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Traveling and Touring: Part II

In last month’s issue of In Dance I wrote an article that considered the history of touring dance since the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965—a significant milestone in political, financial, and social support for dance touring. That piece, which largely tracked a downward trend in funding, concluded with a promise to explore the contemporary touring landscape and, through conversation with choreographers, funders, and presenters, consider how touring works today. Speaking with Amy Cassello, Associate Producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Andrea Snyder, Co-Director of American Dance Abroad; and Sean Dorsey, choreographer and Artistic Director of Fresh Meat Productions I gained further insight into the many factors and relationships that make up today’s touring ecosystem. Grounded in an understanding of how the dance field has dramatically changed over the last fifty years, our conversations brought up a number of challenges and highlighted several areas of possible development for the future.

As I tracked the history of dance touring in my last article much of its ebbs and flows were connected to changes in funding, particularly on the federal level through the NEA and trickle-down support from government-sponsored regional arts councils. All of the folks I talked with mentioned financial support as one of the largest challenges for dance touring. Snyder noted in the last fifty years there has not been a program on the federal level that has equaled the NEA Dance Touring Program Dance on Tour—“losing that has been the biggest challenge.” While organizations like the National Dance Project and National Performance Network (both established in the 1990s in the wake of significantly decreased funding from the NEA) serve invaluable roles in closing the gap, it often is still not enough. Dorsey noted that while these organizations are “the lifeblood of touring networks in this country” NDP and NPN are “constantly fighting and advocating to get adequate support for their own work,” and mentioned that in the last few years reduced funding has led to a more limited number of grantees and network subsidies.

While federal funding for touring has dramatically decreased, a more recent bright spot was the creation of Dance Motion USA? in 2010, a program of the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) in collaboration with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Put in place by the George W. Bush administration and largely operated under Obama’s tenure, it was developed as a cultural diplomacy program that supports dance companies curated by the ECA and BAM to travel abroad as cultural ambassadors. This past year for example Bebe Miller Company traveled to Colombia and Peru—connecting Americans with overseas entrepreneurs and social leaders through professional development, public programming and educational opportunities, and performances. Cassello described how the program quickly changed from solely presenting American choreographers abroad to focusing more on “engagement, workshops, teaching, and attending local performances—the shift was about being a holistic dancer and not just a performing dancer.” Sadly though, Cassello shared that this program will not be continuing, as funding is no longer available from the Department of State—a disappointing reality.

Funding aside, public programming and community engagement in addition to performances seem to be an increasingly visible part of touring. Dorsey, who has been incorporating workshops, discussions, and community events as part of his touring ethos for decades, was quick to note that “it was only when cisgender and heterosexual dance companies started taking on those activities as well that it became more of a mainstream idea.” As a queer and transgender artist Dorsey faces what he termed a “particularly thick glass ceiling,” recounting that—“before I could get in the door to have a presenter look at my work or come see it live I had to get past the transphobic assumptions around the quality of my work or the universal relatability of my work, the fact that it speaks deeply to a really broad audience.” He went on to explain that public programming and community forums were integral to his touring practice, allowing him to connect to people across the country while working with presenters to carve new spaces for queer and trans work and audiences.

Throughout our conversation Dorsey described his weeks on tour as “residencies,” an inclusive term that speaks both to the embedded nature of his performances and public engagements in a community and the larger shift towards what Cassello called “the residency format.” With touring performance engagements largely on the decline compared to fifty years ago, residencies have sprouted around the country as opportunities for companies to immerse themselves in a practice, providing invaluable time to rehearse, explore, and craft work. Snyder noted in this developing climate that she and her Co-Director Carolelinda Dickey were, “almost eliminating the word touring from our vocabulary. They [choreographers] may get a commission or a teaching gig or a collaboration, but not necessarily a tour to perform.” Cassello acknowledged that as artists balance increasingly busy schedules, with many people working on multiple projects simultaneously as freelancers rather than committing exclusively to a single dance company, residencies are a particularly important opportunity to gather together, often away from the distractions of major metropolitan areas. She felt that residencies often led to the creation of stronger work, allowing it to develop over multiple years without the pressure of an annual performance season.

That being said, residencies do not serve as replacements for touring, which gives choreographers and dancers valuable opportunities to return to the work multiple times within a presentational context. Dorsey elaborated that: “It’s so essential to my process as a maker to create something and have it be alive and grow on the road, and also frankly to have the dessert after working so hard on it—to enjoy the fruits of your labor.” These “fruits of labor” historically also garnered significant profits that could support the creation of new work after tours concluded. Snyder noted that international tours sponsored by the United States International Agency in the 70s and 80s were generously funded, giving artists like Bill T. Jones and Laura Dean not only consistent performance opportunities, but significant profits that they reinvested into their companies to create new work at home. Under the Clinton administration USIA was disbanded, and without this kind of government support touring now rarely brings surplus funding to companies.

Assembling and organizing a multi-city, contiguous tour often requires a strong administrative team to build long-term relationships with presenters. Cassello noted that touring is significantly harder to develop without infrastructure, while affirming that a support system can take many different shapes. Talking with everyone there seemed to be two parallel developments in administrative structures in the last fifty years: as the number of dance companies has exponentially increased some larger companies (like Alvin Ailey for example) have formalized to develop robust administrative teams that support touring on large scales; whereas the significant loss of general operating support and individual artist grants has led smaller companies (like Miguel Gutierrez for example) to develop nimble and flexible structures that rely on a combination of freelancers. This stratification of the touring landscape has made breaking in increasingly challenging without some kind of support, and Dorsey acknowledged that given the amount of touring his company does, not having an agent or company manager is extremely rare. He has been doing much of that work himself, while managing his nonprofit Fresh Meat Productions and creating new work for his company—a balance he acknowledged was physically and emotionally demanding.

However, Dorsey did highlight that he cherishes the long-term relationships he has built with presenters, and indeed it is these kinds of connections that lead to touring opportunities. He pointed to FundArte in Miami as an example of a conversation that unfolded over several years—after reaching out to say they were interested in his work they diligently raised the funds over four years to bring his company to Florida, and have since presented Dorsey’s work three additional times. American Dance Abroad works to facilitate these kinds of relationships by bringing international presenters to the United States to watch performances, meet artists, and see strongholds of American dance in regions like the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, and New England. They also bring American choreographers, agents and administrators to festivals and marketplaces abroad. Cassello highlighted the importance of the international festival circuit, noting that it’s a critical context for presenters to see new work and discover artists that they can nurture and support.

And so the fateful question remains: even if you’re able to bridge all of the barriers to touring, how do you get a presenter interested in supporting your work? Dorsey explained: “I know so many artists who ask me: how do you tour so much? There is often an assumption that the answer lies in how to woo a presenter or package yourself, but the answer lies in having strong work that is ready to tour: right fit, right time, right work.” What then constitutes the right work?

While Cassello acknowledged, “certain projects click and others don’t for a variety of reasons,” she argued that ultimately over time “people haven’t really changed what they want to see in the dance world—you want to see interesting ideas cleanly executed.” She sees artists from around the world grappling with similar thematics including race and class divisions, the role of technology, political conflict, and personal relationships. Ultimately she finds the most successful work to be that which “responds to the moment so that people have insight into their feelings and experiences.”

This question of “right work” begets a larger consideration—right work for whom? Cassello noted that: “You can’t talk about touring without talking about how one expands a dance audience, and that’s something people have been talking about for decades.” Audiences for dance have dramatically changed in the last 50 years as they are increasingly faced with more options for how to fill their time, opportunities that while increasingly accessible often silo people in their homes or on their devices. Framing this broader shift in a dance-specific context Cassello asked, “What turned people off or distracted them such that audiences shrank?” Dorsey attributed a fair amount of “the blame” as he termed it to the field, saying “modern dance has earned a reputation of being cryptic, heady and irrelevant—most human beings feel like they don’t get modern dance and they feel stupid and bad about themselves. Why would they spend money to experience that if they could see a play or a concert and not only understand, but connect and relate to what they’re seeing?”

Indeed, why dance? Admittedly, I see this question as a bit of a chicken and the egg situation—are audiences shrinking because dance is less accessible as touring opportunities diminish, eroding previously booming viewership in the 70s and 80s? Or does dance need to be more relatable to meet audiences where they are, adapting to the needs of a contemporary population? I would like to think that there is a middle ground. With the decline of arts education there seems to be a change in arts literacy in the last fifty years that can’t be discounted when considering the shifting tides of audiences; while similarly arts institutions have been slow to adapt to new modes of viewership, remaining focused on supposedly tried-and-true formats that cater to increasingly aging populations. There is a delicate balance between holding space for work to be challenging, opaque, and/or provocative—work that might be characterized as hard to understand—and providing opportunities for audiences to approach it, carving valuable time for communities to experience and discuss together, rather than leaving in frustration to return to their cell phones. I firmly believe that there are audiences for dance that could be better served with more touring opportunities, and, that we (as presenters, funders, and artists) need to continue to create and support work that sparks discussion and builds community through shared time, space, and consideration.

In Practice: Book Review: Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by Joanna Dee Das

The first time I met dance historian Joanna Dee Das was either at an event she curated when she was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Dance Studies at Stanford or in a dance class at Shawl Anderson Dance Center in Berkeley. Das is a dance scholar and a dancer. Her academic credentials hail from Columbia University and NYU, and her dance pedigree traces back to classes in the Dunham technique beginning at age 12. She is currently Assistant Professor of Dance at Washington University in St. Louis and is certified in the Dunham technique. This is all to say that readers of Das’ book, Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora (Oxford University Press 2017), can trust that Dunham’s story is told from a multimodal, deeply personal, massively archival, and blessedly embodied point of view. Das offers a balanced and loving account of a complex person living and dancing across complex times (nearly a century, 1909-2006). She presents Dunham’s history as a deft and daring navigation of a uniquely American tangle of racial, gender, and class norms.

