Queer Mvmnt Fest aims to give LGBTQ dancers a place where they belong

Dancers Desiree Cuizon and Trystan Merrick are the co-lead artists in this year's Queer Mvmnt Fest.
Dancers Desiree Cuizon and Trystan Merrick are the co-lead artists in this year’s Queer Mvmnt Fest, which is aimed at giving LGBTQ dancers and choreographers a safe space and showcase works by LGBTQ artists.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

When Desiree Cuizon sees something that needs to be fixed, she’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and fix it herself.

That’s exactly what happened a few years ago when she realized San Diego’s LGBTQ dance community didn’t have an outlet — a safe space, really — to express themselves through movement.

In 2018, “I was performing at an event here in San Diego around the time of Pride Week,” she recalls. “It wasn’t Pride-related but happening around Pride. That’s when I thought to myself: ‘Why doesn’t the dance community have this? We really need something like this.’ There are so many queer people in dance, but why isn’t there an event that showcases the work of queer dancers and choreographers?”

Shortly after that event in 2018, Zaquia Mahler Salinas started Disco Riot, a San Diego-based organization whose main purpose is “to produce and support innovative dance programming.” Cuizon, who began dancing with Disco Riot after it launched, spoke to Salinas about the possibility of producing a queer-centric dance event.

Four years later, what began as an idea has become a reality with Queer Mvmnt Fest, which is being held from June 24 to 27 under the auspices of Disco Riot.

The inaugural festival is aimed at celebrating and showcasing the work of artists — especially BIPOC artists — who “identify as part of the queer, trans and gender-nonconforming dance community in San Diego and beyond,” says Cuizon, who, with fellow dancer Trystan Merrick, are the festival’s co-lead artists and organizers.

“It’s really a celebration,” Cuizon says of the free and open-to-the-public event, which will include performances, workshops, panel discussions, film screenings and more.

“But more importantly,” Cuizon adds, “it’s about empowerment.”

“Specifically for LGBTQ artists, especially BIPOC artists, there is an intersectional aspect to all this — there are so many layers that they must navigate because of the community they’re in. Our hope is that this festival gives them the opportunity to be 100 percent themselves and be able to show all those layers without having to hide them or be silent.”

Merrick agrees.

“The goal is to provide a safe space for artists to share their unique points of view” with events ranging from community and social dance to performance art and concert dance, he says. “The roadblocks that exist within professional dance for queer, BIPOC and gender nonconforming artists are many. The intersectionality within our community is unique and underrepresented here in San Diego and beyond. Here in San Diego, almost all of the the dance companies are represented artistically by cisgender heterosexual directors, thus affecting the programming being presented to San Diego audiences.

“We are offering space for the voices of underrepresented intersectional communities to be shared through live performance opportunities, movement workshops, panel discussions and an evening of dance films. Socioeconomic background is such a determining factor in dance education, and it was imperative to provide all of these opportunities to participants and audiences completely free. I hope to help provide space to San Diego dancers needing representation and the young audiences needing to see others like them navigating our art form.”

How, Cuizon asks, can you be true to yourself when the infrastructure that supports your art isn’t built to support authenticity?

“In the dance world,” she says, “a lot of roles and performances revolve around couples — male and female. That’s why you see a lot of queer dancers do a lot of solo work. What we hope is that Queer Mvmnt gives people the stage to be exactly who they are. And when you’re talking about empowerment, here’s a true-life example: We have people asking us: ‘Is it OK if I do this?’ Our answer is: ‘Yes, absolutely.’ It’s so built in the dance community to ask for permission. We’re hoping to break that barrier.”

Breaking that barrier in San Diego is especially important to Cuizon. After moving here from Northern California, she found a thriving dance community but one that lacked a support system for queer dancers — something like Queer Mvmnt Fest.

“The Bay Area has a festival,” says Cuizon, who grew up in Napa. “There are many other cities that have it. They definitely sparked the idea to start one here.”

Cuizon knows that for many dancers, the festival is the perfect way to come out of more than two years of pandemic-induced hibernation. Dancers like herself.

The pandemic, especially early on, “was extremely difficult for someone who was dancing every week,” Cuizon says. “We made space in the living room, on our balconies, wherever there was space. I was actually pretty active and, like so many artists, made films during the pandemic. But it was definitely frustrating not to be able to move and dance in person. For some people, this festival will be a reconnection with the audience.”

Cuizon admits she’s someone who has yet to return to the kinds of performances she was doing before the pandemic. She has asthma, Cuizon says, and “I still to this day still wear a mask indoors. I know other dancers have gone past that. But I’m not there yet.”

Others have, though, and many of them will be a part of Queer Mvmnt Fest, which will be held at venues all over town, including Art Produce in North Park, BalletCenter Studios in Mission Hills and the Tenth Avenue Arts Center in downtown San Diego.

“To be confined by walls was very difficult for me, especially without an audience,” Cuizon says. “Now we get to perform in front of people and see faces, even faces with masks.”

Despite the instability caused by COVID-19, Cuizon would like to ensure that the festival offers hope.

“The world is and will always be challenging,” she says, “but this festival is about celebration. About recognizing that we’re all beautiful. ... My hope is that after the festival, these dancers feel empowered and feel like they can be who they are. I hope the audience comes in and celebrates with us.”

Merrick, who says the this kind of festival is “a much needed event in San Diego,” adds: “Our hope is to connect with the vibrant cultures within San Diego and enrich our queer community through movement. Dance has played an important role in our history since its earliest origins, from adding connection in spiritual rituals to creating bonds within even our earliest communities. The vision for this festival is not only to connect and support queer dance artists in San Diego, but also to deepen the dance community’s connection and representation within the diverse communities that we occupy.”

Queer Mvmnt Fest

When: June 24-27, with June 27 as youth and family day

Where: Venues all over San Diego

Tickets: Free, but reservations required