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Philly's Gabriel Ojeda-Sague explores identity through Jazzercise in book of poems

Why a 23-year-old Latino man fell for an '80s dance fitness craze.

Local poet Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, whose new book, Jazzercise is a Language, explores gender, sexuality and his Latino identity on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at the Philly Dance Fitness on the 1600 block of South Street.
Local poet Gabriel Ojeda-Sague, whose new book, Jazzercise is a Language, explores gender, sexuality and his Latino identity on Wednesday, April 11, 2018 at the Philly Dance Fitness on the 1600 block of South Street.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

If Gabriel Ojeda-Sague had to put a number on it, he'd say he's watched 75 hours of Jazzercise.

While devouring Jazzercise videos, the Center City poet saw something special among the long-departed hairstyles, color-coordinated spandex, and peppy exhortations. Gay men, Ojeda-Sague said, have long lifted up female celebs. Judy Garland, Patti Labelle, and Britney Spears have all been crowned.

Judi Sheppard Missett — Jazzercise's founder — wasn't as a popular a choice. But still, as she bounced her way through routines, Ojeda-Sague, 23, found a muse.

Jazzercise Is a Language, Ojeda-Sague's new book of poems, takes us through through workout sets, but also through understandings of the body, popular culture, and how queer Latino American men fit in spaces where the standard is to be blond, thin, and ever-smiling. Ojeda-Sague's poetry smirks a lot.

Ojeda-Sague moved to Philadelphia to attend college at the University of Pennsylvania. As a high schooler in Miami, he hadn't been fond of the poetry he came across, but Philly's poetry scene made him see the form through a different lens.

"Once I started meeting living [writers], I was like poetry can be a living thing," Ojeda-Sague said, citing poet CAConrad as a key inspiration. "It's not an antique."

Ojeda-Sague's poetry hops among narrative, humor, and raising issues in contemporary America. Take this line,  which asks:

what happened to women from the 

80s: did they ever make it past that last stretch of the video.

That's nestled inside a stanza that starts with:

A woman on the phone is saying to her friend

something I am thinking too: swivel of the

hips: the air between us vibrates from this

resonance: the embarrassing detail is that what

I was thinking and what she said was 'what if

someone shot up my school tomorrow': swivel

of the hips…

The book reads like a continuous stream of verses and vignettes rather than a collection of poems. His intent isn't to paint a perfect, hyperrealist picture, he says, but rather to deliver a "hallucinogen of the truth."

This he connects to his experience as a Latino Miamian. South Florida's culture felt distinct to him from the rest of the country, and also from concepts of Americanness. That sense of detachment continues to feed "how I exist socially, and politically," he said.

His first book, Oil and Candle, is in both English and Spanish.  His next book, a take on Miami's sinking, will be bilingual, too.

Ilan Stavans, who edited the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, says Ojeda-Sague is expressing "this no-man's-land that we exist in."

The language itself, Stavans said, "has become the protagonist in the poetry." Intelligibility isn't the goal. The words open a space within the poem "that has its own rules and own autonomy. But the content is throwing the reader to understand larger experiences of alienation."

Jazzercise Is a Language is written in English. But Stavans said Ojeda-Sague still could communicate his bicultural experience without switching tongues. A poet doesn't have to use all the languages he speaks in order to "invoke" them.

Ojeda-Sague writes:

… I am much less latino when I am

with latinos and I am much less white when I am 

with white people: I am much less a man when 

I am around men and I am much less a woman 

when I am around women…

Ojeda-Sague's parents worked for Radio y Televisión Martí, a U.S. government-backed broadcaster that produces content for Cuban audiences. His mother, Michelle Sague, still works there. She grew up in Puerto Rico. His father, Francisco Ojeda, died of brain cancer when Ojeda-Sague was 11. Ojeda's family had been exiled from Cuba in the 1960s.

When Ojeda-Sague was around 15, he began to read up on queer literary classics. Many of them, like Giovanni's Room, he noticed, end tragically.

"I never felt like I saw myself" in the grimmer stories, he said. "While I was reading, I was getting bullied in school." But he still related more to camp. Campiness had its own style — to be funny, to be ornate, but also to make commentary. Ojeda-Sague gravitated toward that.

The story of Jazzercise begins in 1969, after Sheppard Missett, a dance teacher, noticed that by simplifying the choreography and stripping away technical details, she could attract a larger audience.

Ojeda-Sague's rendering of her is loving, but not so fawning. He'd observe the Latin and African American dance moves that Sheppard Missett would incorporate, making them more basic, more attainable for presumably white audiences.

"There are no barriers to entry," he said. Sheppard Missett, by his estimation, was "totally flattening it out so that it works as a four-minute routine for your waistline. It's really hard to say because it's so insidious, but she's really good at it."

For her part, Sheppard Missett says she's waiting for the right moment to sit with Ojeda-Sague's book. The 74-year-old Californian is practiced at responding to critiques that she "bastardized" jazz dance. Questions of cultural appropriation seem newer to her. Ojeda-Sague says her decision to appropriate dance styles and make them less complicated served a clear purpose: economic benefit.

"When it comes to maybe not choreographing things as appropriately as an Afro Cuban choreographer would," Sheppard Missett acknowledged, "I really couldn't do that and have those customers want to come back."

She said she'll take Ojeda-Sague's critique to heart, and think through it. Art, she said, is meant to promote discourse, and she says he's doing that.

Ojeda-Sague did not write the book to be consumed all in one go, though he appreciates the readers who motor through.

"The moments of confusion add rhythm, moments where the reader can pull away," he said. If something in the book makes you want to take some time, that's good with him. Plus, that's also an opportunity. "It's important to me to make something that can transform as it goes."