Das is trained as an historian so the book, though academic, is not laden with impenetrable theory. The concept of diaspora, more specifically, “a politics of diaspora” (2), is Das’ theoretical, historical, and analytical framework as performed, taught, and lived by Dunham. Das writes, “While many theorists have invoked long-standing, historical, or even blood-memory cultural connections to Africa as the foundation for diaspora, a politics of diaspora also involves the conscious refashioning of existing cultural forms and even the creation of new ones” (3). In other words, the concept of a politics of diaspora allows us to witness how Dunham negotiated the suffocating binaries of her era—high/low, traditional/contemporary, popular/artistic, authentic/theatrical, pure/hybrid, black/white, body/mind, dance/academia—as well as reckon with the ways hierarchical relations between these oppositional categories continue to hold sway today despite the daily unmasking of their instability and insufficiency.

Das demonstrates how Dunham worked to legitimize dance as an embodied intellectual pursuit, simultaneously reinforcing associations between black people and bodily skill and challenging the notion that bodily knowledge constitutes something anti-intellectual.

Dunham emerges as an expert navigator of the choppy seas of her identity as a black feminist anthropologist-dancer-choreographer, one who brought “dance into the conversation about how to build a sustainable cultural foundation for political activism” (2). Though Das is unflinching in her exposition of the less heroic aspects of Dunham’s actions and belief systems, we nevertheless encounter Dunham as a force to be reckoned with, a human being, flawed and fantastic all at once, and an incontrovertible matriarch of modern dance.

Das does not merely analyze Dunham’s choreographic output. Rather, she investigates her performances, her institutional legacy, and her personal life as “interrelated spheres of action” (4). In doing so, she charts Dunham’s social and aesthetic compromises and sacrifices, naming her successful strategy for surviving and thriving “aesthetics as politics” (4). Das’ close analysis of Dunham’s choreographic strategies—the dancers she worked with, the movement vocabulary, spatial relations, music—serves as a model for dance writers of all stripes: the movement is the method and the message. Being able to see those choices and understand them in the context of broader choreographic, kinesthetic, social, cultural, and political histories is what makes Das such a deft “reader” of Dunham’s work.

The book offers a clear chronological account of Dunham’s personal and professional history. We learn that Dunham was an academic, a writer, a memoirist, and an activist in addition to being a dancer, choreographer, film star, and director. Das explains that Dunham’s memoir A Touch of Innocence, written in 1958, “reveals how dance became one of Dunham’s tools for survival, a personal narrative that she would then theorize and apply to people of African descent more broadly” (13). Readers travel along an artistic journey marked by a collision of black vaudeville and Hollywood, European ballet and American modern dance, with the addition of a rigorous and rich experience with dances of the African diaspora. But even this isn’t quite the way to put it because the point Das drives home is that all of Dunham’s aesthetic choices constitute and reflect a diasporic consciousness.

Das’ patient exploration of the ways critics received Dunham’s work teaches us a valuable lesson in witnessing dance today. In her discussion of minstrelsy, she explains that “the shows often contained ‘hidden transcripts’ that powerfully critiqued existing social structures, but they still overwhelmingly signified ‘racist humiliation and self-denigration’ in the public imagination of both black and white Americans” (21). I take this as a reminder to always ask myself when I watch any performance, do I really know what I’m looking at? Do I really know how to see this? To answer these questions does not necessarily require deep powers of analysis; in fact, those powers are always culturally specific and when wielded, often sink dance criticism further into the abyss of ignorance.

Overall, Das highlights the ways Dunham’s artistic production both conformed to and challenged ethnic, racial, and gender narratives in the US in the 20th century. She points out the scholarly “point of contention” around “the question of authenticity and its relationship to theatrical presentation” (30). She explains the ways Dunham and other artists of color in the 1920s and 1930s “used the discourse of primitivism to critique US empire and neocolonialism, even as, contradictorily, they ended up reinforcing problematic categories and romanticized notions of primitive life” (31). And she explains the Janus-faced nature of “structural functionalism,” the anthropological approach Dunham used in her study of diasporic African dance: “By turning to dance, Dunham had arguably chosen the most difficult path for reframing primitivism. From another vantage point, she can be said to have audaciously struck at the heart of primitivist discourse, challenging its most fundamental precepts about black women’s bodies in motion” (32). In other words, Dunham problematically sought to “elevate” African rhythms and movements through Western concert dance structures while holding the belief that those rhythms and movements were the truest forms of expression.

Das takes us through Dunham’s process of transforming the dances she learned in the Caribbean into choreographic works for the concert dance stage. Prior to Dunham’s 10-month research trip to the Caribbean in 1935-1936, Dunham, not unlike Ruth St. Denis, “adopt[ed] exotic foreign identities” (16)—a form of cultural appropriation—in her early choreography, a practice that she transformed through her training in anthropology and participant-observer work in the Caribbean. Das writes, “For both black and white women of the early twentieth century, exotic performance was a means of liberation from restrictive gender and racial identities” (16). Das places these forays into cultural appropriation in the context of a real tension between racial and gender uplift, a tension we’re still living today.

It’s easy to condemn Dunham for choreographing an “Oriental” dance until Das reframes the move in the context of finding ways out of stereotypes of black women that came out of minstrelsy. Das reminds us that for a black woman to focus on dance in any part of the twentieth century “was an audacious move at a time when the body, especially the black female body, was considered to have little capacity for intellectual expression” (20). Dunham’s work in the Caribbean reveals how choreographers locate content and choreographic approaches among their “subjects.” “Instead of serving as raw material to insert into a ballet or modern dance, Caribbean dance could offer its own aesthetic principles, both in terms of philosophical foundation and formal movement structure” (36).

Dunham’s choreographic practice moved from “pre-Caribbean interpretive dance” to “fairly direct translations of the dances she had seen in the Caribbean,” to anti-fascist agit prop works, to “’fusion’: a blending of her ballet and modern dance training with Afro-Caribbean forms” (56). Das describes this last approach as the moment when “Dunham’s aesthetics became her politics” (56). And she attributes her success to the way Dunham blended narrative structures, program notes, and choreography that displayed “that elusive blend of high art, social value, and popular appeal” (57).

Dunham was a black female intellectual whose life work focused on the dancing body; a dancer and choreographer who understood that dance constitutes knowledge that extends beyond knowing how to move. As a scholar, she was surprisingly transparent about the limits of her objectivity during her research in the Caribbean—as a dancer who took part in the performances and rituals she studied, she recognized the gap between embodied response and intellectual recording of experience. She knew that she was both a foreigner (as an American) and an heir (as a black person) to the cultural forms she witnessed and participated in. “In essence, Dunham proffered contradictory opinions. […] This back-and-forth revealed a central tension of diaspora that Dunham would wrestle with throughout her career—namely, the debate over how best to ensure the continuity of Africanist cultural practices in new settings” (38).

Das offers us a detailed picture of Dunham’s pedagogical philosophy and practice. The Dunham School operated from 1944 to 1954, long enough to sediment Dunham’s influence on everything from the development of jazz dance pedagogy to the integration of dance training spaces. This got me wondering about the particular personal, social, and political forces that shape the development and dissemination of dance techniques in general. For example, according to Das, Dunham’s signature blend of ballet, modern dance, and Afro-Caribbean dance was a function of her personal experience with these forms, of course; but her technique is also an effect of her political drive to dismantle racial stereotypes about black dancers. Taking her diverse dance experiences and codifying them into a technique constitutes a political move, one that “struck a blow to all three stereotypes” (64) of black bodies dancing—that black people were natural dancers, that black people “could not dance genres that required technical training,” and “that perfecting dances derived from black culture required natural abilities, not dedicated practice” (65). I could feel the deeply American nature of Dunham’s training history in my bones—the Laban and Dalcroze, the ballet and musical theater, the black social dances, the random encounters with Eastern European folk forms—a polyvocality of forms colliding. We can see how Dunham’s bodily experience of multiple dance forms are archived as the Dunham technique, a form of “kinesthetic memory” (40).

Both Das and Dunham emerge in this book as women who believe in the social and political power of dance. Das illustrates how Dunham’s experiences in the Caribbean helped her “articulate[] a thesis about embodied knowledge and its relationship to politics” (52), which in turns helps Das articulate her own thesis about how a politics of diaspora is embodied through dance. Das explains that “Dunham repeated a consistent message: training in the performing arts and humanities prepared students to face life’s problems” (108). This line alone convinced me to put Das’ book on my syllabus—that and the fact that if a student searches for “Beyoncé” in Google Scholar, Das’ book will come up. Das closes Katherine Dunham with an epilogue that clearly articulates Dunham’s relevance today and the challenge she continues to pose for us—how to “embrac[e] interculturalism without reproducing cultural hierarchies” (201). Whether we identify as activists, artists, educators, administrators, scholars, or all of the above, we can meet that challenge if we’re willing to learn, act, and, above all, change. Dunham, the great strategist, not only “choreographed the change she wished to see in the world” (201); she also appears to have let the world choreograph change in herself, demonstrating that dance, as a dialectic of stillness and movement, of listening and responding, is the perfect medium for political movement.

Das is not the first white dance scholar to write about a black dancer, and she is aware that this can prove an awkward position. In the preface, she writes, “And while Dunham always proclaimed that her technique was for everyone, I see myself as a guest in an African diasporic cultural practice” (x). This line is quintessential Das. Throughout the book, Das holds every tension and contradiction, whether in Dunham’s rhetoric or her own, with honesty and care. And this is what makes her book not just smart but brilliant. Das reminds us that it’s always a risk to dance—and to write. And Dunham teaches us that these are risks worth taking.

Zaccho Dance Theatre’s Aerial Arts Festival

An extraordinary public event approaches. Thrill seekers, arts enthusiasts, hard to please skeptics, this spectacle will not disappoint. Come August – if the crisp, bay breeze at Fort Mason Center doesn’t blow you away, the aerial dynamics of the 2018 San Francisco Aerial Arts Festival certainly will.

One of the many beauties of this art form is its all-inclusiveness – enabling people of all skill levels to partake at nearly any age. While dance training in aerial arts is not a requirement prior to learning the art form, it’s an obvious preference among performance professionals.

