On December 5, 2013 Paloma McGregor was joined by leading Diasporan scholars, writers and artists for an evening of participatory story circles exploring Dancing While Black. This evening was co-facilitated with Shani Jamila using veteran theater-maker/activist John O’Neal’s Story Circle methodology. Dancing While Black: In Our Own Words | Story Circles on Performance, Activism, & the Black Dancing Body took place at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics where Paloma was an Artist in Residence from 2013-14. Participants included: Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, John Perpener, Ebony Golden, Adia Whitaker, Gabri Christa, Nia Love, Marya Wethers, James Frazier, Onye Ozuzu, Shalonda Ingram and Antonio Brown, with additional contributions by Jawole Zollar, Kyle Abraham, Raja Kelly, and Camille Brown.
Note: Timestamp markers have been included throughout to support ease of video viewing.
[0:00] Welcome & Introductions. Calling in the Ancestors.
Paloma McGregor: It’s great to see and feel you all in this space. My name is Paloma McGregor. Among other things, I’m the instigator of this evening’s Dancing While Black. I’m delighted to have you all here. I just want to share with you a little bit about what brought us to this evening in terms of my part of it. You all will be telling stories maybe about what brought you all into this evening and I’m looking forward to that.
First, I want to share a couple of quotes from Octavia Butler that I feel like get at this work.
From Audience: She’s with us.
Paloma: [She is] one of our chief storytellers who put us in every dimension, every time period as central, which is what I think this evening is about, about centralizing Blackness and art making. Not to diminish any other kind of being or art making, but to put this as the thing that all other things will be responding to in this evening.
The first one is one of my favorites: “People have the right to call themselves whatever they like – that doesn’t bother me. It’s other people doing the calling that bothers me.”
Part of, I think, what this evening is for me and what this initiative is about, is about all of us doing the calling for ourselves of ourselves.
The second is, and this is in part because we are within an institution that has multiple layers, that has a Hemispheric Institute that has been super supportive around this, that Marlène, I’d love for you to talk in a moment after I read this quote about this aspect of things: “All struggles are essentially power struggles – who will rule, who will lead, who will define, refine, confine, design, who will dominate. All struggles are essentially power struggles and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together.”
I also feel like there’s a root of this in that quote as well. To take a step back then, I’d love Marlène for you to talk a little bit about it.
Marlène Ramírez-Cancio: Hi everybody. My name is Marlène Ramírez-Cancio. I’m Associate Director of Arts & Media at The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, the biggest mouthful. We are a network of artists, academics and activists that work together around performance and politics just really briefly. We have had a thing called The Hemispheric New York Performance Network, of which Paloma has been a wonderful artist-in-residence for the entire year, and will be extended for the next half of this coming year as well.
I just wanted to tell you where you are. This is the performance studies department at NYU, not the Hemispheric Institute, we’re over at 20 Cooper. I just wanted to also acknowledge that our dear friend, Professor José Muñoz died yesterday. We’re just all sad. This was partly his space and we just want to honor his brilliance and contribution to the field of performance studies and the world. With that I just wanted to let you know who we are. You can keep going.
Paloma: I’ll try and be brief because I want there to be time to tell stories, but I think it’s important to tell a little bit about the story of this evolution, a little bit about the purpose. I think there were three routes to this work for me. One of them is very personal around inspiration and push of two teachers that I have had.
One is Dr. Beverly Barber at Florida A&M University, who always saw some connection that I did not see between my journalistic life, which is why I was in college, and my dance life. My dance practice and my journalism practice. She had this big vision about how those things would intersect toward the politics that I wanted to embody in the world. I feel like part of the reason I’m here today is because she had a vision for me that I didn’t have.
The other is Dr. Reginald Yates, who actually, it turns out is a graduate of Florida A&M University where I went to school. He gathered together, in the summer of 2002, a group of students to study Dunham technique with Ms. Dunham. It was a couple of years before she passed. Not only did she teach a three and a half hour class from a wheelchair, but we were, in every day in that meeting of spirits and dancers, we started our day with communion, with hug and introductions and “How are you this morning?” We were pushed to love one another with great rigor.
The mantra that Dr. Yates always pushed, that has stuck with me forever in my body is: do your work. We all get presented with multiple kinds of things and some are opportunities and some feel like setbacks, and the idea of doing your work — through the midst of all of what you are presented with — has really felt like a root of this work. That’s one teacher route.
The second route of this work is around being pissed and spending the better part of my career in New York, of my 10 years here, dancing with Urban Bush Women and seeing — in the course of what is now a 30-year-old organization — looking through archives of coverage and experiencing coverage as a member, seeing the way that a diverse group of Black women, coming together to assert our stories consistently has been described as dancing like men. Which I mean men can dance fierce, but I mean why can’t we be dancing like women, dancing the way we’re dancing? To be compared to animals. To consistently be asked in multiple kinds of settings like, “Have you trained as dancers?” There’s some anger underneath the whole thing too.
