My left hand softly tapping on a dark wooden table located in the center of
my small urban kitchen in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – my home for the past fifteen
years. As my fingers on my left hand continue to tap, my right hand tightly grips the
small, dented silver tin cup that once belonged to my grandfather, Abuelo. I sit
slumped over the table staring into the contents of the cup knowing that what it
holds inside is more than just freshly brewed coffee from my American-style
coffeepot: the interior holds experience, knowledge, and history. I begin to lift and
tilt this cup towards my mouth, and slowly drain the coffee by repeating this same
physical pattern over the course of several minutes.
These moments of repetition bring illusions of Abuelo sitting across the table
from me, holding his own cup. He sits with his red, American trucker cap, white tshirt
and brown baggy pants awaiting our conversation – wanting to know who I am
and how my life has unfolded. We sit in silence, drinking coffee, but before I can
refill his cup, he tips it towards me—his characteristic gesture, expressing his
contentment, his wish for more-- and his image disappears. I remain alone inhaling
the smell of the intoxicating and rich freshly poured cup of addictive coffee. It
explodes with hypnotizing swirls of heat that move off of the surface and into the
air. Like Abuelos image being permanently present even if in absence of physicality, I
see the swirls disappear beyond my reach even as the movement embeds in my
These swirls carry knowledge within their moments of visibility and then
invisibility: the unspoken words and history of a/my people manifests itself inside
each cup and disappears again with the draining of the cup. The movements of the
swirls are enough to tell the vanishing, shape-shifting story of the Cuban people who
lived in diaspora, in and through absence. My grandfather, happy in exile, was never
without his tin cup, which always held coffee or whiskey—or both. Each cup of
coffee he drank was more or less the same as all the others, but vanished at different
speeds, in different circumstances and to the rhythm of disparate stories. He
listened and drank.
When I come too close to the coffee, as I must do to drink, I can feel the heat
radiating in swirls, and then the burn of information when I drink too fast—as I
often do. But the essence and behavior of a swirl is what has fed my own movement
vocabulary: it spirals back down into the depths of its roots, even as it travels up and
out, to return to the surface and air without a sound or word. Each delicate swirl of
steam from the coffee carries the totality of what it knows of the people who
cultivated and drank it.
It is admittedly poetic and slippery to meditate on what a swirl knows. But
when art comes through me, and I try to put words to what it is, where it comes from,
where it is going, this proves to be just as difficult to pin down into sentences—
which can only swirl so much before they lose their sense. History is always rising
up, even as it settles in the depths of the coffee grounds, and yet the surface,
present-moment of the dance is always vanishing. The story of the journey is in a
state of invisibility.
This is my daily ritual.
As an American dance artist of Cuban birth, I find myself like so many
children that migrated to a country before they could speak full sentences, in a place
of co-existence: I am American but living alongside Cubans from different
generations, trying to reconcile my place between two countries.
In my movement I have embodied American modern dance forms, while
simultaneously retaining the sense of being a part of a community spectacle of
rumba in my home as a child in Miami, Florida. In my artistic practice, I move from
rumba’s improvisatory impulse using American modern dance forms, and when
those moments are exhausted, I find my way back through my own body’s guidance
to the root of my soul, my rumba. This is to write that it is not the rumba of my
parents, grandparent or Cubans today, but my rumba as an American woman – a
contemporary artist – as myself, maria urrutia.
I'm passionate about
Dance. Performing Arts.
Talk to me about
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My TED story
I am a child of the Mariel Boat lift.