Dancing While Black : 2012 – 2017, A Community Syllabus

Paloma McGregor and Nina Angela Mercer in dialogue at Shani Jamila's OPEN SEASON 2015: Art + Conversation + Performance about Women and Girls in a Culture Of Confinement, photo by Julia Wang

In 2012, I was inspired to launch Dancing While Black after experiencing “PLATFORM 2012: Parallels,” an 8-week dance festival featuring Black dance artists at one of New York’s primary experimental dance presenters, Danspace Center. It was a revisitation of Ishmael Houston-Jones’ 1982 “Parallels,” which included such pioneering Black artists as Jawole Zollar, Dean Moss, Blondell Cummings and Bebe Miller.

As both a witness and performer, I was delighted to see such a broad assembly of Black voices, and was troubled by two things:
One was my realization that the experimental dance community may only have room for an assembly that centers black voices once every 30 years. There is so much work that couldn’t be included and so much contextualizing that was missing. No one event can hold all of us, which is why I wanted to create ongoing opportunities for us to gather – and not just to perform but to build community.
The other was that the languages used by the white-dominant critical landscape (and by some Black artists themselves) played into a “post-black” frame that seemed to diminish the significance of blackness in these artists’ work. Particularly troubling was a New Yorker article that essentially said that our mothers and grandmothers wouldn’t understand black experimental work because we had gone to college, where we were “introduced” to concepts like modernism that now drive our work (ignoring the African roots of modernism). I am interested in collapsing the space – both perceived and actual – between us as artists and Black communities, and in countering the field’s reductive labeling that diminishes our contributions, complexity and potentials.

I founded Dancing While Black to build community, develop agency and shift the artistic and cultural landscapes, all with blackness at the center. My work came at a time when other like-minded efforts were forming in Black academic, artistic and organizing circles – Coalition of African Diaspora Scholars Moving, Black Male Revisited, The Gathering, UBW’s Choreographic Center, Collegium for African Diaspora Dance (CADD). I see all this work as part of a larger movement for equity, one that I am eager to help shepherd. The work continues . . .

This syllabus is a porthole into five years of history and reflections contributed by members of the Dancing While Black community. Journey with us. Read, watch, listen to and experience what Dancing While Black is ...

Since 2012, Dancing While Black has presented performances and dialogue sessions including:
  • May 17, 2012 – Dancing While Black: Voices From The Bush
  • December 5, 2013 – Dancing While Black: In Our Own Words
  • February 25, 2014 – Dancing While Black: Collective(s) Action, Artist Talk
  • May 3, 2014 – Dancing While Black + Re:Purpose
  • May 30-31, 2014 – Dancing While Black: Collective(s) Action
  • December 10, 2014 – OPEN SEASON: An Evening of Art and Conversation about our Culture of Confinement
  • December 2014 – Dying In and Standing Up
  • February 15, 2015 – Dancing While Black: Cultivating Community, part of BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange’s Artist Services Day
  • May 1-2, 2015 – Dancing While Black: and then there was fire… Masculinities Re/born, presented in partnership with BAAD! The Bronx Academy Of Arts and Dance
  • December 10, 2015 – OPEN SEASON 2015: Art + Conversation + Performance about Women and Girls in a Culture Of Confinement
  • February 7, 2016 – Dancing While Black Fellowship Roundtable, part of BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange’s Artist Services Day
  • February 21-26, 2016 – Dancing While Black: On Fertile Ground, a New Orleans Partnership With Junebug Productions
  • February 26, 2016 – Dancing While Black: Under Construction
  • February 27, 2016 – Dancing While Black: Master Classes For The Masses
  • March 4-5, 2016 – Dancing While Black: jumpin’ fences, featuring the work of the 2015-2016 Dancing While Black Fellows
  • April 11-17, 2016 – Dancing While Black: On Fertile Ground, a New Orleans Partnership With Junebug Productions
  • April 15-16, 2016 – Dancing While Black: On Fertile Ground, presented in Partnership With Junebug Productions and with support From Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans’ Performance Support Program
  • May 21, 2016 – Dancing While Black: Healing And Holding Our Selves, presented in partnership with BAAD! The Bronx Academy Of Arts and Dance
  • February 12, 2017 – We (Been) Here: Public Forum, hosted by The Skeleton Architecture
  • February 11, 2017 – We (Been) Here: Collective Workshop Offering for Black Artists, hosted by The Skeleton Architecture
  • February 5, 2017 – Dancing While Black: A Five Year Retrospective, part of BAX/Brooklyn Arts Exchange’s Artist Services Day
  • March 31 & April 1, 2017 – Dancing While Black: with fists, with hands, featuring the work of The 2016-2017 Dancing While Black Fellows
  • May 13, 2017 – Dancing While Black: Epic Memory Lab conceived and led By Nia Love, presented in partnership with BAAD! The Bronx Academy Of Arts and Dance
The way you make a dance
by Eva Yaa Asantewaa