The aerial arts movement is rich in local history. Fascinated by the deeply rooted origins local pioneers implanted within this ever-evolving art form, choreographer Joanna Haigood became inspired. Taking this passion to heart, Haigood founded the San Francisco based aerial dance company Zaccho Dance Theatre in 1980. With the formation of Zaccho, Haigood maintained three primary objectives – to help strengthen the aerial arts community, build an audience, and one-day present a world-class aerial arts festival in the very city that helped catapult the art form into its current burgeoning state.

Dancers on hanging house structures at San Francisco Airport.

Photo courtesy of Zaccho Dance Theatre

Offering a wealth of knowledge on aerial dance’s relevant local history, Haigood shares, “Terry Sendgraff, the founder of Motivity and inventor of what is now called the dance trapeze, blazed the trail here in the early ‘70s. This was also the beginning of the beloved Pickle Family Circus, leaders in the American New Circus Movement. Wendy Parkman and Judy Finelli, a brilliant aerialist and juggler with Pickles, then founded the San Francisco School for Circus Arts in 1984 (now Circus Center).”

She continues, “While the roots of aerial dance are most certainly in the circus arts, I think it draws equally on the contemporary dance forms that were explored by great contemporary dance masters like Trisha Brown. In the late ‘60’s she created a work called Planes, which involved dancers climbing on a vertical wall. We can say that this was the foundation piece for what is now known as danse escalade.”

Discussing her own personal influences, Haigood adds, “[Many] early forms of aerial dance that are still known are the ceremony/ritual dance of Los Voladores in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Another personal inspiration for me is the Japanese fireman’s ladder drills.”

As a major award winning, visionary choreographer, Haigood also has her own unique approach to creating aerial dance works. She says, “Most of my work centers around place – how it is defined, and the role that memory plays (I often think of place as a material memory bank). I consider specific qualities and structure of a place. I trace past events and engage with community. I watch nature and respond. This is generally how I start and the character of the work eventually emerges.”

Flourishing since the company moved to its 4,000 square foot, Bayview-Hunters Point, warehouse studio space in 1989, Haigood stuck to her commitment to strengthening the aerial arts community and building its audience through a variety of exhaustive efforts including in-studio performances, classes, workshops, residencies, youth summer camps, free after school arts programs for at risk youth, and finally – the company’s first Aerial Dance Festival which debuted in 2014.

Of course, prominent festivals as the Frequent Flyers International Aerial Dance Festival in Boulder, Colorado (the first event of its kind) held annually for the last 30 years – serve as inspiration for many aerial dance companies worldwide.

Two aerial dancers hanging from rope above the ocean.

Photo by Larry Wagner

In 2009, Festival les Rencontres de danse Aérienne (the International Aerial Dance Encounters) in La Baule, France and the Irish Aerial Dance Festival in Letterkenny launched festivals of their own; while the European Aerial Arts Festival in Brighton, England followed suit in 2010.

In 2014, Zaccho wasn’t the only U.S. based aerial dance company eager to start a new regional festival closer to home. Aerialists in Santa Barbara had the same idea by launching the Floor to Air Festival that same year. In 2016, artists in Atlanta started their first festival, with Seattle right behind them, launching the Apogee Aerial Dance Festival in 2017.

Haigood has high hopes for the Aerial Arts Festival. In addition to her continuous efforts toward building an audience and the festival itself, Haigood hopes to position San Francisco as the foremost aerial performance community in the U.S. While these goals may seem ambitious, the concept is hardly inconceivable. “We’re absolutely committed to building the aerial arts field by providing opportunities for emerging as well as more established artists to take part,” says Haigood.

To reach the level of stature Haigood had envisioned, the festival needed to expand. Two years following the inaugural festival at Haigood’s studio, she took the festival to a larger and more centralized public space in 2016 – Fort Mason Center – where the festival will resume this August.

Enthusiastic about the festival’s progression thus far, Haigood shares, “We love being at Fort Mason and are so grateful for their support as co-presenters. We’re also looking to grow the festival and expand to other venues and sites around the bay. All in good time!”

Looking ahead, Haigood says, “We’re planning a piece for next year on Mount Tamalpais based on the history of the nuclear radar station that was built there, its history and personal stories of those connected to the site. 2020 marks Zaccho Dance Theatre’s 40th anniversary. We are in the process of designing a citywide celebration.”

This year, spectators can expect to see a fun mix of dancers, gymnasts, circus artists, as well as arts enthusiasts. By the end of the day, attendees are sure to leave feeling comfortably versed in the language of aerial arts, while other visitors from the industry will get to take home practical tips on the latest aerial dance technology and techniques.

Three vertical dancers jumping away from the side of a building.

Photo by Basil Tsimoyianis

Sure to be a festival highlight is the celebrated BANDALOOP aerial dance company, founded by vertical dance pioneer Amelia Rudolph. This year, BANDALOOP plans to unveil a newly choreographed women’s quintet and will also present an encore performance of their signature work HARBORING.

BANDALOOP has been featured in Harpers Bazaar and has performed before millions throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia. BANDALOOP is also a current content partner for GoPro cameras – now showcasing dance footage of the company’s “Dance on Budapest with BANDALOOP,” captured on HERO5, HERO6, and GoProFusions.

Still a relatively young festival, after just three bi-annual events, the momentum at which the festival has grown is rather remarkable. With Zaccho Dance Theatre’s upward movement toward breaking new ground in aerial dance and expanding their local and international presence through touring and creating works all over the U.S., Europe, and South Africa – it’s hardly premature to declare that both the city of San Francisco and the Aerial Arts Festival serve as primary performance destinations on the global arts map.


Cover of Jul/Aug 2018 issue.I am a child of the 60’s — the “make love not war” era, and therefore as a young man I recoiled from graphic images televised nightly of the Vietnam War. I still remember how fast my heart would race as David Brinkley, or some other nightly newscaster, recounted the deaths and other atrocities of combat. This was also a time when the draft was in place and I was fearful of being called to serve. As a young gay man the notion of navigating military life horrified me, largely because I was easily identified as a queer – a name I grew up being called that was often accompanied by violence. Where was the love part?

Even today I struggle with the word queer. I know, the once derogatory term has been reappropriated—as a political identity, as a noun, adjective, or verb, and also it’s used so well in the word gender-queer. I do believe in the power of taking back hurtful words, and yet the fact is when I hear queer being used—even if it is to celebrate, reframe and broaden notions of identity­—I reflexively feel a ping to my past that stings.

Growing up in the 60’s, 70‘s and probably most of the 80’s also made me a child of another school of thought: that only girls—skinny and able bodied—get to dance.

Fortunately, over the last four decades there have been advances away from a narrow way of thinking about who gets to dance. There are now numerous paths to a life in dance that encourage and celebrate differences—like body size, disability, gender non-conformity, race, class—that are often major barriers to freely participating in the world, and in dance. Recognition for advances are attributed to visionary pioneers that reside here in the Bay Area—the following individuals have fought hard and persevered to make changes: Rhodessa Jones, Judy Smith, Claudine Naganuma, Anna Halprin, Alleluia Panis, Joe Goode, Patricia Berne, Amara Tabor-Smith, Nina Haft, Amy Dowling, Dohee Lee, Eric Kupers, Sean Dorsey, Joanna Haigood, Patricia Reedy and Nancy Ng. This list is incomplete and speaks more to any bias I have, who I know, and who I don’t. I happily acknowledge there are many pioneering people that could be added to this list.

Each month Dancers’ Group endeavors to acknowledge and highlight an ever-evolving field that celebrates the moving body. This double issue showcases an array of events taking place in the Bay Area, like the bi-annual aerial dance festival presented by Zaccho Dance Theatre. A new writer for In Dance, Mina Rios, delves into the festival and artistic director Joanna Haigood’s vision to showcase artists that make work that hangs and flies; creating fresh ways to view bodies in space.

To encourage a sharing of writerly inspirations, Dancers’ Group asked members to suggest books that you can add to a summer reading list. Continuing this literary theme, Sima Belmar has contributed a review of an important book: Katherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora by Joanna Dee Das. While this book looks at Dunham’s legacy and major contributions to dance, it’s also a powerful reminder of how past events continue to shape how we move forward. I’m eager to read Das’ book and many others that have been recommended.

Enjoy life’s pleasures—like good books and warm embraces—and join me in continuing to passionately engage as we work to, make love not war.

Unpacking Julie Crothers’ Abstract Necessity

Imagine being seen and recognized one way during your adolescence by people in your hometown. You move away, then return with a new take on life, both for yourself and the world. This scenario isn’t difficult to imagine as many Bay Area artists have experienced this time and again. Many have moved here because of the openness, acceptance, and capacity for building our true selves. When we return home with a different haircut, altered fashion, out sexuality, or in Julie Crothers’ case, without a “clunky appendage” (her description) people notice.

Crothers is a Bay Area dance performance artist and one of two Studio 210 Summer Residents for 2018 under the mentorship of Deborah Slater. She has one full-length right arm; the left stops at the elbow. Crothers has a box full of prosthetics that archive her childhood and adolescence; they represent how people in her hometown saw her in one way.

Crothers (26) plans to unpack her box in a new inquiry entitled Secondhand Store in a double bill with artist Kuan-Hsuan Lee. In Crothers’ proposal for the residency, she wrote:

Having spent the first 21 years of my life wearing a prosthetic arm, I have a fascinating collection: baby arms, robo-arms, swimming arms, old sockets and broken off fingers – all sitting untouched in a box in my closet. I’m interested in developing Secondhand Store to explore my relationship to prosthetics and their assumed and abstract uses.

Think about scratching your head with your right hand, then doing the same motion with your left. Notice the micro-movements in your shoulder, elbow, and forearm that are needed to achieve this. Now imagine Crothers doing the exact same motion with her left arm. Does your mind fill in the gap? Can you see the hair tousle even though no hand is actually touching it?

I’m curious about how the brain views a body in motion when it has to fill in the holes versus when the holes are filled by something artificial. I’m curious about gestures that hold space for an invisible arm compared to those that don’t. Specifically, I’m curious about what would happen if the left sleeve in my long sleeve shirt grew to 3 feet, 6 feet, 12 feet, so long that eventually all of me is all tangled up in excess, excess of something that was never necessary in the first place.

