Early in the introduction to What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research, Ben Spatz writes, “Supposedly people join theatre and dance companies to perform in front of paying audiences, but practitioners know that this is an inadequate explanation of the phenomena” (6; emphasis in the original). This is the first in a series of articles that looks to provide a more adequate explanation of what performing artists, specifically dancers, know about their practice.
To be perfectly honest, this series is mostly about my unceasing, possibly obsessive desire to find practical applications of the critical theory (of dance, of writing) I love so much. “Applied theory” is a dirty term in the “high” theory zones of academia, as if our practices—which most surely spark our theories to begin with—are somehow less than. Spatz is just one of many performance scholar-practitioners who are still writing books about the second-class citizenship of practice in the academy. Well, Dancers’ Group and In Dance have long honored embodied knowledge and “epistemologies of practice,” in particular by having so many dance artists speak and write for themselves. My aim, then, is to ask the Bay Area’s brilliant movement artists the sort of questions I know only they can illuminate. These questions about movement—as a performative, expressive, communicative act—challenge us to verbally articulate our knowledge, to translate that “deep and inchoate impulse to a task that could be directly attempted” (Spatz 10), so that we may attempt to understand what a mind-body, emotional body, spiritual body, political body, material body, virtual body, dancer body, spectator body, protest body can do.
To launch our series, I talked with Jenay “ShinobiJaxx” Anolin and Samara Atkins, co-founders of the multiethnic, multi-genre, and multimodal feminist dance collective, Mix’d Ingrdnts(1). I came to know Jenay and Samara in two contexts, one performance, the other pedagogical:
The crowd that gathered on November 17, 2016 at The Uptown in Oakland for Paufve Dance’s 8x8x8 was shell-shocked. Just nine days after Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, it was hard not to despair and/or panic. But despite being under the influence of the worst kind of “shock and awe,” I joined upwards of 160 dance lovers, to have a beer, shed a tear, and find solace in community. All of the performances that night brought uplift to the Uptown. But it was Mix’d Ingrdnts that activated a combination of joy and power through a timely and highly combustible performance of resistance.
I missed the Women’s March in Oakland so I could bring my 10-year-old daughter to Destiny Arts Center for her Hip Hop class with Samara. While I sat outside the studio watching live footage of the Women’s March on Washington, I became more and more convinced that having my daughter spend an hour in her body and in Samara’s presence was a parallel act of resistance. (Samara and the rest of Mix’d went to the march later that day, where they initiated a cypher, a freestyling circle; for more on Cypher Theory as a “multi-perspectival, trans-methodological” mode of critical inquiry, see Naomi Bragin’s groundbreaking research.) Coming off a week at school, with all the usual tweenager posing and pouting, one-upping and shaming, an hour with Samara cleans the slate, allowing my daughter to embody Samara’s maxim, “There’s no one who can do what you can do how you can do it.” In other words, although my daughter might think she’s just there to learn cool Hip Hop moves, she’s also learning how to “cope, communicate, and connect” (Samara), to feel her power as an embodied reality. My daughter is electrified by Samara. She thinks Samara is magical. And she is. But I want my daughter to understand what goes into becoming magical. I want her to understand Mix’d Ingrdnts’ daily grind.
So, I asked Jenay and Samara, What do you wish your audiences, critics, and funders could see that is obscured by the spectacle of live performance? What do you wish we knew that you know? What’s your grind?
Jenay and Samara work seven days a week. Samara teaches 14 youth classes a week, running from Destiny Arts Center, LIFE academy, and St. Elizabeth’s High School in Oakland to Montera Middle School in Montclair to the Juvenile Justice Center in San Leandro; teaches adult classes at Destiny, Shawl Anderson Dance Center, and In the Groove Studios; is a columnist for Dance Studio Life; co-runs Mix’d Ingrdnts; and rehearses and performs with Mix’d and other choreographers.
