A Conversation on Inquiry and Performance with Tammy Johnson and Larry Arrington

By Jesse Hewit


This year marks the 5th Anniversary of Deborah Slater Dance Theater’s Studio 210 Summer Residency. As an arguably unicornesque opportunity. In a city where rehearsal and performance space rental fees keep climbing, and no-strings-attached support for artists is becoming more and more inextricably yoked to commercial ventures, this residency provides a seriously unique service of time, space, and mentorship with Slater. Accordingly, it also occupies a unique place in the ongoing discourse about what it’s going to take to keep gas in the tanks of the Bay Area’s most radically and progressively-minded art makers.

DSDT is thrilled to be supporting the critical and timely work of artists Tammy Johnson and Larry Arrington this summer. The following is a small glimpse into the ongoing conversations, questions, and ruminations of Johnson and Arrington, as they cross-pollinate, reflect, and work toward the creation of works that speak directly—and at times necessarily poetically—to the contemporary conditions of making dance and body-based performance in a time when so many aspects of simply having an awake, feeling, and sensing body are under systemic assault.

Jesse Hewit to Tammy Johnson and Larry Arrington: What is the central inquiry, or set of questions, in what you’re making right now?

TJ: How far, how deep, how wide can this woman say “Aiwa” or “Yes” to herself, to her life’s experience, to it all? As a Black woman, society makes it difficult to say yes to the totality of who you are. I suppose that is true for just about everyone, but it’s this historical moment where we are bearing witness to a particularly commanding expression of Black womanhood that makes this an especially compelling question. If, in the face of daily transgressions to her very being and even death, she can say yes to the whole of who she is, then she is truly liberated and healed. Is this possible? If so what does it look like? How does it feel to her? How does it make her move? What sounds does that healed liberation make? These are huge questions for me personally because I feel that I am striking out and saying yes to all of the things that society says are not mine to claim. Can this round and brown contrary woman stake a claim to her body, her voice, the stage and the dance, leaving nothing behind? We’ll see.

LA: We/AOA is part of a larger project simply called We. We is quite broad in scale. It is a poem of a piece centered around the shift of astrological ages. It is a study of time, space, body. During my time at (Studio) 210, I am playing with ideas about the techno- mediated world we are living in and moving towards. Looking at the corporeal context, paying particular attention to the ways technology weaves in and out of patriarchy’s insistence on the binary and the separation of man and nature (woman, other, spirit, technology). Beyond critique, it is an excava- tion into the ruptures of long-held notions of personhood. I’m trying to really consider what we mean when we say “body.”

Larry to Tammy: You write about the healing process. I’m so curious about how you see that process in relationship to your artistic process. In what ways are they enmeshed/ inseparable? In what ways do they simply intersect? How do you navigate this?

Photo by Lisa Ellis
Photo by Lisa Ellis

TJ: Making the decision to go to the studio to rehearse, to go to class, to teach belly-dance is part of my healing process. It would be easy to say that those are spaces where a fat, Black woman of a certain age are not supposed to be in this society. So I might as well stay home and watch Netflix. But the healing process has another purpose as well. When I am performing or choreographing a performance what is foremost on my mind is, “What do I want to say to the audience?” After all this is not just my experience, it’s a collective one. I can’t disappear into myself. It’s the reverse in fact. I have to speak out with a hip-drop and tell a story, relay an emotion, connect and be present so that my audience can come along with me on my journey.

Larry to Tammy: The stage can be such a strange space of representation. Even architecturally, the stage is a frame or platform that can objectify what it contains. You write about healing. Personally, I think so much of healing as the transgression of the boundary of the wound; healing as a way of breaking through border/edge/boundary. Can you speak a little bit about healing, within a performance context and within the frame of the stage?

TJ: Communion. For me the stage has to be transformed to a spiritual place where I am in communion with it and the audience. There is an intimacy because, yes, my body is on display. So I ask myself: Can I give this body fully and can I trust this audience to receive it with equal devotion to the piece I have crafted? Honestly, this doesn’t always happen. But the healing part is that I do it anyway. The ability to show up, set foot on and leave the stage whole is measure of healing, not the external conditions.