Different prosthetic arms.

Photo by Julie Crothers

Crothers’ notion of putting on something that was never necessary calls to question why and how necessity is derived. What made Crothers believe she ever needed a prosthetic? Where does this necessity come from – Crothers’ own internal need or external factors such as social constructs, medical science, or others’ lived experiences?

Yeah, interesting – prosthetic arms were totally necessary in how I developed socially and in how I considered myself ‘just the same as everyone else’, but they were never necessary medically; I would have found a way to do anything and everything I needed to, with or without arm.

There also exists a notion of ‘normalcy’ that must be defined. To Crothers, ‘normal’ meant looking like other four-limbed humans; it meant being able to type on a computer with two hands; it meant being able to ride a bike. Common. Similar. Lack of difference. Fitting in.

To say, “Mom, Dad, I’m not wearing a prosthetic anymore,” carried the same weight and tone to Crothers as many of us have felt when coming out with our own non-conformity, our own rejection of ‘normal’. It affirms that we are ok being different, individual. What prompts this sloughing off of fitting in?

Critical theorist, Judith Butler (UC Berkeley), writes in Senses of the Subject, “…the interior sense of myself is sufficient to reaffirm my freedom, but this same sense of myself is insufficient to know it.”

Identity is a trending topic in our contemporary performance culture. Theorists like Butler have become icons for gender and sexual liberties – expanding the idea of fluidity into mainstream consciousness. Externally, we may fit one predetermined category – male, female, able, disabled – but, internally, we feel a different way, we fluctuate. Just as Butler in Senses posits that the very use of language acts on a body and our ways of identifying it, so too do external objects.

As Butler engages with the text of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, she argues that our external environment impresses upon us a change in state. Regardless of whether we are active in changing our Self, there exists a passive seeping in of experiences that shape and form our very identity through the objects present . For Crothers, this refers to her 21 years with attached appendages and the entirety of experience she had with each one. For dance, this refers to the experiences in performance settings – audience witnessing, performers moving, both being altered and changed whether knowingly or unknowingly. It is because of this change in state that prompts us to slough off previously defining traits and announce our individuality.

Jane Bennett, political theorist at Johns Hopkins University writes in Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, “our gaze, prompted by the experience of our own body, will discover in all other ‘objects’ the miracle of expression.” Perhaps, Crothers, too will be asking the question that Descartes so famously asks and that Butler so scrupulously analyzes, “How could I deny that these hands and this body here belong to me?”

While it is very true that internal impulses give light to our Self, we are affected by the world around us, given outlets to freely express our ever-changing Self, shown options to “try on” – whether that be a physical object like Crothers’ new function-only-screw-aesthetic prosthetic, or a different feeling towards gender and sexuality. With this personal growth, we can begin to look more objectively towards that which defined (or may still define) us.

Crothers sheds light on how she’s working to transcend the definition of ‘normal’ by writing in her proposal:

These arms hold a lot of memories. But what [truth] can be found, rediscovered, or magnified by circling back and considering them not as something I rely on for my security, identity, or normalcy, but rather something absurd and still deeply personal?

Dancer in shoulder stand with legs bent.

Photo by Jelle Ijntema

As we age and grow into our Self, we still require a reference to the external in order to know our Self. But it is how we look at these externalities’ effect on us that really help to clarify who we are.

Have these prosthetics defined Crothers, created her, formed her own vision of herself, her identity? When I asked she replied,

More than I consider my identity as being formed by prosthetics, I consider my identity as having largely been influenced by the fact that I have 1.5 arms. Like the arms didn’t make me who I am, but rather my lack of arm did.

Crothers has now shifted the way she sees her prosthetics to a more objective stance, reducing her own personal attachment.

I do sometimes still wear [a prosthetic] – for yoga, exercise, riding my bike sometimes, or just for fun – but where the big difference is is in how my relationship to them has changed. … I do enjoy having the option of choosing to wear one if I want and appreciate being at a point in my life where I can look at them with a more abstract lens.

There is no doubt that Crothers must work to peel back layer upon layer of accumulated associations to her prosthetics. One cannot undo that lived experience quickly. But what Crothers can do is face these objects head-on through research in the studio, and present her findings (or continue researching) in front of others – inviting them to witness and discuss.

Much as every form of identity has a spectrum, we could potentially define Crothers’ relation to her prosthetics as at one end: reliance to feel a sense of normalcy; at the other: refusal of a perceived necessity. Before Crothers’ residency research began, she found herself living on multiple points in this spectrum. She wrote:

There’s something to be said about how in recent years I have been tempted to view the use of prosthetics in my current life [at 26 years old] as a weakness…like I don’t need it so I shouldn’t use it. But really, they are pretty darn cool and can have a lot of benefits, even if some of them make great Halloween costumes, fart noises, or play tricks on people.

Whether, in her culminating performance, Crothers decides to strew the prosthetics around the space and never recognize them or, alternatively, show off all their intricate gadgetries, it’s up to her to allow the process to inform the work. But what we can expect is a rich breadth of research and a sharing of humanness in the face of difference.

Now I have a lot of exciting material and creative fuel to work with as I process and reframe the usefulness of spare arms in my story.

Did You Know? Studio Grand

Did You Know? Studio Grand

Oakland’s Studio Grand is a nonprofit, multi-use space that supports local families, youth, and emerging and established artists by hosting a mix of music, performance, educational, and visual art classes and events. Interim Creative and Administrative Director Nkeiruka Oruche tells us more about her work with the Studio.

How and when did Studio Grand get started?

Studio Grand was founded by Holly Schneider and opened its doors in September 2013. Holly’s vision was to create a multidisciplinary, intergenerational, and cross-cultural art space in the Grand Lake neighborhood that responded to a need Oakland has. Eight months after its opening, we lost Holly to an untimely battle with cancer. After her passing, her friend and bandmate in Las Bomberas de la Bahia, Vanessa Camarena-Arredondo, worked with a dedicated group of family members and volunteers to keep Studio Grand going. In 2017, Vanessa transitioned from her role, and I joined Studio Grand to lead it into its next vision.

How are you involved with the organization?

As the Interim Creative and Administrative Director, I handle organizational development, artistic direction/engagement, fundraising and relationships/partnerships. I also work as director of Afro Urban Society, a hub for Afro diaspora art, culture and people, and also a resident organization at Studio Grand (a new structure Studio Grand is currently trying). Since my art practice is mostly as a choreographer and performer, the studio is getting a surge of interest from dance artists, but I am currently working to expand the visual, literary and theater presentations as well.

Many people gathered in a circle in Studio Grand.

Photo by Jean Meiesaine

Through Afro Urban Society and my personal and professional connections, I am able to bring African, African-American/Diaspora, and Arab Diaspora (Yemeni) connections into the space. Through my work with BoomShake Music, a socially-engaged drum school and community, I am able to connect with a wide range of womxn, trans and gender-non conforming folks from many backgrounds who are actively engaged in music as a tool for social justice.

Through my mentors, leaders, and teachers Regina ‘Califa’ Calloway, Monica Hastings-Smith, Amara Tabor-Smith and Ellen Sebastian Chang, I am reminded that Studio Grand needs to be a space that honors and recognizes legacy while ushering and fostering the coming generations.

Describe the activities and programs.

Studio Grand’s programming centers leadership of and programming on historically marginalized communities including people of color, immigrant, and LGBTQAA communities. We understand that Oakland is a rapidly gentrifying city with a rich legacy of music and art produced by Black, Latinx, immigrant, and queer communities. We operate with the understanding of the urgency and necessity of communities of color to create work and tell their stories, especially in a volatile political environment in which our communities are under attack.

We host an artists’ residency where we invite a visual or performing artist to develop a body of work in the studio over a period of time. Most recently, we hosted theater artist Sarita Ocón, who developed a theater lab with 12 local emerging artists titled Las Hociconas. We host a variety of dance classes by independent instructors such as Ballet for Black and Brown Bodies as well as classes curated by Afro Urban Society for people of the African Diaspora. We host an avant garde music series curated by the Oakland Freedom Jazz Society on Monday nights; Bay Area Bridges, a series curated by RDL+ that profiles contemporary composers on 2nd Sundays; an electronic music series curated by KYN on 2nd Saturdays; and a Balkan series on 2nd Fridays. We also host ongoing classes for kids.

How many artists does the space engage with?

There are at least 30 artists who are actively curating, teaching, and performing at Studio Grand on an ongoing basis. Additionally, we host at least 50 guests artists each month.

Do you have a favorite performance or memorable moment with the organization?

Through a partnership with Afro Urban Society, we recently presented Full Color: A Staged Reading by emerging writer Itoro Udofia, directed by the phenomenal Tossie Long. Studio Grand served as a home for the rehearsals, the performance and a talk back. The cast featured both seasoned and amatuer performers, so the show drew a really mixed audience, making the space so sweet and special. I sat reflecting on the promise of continuing to hold such space and make art right there on Grand Avenue in Oakland. It makes me proud and inspires me to do this work. Also in May, we presented Under the Oakland Skies, an outdoor music concert at Lake Merritt Amphitheater featuring local bands Little Debbie and the Crusaders, The Jamming Nachos, and JAX. I had tears in my eyes multiple times watching Oakland-grown young folks be powerful and dynamic. Both of the events really made me realize the range of beauty we can harness as an institution.

What programs or activities do you have coming up?

We are launching/announcing three new residency programs: 1) ‘Odinani/It is in the Land/Tenets of Humanity’ for Oakland/East Bay-based immigrants artists of color across disciplines to create work that explores how a specific guiding principle is expressed in their ancestral culture; 2) ‘Move | Stay | Be | Here’ for Black and Brown music and movement artists who explore traditional or experimental forms; and 3) ‘Unearthing Particles’ for Black and Brown traditional, contemporary, or experimental visual, literary, digital and new media artists who create work that honors/explores the experience of Black and Brown people.