Then the third route is hope. Great hope because we know that’s how we all got here. Great hope that people who have come before have laid a great foundation for my contemporaries who continue to push and cajole me. Marjani Forté, who is not in the room right now, was the first person I told about Dancing While Black two years ago. I feel as though there’s a group of folks whose stories and whose making is being supported. I know there’s a whole group of folks who want to tell stories and make and have their work live out in the world, and the structures that exist right now can’t vision them having a space. This is a platform that Hemispheric Institute has allowed me to have as part of my residency. I’m really grateful that this is a space where we can put our stories as central.
Because ancestors have been called up in a couple of ways this evening, I really want to take a moment for us to each call in people who are not presently in the room in body, to be in the room with us in spirit. We’ll do it popcorn style, but Dr. BDG if you want to set us off.
Nelson Mandela. Ase.
Katherine Dunham. Ase.
You can pull your ancestors. They don’t have to be famous to us, famous to you.
Pearl Primus. Ase.
Zora Neale Hurston. Ase.
Alicia Wright Pierce.
(collective calling of ancestors and sources of inspiration)
And we know more will come in whether we invite them or not, but I’m glad we invited the ones we have and lit a path that this is an open space, so thank you.
Paloma: I want to pass the mic to the amazing Shani Jamila who will talk with us more about the Story Circle process in a minute, but kind of set some agreements for how we’re going to work together today.
[12:20] Community Agreements
Shani Jamila: First of all, hey y’all. It’s good to be in this space with each one of you and with my sistren and Paloma. [I am] happy to be co-creating what we’ll share, what we’ll experience today. I think the first thing we should do, as we were calling and invoking the names of our ancestors — I heard some people are invoking names of folks who still walk with us — let’s take a moment and introduce ourselves to the people who walk with us in this room today, like we did in church. Turn to your neighbor, and say hello. Say a little something to each person.
Okay, so this is a beautiful thing. You know, you come to these things and you have the people who speak, but so often there’s so much knowledge being held in the room by people who are not in the panel. We know that that’s the case tonight so it’s a beautiful thing for people to make the kinds of connections with folks who share interests, who share love, who share passion. Thank you all for helping create that community in this space tonight.
One of the things that we want to do — before we even start, before we begin to explain what a Story Circle is and how we will be participating in it tonight — is in the same spirit of community, decide collectively how we’re going to [and] what space are we going to create tonight. What are we going to collectively agree upon about how we will function tonight in the space? I’ll begin by just throwing out one, which is we are on an extremely tight schedule with a lot to fit into it, so:
Respect the time.
Permission to be present.
Allow productive discomfort in a respectful space.
Allow not knowing or invite the unknown.
Turn our cell phones off.
For those of us who take notes on our phones or electronic devices, that that space also be [allowed].
Shani: Okay, so can we collectively affirm that this is the space we will create tonight?
Shani: Can I get an “Amen?”
All: Amen. Ase.
[16:37] Introduction to Story Circles.
Shani: One of the things that we’re going to do tonight is engage in a process known as Story Circle. This is a process that my uncle, John O’Neal, who was one of the founders of Free Southern Theater in New Orleans, which is an organization that grew out of his work with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. One of the major organizations that made a strong impact on our culture and on our society during the Black Power era. In fact, I wonder, and this is a little bit off-script to the extent that we have a script tonight, but if any of the people who are here who participated with SNCC or were a witness to some of the things that SNCC did wouldn’t mind just saying a few words.
Participant: I’m not an elder, but my mother was probably involved with SNCC in Arkansas. My grandfather was actually the first African-American member of the Agriculture Board. As far as SNCC impacting our family, it absolutely changed the way the community around my family saw themselves. It changed the way my mother saw herself. In that way, it affected multiple generations, and for that I will always be grateful.
Participant: There was a SNCC chapter here at NYU.
Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild: Richard Schechner came out of the whole thing with your uncle. Somehow I feel like that translated into why and how he became my dissertation advisor when I graduated from the Performance Studies department.
Shani: Thank you all for sharing. What we’re going to do is an amended version of the Story Circle process. Paloma has invited some extraordinary people to share the space with us today. We’re going to do it in somewhat of a fishbowl format. We will have a couple of them happening tonight with the invited panelists. Then all of us are going to take a moment and engage in our own Story Circles following the first two with our panelists.
One of the things that I love is that when you all decided what kind of space we’re going to create, they echo many of the rules of the Story Circle. Permission to be present. Paloma was talking about the kinds of listening that we want to engage in. There can often be somewhat of a sense of pressure, where you feel like, “Oh my God, it’s my turn I have to say something profound.” “Oh, my turn to tell a story.” Allow yourself, trust yourself to let what you will say emerge in relationship to the stories that have preceded you. Whether they’re ones that have been spoken in this space or ones that have just helped shape your lives.
You will have a moment to listen, and you will have a moment to speak. There’s no crosstalk in the Story Circle out of respect for each person’s space. We’ll go around in either clockwise or counterclockwise fashion. If you want to reference somebody else’s story, you can perhaps say “that brought up for me…” when it’s your turn. If you want to pass when it’s your turn, you’re allowed to do that, and we can come back to you and give you another opportunity to speak. [Paloma,] you wanted to say something about the kinds of listening that you wanted.
