Dancing While Black is just that, all that, up in that
(what of that?)
a fracture, an intersection, a mending, a void
stolen and borrowed and originated
and born again and again and again
resurrected, laughing at its own coincidence
ugly and profound, everyday and magicelectric
Dancing While Black is… has been… and always will.
– Paloma McGregor (May 2012)
How did we get here…
Welcome. We are glad you are here. We’d like to share a little about how we all arrived at this place, cause we gotta tell our own histories, right?
This inaugural issue of Dancing While Black’s digital journal was born from collective visioning and laboring, two practices essential for building both a dance and a community. Building community is a creative act. More than three dozen artists and visionaries contributed to this work, which we’ve been dreaming, researching, plotting, and pulling together over the course of the past three years.
We had profound, expansive, and grounding phone calls with Onye Ozuzu, Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, and Ebony Noelle Golden in 2016; they gave us a lot to consider about the why, how, and what of a journal. The next year, we asked NYU’s Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, a longtime partner, to train us in their digital journal platform, as we knew we wanted to have broad reach.
The theme emerged in October 2017, in the woods of Western Massachusetts, while laughing and lamenting the isolation of solo work and the studio with visionary artist-scholars Amara Tabor-Smith and Lizzy Cooper Davis, members of my Urban Bush Women family. That Winter and the following Spring, we gathered 10 dance folks whose practices center Blackness in the field; together we complicated the original premise, made decisions about the budget and equitable payment structures, and committed to write, edit, or commission writing. We’ve spent the past year assigning, gathering, clarifying, and designing.
The results are 18 distinct contributions to the archive of Black dance thinking that lives out in the world. (You can say, Yes Y’all! We will feel you.)
Of course, there is always a foundation for any singular moment. This journal builds on the work the Dancing While Black community has been doing since 2012, centering Black dance artists’ voices through dialogues, performances, archives, and a fellowship program. And it operates in solidarity with aligned work others are doing in the field. Most of this work has happened in person because we know showing up, bringing our bodies into the space, is foundational to what we do.
Still, this journal is an opportunity to stretch the center’s reach. It is a prayer for moving our voices into spaces beyond the ones our bodies currently occupy – physically, emotionally, spiritually, conceptually…
A word about boxes…
Take a look at the image above. It’s one of the first things I was asked to grapple with more than a dozen years ago in my first Understanding & Undoing Racism workshop led by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
Look again. What do you see? What if you were asked to connect the dots, what then?
Since I was first introduced to this image, and its accompanying exercise, it has been both a source of delight and devastation. I’m delighted when folks “solve” the problem that comes with the image, and devastated that the real problem is that when most of us first see these nine black dots, we also see a box. (Or perhaps four boxes, if we’re creative.)
That conditioning is why this journal – aimed at centering Blackness – includes a consideration of whiteness. Because our Black bodies are conditioned by their necessity in relationship to whiteness. In the image above, the white space needs the black dots to form itself, to become box. By extension, the formation of white spaces – inclusive of studio, census form, the law and perhaps most complex, the imaginary – requires Blackness to define its edges.
This journal is us, Black and centered, with white at the edges. This formation, this coming together to collect ourselves, is an exercise of great will, imagination, trust, and courage. Though Black dance artists are currently receiving unprecedented opportunities in white spaces, we know from history, the news, and our own bodies’ fatigue, that these “opportunities” are too often conditional and too rarely nourishing.
How often do we get to simply be together – in all our clarity and contradiction, across generation and gender? And out loud!? This journal – like dance – is a practice, something we’ve gotta do a whole lot to get really good at it. The “inaugural” means we plan to continue. You comin’?
And before this moment, these shoulders…
This journal is dedicated to three people whose visionary work and dedication to passing the baton has made my/our work possible.
First, to Dr. Beverly Barber, who shepherded generations of Black dance leaders through Orchesis Contemporary Dance Theater at Florida A&M University, where I went to undergrad in the early 90s. FAMU had no dance program. Still Dr. Barber managed to attract choreographers from across the country to set work on us. She also built an intergenerational community that included students and faculty from FAMU and our neighboring Florida State University and members of the greater Tallahassee Black community. Dr. Barber raised a generation of dance leaders. Just in my four years there, Orchesis was home to Onye Ozuzu, James Frazier, Darrell Jones, Trebien Pollard, Nia Love, Osubi Craig, to name just a few. She had big visions for us. I was a journalism major (shout out to the Tucker Hall crew, especially Marlo David, who copy edited this journal and with whom I cooked up visions a quarter century ago that this journal manifest). Dr. Barber was always pushing me toward connecting my dance and journalism. Two decades later, here we are. Dr. B, this is for you.
During that period at FAMU, I got to interview Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founder of Urban Bush Women. I was all of 20, and had given up my childhood dream of dancing professionally; Jawole’s vision for what dance can do lit a fire in me. A decade later – after a career in journalism and 3 years in grad school – I moved to New York in the hopes of working with her. I’ve been working with her since 2005 because she’s created space for Black dance artists like me to bring our full selves, not only to her creative process but to our visions for leading the field. Her three decades of work, like Dr. Barber’s, has grown a stunning number of Master Works and just as many dance leaders. I am proud to be one.
Finally, this work is for Angela McGregor, for whom I named Angela’s Pulse, the umbrella under which I do all my work, including this journal. Mom grew up on the margins as a red-headed girl with an Italian last name in World War II in London. She knows the vibration of air raid sirens and the feel of rocks pelting her body as kids jeered. She checks the white box, and her embodied history tells her something about what it is not to. Mom is a retired public school art teacher and union organizer. She raised two artists. What a visionary thing to do! My sister – the brilliant director Patricia McGregor – and I are proud to be creative and willful and Black because mom’s parenting was most concerned with us being who we are. One of the favorite sayings between Patricia and I is: What would Angela do? This journal is one of the answers.