is the fandango, a gathering where dancers exchange on the front of the stage on the tarima (a wooden platform), to contribute to the rhythm of long jams called sones.

Sanchez absorbed this style of dancing while living in Veracruz in the early 2010s, swapping tap moves for zapateado beats. And when it came time to choreograph the 2019 La Mezcla show about Chicano women who resisted the racist attacks of the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots, this hybrid style – neither entirely Mexican nor entirely American – made perfect sense.

“I just feel like throughout history there are these women who rise up and fight,” Sanchez says. “They are fighting for what is right and fighting against oppression, systemic racism and white supremacy. But their stories are often not told the same way as their male counterparts. “

For her and the other dancers in the group, embodying the spirit of these women is exhilarating. “When I put on the zoot suit, it’s like I get chills just talking about it,” says Sandy Vazquez. “It is a truly moving experience for me to continue the legacy of resistance and survival that these women had to overcome, and then to be able to stage it.” Dressed in baggy pants, hair pulled back over their heads, the women of La Mezcla claim the street and the stage, proving that the tap is not just for Broadway shows.

The percussive dance of the zapatap is fierce; it demands attention at the time and recognition for the people who informed its making. As they see the Mission’s Latinx residents struggling with displacement and gentrification, La Mezcla uses the zapatap as a way to claim not only the physical space they dance on, but everywhere within earshot of their feet. that click and stomp.

Watch Vanessa Sanchez, Sandy Vazquez, Emmeline Gonzalez-Beban, and Kirsten Millan take us around Calle 24, the Mission’s cultural corridor, and dance past some of the neighborhood’s most recognizable sites: atop Bernal Hill; in front of the Carnival fresco above the Maison des Brakes; and at Casa Bandido, the house of musician Richard Segovia covered with paintings by Precita Eyes Muralists illustrating the birth and development of Latin Rock in the Mission. – Text by Sarah Hotchkiss

Explore our virtual story map and learn more about the murals and locations featured in this episode of If cities could dance.

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