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.” 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 Collective’s artistic director, had to educate me. 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]. 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.
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.
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  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.”
This article appeared in the June 2018 edition of In Dance.