I’m a 56-year-old queer, Black biracial woman.
I grew up in a world where art, social justice, and everyday life were seamlessly intertwined. My mother is an African American arts educator, portrait painter and anti-racism activist. My father was a white professor of ethics and social justice movements. When I wasn’t in school, I was taking ballet classes, learning the lyrics to my favorite musical, or painting an abstract work on an easel that my mother had set up for me. I was also creating, directing, and starring in neighborhood dance productions (tutus and all).
I trained in ballet, modern, and jazz dance in my youth, and then performed for dance companies that resonated with my passion for social justice as a young adult. After dancing with the Performing Arts Ensemble and Impulse Jazz Dance Company in Boston, I moved to San Francisco to perform with the Dance Brigade, a feminist dance/theater troupe. I performed and toured with them for 8 years. I also co-directed and performed with a dance/theater company called i am! Productions that created work around multiracial identity through movement and storytelling.
I worked as a dance teacher, executive director, and artistic director at Destiny Arts Center (destinyarts.org) in Oakland for 30 years, where I essentially grew up. At Destiny, I learned the art of teaching, facilitating, community building, collaborative leadership, culture keeping, nonprofit fundraising and finance, advocacy for youth and the arts, and holding space for artists and artmakers to thrive. I also co-founded the Destiny Arts Youth Performance Company at Destiny, a pre-professional dance/theater troupe for teens, which provides rigorous training in hip hop, modern and aerial dance, theater and scriptwriting, and gives youth a platform to tell compelling stories about personal and political issues.
I live in the Destiny neighborhood and have no doubt that I will continue to be part of the Destiny community for the rest of my life.
I’m my mother’s daughter – someone who understands how to hold circles of humans in a tender, open-hearted way, and who knows the power of art and self-inquiry on the path to liberation. I’m my father’s daughter – someone who loved and honored the natural world, believed in the power of community activism, and loved family deeply. I’m a wife of an Indigenous woman, who is most certainly the love of my life. We understand how to laugh and cry together in equal measure. I’m a dog mom – we have two adorable Shiba Inus, Mimi (12) and Mabel (6 months). I am a devotee of an Indian guru who lit up my life over 20 years ago and gave me access to my heart in ways that I could only have dreamed of.
About What Motivates My Work
“What is the greatest ill in the world?” a student asked her spiritual teacher. “Self-hatred” the teacher answered in a somber tone. I heard this conversation 25 years ago and it rang like a bell inside my chest. Immediately, I recognized the intention behind all of my work as a dancer, arts educator, and community leader. It was to embody and inspire self-love. It was to create exquisite art and beloved community, never sacrificing one for the other. It was to install the mantra that joy is an act of revolution, not to deny systemic injustices, but to remind us who we are at the essence of our beings and to use that understanding to co-create a destiny that honors and uplifts everyone.
My work unravels the causes of our collective self-hatred through somatic storytelling and personal narrative, examining racism, misogyny, heterosexism and all the systems that divide us. My work tells the story of the current time by exploring impact rather than giving opinions or casting judgment.
My work reimagines and reconstructs reality through the lens of self-love. Alicia Garza, co-founder of BLM says, “The task is to try and live our lives in the way that we envision freedom looking like and feeling like.” For me, this means working in authentic collaboration with performers of all ages and professional artists who believe in social transformation. My work constantly reinvents itself in order to be relevant by responding to the visions of artists in relationship to community.
When I performed with the Dance Brigade, themes of racial, gender, and environmental justice were central”?. When I created my own dance/theater company, we did work that explored the complexity of being biracial in America. When I co-created work at Destiny, every element of the creation and production of the performances moved through a social justice model. The work was collaborative, told stories with social justice themes, educated performers and audiences, challenged and dismantled systems of inequity, and inspired social change.
About the Letter
This article takes the form of a letter. The letter is written to me from a future ancestor – a young woman who lives five generations forward in time. She calls me Great Grandma (I would actually be her Great Great Great Great Great Grandma, but who’s counting?), even though I never had children of my own, because my dance students have always called me Mom. So, I imagine that their children would call me Grandma.
Side note: It took me 15 years of teaching young people to accept the ‘Mom’ label, even though my young students called me Mom all the time. I’m stubborn that way. I used to tell them that ‘Uncle Mom’ might be a more appropriate title, because of my gender fluidity, but ‘Mom’ was what they wanted to call me, so I finally surrendered.
After 30 years of teaching, I have many children in my dance/theater family. The young woman who writes to me from the future could be the great grandchild of any one of hundreds of my students. She is the combination of the wild, audacious dreams of a whole community, and she comes to me through that dream.