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 backwards in time, forwards 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 voices 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.

© Eva Yaa Asantewaa, 2012

“Dancing while black is… more than what you sign up for. It frees and it contains.

It expands and compacts, because as you embody it you become responsible for it in a particular, a peculiar way. Even if you choose NOT to be responsible to so called blackness….you still had to choose THAT, you probably had to say it. And then there it is. Dancing while black is to wrestle with representation. Dancing while black is attractive and repulsive. Dancing while black is probably not any different than doing anything else while black. Dancing while black is significant because of where the dancing is happening—in an environment where the condition, blackness/darkness of human skin is an object in and of itself, significant enough to stand on its own. So maybe dancing while black is significant in a cultural environment that objectifies blackness…because it animates, electrifies, engages the object….because it provokes the objectification….because it releases the body, its sweat, its smell, its ineffable states. Dancing while black is to be with all that and also to be with the object….my black body, here, and to turn my body again to the open space and in the patterns of time and leap again towards…”

Onye Ozuzu

2012-14 | FROM THE BUSH and CENTERING THE COLLECTIVE

2012-2013 Season Collaborators and Partners: BAAD! Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance, Urban Bush Women, Maria Bauman/MBDance, Marjani Forte & Nia Love/Love | Fortè a collective, Samantha Speis, Christal Brown/INSPIRIT dance company, Shalonda Ingram/Nursha Project, Greg Tate, Milta Vega-Cardona/People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Marlies Yearby, Shani Jamila/Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project, Tiffany Rachelle Stewart, Keisha Turner, Seiji Gammage, Shantelle Jackson, Laurie M. Taylor, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, A. Nia Austin Edwards

2013-2014 Season Collaborators and Partners: Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, FiveMyles, MoCADA, Human Rights Project at The Urban Justice Center, Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, John Perpener, Gabri Christa, Nia Love, Marya Wethers, James Frazier, Onye Ozuzu, Antonio Brown, Jawole Zollar/Urban Bush Women, Kyle Abraham, Raja “Feather” Kelly, Camille A. Brown, Shani Jamila, Sydnie L. Mosley, Gesiye Souza-Okpofabri, Aimee Cox, Greg Tate, Adenike Sharpley, Adia Tamar Whitaker/Ase Dance Theatre Collective, Brian Polite, Sade Adona, A. Nia Austin Edwards, Sena DuBois Curtis, Brittany Grier, Erin Holmes, Aleijuan Afuraka, Tendayi Kuumba, Brian Polite, Cynthia Renta, Kendra J. Ross, Rachel Russell, Efeya Sampson, Rashad Wilson, Sekou Alaje, Ogbona Moyo, Fagbemi Alaje, Kayode Opare, Ebony Noelle Golden/Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative, Alison Kibbe, Audrey Hailes, Nina Mercer, Kimani Fowlin, Rajeeyah Finnie-Myers, Renee Floresca, Vesta Walker, Rashida Bumbray/Dance Diaspora Collective, Adenike Sharpley, Kristal Boyd, Cecily Bumbray, Francisca “Kika” Chaidez-Gutierrez, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, Joseph Klein, Maiesha McQueen, Serena Muthi Reed, Matthew Hill, Daniel Spearman, Gingie McLeod, Shalonda Ingram/Nursha Projects, Marisol Ybarra, Alan C. Edwards, Orion Gordon

read
  • salt. by nayyirah waheed
  • Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown
  • The Science of Mind by Ernest Holmes
watch
listen
from “Crux Simplex