Paloma: Yeah, so I know we have all these amazing devices for chronicling things that we hear or see. I would like to posit that our bodies are also amazing devices for chronicling things that we hear and see. I would actually really love for us to be listening with that in mind rather than thinking, “Oh I want to take or have to take.” I think, trust that your bodies are actually absorbing what’s happening in the room. Actually, if we put this [device] between our bodies and what’s happening in the room, it may detract from that. I would like to ask for that as part of our listening.
Shani: Lastly, what I’ll say — because we don’t want to pepper you with rules – is that I think one of the things that’s going to be really special about tonight is that we’re going to be synthesizing with physical movement as well. Paloma is going to help guide us through that space. I’ll just put that out there more as something to entice. With that, should we move into the first?
Paloma: I think we should. We have an invited group of folks who are going to participate in Story Circles that then we will be reflecting on as a larger group in a couple of kinds of ways. They were invited through grassroots community organizing because they are people I have either known for a long time or have wanted to pull into a room for a long time. I’m really grateful for their presence with that.
Brenda: How are you doing the timing thing?
[24:00] First story circle prompt
Shani: Even though we said no cell phones, for the purpose of this, this is what we’ve got to do. What we’re basically asking, so that no one story is privileged over another, is that people take no more than three minutes to share each story. You can take less than that. If you take more than that, we will gently and lovingly [elbow nudge]. Everybody will have three minutes.
In the spirit of respect and non-judgment and love that we collectively agreed to, these people will begin to model what the first Story Circle will be. The prompt for the first Story Circle, and whoever feels like they want to begin first with it should feel free to move in that space, is:
Tell us about a time when you felt you understood, discovered, reaffirmed, asserted that Blackness mattered in the work you do.
John Perpener: I’ll share an anecdote that I’ve often shared with my students, which was during the 1970s when I was performing with an all-white ballet company in Hartford, Connecticut. This is kind of like one of my standard stories actually that I often share. I was the only Black dancer in this ballet company. By contrast, it let me begin to discover what role my Blackness played or would play in my pursuit of that art form, by contrast. Because I remember specifically I was standing in the wings of the performance of our seasonal The Nutcracker, which we always did for a couple of weeks in Hartford and then toured New England. I was standing in the wings and looking at something unfolding before me, that Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy or something like that, and thinking that it was really, really beautiful.
We’re all familiar with the lighting and the costume up on stage; the magic that’s actually created. If you’re standing in the wings and you’re not performing, then you’re still taking it in. But part of what I was taking in, I remember the specific question I asked myself at the moment. I was still in the wings. I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” I’ll always remember that moment I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” I later thought of: “It’s this Russian, late 19th century fantasy story ballet The Nutcracker, and what am I doing here?”
It was probably that moment that I began to try and figure out what I was doing here as a dance artist, because I knew that that wasn’t it. I absolutely loved that. I loved the music. I loved ballet. I loved the costumes and the lights. But I also knew that it didn’t address the things that I wanted to pursue with the rest of my career in dance. Actually, it was from experiences like that and in that company that I actually began researching the history of African American dance and eventually evolved into a dance historian and a researcher. Is it [time]? Three minutes is a long time.
Paloma: You don’t have to fill it, though! If you feel done, you don’t have to fill it, because maybe some other people will.
John: Again, it was by contrast of that moment and that experience that I began to discover who I was and who my people were in dance. It’s always struck me as ironic because I really loved doing what I was doing at that moment, but I just knew that it wasn’t everything that I was supposed to do in my artistic life.
Paloma: John, since you decided to kick us off — and I really appreciate that — can you select what direction the circle goes in?
John: The left.
Paloma: Thank you.
Ebony Noelle Golden: I don’t know when Blackness wasn’t a factor in the work that I do. It’s always been a factor in the work that I do. I’m very clear and excited about Blackness in everything that I do, including movement in terms of theatrical movement, performative movement, movement of Black people, Black bodies, and Black spaces and other spaces. Yeah, just being Black and moving is really important.
I can talk about a time because one of my mentors is here, Mama Nia, and one of my sisters is here, Rachel coming from Durham. We have an initiative in Durham called Gumbo Yah-Yah, which I started here as a graduate student in this program, Performance Studies, and took it back home to Durham, one of my homes.
Mama Nia and I sat across the table from a funder who asked us, why did we only want to do this work Gumbo Yah-Yah with Black women? Why only Black women? Can’t anybody come? Can’t we use this cultural practice of Black women talking to each other and making art with each other? Can’t that be for everybody? I don’t know if you remember this Mama Nia, but yeah. We had to come up with some kind of way to just stick to our heart and our, what our ancestors would have us to do, because this idea that it’s not supposed to just be for Black fill-in-the-blank. That if it is, it’s reductive, it’s boxed in, it’s not enough.