Jenay teaches dance at ODC, Destiny, and the JCC; works part-time as the dance content manager for a new app; co-runs Mix’d; runs Mini Mix’d (the Mix’d Ingrdnts youth company) and GroovLings Hip Hop + Health (a one of a kind youth class that teaches Hip Hop history and supports the “habits of a healthy dancer”); rehearses and performs with Mix’d and others (including Rennie Harris and Amy O’Neal); and enters dance battles. And she just got into USF’s dual Master’s program in public and behavioral health. Unsurprisingly, she sleeps 4-5 hours a night.
I’m exhausted just recounting what these women accomplish in a week. But they assured me it’s worth it. For all the economic and bodily precarity (Jenay has Medi-Cal health insurance, Samara has none), they’re living the dream.
Mix’d Ingrdnts’ tag line is “Empowering women to express themselves.” Expression is a tricky word that runs the risk of essentializing behaviors that may have little to do with who one feels oneself to be. But expression here is used in opposition to the sort of folding into oneself in the face of persecution that Mahershala Ali describes when talking about his Academy Award winning performance in Moonlight.(2) It is the coming out with what is socially, culturally, historically commanded to remain inside, out of view, out of earshot. Samara says, “We create these pieces out of necessity. We are women of color every day, and our work gives us somewhere to release our experiences, to talk about how they affect our everyday life, to show how they influence our movement.” Mix’d is a third wave feminist dance company “awaken[ed] to the fact that all lives do not, in fact, matter” (Alicia Garza).(3)
So even as a second wave feminist approach to women’s rights and solidarity is present in Mix’d’s self-understanding, I believe that when they talk about expression they are not talking only about expression of identity—though identity politics still matter—but rather something closer to an expression of force. Expression and empowerment as force and mattering, Samara and Jenay are contributing to the movement by transmitting embodied technique as a form of knowledge.
Part of that knowledge is self-knowledge produced in performance. Jenay says, “For me, performance is a time for reflection. As we rework a piece, our own personal accounts of what we’ve been going through begin to resurface. Performing awakens me to explore what’s really going on in my life. I’m able to channel stuff that’s happened to me as a woman growing up.” Samara adds, “Performance helps us reflect with ourselves and with our community. I don’t feel the same way coming out as I did going in.”
Jenay made it clear that the heart and soul of her work is Mini Mix’d, the youth company comprised of 11 girls aged 11-18. Mini Mix’d recently performed as part of the Lauryn Hill Tribute at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Jenay gets a bit teary when she talks about it: “It was their first big performance in a nice venue. They took this opportunity and went from scared to professional. They took control. I’d like to see youth have the biggest voices in the world.” After the performance, D. Sabela Grimes, interdisciplinary performance artist and Assistant Professor of Practice in the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, told Jenay, “That just gave me life.”
Dance as social practice. Affording young girls a brave space to choose how to represent themselves. Performance as a space of expression and a time of reflection. Dance as an expression of force and a synesthetic vocalization. None of this feels like work to Samara and Jenay. Often, when your work doesn’t feel like work, it’s easy to invisibilize the labor put into the work. And that process can make it difficult for dancers to receive recognition and remuneration. When Mix’d Ingrdnts takes to the stage, the studio, or the street, they make magic, of course, but their material body-minds work a daily grind. The goal of learning about the ins and outs of a dancer’s labor is not to inspire, but to activate. So take a class, go to a show, donate to the cause. Because this is about more than artistry, it’s about art as political praxis; it’s about dance saving the world.
Please visit mixdingrdnts.com for information about classes, workshops, and performances.
(1.) Current Mix’d dancers, “The Ladies,” include Cassey Dela Pena, Ashley Gayle, Esme Kundanis-Grow, Gladys Liu, Marjorie Ortiz, and Nina Wu.
(3.) mic.com/articles/166720/blm-co-founder-protesting- isnt-about-who-can-be-the-most-radical-its-about-winning#. TWvEKAy5o