These die-ins, where we lay
stacked close, bodies upon bodies,
mirror the bellies of ships that brought us here

We were chained then
limbs joined by a common reality
when one limb jerked
the whole community felt it

when one of us died
our movements changed
we all pulled the weight

it took momentum to accomplish
anything, be it rest or waking

we lay in public
like sarcophagi
adorned royally
proclaim our humanity

we wake wailing like newborn
breathing is labored
if we can breathe at all

by Timothy Prolific Veit Jones, written in response to Dying In and Standing Up,
excerpted from Water + Blood (forthcoming 2019)

from “spent

Since I started this work I have been operating from a deficit, but what I lacked in funds I made up in sheer will and can do spirit. I have been so diligent and committed because making art while building and advocating for my communities is living in my purpose. I have been clear on that since I was a child; the dream is the truth.

Still, I am exhausted. As a fellow dancer I am working with recently remarked, she is “so tired, but you’re not allowed to be tired.”

Our culture and our arts economy does not function from a place of preventative care. In this business, if you don’t have your own personal start up (trust/wealthy parents/wealthy spouse/angel donor) fund you are fighting the ultimate uphill battle. You can’t garner resources and support for your artistic work without producing work and so, you get used to operating from that deficit. Long gone are the days of many grants that support an artist’s living expenses. How radical would it be to resource an artist based on what they could do? To see what they could create under the best of circumstances, not the worst?

by Sydnie L. Mosley

2014-16: RE/BORN to JUMP FENCES

2014-2015 Season Collaborators and Partners: Shani Jamila, Human Rights Project at The Urban Justice Center, Urban Bush Women, Brittany Williams, Dr. William Jelani Cobb, Bryonn Bain, Esther Armah, Taneya Gethers-Muhammed, Lumumba Bandele, Dr. Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, A. Nia Austin-Edwards, Candace Feldman, Jaamil Olawale Kosoko, Aimee Cox, BAX / Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Brother(hood) Dance!, Orlando Zane Hunter, Jr., Ricarrdo Valentine, Tennille McMillan/Nakimuli, Comfort Katchy, Raja Feather Kelly | the feath3r theory, Yeman Brown, Sam Crawford, Anthony Rosado, BAAD! Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance, Seyi Adebanjo, Maria Bauman, Ebony Noelle Golden, Nia Love, Darrell Jones, Onye Ozuzu, Kassa Overall, Edisa Weeks, Andre M. Zachary, Veleda Roehl, Sarita Covington, Lela Jones. Samantha Spies, Timothy Prolific Jones, A. Nia Austin-Edwards, Nina Angela Mercer, Kendra Ross, Audrey Hailes, Marcus Gilmore, Ron Ragin, Ricarrdo Valentine, nyx zierhut, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Garnette Cadogan, Christine King, Germaul Barnes, Charles Vincent Burwell, Maxine Montilus, Tyshawn Sorey, Tyrone Davis Jr., Rich Blint, Vijay Iyer
2015-2016 Season Collaborators and Partners: Shani Jamila, Human Rights Project at the Urban Justice Center, National Black Theater, Nina Angela Mercer, Ebony Noelle Golden, Aimee Meredith Cox, Brother(hood) Dance!, Orlando Zane Hunter Jr., Ricarrdo Valentine, Jonathan Gonzalez, Marguerite Hemmings, Sydnie L. Mosley, Candace Thompson, ContempoCaribe, Alicia Dellimore, Shola Roberts, Shamar Watt, nyz zierhut, Harriet’s Apothecary​, Selome Araya, MPH, Naimah Johnson, Natalie Sablon, Monstah Black​, DJ Manchildblack​, Ashley Brockington, Onye Ozuzu, Jawole Zollar, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Jaimé Dzandu, Nia Love, Orion Gordon, Brittany Williams, Greg Ward, Paige Cunningham Caldarella, Dedrick “Deddy” Gray, Daniel “BraveMonk” Haywood, Mecca Madyun, Kelsa Robinson, Carol Bebelle, Ron Bechet, Xavier University, Kasefera A. Gunter, Dr. Jana Meyers-Smith, Dillard University, Kesha McKey, Carol Bebelle, Laura Stein, Carol Bebelle, Jana Meyers Smith, Na’imah Zulu, Stephanie McKee/Junebug Productions, Kiyoko McCrae, Erika Witt, Damia Khanboubi, Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative, Alison Kibbe, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Dancing Grounds, Alysia Savoy, Jebney Lewis, Danny Clifton, George Michael Parker, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, A. Nia Austin-Edwards/PURPOSE Productions, Marýa Wethers, Jessica Lee
read
listen
Women” by Alice Walker