To be in this space, in this room, where for a while when I was a graduate student here and knowing that yes, I’m learning about performance theory, and whoop-de-whoop cultural studies, and whoop-de-whoop yada-yada, but really what I want to do is make art with Black women. That’s what I want to do all the time. Making that decision, which is difficult in some spaces, but being a student here, made it very clear to me that if I wasn’t really strong and affirmed and making work for, by, with, about — we could do with other people too, but where’s the space for us to really move for us? That if we didn’t do it, if we didn’t take the resources, however we got them to make that a reality, then it would never be a reality. That too many people sacrificed before I had the opportunity to be here or we had opportunity to be here, [and] too many people sacrificed and set a road, a beautiful, brilliant road in front of us. That I don’t even have to recreate the wheel, I can just do what people been doing, what Black folks been doing in time and space. So why not? That’s just one moment, and I think I’m telling that story because my people are here. That’s one moment of many moments where – [timer rings] – mmmhmm, yup.
Antonio Brown: One of the first things that I remember about myself growing up was being around a very diverse culture of people. One of the first things I realized of my appearance made a very big part in what I did, [and] what I was asked to perform in front of the Cleveland Orchestra, which is a really amazing orchestral arrangement. They had this whole series of artists that they brought in and they had special guests doing these things. They asked these two middle school kids to perform Porgy and Bess, two songs from the musical score.
That was when I realized, because I had grown up, and I had trained in ballet and modern and hip hop and jazz and all these different kinds of things. I never have put a color to anything that I ever did. I’m dancing. This is who I am. This is what I’ve been brought here to do. It was at that moment when I took the stage performing in front of the orchestra, in front of an audience filled with – a very Caucasian audience.
The response that they gave was very heartfelt, and it was very touching. I knew on the stage, listening to the music, and I can hear and feel every vibration that came through the orchestra from behind me. I can hear it register all the way through, out into the people in the audience. I knew that the only reason that it registered was because of who me and my partner was on the stage. If it had been anybody else, I knew that the translation of what the story was would not have been the same.
That was one of the very first moments where I realized myself being African-American, this means more than just me being a young man growing up in the field of the arts. Coming from the histories I come from and coming from the history of my ancestors, they have put so much and sacrificed so much, so that art and movement and all those things can translate to people in so many futuristic ways. So that they can actually have something to feel and connect with that they would have never done so in the past. I just wanted to share that because that was something that I really felt. I realized who I am and what me being who I am, the color of my skin, really made a big impact on connecting with different people.
Adia Tamar Whitaker: I always loved to be Black. I loved it since I was a little kid. It was one of the most important things for me. I was, a lot of the times, the little Black girl in the class. Learned the word “n—–;” Texas taught me the word “n—–” at age seven. I grew up in a really strong folkloric community in the Bay Area. When I came to New York and the Ailey School that was supposed to be like my contemporary modern training, etc.
I was coming from a strong folklore background, moving into a contemporary background. At a point, my career started as a choreographer, and I went to a more established choreographer, and I said, “Do you have any advice for me? Can you tell me what I need to know in order to get this whole thing?” He said, “I’m just so sick of people calling me a Black artist.” I was like, “Well maybe I should be sick of that too.” What does that mean though, not to be a Black artist? I went through this whole period where I was like, “Okay, what does that mean? Maybe I should try to feel that because maybe that’s a part of Blackness that I don’t know.”
Then, when I started to create my work, little kids would see me on the street and they’d be like, “Dancing lady!” and “I loved your costumes” and “I saw you!” And my company would perform on the train and people would just cry, because it gave them so much hope. Then I made the decision: I love being Black, and I love being a Black artist, and I’m really happy about that.
Through my travels and through my education in all these things, there’s been so many shifts. Because when I went to Africa, I was able to just see Black artists that didn’t even have to explain; because we spend so much time explaining why what we do is important. We don’t get to just do the thing sometimes. I was so tired of explaining. When I went to Africa I was like, “Y’all don’t have to explain?” You don’t have to use the Liz Lerman talkback method?! You can just do it?! People would just be like, “Yes, she is an artist, it is, oh, Adia. She came here. She is an artist from her country.” They just knew I was an artist, and I just came there, and I was going to make art and they were like, “You need time to make your art.” I was like, “What? What is this? I don’t even know what this feels like.”
Then [while] traveling to Europe, I remember I went to Ireland for the Dublin Dance Festival and there was this moment where they were talking about artists from the continent, and there was no discussion of the Diaspora. They didn’t understand what I was. They were like, “Why do you feel like you have this connection to – you’re not Black.” The United States is one of the only places I get to be Black. You know what I’m saying? I go to Cuba, I’m mulata. I go to this place in Haiti, I’m grimelle. I go all these places, and this is one of the only places I get to be Black. That’s kind of my story.
Nia Austin-Edwards: We’ve had in the audience someone ask if the storytellers can tell their names.
Paloma: Yeah, we’re going to come back to that. In the spirit of transparency, for time, we were going to do a whole big introduction. I’ll be honest. We will come to the names, but I feel as though foregrounding the stories [instead of] putting the sort of qualifiers and signifiers of like who, what our titles are in the world, is actually working really nicely. I appreciate you all flowing with that. We will come back to the names.
