One evening last March, dozens of black women sat in a circle in a downtown Oakland gallery to be blessed and encouraged to rest. Some wept, while others deeply exhaled. Onlookers hummed in unison. Then the women went to a private boarding house outfitted for further relaxation.
The scene was one part of “Black Women Dreaming: A Ritual Rest,” the 11th “episode” in multi-site performance series House/Full of BlackWomen, which Ellen Sebastian Chang created with local dancer-choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith. The series, intended to address displacement, well-being, and sex trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland, exemplifies what Smith calls her politically pointed, spiritually infused “afro-futurist conjecture art.”
Smith, 53, leads Deep Waters Dance Theater, a performance art ensemble centering ritual and folklore in its examination of issues facing people of color and the environment. In recent years, the Oakland artist and UC Berkeley lecturer’s work has increasingly foregrounded her spiritual practice as a Yoruba priest.
Read on as Tabor-Smith discusses collaboration as cultivation, preferring grocery stores to dance studios, and the enduring influence of her early mentor and teacher, the late dancer-choreographer Ed Mock.
How was House/Full of BlackWomen like or unlike any other project in your career?
First what I’ll say is that it isn’t behind me. It moved from being a two-year project to a five-year project. Whether due to grants, funding, or project goals, as artists we’re often dictated by the calendar, the clock. I really wanted to give myself and the women I would be collaborating with time to explore, discover, to be in process, and to cultivate larger community and trust.
The more that I got to know folks, and the issues, and delved deeper into the issues facing black women, not just myself and collaborators, but a larger community of black women, the more I realized, “Oh, this is gonna take time.” I say “cultivate” and not “build” because cultivation, like farming, like anything, needs attention, needs time, and needs seasons. My work is rooted in ritual, and something doesn’t become ritual without time, and without practice and dedication.
To a lot of artists, the prospect of a five- or even two-year project probably sounds luxurious. What advice do you have for artists attempting projects of that scope?
It’s about cultivating relationships, and that directly contradicts the ways we get socialized as artists, where we’re in competition with each other for resources, and therefore we’re alienated from each other. We’ll talk about wanting to make connection, but we’re also being really guarded because we’re under this idea of there’s only a few resources for a few people. But if we say, “No, it’s more important that I take time with this work,” and believe in it—it may not be easy, and the hustle is the hustle, but you help shift the culture that says five years is luxurious.
You grew up in San Francisco. Can you talk about your early life, and how you discovered dance and choreography?
I was born and raised in San Francisco. I started dancing as a teenager, a really young teenager. I studied with a very beloved dance figure whose name was Ed Mock. I’ve always credited him for why I became a dancer and dance maker. Ed was this phenomenal dancer, improviser, and really a Griot movement artist. I would say he raised me. I always say he was like my father in dance.
I remember walking into his studio, which was on 32 Page Street, and going into this room full of dancers all stretching on the floor—brick wall, wood floor—and I felt magic in the room. Then when he walked into the room to start class, I had this experience where, just being in his presence, I felt like I was seeing God. That’s how I felt, and I was never one to idolize anyone.
Then I started studying with him. I was in awe of him. I was afraid of him. I had such reverence and respect for him. The way that he would conjure the spirit of a character that he was dancing was much more the way of an improviser. Even though he choreographed movement on his dancers, he never choreographed movement for himself. Those two things really stuck with me.
Your series conjuring Ed Mock gave his legacy a lot more visibility, and it inspired Brontez Purnell to continue this project of honoring and remembering him. What would you say to other artists who’d like their work to similarly highlight secret histories of local culture?
That’s such an interesting question. I would say listen to the streets. If you’re not from the Bay, get to know people who’ve been here. Ask yourself why. So there’s a hidden history in San Francisco—what is it about that history that calls you? What is it about that energy that’s calling you? Listen to that, and be guided by it. Making that piece for Ed was the first time that I integrated my spiritual practice more profoundly into my artwork. It was really about listening. I prayed to Ed, and I said, “Tell me the piece you want me to make.” I just listened, and I trusted.
So I say that there are the obvious histories that will be in the forefront, that have to do with the people that had more visibility, for whatever reason. But I say for someone who really wants to look at the hidden history, listen. Go to the places. Go to the places and scratch the surface. And give yourself time that’s not just about the research where you go into the libraries and you go into the archives, but also when you go sit in the cafes where said histories took place, or where said people visited. If you go and sit in with the people and listen to the concrete, they’ll talk.
You mentioned your spiritual practice—how did you begin incorporating that into your work, particularly the Yoruba tradition?
I am a priest in the Yoruba tradition, and my spiritual practice has always been the underpinning of my work. Icons and figures have always presented themselves in my work, but more subversively, not necessarily on the surface. Partly that was because I felt like I didn’t want my spirituality to be seen as a dogma guiding my art. I wanted to keep that separate, and did so for a long time. But that felt disingenuous. There came a point where I felt like there was something missing. I didn’t know what it was, and then the opportunity came to make the piece for Ed.
I remember thinking, “You know, if I’m gonna do this, I really need to conjure him. And If I’m gonna conjure him, I’ve gotta use techniques that I use in my spiritual practice, which are about sitting with the dead.” You know, being in what you might call a séance. Kind of having rehearsals function as a kind of séance, and that requires that the performers participate. It was like I recognized through the making of the work that this was the piece that was missing in my work all these years, the need to incorporate spiritual ritual more prominently in my work.
It sounds like you’re saying there was sort of a stigma attached to spiritually centered art.
Totally. It’s only been recently that people who are actually engaging in ritual in their art-making practices have become more accepted. Before, people would be like, “What? What are you doing?” And there would be questions about this idea of, again, it coming from a sort of stereotypical Christian perspective of putting spirituality in your work, meaning that it’s religious.
A lot of your work is site-specific or outdoors. How and why did you get interested in moving dance away from the theater and the stage?
I feel more at home in environments outside of the theater. It’s not that I don’t make work in the theater at all, but I feel like the site work has given me more inspiration. Part of it is that my approach to site-based work is that your site is a character. Your site is a part of the story, is a character, an active environment. So I don’t use a street as if it’s a stage. It’s a collaborator.
I can go into a studio to make choreography and feel completely blank. Whereas I can be in the aisle of a supermarket and be more inspired to move my body because I’m stimulated by the energies, the people, the vegetables, the story that’s in that space. That’s just what feeds me.
To circle back to House/Full of BlackWomen, what’s next for that project?
Part of the reason that I wanted to continue this work is that we do ritual processions, and the procession work is rooted in sort of shifting the vibration of the topics that we are dealing with: displacement and the sex trafficking of black women and girls in Oakland. I’m less interested in educating people through the work, and more in shifting the vibration of the issues.
One of the ways we’ve done that is to do ritual processions down the streets of Oakland. Each time we’ve done one there’s been a shift. The hope is that the women who’ve been collaborating on the processions will continue them. To think of founding a society of black women who are dedicated to these processions to end trafficking and displacement, it becomes ritual, a neo-folk tradition. What might it look like for these processions to occur in Oakland for 30, 40, 100 years?