Jesse to Tammy: Both of you are working with the body as it exists in a context of contemporary political conditions. Tammy, can you say a bit about why dance is crucial for understanding what is happening to the concept of having a body right now?

TJ: The #SayHerName movement punctuated the fact that this country reduces Black womanhood to a disposable commodity that exists at the will of the state. In society’s eyes, our bodies, our lives are not our own. And although we have always resisted this, Black women are upping the ante by demanding not only justice, but love, wholeness, communion and respect for self-definition.

I learned an important lesson when I began studying the Zar trance-dance ritual of Northern Africa. If my suffering is on display, then the healing of my body and soul must be on public record as well. What possesses you may make you feel vulnerable and scared, but liberation—the bodily self-possession that you desire—can only be found in communion with others. Public healing, much like public death, is a political statement. And when that public act is done in a Black woman’s body, well I like to think it creates space for the unknowable, the unthinkable to happen.

Jesse to Tammy: Would you say that dance is necessarily more political than it has been, as dominant culture struggles and often fails to recognize that all bodies matter?

TJ: No, I don’t think it’s more political. The social context has shifted and our global consciousness is evolving. Dancing, singing, art of all kinds have always been central to signaling the way to freedom. If we take a look at the bodies that are in full resistance mode in this historical moment on the globe…well let’s state it plainly, those who are not white, cis, male, straight, wealthy, abled-bodied and privileged in other ways, they are bodies that refused to be silenced and buried in the “all” of “all lives matter.” There is a growing consciousness of the struggle of the other, while holding the urgency of one’s own plight. It’s like watching dancers flock and noticing the fluid union of the movement but appreciating the variance of the bodies.

Tammy to Larry: It seems like you are attempting to connect the dots between technology, colonization and the body, or maybe disconnect them. With this work, are you describing what is, commenting on the current condition of things, or exploring new pathways on the topic?

LA: I want to first open by saying I am deliberately trying to write more like I think and feel. This writing may not have the same measured order of typical text-based response, but it feels personally important to question how I communicate right now.

To answer your question in a very broad and poetic way: YES. To give you a bit about how I’m organizing myself around these questions, I’ll say that they all come from a curiosity about time and space (and the relationship to body.) I’m using the astrological ages as organizing tools for dealing with time and these questions. A single astrological year is approximately 2,300 of our Gregorian calendar years. At first hit, it may sound silly, but I am intentionally choosing this astrological form of periodizing global historyfuturetime as a technology to bypass dualist thought, in all its modalities. To destabilize capitalist and colonial conceptions of time/space/body, I am using the organizational tool of the astrological ages that imply space as time and time as space, in which the body is absorbed, and absorbent.

Photo by Robbie Sweeny
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

To put it simply, I am thinking/dreaming/feeling a lot about the past, present and future: not as points on a line, but as relational entities. In thinking a lot about space, I’ve noticed that a major aspect of the last 2,000 years has been monotheism. In my mind’s wandering, I’ve been quite curious about what monotheism has produced ideologically. This idea—that a singular god creates a singular man—creates a notion of an objective truth: One ideal. That one ideal becomes man (in god’s image), and our society decides that “the One” is a white cis hetero capitalist male. All deviations from this are othered and thought of as variations from that neutral or objective base.

A manifestation of this is a hard and ossified boundary on how we see “the One.” Individualism arises as the boundary around “man,” gets reaffirmed, and then there arises a massive amputation of our capacities to conceive of ourselves as relational beings. “Man” is positioned as outside of god and then outside of nature (nature is personified and made other), and the same thing happens with objectification of women, of all non-white bodies, of spirit, and—I would say—with technology too.

To get back to your question, I want to let myself do many things. I am allowing myself to attempt to get out from the weight of the typically ordered approach to making a central thesis for the piece and then responding to that. I think patriarchy (and all the other systems of oppression) produce value around a certain type of response: they favor logic, proof, the cerebral. Yet I believe we need bodies, dance, poetry, and ritual right now, so… I am coming to the practice hoping to find more questions/responses than when I entered the inquiry.

