Answering Every Calling

Artist-activist Kathryn Ferguson is celebrated in a weekend of performances and screenings

Kathryn Ferguson had so many talents and interests it's hard to tally them all up.

A belly dancer, choreographer, internationally known dance teacher and director of her own dance troupe, she was also an artist, TV producer and movie director. For years she regularly roamed the dangerous deserts of southern Arizona carrying water for migrants in distress—and she wrote two acclaimed books about the woes of the borderlands.

Oh, and she worked briefly as a plumber after graduating from the UA.

As her friend Jon Morris tweeted after her sudden death from cancer in April, Ferguson "answered every calling she ever had in her life." 

With a resume like hers, it would be impossible to celebrate all her accomplishments in a single event. So the dancers and alumni of her Xanadu Collective troupe have masterminded a weekend-long Ferguson extravaganza this Saturday and Sunday.

Mediterranean Nights—A Celebration of the Life of Kathryn Ferguson will stretch out over two action-packed days and nights, pivoting from a screening of her movies to readings from her books to performances of her choreography.

"She made such an impact on the arts community and on our life as artists, we wanted to show what she did in her choreography," say Michele Morton, a Xanadu Collective member helping to organize the cascade of events. "We are memorializing her contributions to the community."

The four main events—screening of her two documentaries and a gala dance concert on Saturday, and dance workshops and a dance party on Sunday—will be a fundraiser for Ferguson's family.

"It's expensive to be sick and to die," says Kate Pitriff, aka Shimmy Sister Kate, a former Xanadu dancer who now lives in Bellevue, Washington, and still periodically teaches at the Xanadu studio. "This will help cover the family's expenses. Most of the production costs are coming out of our pockets."

Ferguson started the Xanadu troupe in the early '70s, Morton says, and the company has a "lot of records of her choreography in videos. As of now it seems we will continue as a troupe. We consider her choreography a living art."

The weekend tilts somewhat toward Ferguson's dance accomplishments, but will provide plenty of time for contemplation of her passion for border justice. One Ferguson anecdote springs to mind: Last year, on the blistering June day that four people, none of them migrants, died of the 115-degree heat right here in Tucson, she was out in the dangerous Tumacácori Wilderness, searching for border crossers in trouble.

She was a friend, and when I asked her how she could risk her own life in those temperatures, she had a quick reply.

"I have to be out there on days like that," she said. "That's when I'm needed most."

Here's a look at all the events celebrating her passions and her life:

Movie Screenings

The Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd., will show Ferguson's two indie documentaries, The Unholy Tarahumara (1998, 57 minutes) and Rita of the Sky (2009, 74 minutes), at 11 a.m. Saturday. Tickets $10, at

For the first film, Ferguson drove alone into Sonora's Copper Canyon, home of the indigenous Tarahumara people, and shot a documentary about the erosion of their traditions. The film follows two families, "one that maintains tradition, one that moves toward the dangling carrot of modern life," as Ferguson herself described it on her web page.

"Rita of the Sky" examines the increasingly harsh treatment of migrants. It tells the true story of a Tarahumara woman who walked all the way to Kansas, only to be incarcerated in a mental institution for 10 years. Authorities failed to understand that the words she was speaking were an indigenous language, and not the ravings of mental patient.

Gala Dance Concert and Book Readings

Mediterranean Nights—The Finale! will take place at Pima College West Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road at 7 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $20, available through Under three hours, with intermission.

Some 40 dancers, including visiting dance stars, current and former Xanadu dancers, and other Tucson performers will join together for the concert, performing a mix of Ferguson's choreography, other Middle Eastern dances and even African works. A Balkan choral ensemble, Mzekala, will sing.

In between the dances, Susan Tiss, a former Xanadu dancer, will do readings from Ferguson's two award-winning books, Crossing with the Virgin: Stories from the Migrant Trail (2010) and The Haunting of the Mexican Border: A Woman's Journey (2015).

"It's going to be great," says Pitriff.

Ava Fleming, once named a Belly Dancer of the Universe, will perform, as will Ashatalea, a dancer based in Las Vegas, who will create "special choreography for the alumni," and Pitriff herself, dancing as Shimmy Sister Kate.

Among the groups hailing from Tucson, Barbara Schuster, who goes by La Flamencista, will dance flamenco and Barbea Williams Performing Company will perform dances from North Africa and the African diaspora. In addition to Xanadu Collective, Tucson belly dance troupes HipNautique and Seven Veils Belly Dance will shimmy and shake on stage.

"You can't swing a cat without hitting a belly dancer in Tucson," Pitriff says. "We're everywhere."

Dance Workshops

Ava Fleming, Ashtalea and Shimmy Sister Kate will teach separate 90-minute classes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday, at Movement Culture, 435 E. Ninth St. The classes will focus on raqs sharqi, the classical Egyptian style of belly dance favored by Ferguson. $100 for all three classes; also available separately.

Hafla Dance Party and Dinner

The Hafla, an informal, traditional Middle Eastern dance party, begins at 7 p.m., Sunday, at the Galactic Center, 35 E. Toole Ave. Performers will include Ferguson's students as well as pros. A light dinner is included in the $10 admission.