Eva Yaa Asantewaa: I am a writer. Please indulge me, I have this meditation. Since we have a short period of time, there’ll be no preliminary statement about it, I’m just going to read it. I think it fits.
The way you make a dance is to lay your back against the earth, to slip low into the soil of the earth, to touch your shoulder to the shoulder of the one you find there. The current of that discovered shoulder, creating a current flowing backward in time, forward in time. The discoverable shoulder uniting you through land masses and the pulse of distant oceans. Shoulders of the dead; of the dying. Shoulders, hip joints of the tortured and shot, manacled and sold.
The way you make a dance is to catch the spaces a partner leaves in the air, to hold these spaces against your ear, to drink them down and down until you comprehend another being in this world. The way you make a dance is to unlatch the gate and run free on a night of no moon, and to let forces and the inclination of your own blood move you over that route. There is a right way to make a dance, and someone’s shoulder touching yours has that direction. Someone’s shoulder touching yours cups that story, offers it. The way you make a dance is to plant your heels and toes along the fault line. Feel, in its tremors, the end of time and the birth of everything.
[41:15] First Story Circle Core Participant Introductions: Who You Be? Where You Belong?
Shani: If we can just honor the stories we just heard by taking a collective series of deep breaths. Now, I’d like to ask if we can do a round-robin of introductions however you choose to introduce yourself. My grandma used to say, tell me who you be and where you belong.
John: I’m John Perpener. Dance historian, currently an independent scholar living in Washington, D.C.
Ebony: I’m Ebony Golden. I live in Harlem. I’m from Houston, Texas. My people come from Caddo Parish, Louisiana. I’m the Director of Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative and the Artistic Director of Body Ecology Performance Ensemble.
Antonio: Antonio Brown. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, now living in New York City. I’m a dancer with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company and also a choreographer who’s been choreographing all over the country.
Adia: My name is Adia Tamar Whitaker. I’m the Artistic Director of Ase Dance Theatre Collective. We are a neo-folkloric performance ensemble that is 13 years old and we’re Brooklyn-based.
Eva: I’m Eva Yaa Asantewaa. My folks are from Barbados, and I’m a native New Yorker. I’ve been writing about dance since 1976 [for] various publications, and I have a blog, InfiniteBody. Also another blog that I direct called Dancer’s Turn, which does long-form profiles of dance artists.
[42:50] Movement Reflection/Physical Synthesis
Paloma: Thank you. I think that the writing you just shared segues us in a great way toward a little bit of movement reflection on the stories we just heard. Whatever you have in your hands or that’s stopping you from moving around out of your seat, please put that aside under, over, away, behind, not in your hands, so that you have space to move.
Let’s stand up and find yourself shoulder to shoulder, as you said, with someone else in the room. Has everybody found themselves a shoulder? Raise your hand if you don’t have a shoulder that you’re next to. Maybe if you’re a group of six shoulders next to one another, now split off into duets, so duet shoulder with someone. Find yourself with one other person’s shoulders.
Great. Take a second to turn to your partner. I’m going to give you the steps first before you do it, take a second to turn to your partner, introduce yourself, just your name. Then pick who is A and who is B, and then look back at me so I know you’re ready.
I know, I’m silly. It’s part of my being.
Great, the A’s are going to go first. You’re going to have one minute to move the stories you heard. As a response to the stories you heard, to move and share in movement with your B partner the stories that you just heard. It could be one story that really moved you and you really want to dig deep into that. It could be a reflection of the many stories that you heard, where they move in your body, how low, how fast, how slow, how deeply. You have one minute, I’m [going to] time you too. That’s what we’re doing today. This is the A people, and then at the end of one minute I’ll call you back in and then the B people will have a chance. B people are witnesses.
If you’re done, you can just be with each other without voices. [Timer rings] When I say without voices I don’t mean I don’t want your voices in here. Just, for now, let’s work with the bodies telling the stories, and then later the voices will tell the stories. Now B’s, you’re ready to tell your stories. Go.
I want to do one more step. I know that one story or another story could be the focus at any given time, but we know that these lives and these times of navigating all this stuff we’re talking about is complicated. It’s often in relation to, in conversation with, butting up against, moving with, toward, away. I’m going to give you 30 more seconds. 30 seconds to have a moving conversation with your partner, not where one is witnessing and one is moving, but where the two of you are moving together. Great. Do you want one minute?
Paloma: I’m a little bit flexible! A little bit. Now you can have a moving conversation that builds on what has come before in the room. Here we go.
Say “thank you” to your partner.
All: Thank you!
Shani: We are going to start in the second Story Circle now. Before we do that, we’ll have a presentation. Let me just poll the room real quick. We’ve had one Story Circle happen. Do we all feel comfortable with what it is? Are there any questions about what it is? How are we feeling?
Shani: Excellent, that’s what I like to hear. I will pass the mic.
[50:45] Gathering the second story circle. Presentation by Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild.