This ability to hold on, even in very simple ways, is work Black women have done for a very long time.

This poem is not enough, but it is something, for the woman who literally covered the holes in our walls with sunflowers:

They were women then
My mama’s generation
Husky of voice – Stout of Step
With fists as well as
Hands
How they battered down
Doors
And ironed
Starched white
Shirts
How they led
Armies

Headragged Generals
Across mined
Fields
Booby-trapped
Ditches
To discover books
Desks
A place for us
How they knew what we
Must know
Without knowing a page
Of it
Themselves.

Guided by my heritage of a love of beauty and a respect for strength – in search of my mother’s garden, I found my own.

excerpted from
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Creativity of Black Women in the South (1974)

2016-17 & Beyond | GARDENS and VISIONS

2016-2017 Season Collaborators and Partners: BAX | Brooklyn Arts Exchange, BAAD! The Bronx Academy Of Arts And Dance, Eva Yaa Asantewaa/EYA Projects, Ebony Noelle Golden/Betty’s Daughter Arts Collaborative, Charmaine Warren, Ni’Ja Whitson, Gibney Dance, Maria Bauman, Samantha Speis, Marguerite Hemmings, Angie Pittman, Nia Love, skeleton architecture, Charles Rice-Gonzalez, Stephanie McKee, Shani Jamila, Sydnie L. Mosley, Kesha McKey, Jaimé Dzandu, Melanie Greene, Maritza Mercado-Narcisse, Katrina Reid, Brittany Williams, Joya Powell, Erik Carter, Roxanne Kidd, Jo Johnson, Eula Powell, A. Nia Austin-Edwards/PURPOSE Productions, Marýa Wethers, Jessica Lee

Thank You
to all of our Syllabus Contributors

Onye Ozuzu, Shalonda Ingram, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Timothy Prolific Veit Jones, Nia Love, Marguerite Hemmings, Sydnie L. Mosley

photo credits:
  • Event history: from Building A Better Fishtrap at the Freedman House, photo by Whitney Browne (2012)
  • “The Way You Make A Dance”: Ase Dance Theatre Collective in Dancing While Black: Collective(s) Action, photo by by Shani Jamila (2014)
  • 2012-2014: Rashida Bumbray’s Run Mary Run, photo provided by artist (2014)
  • “Crux Simplex”: Anthony Rosado and audience in performance at Dancing While Black: and then there was fire… Masculinities Re/born, photo by Charles R Berenguer Jr (2015)
  • 2014-2016: Community Engagement in New Orleans as part of Dancing While Black: On Fertile Ground, photo by Melisa Cardona (2016)
  • “Women”: The Skeleton Architecture improvises at We (Been) Here, photo by Erik Carter (2017)
  • Credits and Thanks: Joya Powell, Maritza Mercado-Narcisse, Jaimé Dzandu, Kesha McKey, and Paloma McGregor in dialogue at Dancing While Black: with fists, with hands, photo by PURPOSE Productions (2017)
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