We have our ongoing music series mentioned above as well as ongoing dance classes during the week. Workshops, performances, and exhibitions connected with the residencies will be announced.

Group dance being lead by a smiling dancer leaning to her right.

Photo by Jean Meiesaine

What has been the most rewarding part of your work?

Having the opportunity to not only be a part of the conversations in the art and culture bureaucracy but to also shift current perspective, approaches, and practice are things that give me lots of points for reflection. I appreciate the opportunity to be put under question, scrutiny and criticism in a way that’s different than being just an artist/culture worker. I don’t get to just hide out in my comfort zone; I have to step out and be responsible and responsive in a way that is very scary but necessary, e.g. doing interviews like this. I get to put my values and work practice to the test because I am dealing with so many different levels of the artistic and bureaucratic process as Creative and Administrative director of an actual physical venue that produces its own events, and is committed to working with ‘not just the highest bidders’. I get to answer hard questions like: ‘Can I pay the bills, run a successful business and still be accessible to people who deserve for this space to exist? Can I balance the administrative and networking duties of the executive branch while also being a regular friend and community member who can truly stay connected to folks who may not be on the art world radar?

What’s a future goal or dream that you have for Studio Grand?

I dream that Studio Grand will be a space that holds both socially-engaged traditional and imaginative art and culture from local and international artists. I am curious what conversations would look like across diversity of Black and Brown (Native American, Desi, Pacific Islander, Arab/Mena, African and African American/Diasporic etc). I want the residency program to put us to task to not only have artists find us, but have us seek out folks who are sidelined by the local and mainstream art establishments. I want Studio Grand to feel like a home to our native and long-time Oakland communities and mitigate the lack of access to creative spaces for them.

What (or who) is inspiring you right now?

My creative partner Tossie Long (a vocalist and multi skilled performer) is a major force of inspiration. Tossie is able to make things dynamic out of not much, and is able to see and translate me in ways that are just inexplicable. She and I have a soul mate connection that I just can’t explain, and I’m moved by her daily in ways I wouldn’t even be able to talk about on this platform.

What’s a piece of advice have you been given that you still hold on to today?

Go, just go, and don’t come back until you’ve finished what you went for.

What haven’t we asked that you want people to know?

Studio Grand is a space very much concerned with community needs. We curate and present quality work. It is also our intention to be an accessible space that has a warm and welcoming vibe. We are primarily a volunteer and artist-run space, and our programming is only possible through individual donations (monetary and in-kind), foundation grants and government support. We’d love to be able to offer our hardworking staff a good salary and keep the lights on, and we can’t do it without the support of generous folks in the community.

Contact Improvisers Consider #metoo

The West Coast Contact Improvisation Jam in Berkeley (wcciJAM) has been a hub for the investigation of the form for over 25 years. Contact Improvisation (CI), which grew out of choreographic experiments in the early 1970s, is a relational dance form in which dancers improvise around touch, weight exchange, and the physics of equilibrium and falling. CI challenged assumptions about dance, but has since developed into a form practiced widely by both professional and recreational dancers around the world. “Contact Improvisation’s influence can be seen throughout modern and postmodern dance choreography, performance, and dance training worldwide, especially in relationship to partnering and use of weight” (Contact Quarterly)

Contact Improvisation’s open-ended physical dialogues between dancers offers a platform for critical inquiry of movement possibilities. Can it also cultivate a questioning of the cultures we inhabit? In wcciJAM 2017’s Statement on Inclusivity and Assumptions, teachers and organizers created a statement acknowledging that while our dance is not enough to change the larger sociopolitical context, we must grapple with the issues that are present in the room at every jam. Each of us arrives at the dance with our own personal histories, at an intersection of specific identities. Can awareness of how culture and socioeconomic structures inhabit our bodies, minds, and habits, help us avoid perpetuating inequities? How do we continue to question both our dancing and the subculture that we’ve built to support its practice? What are the form’s potentials for disrupting oppression and privileges based on identity?

The practice of CI is uniquely positioned to offer a space for the investigation of how we express our personal boundaries through touch and movement. A statement most often attributed to dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton says that CI should deal with “physics, not ‘chemistry.’” Nevertheless, this boundary is not always respected, nor is it easy to define. The dancing body and the social body coexist. Learning CI can involve learning to navigate complex experiences and interactions where a strong sense of personal agency is called for. This can be particularly challenging for younger women, gender non-conforming folks, dancers with disabilities, or other structurally disadvantaged groups. In this moment of #metoo, we – Cathy, Rosemary, and Miriam along with the rest of the team organizing the wcciJAM – are committed to empowering dancers to maintain healthy boundaries, to cultivate self-care and agency in their dance relationships. With that in mind, “De/constructing Power” was chosen as this year’s festival theme.

What follows are responses to the question, “How do you see the #metoo movement impacting the CI community, or not?” from some of this year’s female-identified teachers:

Jo Kreiter:

I stepped away from the contact community in 2004 when my son was born and came back to it in 2016, when he was old enough to stay home alone for a little while, so I could go to the jam. When I came back, I was so delighted to see a younger generation had taken up the form, and to see tremendous thoughtfulness around inclusivity and power. There are many more brown bodies on the dance floor then when I left. And gender non-conforming bodies. There is spoken, articulate language, and even written declarations, for how to be in a jam with respect for all. I think dancers are some of the best creatures on earth, so I am not surprised by these evolutions of thought and practice. Sadly though, I still hear from young women about the ‘creepy guy’ factor at jams. Women, especially younger women, are still feeling a need to dodge certain men at certain moments. So we do have some work to do, still, as a community. What gives me hope is that the jam is a place where I learned to practice strong boundaries and to keep myself safe. It is a fertile learning ground for finding one’s best self.”

Taja Will:

“I personally have not seen it impact my primary CI community but I’ve been hearing from other communities that the #metoo movement has liberated incidents and feelings around safety and respect in their communities, some folks have been called out for recurring behavior that makes others feel unsafe.”

Anya Cloud:

“It impacts everything. As dance artists I believe that we are the material of the work. And that includes our complex histories that often relate to trauma. I think it is exposing the need for more explicit and nuanced consent practices with CI. I think that the #metoo movement is facilitating some space for more transparent questioning/discourse of patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity that can be quite pervasive in the CI community. It is ongoing and incremental work to move against these dominant systems. The current statistics are that someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. We can’t ignore this within the CI community. And I do notice people talking more about power, consent, agency, predatory behavior, gender, and assumptions now than I have in the past. We can do better. It is vital and important work in terms of visioning and manifesting the kind of CI culture and practice that we want in the future. It is all quite intense and necessary.”

Cathie Caraker:

“I can’t speak for the whole CI community but I can say that my own approach has changed. I’m much quicker to speak up now when my ‘ick radar’ goes off. I recently approached an organizer who had invited me to a workshop with a male teacher who’s long had a reputation for being one of “those guys” who hits on female participants. I told the organizer that I wasn’t comfortable being at an event with this teacher, and told him why. His response was quite defensive. However, he passed on what I’d said and that teacher reached out to me. We ended up having a very good conversation, in which he shared with me that he’s been working on changing his behavior. It was one of those moments where I felt a clear shift because I’d spoken up. It feels awkward and even scary to stick your neck out. As women we’re socialized to be nice. We want people to like us. We’re afraid of offending, or god forbid, making a mistake. We can teach young women about healthy boundaries and consent and blah blah, but we’re still not addressing the core problem, which is patriarchy, male entitlement. The imbalance of power is very old but we can change it. We can support female-identified artists and boycott dance institutions that don’t. We can ask our male peers to take a step back, to listen more and ask how they can help. We can facilitate discussions on diversity and power sharing at our dance festivals. It’s happening – there is a sea change afoot.”

Diana Lara:

“Even though I found the facts and roots of the #metoo movement very valid, I think that the press and social networks have found, again – as in previous social movements – another way to sensationalize it and commercialize it. I hope that in general the movement provides more awareness in the population and the CI community about the social norms that perpetuate sexual harassment and violence. Only by being aware of these social norms, can we have more accountability. I am a fan of Paulo Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, and I agree that we have the duty of understanding the systems and mechanisms that perpetuate the status quo in order to change it.”

Ronja Ver:

The #metoo movement has emboldened me, as a teacher, to bring up the issue of boundaries in every class, and to have a chat with every new student. I feel strongly about this, because what I constantly hear from young dance students is that they love CI, but would never go to a jam because the one time they went they were touched inappropriately by an older, more experienced male dancer.

I’ve been hearing a lot more requests for education and guidelines around touch and consent in the CI communities. It seems like this time around some of the cis male facilitators are also getting on board, which is a huge step forward. I’ve sat in circles where women who were violated by unwanted inappropriate touch in a CI setting have spoken out, and where the perpetrators have actually been barred from coming back. This is a change from the age-old system of denial and victim blaming, but it will take time for people to also start trusting facilitators to take action against violations and assault. It is still necessary for a network of sisters to warn each other about teachers and dancers with whom they’ve experienced hurtful or uncomfortable situations.”

Jen Chien

Before answering this question, I first need to state that I don’t necessarily feel like I am part of the “CI community.” I have practiced CI for a long time, and it’s meant a whole lot to me as a human and as an artist, but I don’t necessarily feel like part of a community based around CI. It’s not fun to be the only POC in a room, and that’s unfortunately been all too prevalent in the communities that arise around CI. I’m not mad at it, it’s just felt like it’s not for me.

What I would hope for, in terms of the #metoo movement’s impact for the practice and teaching of CI, is for us all to be more and more aware of how gendered and sexual power imbalances operate at all levels of our lives and experiences, even when we have the best of intentions, even when we are purposefully trying to create spaces that stand apart from society’s ills. CI is a practice that intentionally crosses normative socialized physical boundaries, in a mostly unstructured way. This can bring a lot of stuff up for people, good and/or bad. And if/when there are sexual or sexualized energies present in a dance, we need to be able to talk about it, and to negotiate and respect boundaries and consent, just as in any other physical interaction. Personally, my practice of CI is completely non-sexual, and that’s part of what I love about it. I know that other practitioners may have other thoughts, feelings or opinions. Knowing that there’s a range, it’s important for us to not bury this stuff under the rug just because it may be uncomfortable to talk about.

