The Warrior of The Winds: Yesenia Fernandez Selier
By Natalie J. Maniscalco & photos by Chasi Annexy
She tilts her head to the dark brewing sky. Winds, as powerful as a monsoon, sweep across the bolted headstones of an ancient cemetery. Oya, oya, oya! A woman of power, a warrior, crafted through the mythological beliefs of the Afro-Cuban culture, pounds through the fierce storm to take guard and protect the secrets of the underworld. She facilitates change and is symbolic of passion and love.
“Nothing can change in society without Oya. She is powerful and unique in a mythological sense,” says Yesenia Fernandez Selier, a dancer, teacher and scholar of Afro-Cuban dance and culture. Much like Oya, the African Orisha or goddess, Yesenia’s life mirrors her own passion and love for her Cuban roots.
Born and raised in Havana, Cuba, Yesenia migrated to New York City seven years ago on a scholarship to Hunter College and continues to pursue a Masters degree in African, Latin American and Caribbean culture at New York University (NYU). “I have a destiny, a career and things that I have to do,” says Yesenia with a sense of instilled determination. “I come from a rural Afro-Cuban family and grew up in an atheist Cuba, which was very different from today. My grandmother, an illiterate woman had an altar with catholic saints, but was a discrete believer of different religious forms. She gave me a sense of this other world and I became fascinated with mythology, reading everything that was available about Greek and Roman, but didn’t understand why I couldn’t find books about my own background.”
Yesenia began dancing at seven years old but it wasn’t until she was 16 that she really delved into the world of folkloric dance and Orishas while doing theater performances. As a political transformation of The Revolution, the Cuban government had lifted restrictions that had previously prevented the practice of Afro-Cuban religions, dance and cultures. “I began learning the conversations between the drums and the human body, like a musical pattern.” In attempt to gain as much knowledge that she could about Afro-Cuban history and folkloric dance, she conducted research and figuratively followed the methodical beats of the drum, something she instinctively knew would get her to where she wanted to be. “I hunted down every class in Havana from Marianao to Centro Havana, from Prodanza to el Conjunto Folklorico Nacional. But the most intense time was at the Conjunto Folklorico de la Universidad de la Havana under the first dancer of Conjunto Folklorico, Doming Pau.”
Due to the intensity and endurance one must endure to synchronize the energies of each character, most folkloric dancers only study and perform one or two Orishas. “It took about a year for me to put together a graceful Oshun (another Afro-Cuban goddess) and I’m still crafting my Oya, but it will be a while until I move on,” says Yesenia. “An Orisha demands a theatrical balance and the center must be channeled in a very personal way.”
For many artists who become fully in tune with the holistic side of dance, live and breathe it as another means or even language for worshiping spirits. “In the Afro-Cuban culture it is all about communion between the music and its connection to the dance. You don’t have to be initiated to dance or learn the music,” says Yesenia. “This was part of the stigma created by slavery and racism in Cuba that also condemned these expressions as savage, and not as artistic or beautiful.” Although Afro-Cuban folkloric dance represents a part of an enticing and profoundly rich legacy, it has also perpetuated a certain racial stigma.
Yesenia teaches not only the technique and body movements needed to embody an Orisha, but enlightens her students with the understanding of where each character comes from and the historical repercussions of the dance. Oya, Yesenia’s favorite Orisha, has a variety of dances but also tells a story of fervent adoration. Yesenia says, “Oya left her husband, Ogun, who was one of the most powerful men on earth for the love of Shango. They each fight for her love, almost destroying the world, but she was destined to be the soul mate of Shango. Olofin intervened for the sake of mankind and allowed them to be together.”
[She] screams, “Ahhhhh and Yeah!” with arms raised high, leading the streams of the wind while her torso waves with her every move. She begins the stormy dance, matching her steps perfectly with the melody of the drum as she transforms into the warrior, a seemingly intricate portrayal of herself, Oya, Oya, Oya…
For more information about Yesenia Fernandez Selier, please visit her on facebook and check out the Ibiono Project, a series of dance and percussion workshops with Ramon Diaz.
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