Tammy to Larry: What is one component/consideration in making this work that you might be struggling particularly with, or that is challenging you in a new way?

LA: So much of the work has been inspired by dreaming about time, space, and body. I am struggling with how to interrupt typical linear ways of digesting time and space within the conventions of theater. I want to find ways to shift how the audience is metabolizing time and “reading” the work. Also, transmission is a big consideration. How much do I say with language, about my relationship to the work and the ideas that sparked it? I want to be able to have conversations, and for audiences to be able to have conversations about those events, images, ideas. Simultaneously, I want to trust the poetics of performance and dance. This is not a new problem, but feels particularly important with this work.

Jesse to Tammy: What else can you tell us about Aiwa!? What does it mean, at this point in your process, to have people come and look at what you are making? What do you perceive as your biggest challenges right now?

TJ: Aiwa! is the second in a suite of performances on the theme of healing from systems of oppression. The Arabic for yes, Aiwa is about saying yes to the body that your soul possesses and yes to the spirit that will not be caged by daily injustices. Aiwa! is grounded in bellydance’s Berber origins through song, the playing of a Daf drum, Assuit costuming, and Zar-based drum piece called El Genneyya. The Zar is a North African ritual used primarily by women to gain relief from spirits through rhythmic movements. The use of Zar-based music is of special importance because it is my firm belief that there is no real revolution without healing.

6. Tammy Johnson_photo by Michael Baxter
Photo by Michael Baxter

Being a full-figured, Black 40something bellydancer has always been a challenge. But I’m no longer daunted by it. The next hurdle is really helping others to see another side of bellydance, beyond the Hollywood depictions of it. People who choose to attend the July performances will have the opportunity to see and inquire about another side of bellydance.

Jesse to Tammy and Larry: How would you describe the creative work of declaring the worth or value of the body?

LA: A major element of this work is an acknowledgment that all things are relational. The notion of the individual as somehow capable of disconnecting from this relational reality, is—to put it lightly—problematic.

“Everything gets in” is a repeating phrase of the work. This phrase has led me to a lot of my questions about technology. I think it’s difficult when we discuss technology as outside of the body. There are a myriad of ways our bodies are technologically mediated, and I think that a fundamental fear is provoked by the question of technology as it relates to the individual. The body is already multiplicitous; created from experience, made by mediation. I think a way of dealing with this question of “technology” as a problem, is to expand the question into looking at what we are actually afraid of. I think it might be a fear of our bodies as not solely “individual bodies” that is producing our fear of technology, and the problems with how we exist within it.

TJ: The creative challenge for me, is to constantly invoke the people and culture from which the dance comes. There is a great deal of mythology around bellydance and a strong pull to fuse it with other dance forms. Long ago I decided to step away from all of that. A pure bellydance performance has value that must be recognized and respected. Of course, a Black woman telling the story of healing from the oppression of systemic racism in the US could be seen as something galaxies away from bellydance’s Arabic roots. But the two are joined through emotion and movement; a particular kind of storytelling. So Aiwa! is not just about one Black woman’s journey to healing, but about the dance that got her there. I have an obligation to tell that story.

Tammy Johnson is an Oakland based dancer, writer, and equity consultant. Along with Etang Inyang, Johnson forms the award winning bellydance duo, Raks Africa, Girls Raks Bellydance, Body Image Program. Johnson is the author of Step-Together-Step: An Art and Racial Justice Workshop for Liberated Artists and Their Collaborators.

Laura Larry Arrington is a dance-artist working in hybrids of idea and practice. Her work in dance (time/space/body/whole) pivots around a desire to orient towards the capacities in us all that can glimpse unseen and unutterable horizons. Her body is her life and her life is her work.

Fri-Sat, Jul 29-30, 8p, $15-25
Studio 210, SF, deborahslater.org

Jesse Hewit makes and shares dance and performance work, teaches and curates, and writes about the things he sees and thinks. He lives in San Francisco with human and animal companions, and works as a cook.