He Moved Swiftly…

By Marvin White


“Do you dance for the dead or with the dead?” This is the choreographer’s and the conjurer’s dilemma. What we know from watching Amara Tabor-Smith is that the answer comes not from what combinations she has memorized but from what she has unlearned and unleashed. It would have been easy for Amara to recreate in repertoire the work of her mentor and “dancestor” Ed Mock, but instead she is throwing convention to the wind and insisting on enlisting othered wisdoms to pay tribute to her fallen idol. Amara insists on disturbing spirit in this roving and site-specific tour de force. By retracing the swath cut through San Francisco’s dance, black, gay and ethnic communities from AIDS and gentrification, Amara is making it known that beneath the nouvelle cuisine restaurants with velvet ropes, $300 a pair sneaker and fair trade, conflict free, sustainable coffee shops are neighborhoods of people who loved, danced, lived and died there.

Pictured Amara Tabor-Smith Photo by Ana Teresa Fernandez
Pictured Amara Tabor-Smith
Photo by Ana Teresa Fernandez

From the beginning, Amara’s not-so-hidden agenda was to create a transparent and open process for understanding, articulating and creating a piece that Ed Mock, watching from the heaven of his understanding, might just join in. What gesture would it take to receive a visitation? What off-colored story might propel an apparition to show his hand-on-hipped self? What music, what tonk, what blues, what Nina Simone, what waltz or what club jam must be played in the improvisation circle for Ed to quicken the dancers, jump from spirit into flesh and allow the queerest possession of them all to unfold?

Ed Mock was a Chicago-born, San Francisco-based dancer, mentor, trickster, teacher and choreographer who lived and died well before many of the dancers who are moving through this project were born. In the circles that the dancers gather in, creator Amara Tabor-Smith, director Ellen Sebastian Chang and me—the poet and writer—sit cross-legged and tell stories, create and dispel myths and become cartographers, mapping times and eras that have long been erased. We talk about Chicago in the 1940s—communities of blacks, brothels and chitlin’ circuits. We talk about migrations, gay meccas and finding legs through dancers like Jimmy Payne, Anna Nassif, Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham. We talk about jazz. We talk about San Francisco at the apex of sexual, creative and spiritual freedom. We talk about the mysterious “gay cancer” that crept up on dance floors and into bedrooms and into dance companies, claiming the lives of partners, friends, brothers, lovers, company members, sons, fathers and leaders. We talk about the importance of dancing an AIDS dance, a black queer before there was queer man dance, afro-futurism from way back dance, visionary work, spirit and conjuring dance. We talk about impact, affect and infection. We talk with the multi-generational crew about how you can’t catch HIV from remembering, from casual touching or improvisational dance.

He Moved Swiftly But Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street: Ed Mock and Other True Tales in a City That Once Was, the Dancers’ Group/ONSITE presented piece, was conceived by Amara Tabor-Smith. Do not gloss over the word “conceived.” This love and dance child, this offering, this retracing and this full-termed delivery took many efforts and prayers. Christ, Allah, Buddha the Orisha’s Yemoja—who is the amniotic fluid in the womb of the pregnant woman, as well as the breasts which nurture all—were in agreement. It must come through Amara. Many people, from Wayne Hazzard, former colleague of Ed Mock’s, and Ellen Sebastian-Chang, another contemporary of Ed’s, had to look at Amara and the signs: the swollen feet, the tiredness, the dreams, the morning sickness, the backaches and the craving for sweets. Many people had to point out what Amara had been carrying but had not yet named. She had indeed moved from thinking about Ed to having conceived a “piece” and a “peace” about Ed. She would deliver to the world something that will make people love and remember and yes, dance.

He Moved Swiftly… will run over two weekends, Saturday, June 15 and again Friday, June 21 to Sunday, June 23. On a walkable path across unnamed San Francisco landmarks, audiences will be invited to partake in a guided performance that is part second line, part Egungun masquerade, part séance and part historical dancing tour of San Francisco. The dancers that Amara has assembled and invited into this experiment reenact and embody a multitude of griefs. The artists are co-creators that conjure Ed’s spirit of improvisation and outrageousness. They bend and move into a magic that exists when you tell the truth/when you are trued. Both site-specific and sight-specific, audiences are treated to a very particular rendering of loss and love.

Pictured: Ed Mock Photo by Simo Neri
Pictured: Ed Mock
Photo by Simo Neri

Again, Amara asks, “Do you dance for the dead or with the dead?” Is this an opening of a time capsule or the installing of a belated cornerstone? Is it a monument for displaced dancers and peoples moved out by gentrifying forces? Is it a roaming altar, erected and re-erected at every home, studio, restaurant or bar that reminds that someone is missing? Is it a resurrection? A second coming? A muscled memory that makes limb and lank bend into meaning? “Follow me,” she implores, “and I will tell you the story about a man. A dancing man. A naughty free-love man. I will tell you about a man that loved being with folks. Loved company. Loved receiving callers. Created a dance company. I will invite those who never properly mourned or stepped foot where he was footed because they could never believe he was gone.”

I will be the partner that leads. I will dance for the presence of Ed Mock and not for the nostalgia of him. I will gather those that knew and those that are in the know. I will enlist our dance to break ground, not to build another high-rise over the window that I look out of nightly because I love this city, but to exhume the black, queer, spiritual, broken, AIDS-riddled body of a conga man, a modern jazz man, a contemporary man, a shimmy man, a two-step and a waltz man. Come and we will dance together because He Moved Swiftly But Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street…

Dancers’ Group/ONSITE & Amara Tabor-Smith present He Moved Swiftly But Gently Down the Not Too Crowded Street: Ed Mock and Other True Tales in a City That Once Was

Sat, June 15 & Fri-Sun, June 21-23, 3:30-8:30pm
Various locations in San Francisco.

See center insert for more information. Learn more at dancersgroup.org

Marvin K. White, MDiv, is currently serving as the Full-time Minister of Celebration at GLIDE Church in San Francisco. He is a graduate of The Pacific School of Religion, where he earned a MDiv. He is the author of four collections of poetry: Our Name Be Witness; Status; and the two Lammy-nominated collections last rights and nothin’ ugly fly. He was named one of YBCA's “100” in 2019. He is articulating a vision of social, prophetic and creative justice through his work as a poet, artist, teacher, collaborator, preacher, cake baker, and Facebook Statustician.