Brenda: Okay, so this was an answer to the question: “Dancing While Black is…” I’m a writer, but I decided to move that answer. I don’t know if you need to get up.
Writing Dancing While Black is…
Exercising my civil right
Never giving up the fight
Mapping the path from who we is to who we might
Experiencing Black dancing bodies as the world’s delight
Turning on the light
Brenda: We’re starting the second Story Circle, yeah?
Paloma: Right, and you can kick it off as the written instigator that the stories will tell.
Brenda: This is written but it is only three minutes. Ram Dass says, “The quieter you become the more you can hear.” Jean-Michel Basquiat said he crossed out words in his paintings so that we saw them more. Kevin Young writes about the shadow book, meaning Black literature denied existence. Likewise, I began my writing career by uncovering what had been crossed out, what we could see but didn’t know we were seeing. Namely the literature, grammar, and syntax of Black dancing bodies, invisibilized by the force of racism, there for all to see if only we’d be quiet enough to hear.
I’m talking about my first book Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance. I was maligned by the dominant white dance establishment for daring to utter the name George Balanchine and the word Africanism in the same breath. I’d been quiet and I saw what I saw. I wrote about absences in order to make present the shadow behind the act. It was clear to me that Balanchine’s Americanization of ballet was an African-Americanization in terms of the speed, vitality, energy, and underlying jazz aesthetic upon which he reconstructed the ballet idiom.
Through decades of studying, researching, dancing, and reviewing ballet, modern dance, and West African genres, I established a solid factual base for my premises. Let me also say that no Black audiences of scholars or dancers ever took issues with my findings, nor did enlightened white dance and American studies scholars. But other dance pundits were gunning to shut me up. I was definitely restricted, challenged, even thwarted.
One white dance school scholar shouted me down and asserted that I needed to show how specific movements in a Balanchine ballet came from, in her words, “a specific African tribe.” You see, for these folks if I said that American ballet was undergirded by Black aesthetic principles, then I must be saying that ballet was tainted by being African, you know, the one drop. Someone else who I considered a friend and who sat on the regular Guggenheim fellowship final evaluation committee said, when I asked him to write me a recommendation, “Sorry, Brenda, I can’t. Not after the things you said about Balanchine.”
Those are just the tip of the iceberg examples. Oh how great it was to have a community of like-minded dancers and scholars from other disciplines; Black, brown, and white who stood by my work. Like my ancestors, I kept on keeping on as though I had nothing to lose and continued speaking truth to power, as Audre Lorde put it. Langston Hughes titled one of his poems “Still Here.” Well, so am I.
The second circle was also about things that had challenged or thwarted, so that’s what I chose.
[56:15] Second Story Circle Prompt
Shani: The prompt for the second Story Circle is:
Tell us about a time when you felt supported, restricted, challenged, nurtured in your artistic work because of Blackness.
James Frazier: Alright. I guess this is a confluence of things. I have a retainer in, so I don’t have a speech impediment; it sounds like it. I’ll try to go beyond it. When I interviewed for one of my jobs as a professor, I went in and I saw the student population, which was surprisingly dense with African-American students. Though there were no African-American people on the faculty, they were charged. They were fired up and excited.
In the interview process, when I’m sitting at the table with a group of people – this comment was about how I felt supported or how I felt like Blackness was definitely something that was in my favor, in my service – I sat at the table with what would become my future colleagues in the interview process. They asked me why I thought I was the candidate for the job. I laughed and then I explained why I laughed, because something came across my mind. Then I told them: I’m going to tell them what I thought, and then I’ll fix it up and tell them what I think the appropriate answer should be.
My thought was the reason that I was the person for the job is because I was Black and I could do the job. All the things they asked, I could do, but those students needed somebody.
In continuation of that, after I’d gotten the job and was there in one of our first gatherings, they had a practice where they would go out and canvas the community and hang posters and things about the upcoming performances. Faculty members, individual faculty members, actually drove cars and students would come over to them, so kind of around a big space. I was standing there and I looked around as students spread out. There were eight or nine students next to me and they were all Black. For a second I said, “Oh, my God, this is going to be problematic,” thinking what other people might be thinking, but only a second. Then [I] said, “This is why I’m here. This is why I’m here.”
In that place and in that space, I have many children. My children are Black and white and brown and yellow and all of those things. I have had the incredible opportunity to connect with those students and students after and after and after. I have felt really fortunate in doing that. I’ve felt that I served, in that role, a very important part of the whole mix, and that was recognized.
Nia Love: My father was a blacksmith, an artist, visual artist. We lived at 907 Written House in Washington, D.C. He was a professor at Howard University since 1968. I came to live with him in 1973 when my mom and my father had broke up. But my mom and dad were really good friends. I wanted to be as close to New York City as I possibly could because I’d been dancing in the womb.
One day I came home from a long, really hard rehearsal. I had been dancing with Washington Ballet for a couple of years when I decided to live with him. They used to refer to me, as I would go across the floor, as a baboon. I was 13 years old. I had just auditioned for the release program there, which was a prestigious program where young people who knew what they wanted to do in their lives would go to academics, to do their academics in the morning and then come into the ballet world in the afternoon.
