Bayview has long been known as San Francisco’s industrial hub. But on Yosemite Street there’s an imposing brick building with a dance studio. Inside the space there's a group of young people who climb on pieces of welded iron that hang three feet off the ground. They run and mess around with each other during breaks. But their joviality turns to concentration when they get in the air. Up there they’re spinning, floating, and thriving.
In a former life this warehouse was a pillow factory, a place where dream-facilitating objects were made. Now it’s the home of Zaccho Dance Theatre.
A grounded beginning
Joanna Haigood is Zaccho’s founder and creative director. She’s a slim woman with a full-faced and frequent smile who grew up in Iran. When she was five years old an earthquake hit her home in Tehran. Her father took her along as he went about town looking to help others. It was an event that would lead to her life long love of dance.
“There was a really beautiful music playing. I wandered over there and there was this gorgeous young girl dancing in the center. I was transfixed by her. I could not stop watching. It was like drinking the most extraordinary elixir,” she says.
Years passed, and Joanna’s family moved to England. One of the family’s new neighbors was a dancer with the Barnum and Bailey Circus. She introduced Joanna to aerial expression in the form of the Flying Wallendas. She would sit mesmerized, watching people walk tightropes high in the air. Those performances got her thinking, “Hey, why are we on the ground?! Why can’t we shape space in a more dimensional way?”
Launching the company
Joanna grew up, moved to the United States, and started Zaccho in 1980. The organization moved to Bayview in 1989, a moment when shipyard jobs were disappearing, the city’s Black population was falling, and Black nationalism was in full effect.
“For a loooong time it was difficult to get support, because people would say things like, ‘Black children need to be studying African dance and I don’t see the relevance of teaching them aerial work.’”
But Joanna thought differently and she’s been spreading her philosophy ever since. To students like 18 year old Aazra Muhammad.
“I still remember my first day with the youth company. I didn’t even have the courage to climb the apparatus. To this day I’m still afraid of heights, but Zaccho gave me the confidence to be able to express myself," she says.
Her mother, Catherine Muhammad, agrees.
“When I watched her dance it was amazing," she says. "It didn’t even look like the same person. It was like a transformation.”
Taking the long view
Joanna Haigood’s teaching at Zaccho goes beyond physicality. There’s also a mission to have young people take ownership over their ideas. As part of the curriculum, students read up on history, architecture, and social happenings. Each year the students focus on a different theme. In the past they’ve focused on the environment and police brutality. Right now they’re investigating identity, and they’re defining themselves through poetry.
It’s this investigation of self and possibility that Joanna Haigood is looking to provoke. To use dance and the body to instill the imagination with the ability to go beyond the mundane. Zaccho is a space to flex the mind and the body. A place where personalities and imaginations don’t have to stay on the ground – they can fly.
This story was produced for KALW’s Sights and Sounds of Bayview project, which is shining a spotlight on one of San Francisco’s most diverse neighborhoods. Hear more stories like it at a live storytelling event on Friday June 19th. Find details here.
This piece first aired in June, 2015.