I myself had a #metoo moment, early on in my practice of CI, at the Tuesday night jam at good ol’ 848 Divisadero. I and another young female friend were dancing in a trio with an older man who we both felt was behaving in a sexually violating way. We confronted him directly in the moment, he apologized and also denied what we were accusing him of, and then my friend and I processed it together later. I feel lucky that I and my friend experienced the same thing at the same time, and we could empower each other to speak up and state our boundaries. If it had just been me, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do so, or even to trust in my own experience of what was happening. This person was a regular attendee of the jam, and we had mutual friends/acquaintances. It did not end up turning me away from the practice, but I will say that at the time I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the experience with more than one or two close friends. I hope that the spirit of clarity, honesty, and accountability the #metoo movement has brought forth can inspire more discussion and empowerment for everyone and anyone who practices.”

Cultivating Freedom and Power in the Dance Classroom

I’m watching my two year old dance. He’s spinning fast, letting the full skirt of his dancing dress ripple around him, arms splayed, eyes closed. He sometimes spirals into the floor, momentum never stopping as he rolls and jumps up to spin again. Something about him tells me he’s in his zone, his flow – the repetition, concentration and intention, the fact that he can’t be interrupted, his internal focus. He only looks at me when the song ends and he exclaims, “Again!”

I ask him later about dancing. What does he like about it? He answers emphatically: “I like dancing, dress-up, running really fast!” It’s true, high speed is characteristic of his dancing because it is relatively new. Half his life he was dependent on me to move him from place to place. So now that he can go on his own, and has built up strength and confidence, he’s going fast, and it thrills him.

I watch him and imagine – or perhaps I remember – this must be what new found freedom feels like. Running through fields, rolling down hills, spinning and swirling so fast you can’t keep from smiling. Feeling the blood pulsing through your body, skin tingling as the wind rushes all over you. Nothing to stop you. He runs over to me when he’s done, wrapping his arms and legs around me in a big squeeze. I feel his heart racing against my chest; his exhilaration is palpable. I wonder, do I feel like this when I’m dancing?

It seems silly to ask. I mean, I’ve been dancing for most of my life and have chosen dance for my career, shouldn’t I feel this thrill all the time? Or have I been doing it so long that I’ve forgotten why?

two toddlers dancing in long skirts

I ask another expert in dance – my five year old – about why she does it. “I just like it,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “I feel like anything when I dance. I feel like everything.” I think about how I’ve sneaked glimpses of her dancing alone, brows furrowed and lips pursed, hands carving powerfully through space, spine snaking. Or how she creates endless stage names and personas for our family dance parties. I’m often asked to introduce her with something like: “Welcome to the stage Aurora, Queen of the Moon and Stars. She’s really, really tall and powerful and has a kitten and a baby.” In her dancing, she seems to be embodying choice and identity, and a kind of omnipotence that she’s discovered in herself, in her body.

I observe kids discovering their freedom and power through dance in my teaching too. A colleague and I recently watched a video together of a creative dance class I had taught at Luna Dance Institute. After exploring lots of locomotors and shapes, I asked my students to dance however they liked. In the video they moved without hesitation – they knew exactly how they wanted to dance and just went for it. Something happened in that moment of free dance that felt substantial. We rewound the video to watch again. It wasn’t so much what they were doing, but how they were doing it. The dancers were fully embodied and smiling, internally focused and tuning into themselves, each doing their own thing so intently, and claiming their dances as their own. “Wow, they’re really in it. They’re really gettin’ it. Look at them go!” we remarked.

A student has said: “When I’m taking dance class, I just feel so able. I feel like my body can do anything; like I’m Wonder Woman or something.”

I remember saying things like that too. I feel like my best self while dancing. I come home to myself when I dance. And I remember the sensation of finding my flow, of my body channeling the message of my heart. For me it is electric, all cells listening and tingling and responding, riding a surging wave that may send me spiraling, tipping, scooping, suspending through time and space. And it may feel like . . . nothing, or everything. Emptiness and fullness simultaneously.

Why does any of this matter? Is dancing, to express my soul’s truth, just an indulgent self-serving act? Does it contribute anything to the world, the greater good? I don’t know, maybe it brings me closer to nirvana. But as I listen to the news and contemplate systems of injustice and oppression playing out in stories of #BlackLivesMatter, #metoo, school shootings, deportation, child abuse, human trafficking, I feel less and less interested in my own personal transcendence. Instead I wonder this: what if everyone could feel this free? What if everyone could feel this powerful in their bodies?

When I consider this, it shifts how I teach dance. My overarching goal now is to cultivate an environment in which students can experience freedom and express their power through their bodies. As a dance educator working in schools where children, particularly children of color, are often disciplined and controlled, I feel a sense of responsibility to nurture their freedom. I continue to wonder what does it take to do this? What do people need in order to feel the exhilaration of freedom and power in action? This is what I’ve observed so far:

  1. It requires a feeling of safety, so that dancers can allow themselves to be vulnerable, take risks, share something of themselves. Spending time building class community can assist with this, as can clarifying class flow and expectations, or creating a sacred container for class through a beginning and ending ritual. Even more essential is emphasizing individuality over right/wrong movement, and celebrating what each dancer brings to the class.
  2. It also requires a full exploration of all that the body can do, the endless possibilities of moving through space, time and energy. Plenty of chances to try again, stretch a little further, attempt it from another perspective, helps dancers trust their bodies, and their potential to express something with their bodies.
  3. Dancers need opportunities to create, to improvise and choreograph. There is power in making.
  4. And dancers need to be seen – and they need to see each other. Allowing myself time in each class to step back and witness students as they open up and claim their own power is exciting. When students witness each other in their flow, gettin’ down, and when they know that they are being seen by their peers, there is a kind of magical respect and trust established. A secret is shared, they view each other in a new way, and they can recognize and honor each other.

group of children dancing and posingThere is another critical component in cultivating freedom and power in my teaching, and I’m remembering it as I watch my children. I’ve got to cultivate this within me. When I dance now, I see myself consciously practicing my freedom, stretching my power like a muscle. Because I don’t want to forget it, or take it for granted, or slip into inertia as I just go about the motions of planning my next dance class or choreograph my next piece. When I am overwhelmed by all that is happening in the world that feels so out of my control, I can do this – I can dance, and access my force, and refuse to be silent.

Dance then becomes an act of resistance. History tells us that dance has long played this role, often being the first art form to be prohibited when a civilization was conquered. Complete control could not be achieved if civilians were accessing their innate creative power through dance. These days we seem to be dominating bodies in different ways: over-diagnosing and overprescribing for ADHD; reducing recess; limiting movement to sitting at desks, standing in lines, repetitive workouts at cubicle-like treadmills/yoga mats, and reducing it to the smallest possible tap, slide, click of our fingers as we stare, mesmerized into a world of screens. As a culture we remain fearful of bodies doing anything out of the ordinary. We deem it chaotic and suspicious, and react with restraint, discipline, violence, and police brutality to regain control.

So fellow dancers, fellow activists, dance on. Practice sharing your freedom with others, and invite your students and collaborators to join you. Witness each other get down, and celebrate our collective creative force as we embody resistance.

A Lifetime Of Achievement for Lily Cai

The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and as part of the festivities, the Festival will be awarding the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement award to choreographer Lily Cai. Lily is a well-deserving recipient of the award, not only for the signature beauty and power of her voluminous body of work, but as the leader of a dance company that has been such a regular part of the Festival. As the Festival enters its 40th year, Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company is turning 30. Both entities have helped one another on their journeys.

And according to Lily, “it’s a great journey, one I really enjoy. You know many times parents will say this [being a dancer/choreographer] is not a real career. Parents think a real career is either a lawyer or doctor or technician working in the computer field.” For Lily a career means to be “stubborn like myself [and] speak to what it means to be human, not just only the money making career.” Is it rough? “Yeah, it’s a challenge. It’s not easy, but [there’s] a lot of excitement.”

portrait of choreographer, Lily Cai

Lily’s journey began in Shanghai, where she danced as principal dancer with the Shanghai Opera House Dance Troupe before moving to the US in 1983 and founding her dance company in 1988. Her father died when she was young and wanted her to be a doctor to help people who were sick like him heal. When I point out that the young girl who was guided towards a career healing bodies as a doctor has become the woman who works with the bodies of dancers to bring joy and transcendance to audiences, she agrees there may be a parallel there. She credits much of her persistence towards her career to her mother. Growing up they made their own clothes, and Lily would often want to give up midway through a project. “If I started knitting a sweater, and wanted to give up, oh she would be so mad!,” she says, “and that kind of dedication is something I pass on to my own dancers.”

Lily’s journey reached her next important milestone when she began teaching dance at Galileo High School in San Francisco in 1986. It was primarily with dancers she worked with during her Galileo experience that she formed her dance company in 1988. This was what she called her “first generation” of dancers and as the company grew its reputation during the 90s, she began attracting her “second generation,” dancers who came to her with more professional training and experience, primarily in ballet.

One of the dancers that started with her in 1986, Phong Voong, is still in the company and shares that when she started taking Lily’s class as a high school freshman in 1986, “I knew nothing about dance before taking Ms. Cai[’s] class. Once I stepped foot into her class, I’ve never stopped dancing!” Lily says Phong is her best dancer, and one the other dancers look towards for guidance. She says “Phong is a beautiful dancer, she is my delicious soup that has been simmering and getting richer over time.”

Over the decades the company has toured around the country and internationally, as well as presenting new work every year in her home season. Lily has received commissions from the Santa Fe Opera, Memphis Ballet, and the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. She has received support to create new work from Creative Work Fund, San Francisco Arts Commission, and the Rockefeller Foundation. And of course, every year she creates new work for her home season.

