By Talia Melamed
Every year in honor of Asian Heritage Month, the Queensborough community gathers in the student union building for a festival filled with cultural art, music, dance and food. The month-long celebration of Asian culture had many virtual events throughout April with the culminating festival on Wednesday, May 5. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19 safety guidelines, the festival was not held on campus, making this the first Asian Heritage Festival on Zoom.
The festival began with Gisela Rivera, director of Student Activities giving us some history of the Queensborough event. Florence Tse, director of the Port of Entry Program, explained that she was the coordinator for the Asian Heritage Festival when she started it around 30 years ago. For the past few years, Prof. Meg Tarafdar has chaired a committee of faculty and staff who begin meeting in the fall semester to plan the events each spring. Tse explained, “The mission is to promote the rich culture of Asian countries.” She reminds us that we’re not only going to be experiencing one heritage, but several of 48 different, but culturally-rich countries.
Following Rivera and Tse’s introduction, Joanne Chang, an accomplished music professor, led us through a short mediation. We joined our palms, focusing our vision at the fingertips. Chang spoke as we mediated, “The waves come in and out, there’s peace the sound brings us. Cultivated listening skills are one of the best tools to have.”
Feeling relaxed and ready after mediating, the presentation began with a dance to “Aigiri Nandini” featuring two women. “Aigiri Nandini” is a classical Indian dance about the goddess Durga. The dancers Teri Mitti and Aishee Aparista performed another Indian classic, “Your Soil”, a patriotic dance that had a flowery and feminine essence in comparison to “Aigiri Nandini” which had a much faster tempo.
Following was a performance of all women titled, “Ratoh Jahoe”. We viewed some slides narrated by Prof. Byas explaining the values, costumes and geography of the dance. “Ratoh Jahoe” is an Indonesian folk dance and can be performed with all men or all women. In a female-only rendition, like we watched, dancers sit and kneel in narrow rows, similar to prayer. The dancers wear a costume along with hijab and they bend, sway, snap, and clap in unison. The performance is led by a rapa’i (tambourine) and the “shrill” voices of dancers with values of “religion, courtesy, bravery, perseverance, and unity”.
With such a uniform dance like “Ratoh Jahoe”, a great way to follow was the smiling faces of children from the Herricks Chinese Association (HCA) performing what they learned in their sing-along class. The children sang two songs about the Chinese New Year and one for essential workers, plus we got to see behind the scenes pictures of them practicing for their performance over a zoom class. The group played tambourines in unison and sang, “When smiling, you’re really nice like the sunshine, like the flower in the springtime, taking my worry and sorrow so far away…” and featured photos of HCA kitchen staff and drivers, nurses, and mailmen to thank them for their tireless work.
One of my favorite performances was “Scintillating Cloud”. The group opened with a strong pose and a heavenly hymn playing from the speakers. While I could not find much background on this dance, I will say that the dancers could tell me they were levitating the whole time and I would have believed them! This performance exhibited their talent in control, it must have been difficult maintaining timing with the slower tempo and in unison, when the dancers had their face forward most of the time. There was little interaction between dancers to the blind-eye, but they had to work together to achieve the precision and grace of “Scintillating Cloud”.
Closing the festival was a Bangladeshi dance performed by Janet Akhtar and Ayesha from the QCC BSA dance troupe. I’m sure everyone was dancing along behind their screen, due to the upbeat display. A brief singing performance was also shown. A shrill voice may sound like it has a negative connotation, but the sound achieved through a shrill-like singing technique creates a beautiful sound. Shrill voices are a popular vocal style and have been for centuries in Bangladesh. If I closed my eyes, I would have mistaken the melody for an instrument not a person, it was that effortless.
Needless to say, this year’s Asian Heritage Festival was a hit, and these performances being the last event for Asian Heritage Month was a great way to close. Some other amazing events that took place during Asian Heritage Month at QCC was Art in Islam, Asian Traditional Storytelling, Chinese Opera and so much more. One can only hope that next year will be just as good, if not better!