The idea for this letter from the future came from an exercise led by Mia Birdsong and Aisha Nyandoro in a session of the New Universal, a collective of women of color leaders from around the country led by Akaya Windwood. When I wrote my first letter to myself from a future ancestor, I could feel her very clearly. So much so that I wept the entire time I wrote the letter. Here is my latest version written just for you with all my love.
Dear Great Grandma Sarah,
I’ve been writing to you in my mind for as long as I can remember. So much so that this letter feels like the continuation of a lifelong conversation. It is truly an honor to spill my mind onto the page in this letter to you. Collapsing time so we can be together across time and space.
My name is Sarah. My mother named me after you. She wanted me to know you as if you were right here in my blood. That’s what it feels like.
My mother told me that you loved me before I was born. She told me that you dedicated your life to working with young people who loved to dance and tell stories, and who were committed to creating a world where ALL people are free. She told me that you dedicated your life to the idea that I would exist, and that I would love myself without any limits.
I exist! I’m 14 years old now. I’m a dancer like you. And I love myself as if I were the sky or the ocean. I love myself like the color of fresh green after a spring rain. I love myself so fully that I see my beauty everywhere. And I revel in the beauty of everyone I see, as if I’m witnessing a glittering rainbow over a field of yellow flowers. I laugh big. I sing loud. And oh, I love to dance.
The elders say that people did not love themselves in this way when you were alive. They say that especially Black and Brown bodies were scorned and vilified. They say that round bodies were seen as ugly compared to slender bodies, and that people became more and more invisible in society as they got older. They say that female identified people were seen as less than their male identified counterparts. They say that people who were called queer in your time were considered perverse. I’ve also learned that the climate crisis was at its peak when you were alive. The books say that humans were willing to sacrifice the health of the planet and all life forms for financial gain and political power. All of this is unfathomable to me. I have cried many times thinking about what was happening when you were alive. I have cried thinking about you having to hold those burdens in your body and in your heart.
You taught young dancers of all shapes and sizes and colors and backgrounds, that they were worthy of love, that they were beautiful. You taught them that they could change the world by creating dance and theater pieces about the things that mattered to them and that mattered to their communities. You helped them challenge the status quo in order to envision something different. For me.
I am here and I am free to be who I am because of you and so many people who knew that being joyful, in spite of all the oppression that was happening in your time, was an act of revolution.
My Mama told me that you were a beautiful dancer, that you looked 7 feet tall when you performed because you danced with a generous heart. I have a generous heart too. It’s easy for me to have a generous heart because of the hard work you and people like you did in your lifetime to dismantle systems of oppression from the inside out and the outside in. You helped young people value building community over competition. You helped young people see the value in their stories, their bodies, and their dreams while you pushed them to be disciplined in art and in life. You brought young people and elders together to create magical dance/theater pieces. We know that the connection between young ones and elders is sacred, but that was lost during your time.
You kept choosing love over fear, even though you must have been afraid a lot. You worked really hard to love your dancer body even when the dance world of your time said it wasn’t thin enough or flexible enough or white enough. And then you shared that love with your community.
Thank you. Every part of my being is grateful for who you were and what you did so that I could be who I am. You would be so proud of the seeds that you and so many others like you planted. They have borne the most delicious fruit. The world is a magical place now, my sweet Grandma.
The air and water are pristine after generations of working to reverse climate change. I can drink out of any lake or stream and the water is so healthy and so sweet. All our food is organic, as you would have said in your time, but that is just how it is now. We would never even dream of using poison to grow the food that we eat. We have amazing festivals and ceremonies to honor the seasons, the harvest time, the birth of a child, the death of an elder.
There are also ceremonies dedicated to love – cosmic love, friendship love, familial love, and romantic love. There is no fear or discrimination in love. We understand that now. Love is love was a powerful mantra of your time. Our mantra is simply everything is love.
All bodies are honored as sacred. Bodies of different sizes and shades. Bodies of different genders and sexual orientation. Human bodies are seen as vehicles for our souls, so of course we see each one as precious.
I’m part of a large group of dancers of all ages and genders who dance at the ceremonies. Some of our dances have intricate choreography that we create together. Other dances are completely spontaneous. When the dances erupt without any planning, we weave through and around each other in mysterious synchronicity. Those are my favorite times.
Oh my. I have so much to tell you that I could write to you forever. But I have to say goodbye for now. Before I go, I want to ask you for something: Please keep dreaming of a beautiful future. Please keep encouraging others to do the same. I know that there were people who did not believe that dreams could come true, so they became cynical and stagnated the evolution of humankind. But dreams matter. Your dreams, and the actions that blossom from those dreams, have literally made my world possible. And this is a world worth dreaming into being. I promise.
Yours in love throughout all time,
This article appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of In Dance.