I got home; I was really upset because I didn’t really know how to confront this man when he said that. I walked through the back door of my house where my father had his welding studio in the backyard. I could hear John Coltrane loud, really loud. It was “My Favorite Things.” All I could see in the backyard, because it was dark, were all these sparks flying in the air from him welding. He was bent over. He’s like 6′3″, 6′2″; I like to say 6’3”.
Onye Ozuzu: 9 feet tall.
Nia L.: 9 feet tall. He was bent over like this. That year was the year that, for those who know Ed Love, that was the year that he made the Osiris, Isis and Horus 12-feet statues. He had these makings, the beginning of these makings. That was it. I can’t go on.
I want to say one thing. Can I say one thing? I saw when I came out there that he was welding with this music and in between him, this music, and the torch was John Coltrane a picture of that tall, as tall as those black things, and Malcolm X.
Onye: I got to this place where people would call on me to come to apply because I had been teaching at another institution. These dancers did not understand what I was teaching. They said, “We feel like we’re losing our technique in your class. I feel like I’m just flailing around.” Colleagues would stop me in the hall and say, “Well, you know, we hear that the students are unsure what are you really trying to accomplish in there?”
I just really wanted my students to learn, and so I started to develop a discourse. I started to teach them how to take my class. I started to teach them how to see the values in what I was teaching them. I started to teach them how to recognize what the goals were. Why do you want to sit down? Why is that important for a woman, no matter what color you are, to sit your ass down in the space a little bit and connect into your power? Where does that come from? What can it give you? What can it offer you in your future?
Then, the next layer that was: why were you so resistant in the first place? What has your culture taught you? How were you programmed? How does race and racism affect how open we are to learn just some skills that might be useful? As I develop that discourse, all I really wanted to do was connect to my students.
Then later I wanted to get tenure, so I had to educate the people around me how to read my file. I had to educate all of them. I developed this discourse just so that I could move through being a dancer. I wanted to teach. I wanted to do my work. I wanted to move through. I wanted to feed my kids. So I just developed this discourse.
People would like to quote [Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild’s] books. I was like, “Well, when are we going to apply that to the way that we decide to audition students, to the way that we design curriculum?” It’s nice to quote scholars, but when are we actually going to — so I started talking and my mouth led me. They called me to come and apply, and so now I’m some place, and I’m the boss and I’m trying to run things.
People said that they wanted me to come because of the things that I had been talking about. There are a lot of Black students in this school where I am now. We brought The People’s Institute and we did the Undoing Racism training with everybody: staff, faculty, every single person in the building. People were like, “Oh!”
Gabri Christa: [My family] was coming to the Netherlands, I’m from Curaçao. I was the only Black person in my school. I made “Orange Maltaise,” my graduation project, which is five Black naked woman onstage with text and poems. I think that started the sense of having to explain to people around who this generation of people from colonies was. To a large extent, I still do that.
Now, I make mostly films, dance films. It’s the Black stories that I want to put on screen, because even in dance screen it’s the white stories that we see. There’s the support, the support of the community. Being in New York is actually the first place that I felt simultaneously that I became Black before I was mulatta, color, el octon, there were other words. Here, you’re just so simply Black. This was the first place it was like, “Oh I’m Black. Wow. Okay, I’m not a mulatta. I’m not this.”
At the same time, we gave ourselves the freedom to explore because there were all these people before us, choreographers that have done, that also explore the language of what came with that, which was the language of postmodernism and the heritage which is here [gestures behind back], which is the hips, of the African Diaspora work.
Still there is this question of, there is Blackness and there is all these —Blackness also like against the majority. I’m thinking about what Paloma was saying about power and space. A lot of times these days it’s about being a woman, the female voice in that. Mostly, to me, it’s about telling stories through visuals, through film, through dance that we don’t hear and that’s just the calling. I’ve always felt that I’m here to give. Then that’s not even a general question, but then also specific. The humanity in that, which is still there is a humanity that’s in there.
Marýa Wethers: [looks around to see every face in the room] I’m not a storyteller, but I’m going to share an experience with you. I think it was 1995, in the summer. I was at Bates Dance Festival. I don’t remember if it was the beginning or what point in the three weeks. I was a college student. As it goes with these things, in the evenings there’d be performances of different dance companies and professional artists, some who were teaching the festival, some they brought people in to perform.
This actually feels very appropriate in the space to tell this story. There was a performance by Urban Bush Women called “Bones and Ash: A Gilda Story.” I was just riveted by the performance. I had never seen anything like it. I’d call it a dance play, dance theater. It was a narrative piece based on a book by Jewelle Gomez, and there are two female leads; it was a love story.
