Photo by Madeleine Rosenthal
[ID: Against a backdrop of painted houses and rolling hills, ArVejon, a Black male dancer in black shorts in a jump, legs tucked underneath him, arms stretched to the side.]
As an educator who teaches young Black girls in East Oakland, a Lecturer at a local university, and an aging Black Queer artist, I consider it my responsibility to empower the next generation of dancers to understand their worth and advocate for themselves.
I am the squeaky wheel.
I have been dancing since I was 8 years old. Throughout my formal training in Tap, Jazz, Hip Hop, and Dunham Technique in Los Angeles, and Ballet, Modern, more Jazz, Afro-Haitian, Afro-Brazilian, Salsa, and Vogue in San Francisco, I was blessed to have studied with teachers and professors who encouraged me to reflect on my artistic choices, and who respected me as a person and not just as a dancer. As a dance major and Japanese minor in college, I learned to articulate myself inside and outside of the dance studio, through my body and my words.
But I was never formally taught how to advocate for myself—there’s no class for that. But what if I had been expected to point my feet, hold my core, and be able to speak up for myself? What if there had been language developed to approach difficult dance situations?
When I work with my size-diverse, 10-to-17-year-old students at Heat Danceline in Oakland, or with multicultural undergrads at SF State, I don’t talk about bodies as a detriment—I highlight accomplishments. I’m known to give a rigorous and demanding class rooted in the belief that we are all capable of beautiful things. I understand the weight my words carry in my students’ lives outside of dance because I know how the words of my teachers continue to echo in my body today. Above all, I want my students to know they have the right to wield the power of No.
The word ‘no’ carries an air of finality. Many people are ill-prepared to hear it, and lack the ability to accept it with poise and understanding. –Damon Zahariades
Before the pandemic, I was surely a “Yes” man, working myself to death and somehow pulling it all off. Waking up at 7:55am to get into the city for morning rehearsal at 9, or to class at 10 or 11:30, to then rush over to my gym to teach my Cardio dance class, getting a workout in after, sneaking a lunch, running across the city to teach at the university, or to East Oakland to teach kids, to finally arrive home at 10pm. This was my regular weekly schedule. This was normal, for me and for all the freelancers I know.
The uncertainty around the “first act” of the pandemic really put things into perspective for me. Everyone wanted to persist. My emails were full of invitations to teach dance over Zoom, to rehearse, to perform—to keep working. At first, I wanted to, but after a few weeks, I realized that I had to say No for my own sanity, especially since it seemed like people didn’t understand that though they were not physically in my house, their energy was. My home is my retreat, my sacred space and, quite frankly, not everyone is welcome there.
Standing up for yourself in a field that insists we should feel “lucky” to be working at all can be daunting. Does a secretary feel lucky to take a message? No, that’s their job. Does a surgeon feel lucky to perform a surgery? I don’t believe so. Does an architect feel lucky to design a building? I doubt it. They were hired to do so. I would offer that the choreographer is lucky to have dancers interested in doing their work.
Saying No can be particularly daunting when you are Black and Queer as well. Systemic oppression in the dance field is ever present, along with tokenism, misogyny, biphobia, and homophobia from both straight and other queer identifying people. As a Black person, I am conditioned to cherish every experience to dance as if it were my last. This is inherited—I am constantly reminded of the impermanence of my existence and lack of access to resources in this country, historically and today. I am often second guessed, tested, pigeonholed, but I’ve been trained to accept the unacceptable because I know what it’s like to be without work.
I am reclaiming my time. —Congresswoman “Auntie” Maxine Waters
Dance is a constant psychological game of being an expert over my body, yet having very little agency over it. Whenever I’ve engaged in Western and European based dance forms as a professional dancer, I’ve offered my body to the ideas of others. There is a lot of power in being in the front of the room. And every time I have committed to a process, I’ve had to place a certain amount of trust in the choreographer. It’s an exchange that is programmed in me as part of the equation in the creative process. But what do we do when that trust is tarnished? How can we “reclaim our time,” energy, and mental and physical health?
As a Black artist I’ve often felt that my full range of emotion is not welcome in dance spaces. I should smile, stay pleasant, stay surface, maybe a little funny, and dance—tropes of minstrelsy. For example, after a 9am rehearsal, I was confronted by a director for bringing “animosity” into the room: “You don’t smile anymore in rehearsal,” they said. I had nothing to smile about: it was 9am and I was, yet again, offering choreography that I would not be recognized for. But I was there, sweating and working. No longer willing to do this emotional labor, I reclaimed my time, saying, “Thank you so much. I quit.” I didn’t feel like playing the “happy Negro” anymore.
Prior to this last straw, when I was on tour with this company, a flight attendant at the airport found it difficult to say my name when reading off names on the tickets. Instead of attempting to pronounce it, or asking me how, she bypassed my first name and called me by my middle name, which is of European origin. As a person in an all white company with an “ethnic” first name, I felt singled out and ostracized in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. When I corrected the flight attendant, some company members said, “Well your name is difficult…maybe you’re just being too sensitive.” I am a person and an artist. And in art, there needs to be sensitivity, which is why I chose this career. My entire being—my body, my expression, my name—is under constant attack, institutionally, systemically, and artistically. And yet there is an expectation that I should be happy about it, or at least pretend to be. Well, that’s a No for me.
I’m telling this story because people of color can gaslight themselves. And I want us to be able to recognize it when it happens and say No. Practicing saying No is just as important as any tendu or plié. But due to the pressure to feel “lucky” to work and a culture of disposability, saying No isn’t easy. The first time I said No to a gig, I was afraid I would never be hired for anything again.
But that simply was not true.
I’ve booked literally dozens of gigs after that incident. When I framed my No as an attempt to preserve my well-being, the weight of my decision became easier to bear. In fact, every time I have had to excuse myself from a toxic process, dancers in that process have reached out to tell me how much they respected my choice. The truth is, after your first No every No after that is so much easier.
Dancers are curators of American culture. We are valuable and should be treated in high regard. If you are a dancer, I invite you to “reclaim your time” and energy, to begin to harness your No, so that when you finally say Yes you can give yourself fully to the artistic endeavor.
This article appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of In Dance.