IXALT Artfully Embraces the Sacred and the Secular

By Bonner Odell

December 1, 2007, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

From its origins, dance has served as a form of worship. From Afro-Cuban Orisha dances honoring Yoruban dieties to the traditional Bharatanatyam solo in homage to the Hindu god Shiva, adoration and supplication through movement remains an integral aspect of many religions to this day. Less congruous in the mind of many however, are dance and Christianity. While proponents of dance as an expression of Christian faith point out that believers are exhorted to “praise Him with the timbrel and dance” in the Bible, a mistrust of the body which has pervaded church history from its beginnings remains largely entrenched in the church today. Some scholars believe that it was the early Christians’ attempt to separate themselves from the orgiastic pagan rituals of their Roman occupiers which established the religion as a largely dance-less one. Others point out that dance thrived in the medieval period alongside morality plays, but that the Protestant Reformation squelched it in its attempt to strip Christendom back to the basic creeds. Whatever the reason, it’s a precedent that people like Shereel and Joseph Washington, co-founders of Richmond’s performing arts organization IXALT, would like to see fade into the past.

In an interview at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, where the company rehearses and holds on-going classes, the couple talks with me about their vision for IXALT. Among the themes that recur is the potential of dance as a uniquely cultural expression of faith “in a God that transcends culture,” as Joseph puts it. Through their work with a cast of multi-racial dancers and musicians and a commitment to cross-cultural collaboration, the Washingtons say their goal is to “show the world that Christians are diverse not just European-American or African Protestant Reformation.” Says Joseph, “Christianity isn’t bound to any particular culture, which is why we can celebrate God with Jazz music, or African dance, or modern dance. It’s why the Hawaiian groups we’ve worked with can bring their culture into the gospel, why Latin and Salsa music are just as viable. Because they’re all unique and exciting ways of celebrating God and life.”

Founded in 2003, IXALT produces events that incorporate all of the above with an emphasis on modern, jazz, and African-derived dance, live music, storytelling, and poetry. While the group has performed in Bay Area churches, Shereel says that the couple’s intent was to create a professional arts company with a public, secular visibility and presence. In keeping with that mission, IXALT has performed in a number of public arts festivals, including Oakland’s Art & Soul and Albany’s Solano Stroll, and in venues like Dance Mission, where it presented its first full evening of performance in 2005. This past June the company staged the second of its Enchanted Afternoons, a two-day event featuring original modern dance, a full band and live Christian music performed in San Francisco’s Union Square. “A lot of people think that we’re a liturgical religious group that performs strictly in churches or worship settings,” says Shereel. “I just explain that no, we’re a professional company and we’re very active in the arts community.”

Having danced for nearly fifteen years in the Bay Area with choreographers including Robert Henry Johnson, Joanna Haigood, Albirda Rose, and the late Malonga Casquelourd, Shereel says she felt led to start IXALT as a means of integrating the two most important aspects of her life—her faith and her art. “I became a Christian ten years ago,” she says, “and I started thinking about why I was dancing. I came to the decision that I wanted to honor God with my gifts. I needed to know that whether or not IXALT succeeded, I was being faithful to that call.” Joseph, who sings and plays guitar and keyboards, and whose extroverted personality contrasts with that of his wife’s more reflective demeanor, describes a similar sense of calling born of different circumstances. “I was raised ‘churching,’” he says. “I traveled all over with my parents singing and playing music. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of weeding out to do, you know. ‘What is God and what isn’t?’— that’s my full concern today.” Boisterous and talkative with an easy laugh, Joseph’s good-natured boyishness seems to contradict his self-assessment as a religious cynic. “My problem with the usual presentation of the gospel is that it’s too churchy, too religious. You’ve got people trying to appeal to gang members by quoting ‘thou shalt’ from the King James Bible, and they wonder why they’re not getting through?” His frustration seems to extend to the role of the arts in churches. “Nowhere except in the church can somebody who can half play get up in front of people and be affirmed as a ‘Musician,’ or take three steps with no rhythm or skill and be hailed as a ‘Dancer,’” he says. “It’s no wonder that when people hear IXALT is a Christian Arts organization that they don’t expect a high quality of performance. They tend to be surprised when they experience highly trained performers–classically trained musicians and singers with backgrounds in jazz and eclectic music, and professionally trained dancers.”

The high quality of performance Joseph refers to seems to have put to rest Shereel’s fears that the group might not succeed. The couple says they’re continually taken aback by the warm reception they receive in the Bay Area. Often, they say, the most positive responses come from the least likely audiences. Earlier this year, for example, the company performed an event hosted by an Alameda County agency that warned them to “tone down their religious speech” and to avoid explicit references to Jesus Christ. The group proceeded with the presentation they had prepared, which featured Christian themes interwoven into song lyrics and spoken word segments. “They had given us strict instructions not to exceed thirty minutes,” Joseph recalls. “But then we finished and were more than fifteen minutes over the allotted time. The officials insisted, ‘just give us another fifteen more minutes, please!’ I think the reason people respond to us is that they don’t feel beaten down, abused, or personally threatened by our message, which is basically, ‘God really loves everyone. And he really wants us to try to love other people like we want to be loved.’ We try to leave them inspired and hopeful when we’re done.”

The couple says they believe the commitment to professional artistry has also given the company credibility in the public eye. While IXALT consists of a mix of Black, Latino, Asian, and White company members, some of whom are Christians according to Shereel, and some who are not, the one thing the dancers obviously have in common is a strong dance background. The organization holds regular technique classes at Malonga Casquelourd, including Shereel’s Tuesday night jazz class and Horton Technique taught by SF Dance Center instructor Katharina Sauder-Worthington, and views training as essential to its mission. Shereel says she believes the company’s investment in that area is the reason secular audiences remain open to its work.

“Ironically,” says Joseph, “the only people we seem to have a problem with are churches and people who claim to be Christians!” While the company receives public funding, the couple says many churches are reluctant to donate. “Some tell us flat out, ‘we don’t believe in dancing,’ some won’t support us because we don’t exclusively represent their specific religious doctrine, and some really think we’re too worldly,” he says. Adds Shereel, “Some people in churches will see us perform and be impressed and inspired, but they’ll also be confused because the dancing isn’t literal or traditionally European derived. It goes beyond what for them is comfortable or safe religion.”

Lest Joseph appear too contemptuous of his fellow church-goers, it’s interesting to know he serves as pastor of a congregation called New Life Church, which meets at Fairmount Elementary School in El Cerrito. Not surprisingly, he describes the services as non-traditional, with members of the congregation helping shape each Sunday’s message by interrupting him with comments and questions. “If I don’t know the answer, or I can’t find it in Scripture, I’ll tell people honestly- ‘I don’t know the answer to that one,’ or ‘I’ll have to research that myself.’” Joseph says the policy of honesty is one that extends to issues that churches traditionally avoid. During last year’s Bay Area National Dance Week, IXALT presented a forum called “Sexuality, Sensuality, Culture and Ethnicity in the Church,” which he says drew some alarmed phone calls from fellow pastors and churches. “Some asked us outright, ‘why are you guys talking about sex?’”

Such reactions don’t seem to bother the couple. As artists accustomed to Christian circles and Christians who keep regular company with secular artists, Joseph and Shereel say they take the confused looks and questions as signs that they’re right where they’re supposed to be, “in the world but not of it,” as Shereel puts it. Asked if IXALT spends a good deal of energy fighting stereotypes and misperceptions, Joseph says “absolutely”—then adds with characteristic glee, “and we’re loving every minute of it!”