After the performance, the audience was applauding and clapping and I just burst into tears. This was a time in my life when I didn’t cry. I couldn’t access that. That was not available to me. Spontaneously in the performance, I just was sobbing from a very deep place in my being. I think someone came over: “Are you okay?” I couldn’t talk, and I just said, “I was so moved by this performance.” Jewelle Gomez, the author of the story, was in the audience and so they brought me over to her. I could barely speak. I just said, “Thank you.” She just reached out her arms and hugged me and she said, “Baby, we made it for you.”
That was such a pivotal moment for me because that was the moment that I knew that I existed. I had never seen myself on stage. I had never felt my whole being present.
[01:14:00] Second Story Circle Core Participant Introductions: Who You Be? Where You Belong?
Shani: As we let these stories stand, let’s breathe in and out. Now I would invite everyone who just shared a story to tell us who you be and where you belong.
Brenda: I’m Brenda Dixon Gottschild. Mother, wife, grandmother, and author, lover, writer, choreographer, mover.
James: I’m James Frazier, student, friend, father. I like to say dance professional. I’ve been a dancer for an Afro-Caribbean company in England, Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Former chair of dance and recent former co-dean of the American Dance Festival.
Nia: I’m Nia Love. Mother, grandmother, dancer, wife, choreographer, student, lover.
Onye: I’m Onye Ozuzu. I’m a mother also. A dancer, choreographer, and dance administrator.
Gabri: Gabri Christa, mother, dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, wife, writer, cook. Family planner. Producer. Witch, nurse.
Marýa: I’m Marýa Weathers, dancer, and cultural organizer.
Paloma: Beautiful, thank you. It’s interesting, as we’ve gotten to know one another a little bit more as a community and stood shoulder to shoulder and move around a little bit and had conversations. Even these descriptors of who you are has gotten a little bit deeper in the fibers of you. I just want to acknowledge that I appreciate that happening, and I honor that.
Alright, you know the drill. Take your stuff, whatever is in your hand stuff, your stuff stuff, your behind stuff. This time find yourself shoulder to shoulder with four other people, so there will be five of you. You know the drill; try to keep your voices down so I can figure out who doesn’t have a family.
I just need all of your eyes on me just for one second. What we need to do is quickly and quietly organize ourselves into a way that our group can sit in a circle using chairs or the floor or whatever combination of those things you are going to use. Then you can look back at me and I’ll know you’re ready to go to the next place.
We know that we all are arrived in the room at different times and places, inside of what is the energy that’s been building in the room, but everybody’s heard something. Now we’re going to sit with one another and tell our own stories, same format, three minutes each to tell stories that respond to whatever it is you’ve heard that’s come up for you – whatever story has come up for you tonight, your own personal story that responds to whatever’s come before.
Shani, can you talk about how the timing works in this?
Shani: It’s basically you’re setting it to three minutes and when it goes and you hear the alarm, cede your space. And you do not have to fill it, remember. If your story ends before the three minutes does, that is absolutely fine. If you find yourself coming up against that three minutes, please be graceful in allowing everyone to have equity in the space.
Paloma: One person doesn’t have to be responsible for the timing. If you want to have the person next to you time, and then you can keep passing the timer around, that way one person doesn’t feel like, “Oh, I’m sort of listening to the story and sort of paying attention to the timer.” I think it would be better if we pass the timer around. Does that make sense? Everybody in your group just figure out who’s going first and who’s timing first and then let’s begin.
[01:16:20] Break Out Group Story Circles
Paloma: Okay, I know I’m interrupting a whole bunch of conversations. I apologize, and also I’m doing it anyway. There were some groups of six, but have you all said your stories? You should be on the last person if you haven’t. You’re in the middle of the last person. Let’s let this group finish their stories. You all keep talking. We’ll check back in in a minute.
[Story Circle conversations continue.]
Shani: Thank you all for taking this moment to share in these small groups. What we want to do to honor these stories that we’ve shared is each group has one minute to put into movement something that you want to take from what you just heard, to share amongst yourself.
Paloma: It’s a collective one minute. Before you had one minute each and then you had one minute as a duet and now you have one minute as a quintet, sextet. We’re timing it. Fancy that!
[01:41:45] Movement Reflection/Physical Synthesis
[Collective minute of movement] 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! [Applause]
Paloma: Let’s make one big, big circle, shoulder to shoulder with everybody. Leave the chairs in the center. We’re making a big circle around the edges of the room.
Shani: Something we noticed that we love is that some people started holding hands organically. If you would like to, let’s create that kind of community space and family feel.
Paloma: You just danced together in small groups what you want to take with you. I think it’s important that we all leave something with one another too. I know I’ve been left with a lot and so grateful for this gathering of open hearts and minds to commune and talk and share our stories. This is just one part of many. We will be in touch with you. If you haven’t signed outside, there’s a list if you want to keep in touch.
We’ll do this next part. Just popcorn, which means you can say out, over one another, with one another, through one another, into one another, something you want to leave with one another. Just a word into the space. Then if you think of another word, another word, and if you think of another word, another word. Then eventually, I’ll bring us to a close.
[01:43:50 ] Something you want to leave with one another.
From the Circle:
Movement for a movement
Paloma: May all these words stay with us and manifest. Thank you so much for gathering today.