Regarding her strenuous work ethic, she tells me “that’s not easy…[but it] gives me the opportunity to do my dream, challenge myself, put my passion on the stage, in a studio, and that kind of journey is so much fun. But it’s not easy, it’s never easy… when they say ‘it’s easy’ that means they’ve never done it before.” She continues: “this is our 30th anniversary. I do a new show every year [and] just like a chef has a delicious new creation on the table for your guest to enjoy with you,” so does Lily create something special for her audiences. She is also adamant that she shares her lifetime achievement award with “my dancers, Gang Situ [her musical collaborator], it’s not just me. People say ‘you’ve been doing this for so many years,’ I say yeah, I’m stubborn. But Lily Cai being stubborn doesn’t make it happen. You need a great team to make it happen.”

A lot of our conversation was about her method for developing choreography that she’s developed over a lifetime of refinement. She explains that “there is something culturally different [between Western and Chinese dance forms], just like writing. English writing is through the space. Chinese writing is in the space.” Lily holds up some notes written in the respective languages. “Can you tell? I think this makes a wonderful world, not all the same…It’s apples and peaches, which one is more beautiful? Both of them are beautiful.”

“For me it’s about the body,” and when she says the word “body” she enunciates it slowly, imbuing the word with the weight and significance of someone who has dedicated a life to understanding how a body can express an idea or an emotion. She pauses for a moment after saying the word “body”, and then continues: “What people see are body motions – the body comes first, and [her dancers] are award of their body. That’s why many times people say our dances are very sensual.”
“Movement is a result. I train my dancer on how to arrange the energy in their bodies, and the movement comes from from how that energy is arranged. And you never make movement from thinking – you making from feeling.” She continues, “Feel it, don’t think. Thinking is a scientist’s job. Scientist says 1+1=2, but an artist says 1+1=100.” People sometimes watch dance for the physicality of it, for reasons that I think are somewhat similar for why other people watch sporting events. They are looking to see bodies test their limits. But dancers know that the process for getting to that point where the audience says “wow” requires a complicated internal workflow. The deeper that internal process takes a dancer, the more subtle and nuanced a performance can be. Lily’s method for creating work is based on an extended and creative rehearsal process that allows her dancers the freedom to take an inner journey, and is a key element contributing to her exquisite choreography.

I spoke to a couple of her dancers to get a better idea of what the process of working with Lily is like. C-oNe Tong, who joined the company in 2008, describes an organic process built out of an extended, improvisatory rehearsal. She says, “we spent a lot of hours in the studio, as if we were in a lab researching our own bodies…there aren’t any counts that you can follow, it has to be from your breath, from your spirit.” Lily records her dancer’s improvisation, and studies them with her dancers. When C-oNe, watches the videos, “the way I learn best is to study the breathing aspect, as opposed to the timing, I’m not even thinking about the music.”

Alexandra Nguy became entranced with the Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company when she saw them as a high school student, and a few years after college she joined the company. She says Lily is “a visionary when it comes to her creative direction, using many different metaphors and methods and life experiences” to illustrate what she wants her dancers to do. She also credits Phong Voong: “we all strive to be like her. When I joined the company, I had to unlearn a lot of what I thought was dance…and having Phong in the company is wonderful – Lily’s technique is in her body already and it comes out like Tai Chi.”

As Lily’s dancers describe her method, it reminds me of the methodology of the late film director Robert Altman. Lily gives her dancers a concept, they improvise around that concept, and then Lily sets the work on the dancers using the movements they’ve discovered that she finds most compelling. Lily’s vision guides the entire process, and the final result is strong and fully formed, and she is a master of her medium the way Altman was a master of his.

woman in a red backless gown on the grand staircase dancing with a parasol

After the lifetime achievement award is given to Lily Cai at noon on June 8th at San Francisco City Hall, Lily Cai Dance Company will perform Silk Cascade as a part of the Rotunda Dance Series, re-staging the site-specific work that won her an Izzie award in 2016.
Creating a performance that integrates the grand staircase is a particular challenge that Lily is proud of having achieved and earned acclaim for doing. “When performing [on the staircase] when you go up it’s not too difficult, but when you go down you need to go very slow, because the steps, they’re all the same color, no difference, no edge mark. And we can’t mark the edges, so when you make big movements they [the stairs] disappear and it creates dizziness. It’s very difficult, but when I asked my dancer’s if we should use the staircase or the floor, they said “staircase, staircase.”

“My goal is to create signature work, so that when people see it they say that is Lily Cai’s work. My own signature is beautiful, powerful, one-of-a-kind, and unique. Every year is getting richer…I’m accumulating experience…knowledge…wisdom. It’s like a warehouse that’s constantly getting bigger.” This warehouse will not stop expanding anytime soon, “it’s so exciting…I look back at [what was created] five years ago, or even one year ago and I think about things differently now. I’m just constantly working on new developments and new discoveries.” She tells me she never even thinks of taking a year off, so while she may receive a lifetime achievement award this year, we should expect to see new Lily Cai work for years to come.

In Practice: Tonya Marie Amos

In a 1993 interview, Toni Morrison said, “The people who practice racism are bereft. […] It feels crazy. It is crazy. […] If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.”[1] I thought about Morrison’s words as I sat in the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts theater on June 25, 2017, witnessing Grown Women Dance Collective’s annual Juneteenth celebration, Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars.

The performance combines concert dance and a multimedia presentation to honor the Black musical artists we’ve lost since 2000. When I saw that much talent on display in a society that works hard to vilify the bearers of that talent, combined with that much loss, the cognitive dissonance of anti-Black racism was laid bare. I realized I was listening to the sound of social life in social death, the sound of uplift, the sonic landscape of Black joy— and the soundtrack of my life, to this American life. In the face of the sheer dominance of these voices, I could sense in my bones the crazy Morrison describes, the pathology and supreme waste of time of white supremacy—to work that hard to build yourself up by shooting down what so clearly soars.

My generation’s K-12 history books never mentioned Juneteenth, so Tonya Amos, Grown Women Dance Collectives’s artistic director, had to educate me.[2] In sum, on June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger and his Union soldiers arrived in Texas to read the proclamation and make official that which slave owners had sought to keep secret: slaves were now free. Jubilation among former slaves ensued, followed, unsurprisingly, by a tenaciously adhered to revisionist history. So, white folks get to honor Lincoln, the white man who freed the slaves without any muddy chronology to contend with. On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday, and there appears to be a steady rise in consciousness and celebrations nationwide.


In the spirit of In Practice, this interview focuses on the labor of Amos’ dance journey, and the love that established and maintains GWDC’s Juneteenth project. It’s about Amos’ dance training history and how it reflects the racializing and racist history of American concert dance. GWDC is comprised of concert dancers, currently between the ages of 48 and 54, who come out of retirement each year for Fallen Heroes—from my point of view, they only get better with age.

Amos, like so many dancers, was hesitant to talk to me, afraid to expose things about elite concert dance company culture. Many, many dancers grin and bear it for the chance to dance. Amos and I spoke at Peet’s coffee on College Avenue on August 22, 2017.

In Dance is publishing our interview now to coincide with the 9th Annual Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars Juneteenth performance at the Malonga Center, June 23-24.


Sima Belmar: You’re a Bay Area native. Tell us about your early dance life here.

Tonya Amos: I grew up in San Francisco, Sunnydale neighborhood — no running water, no electricity, no food. My parents put all of their money towards our education. I went to fancy schmancy schools, and I took ballet classes, acting classes, and all this stuff that kids in the projects didn’t do.

SB: Where did you take these classes?

TA: When I was a kid I was at ACT. For dance, I was at San Francisco Ballet. We’re talking about the 1970s. I was literally the only child of color in the studio. Every other kid in the school got to be in The Nutcracker, but I was never allowed on stage. So, after three years my dad went and spoke with the director of SFB and they were like, Yeah, Blacks can’t be on stage. I remember my dad saying something not very nice, and then, “We’re going elsewhere.”

SB: Where did you go after your dad took you out of SFB?

TA: So this was pre-BART and there was tons of traffic in northern California, unlike now [laughs]. My parents were in the car all the time trying to make sure we had access and to minimize the racial trauma of being a Black kid in the 70’s. I ended up at Diablo Gymnastics in Walnut Creek (the kids were horrific to me there). A woman who was watching practice said to my mother, “Why isn’t she dancing?” This was Lareen Fender of The Ballet School. Lareen approached me with my mom’s permission and said, “You’re beautiful. You should be dancing.” And I said, “I don’t want to dance anymore.” And she asked, “Why not?” And I said, “Well, Blacks can’t be on stage.” I was 9. And she said, “Nonsense. You can be on stage with me.” So Lareen trained the hell out of me for a couple of years. She was wonderful to me and made sure to never let the racial undertones that were thrown out by kids and their parents become overtones.

At the same time, I was going to school at Nueva Day in Hillsborough with people who had 18 burners in their kitchen and horses. Anybody like me was cleaning someone’s house. Meanwhile, in my house it’s pouring rain and my whole family is in my bedroom because it’s the only room that doesn’t have water pouring through the ceiling—mom, dad, two sisters, two dogs, and the cat.

When my mom got pregnant with my third sister, she couldn’t drive me to Walnut Creek anymore. So I went back to train in the city, bouncing around between pretty major academies. One of them is gone, a boarding school for ballerinas, LaNova Academy [Ballet Celeste International of San Francisco].[3] I didn’t live there, but ballerinas came from all over the country to study there. I remember there was a Nutcracker audition. I was about to go home when people asked why I wasn’t auditioning. I was like, Well, Blacks can’t be on stage, and they were like, “Oh, that’s right. Ok! See you next week!” They were kind of glad—the little girl with the leg behind the head and the three pirouettes en pointe at age 11! But on my way out, one of the moms said, “I hear what you’re saying, but Ms. LaNova is very open-minded. You should go talk to her.” So this old Russian woman looks at me and says, “Nonsense, dear. Blacks can be on stage. There’s a black snowflake in Nutcracker. But we already have our Black this year, dear. You should come back next year.” And “that Black” was Eurydice [Ross], one of the original members of GWDC. She was the only Black concert dancer I’d ever seen in my actual conscious memory.

solo african american female dancer in purple flowing dress


SB: What happened after you missed your chance to be the single Black snowflake?

TA: I went to Janet Sassoon’s Academy of Ballet. Richard Gibson had just come from the Joffrey. I walked in, this little 12-year-old with flawless turns and arabesques behind my head, 42 pounds in the 7th grade. I was skin and bones, which is why my ballet teachers loved me…

SB: …because they could see the lines…

TA: …right. American teachers often had been really mean to me. But Richard, who was really nice to me, jumps me to the 15-17 year old girls, until Janet comes in and says I’m in the wrong class and puts me back with the 12-year-olds—and I was thrown to the wolves. Then, one day Janet looks at me and says, “Dear, your hair is very ethnic.” At that point I was 13 and starting to notice what I looked like in the world. I never went back. I couldn’t enter another dance studio for 7 years.


SB: So you just stopped dancing?

TA: Yes, until 1986 when I left for UCLA. I was the first person in my lineage since slavery to go to college. I went to UCLA because in that time period all of my friends were being murdered and locked up under Three Strikes for a joint in their pocket. The depression and survivor’s guilt is really bad when you come from an environment where people are actually being targeted to not make it.

When I transferred to Cal in 1989, I bought $5 rush tickets to Cal Performances—Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan, and Bill T. Jones with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m one of the only brown folks in the theater and just crying. In that moment I realized you can create social change with the arts.

In my junior year there was a company called Voice the Movement, a project put together by Anne Reeb, daughter of the white minister [James Reeb] who was killed during the Civil Rights Movement. In 1989, she made a piece about Medgar Evers. Reggie Savage was Medgar and I was his wife, Myrlie. During this process, I figured out that people can actually do this as a job. So my senior year, instead of scooping ice cream on campus, my job was dancing.

SB: Did you dance with the Graham folks at Cal?

TA: I did not. I was an Anthropology major. I was studying African American history and taking Egyptian hieroglyphics. I was like, we need Black people who can read primary documentation, so I did three years of glyphs, which when I moved to NY in 1991, two weeks after I finished college, kept me out of trouble because I had like $200 and had no place to live, no job, no food. I would go to the Met and pay 24 cents to get in and I would spend 8 hours and just translate stuff off the walls.
When I graduated from Cal in 1991, people kept telling me to take [class] with Alonzo [King]. And I was like, Who is this Alonzo? Finally, someone dragged me in there and I was like, He’s Black! Why didn’t anyone say he was Black! None of the Black folks in his class had done any ballet but they were just so happy to be in his presence. And he treated everyone with loving respect. He encouraged me rather than flattening my already low self-esteem.


SB: But you chose NY over SF, and you went to NY to dance, not to be a museum docent, right?

TA: I went to New York to dance. My first Ailey audition was for the company, at Zellerbach [Berkeley]. I made it through a cut and then Ms. [Denise] Jefferson, who was the head of the Ailey school at the time, pulled me aside and asked me to come to the audition for the Ailey school’s Summer Intensive in NY. She saw my really good ballet foundation from years before. Years later, I worked for Ms. Jefferson—I was her student assistant, her house sitter, her friend. She was the one who built that school. She was my mentor and I loved her so much, my NY dance mom. Several women were accepted into the summer program, but—two of us, myself and Phyllis Byers—were asked to attend the scholarship audition in New York. This moment changed the entire course of my life. There were 600 girls at the Ailey school audition. They give 35 scholarships a quarter, and they try hard to make sure that African American dancers are represented in that group. I auditioned for the scholarship and got it.

SB: So what was it like at the Ailey school for you?

TA: I would not have danced without Ailey. I owe Ailey a lot. But back then, Black women couldn’t have braids, locks, twists—the same reason I was ousted from ballet was happening there. My generation got that changed. Ms. Jefferson went to the International Blacks In Dance conference where somebody talked about self-hatred, and she came back and changed the policy. All the higher level ballet classes were mostly white. I’d be put in the back line, told by a (non-Black) teacher, “You’re fat, you’re lazy, you’re never going to dance.” It wasn’t always like that but even in a Black organization, that European body type is preferred, that ballet line. I defended my scholarship for 9 semesters. After a year and a half I looked around and everyone else was gone. And I kept defending it. They make you audition every single semester.

SB: Talk about precarity.

TA: If your lines and turns don’t keep getting better, you’re gone.

SB: So who did you dance with during the New York years?

TA: During the New York years, I danced with Cleo Parker Robinson (in Denver), one of the Black rep companies. Basically all the repertory gets shared between Cleo, Dayton Contemporary Dance, Philadanco, and Ailey—we all did Donald McKayle, Talley Beatty, Katherine Dunham. For example, I was a soloist in McKayle’s Nocturne, which was Sylvia Waters’ role at Ailey, but during a different time period.

SB: Was this supporting you?

TA: Oh yeah. Once I went to New York all I did was dance professionally. When I was at Ailey I did three hours of answering phones in the morning. But I was at Ailey 12 hours a day. I was off on weekends. I taught some gymnastics on the weekends just to make some extra money. Once I was in New York, I was a dancer. I never got a “real job” ever again. I danced with Cleo in Colorado from 1994-1996. Back in New York, I danced with Footprints, an Ailey spin-off, and Amy Pivar, a Bill T. spin-off. It was all concert dance, until the last four years. I had a career-altering abdominal surgery, I’d say career-ending, but it wasn’t really career-ending, I just couldn’t do concert dance anymore because it was 12 hours a day of hard core physical work and partnering. I couldn’t support weight on my pelvis anymore. I didn’t trust my body at that point. I’d be okay for two weeks and then I’d be doubled over in pain, I didn’t realize that for years I was working with scar tissue and internal bleeding. I was just in pain all the time. So my last four years in New York I turned to musical theater, because I could be a dancer but not be a dancer. So I did the international tour of West Side Story and some other Broadway tours and reviews, including playing Ernie in a ginormous, hot costume in the national tour of Sesame Street. I did a lot of fitness modeling, so when you see someone flying through the air in a business suit, that was me.

an african american couple leaping in the air

SB: So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

TA: After 9/11, my husband and I backpacked through Latin America for a year. When we came back to New York, my apartment was sublet, so I stayed in California after visiting my parents. I’d been trying to retire for 10 years. At that point I had convinced myself that dancing was the only thing I was good at. I couldn’t start over. I [didn’t] have any real skills. The dance career is really bad for the self-esteem—you’re yelled at non-stop, people are throwing chairs at you and cussing at you, with the occasional getting swatted on the butt by a choreographer. That abuse over a long time, that’s in your nervous system at that point. There was one other choreographer that I still wanted to work with and then I found out he was doing the same thing to his dancers so I was like, Yeah, done.

I was using my return to the Bay Area as an excuse to do something new. At this point I’m 35 years old. After two years trying actively to teach, I opened a Pilates studio in Concord. I opened in 2006 with no business experience.

From concept to opening day was six weeks. I wasn’t supposed to make it out of the projects. I definitely wasn’t supposed to have a 15-year dance career after not dancing for seven years. I wasn’t supposed to have a really successful concert dance career as a Black dancer, period. Luckily I had people around me saying do it. I’ve won five business awards—Small Business of the Year, Best Woman-Owned business of the year, Female Entrepreneur the Year, 100 influential women of Pleasant Hill, and Best Pilates Studio.

SB: No one had related to you that being a dancer involves a whole range of skill sets…

TA: …I had no idea! I went from a ballerina to the Ailey institution, and whether you like it or not, when you’re part of the incredible Ailey institution, you don’t know anything else is out there, that’s the only thing that’s legitimate. You go out into the world and you can dance circles around everyone else but if you stand next to Desmond [Richardson] every day in class, of course you think you suck!


SB: So what drew you back to dance and the formation of GWDC?

TA: After opening my studio, I started getting really itchy artistically. At the turn of the millennium, we were losing some really kick-ass people in the African American community—Ossie Davis, Gregory Hines, Nina Simone, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King. Michelle Ned, who I danced with in Voice the Movement, and I thought, someone has got to do something to honor these people. We decided to make a show, just bring our friends and family to see it. I called Eurydice and Marisa Castillo. My husband, who’s a computer geek, put together a multimedia to tie the dances together and holy shit, we have a show!

Our first year was at Laney College in 2009. We had 150 people in the audience. They were mostly all my clients. So we moved it closer to my studio to leverage my clientele. For the next six years we did [it at] Pleasant Hill and Concord, we sold out our shows, 600 people, lines down the street. In 2015 we moved the show to a new theater in Pittsburg to try to reach the Black community there. But folks didn’t know concert dance and because we don’t have funding, the tickets were too expensive. We always sponsor 100-150 kids, but I couldn’t get the tickets cheaper than $28. Then, most of my clients wouldn’t come to Pittsburg because there were too many Black people. Y’all want a dance history concert but you don’t want to be around black people! Black people were afraid to come to Pleasant Hill for fear of being pulled over. White people were afraid of Black people. So I moved the show to Impact HUB in Oakland 2016, and this year [2017] to Malonga. I think it will stay there. My dream is to get it in a bigger space and make the tickets $5.


SB: For those who’ve never seen Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars, the multimedia presentation of images and songs by Black musical artists alternates with dances choreographed by GWDC. And the dancing is amazing.

TA: I only work with people who are kick-ass dancers who I trust intimately because I’ve worked with them in companies.

SB: I feel like your story demonstrates that dancing is not about ability, but about a commitment to changing approaches over time. Aging dancers teach audiences that it’s not about being in shape…

TA: …it’s about sharing wisdom. The power you have in your little finger, the experience you have in your body. If you can walk onto the stage and snatch the air out of the theater, then I trust you.

Tonya closed her Pilates studio this past March to focus on GWDC and expanding Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars to create a robust Civil Rights program. “As a dancer I didn’t have voice. Now, I know: I started something from nothing. There’s a part of me that needs to go back to dancing, not for the sake of dancing, but to use dance as a modality for social impact and civil rights work. We are grown-ass women, carrying on the Black tradition of protest, agency, and providing access. We can do anything we put our brains to. It might be hard, but we’ll figure it out.”

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