Photo by Lydia Daniller
[ID: Chris Black, a white woman with long dark hair, faces the camera with bare arms crossed. She is holding an antique picture of a muscled man with a shaved head, John L. Sullivan, in the same pose but looking to the side.]
The day Donald Trump was inaugurated, a man spat on me as I walked to CounterPulse to see the Meg Stuart show. I spotted him walking towards me about a half a block away. He looked harmless. When he got closer, he looked around briefly. There was no one else within a block of us. And then he spat on me. My reaction was the closest I’ve ever come to physically assaulting someone. Screaming, I followed him up Potrero Ave, swinging my backpack, looking at the back of his head. But at 5’1” and maybe 105 pounds, even in that moment, I knew that I’d only be setting myself up for worse. So I turned around and went to the show.
I love dancers. More than actually dancing or dance itself, I love dancers. I love the way we think. I love the way we can relate to one another in a purely physical way, how we can have deep relationships that don’t look anything like regular friendships or romances. Dancers have been my favorite people since I was a teenager, even when my closest friends were not dancers.
Watching Meg Stuart dance on that teeny stage, watching that body five years older than my own, in a space filled with collective sadness and private rage, I could calm down. Surprisingly, briefly, I could calm down.
For years I have said the saddest words in the English language are I used to be a dancer.
I am wondering if I used to be a dancer.
The best dance teacher I ever had was Woody McGriff. SO MUCH JOY. He would stand in the back of the theater where class was being held at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, and he would yell: Good Chris! Gooooooooooooooood!
My teachers in SF:
Ellie Klopp could be mean but her technical instruction was unparalleled. She gave me a note about the placement of my coupé: I can’t tell if you’re in passé or coupé. Pick one. Months later she walked past me in a class of at least thirty dancers and muttered, Better.
Joe Goode taught me to do inversions by grabbing my pelvis and holding it above my shoulders. I always got the giggles.
Lizz Roman made me strong.
I came to San Francisco in 1992. I lived in the Castro, up the hill on 17th Street. I was often the only woman on the MUNI platform in the morning when I went to work. I took nothing but ballet that first summer because I could walk to The Academy of Ballet without worrying about getting lost. I knew to simply point myself toward Sutro Tower to get home. I had those pendulum swings of emotion that came from experiencing so much for the first time and dancing, dancing, dancing — so much physical joy! — and the gut punch of running into neighbors I hadn’t seen in a few weeks to find them thinner, frailer, walking with a new cane. These men were incredibly sweet to young, lucky me. I don’t remember their names.
I showed up at Dancers’ Group (then known as Footwork) because someone back east had told me that’s how I could meet people. Wayne Hazzard gave me a little smile when I wandered in one day and he looped me into what would be my life. I was so shy back then. How I would have managed that first year without his welcome I don’t know.
Soon after I got here I read a review of a piece choreographed by Tracy Rhoades. His company was called Exploding Roses! It sounded incredible! I never saw his work live because nine months later he was dead at 31.
Woody McGriff died in 1994. He was 36.
One opening night in the mid-’90s I got called to the box office phone at the New Performance Gallery (now ODC Theater). I can’t let him come, said the partner of one of the dancers. He’s too sick. The rest of us reworked the quartet choreography in the loft studio during intermission. We didn’t talk about anything else. The piece stayed a trio for all the years it was performed. That dancer, Jesselito Bie, is thankfully still here.
At a very specific moment in my career, someone with some power and access in the American dance scene tried to give me a boost. They really tried. They got me invited to a gathering of presenters in another city, the idea being I would meet people who could also give me a boost. I met some lovely people. I saw some good work. But it felt like being in high school and I didn’t belong to that clique. I didn’t schmooze the right people and I couldn’t bring myself to network in the right ways. All those things that I was supposed to do… that weren’t dancing. And I found myself at show after show, wondering about these states performers entered, the entropy being explored, the pettiness of the presenters when they thought I wasn’t listening, and I texted my then-girlfriend-now-wife, WHERE’S THE JOY MOTHERFUCKERS???
I got funded in the early years of my career because the people who held the purse strings looked at me and could see themselves. I got to make what I wanted to make: personal, thoughtful dances; abstract, technical dances; fluffy, entertaining dances. This was my privilege as a white, cis woman in the dance world.
Around 2016 I stopped applying for funding. I couldn’t rally to do all the non-dance things anymore. The writing, the video editing, the justifying. And I’d been gifted my funding in those early years. Not large sums of money, but money nonetheless. I also found myself feeling defeated by the capitalist structure that artists have somehow been convinced to buy into, where someone else gets to dictate what is worth making and seeing. The few panels I sat on myself were deeply upsetting. What gave any of us the right to decide who “deserved” to be supported? It was all profoundly unhealthy.
I want everyone to get to make what they want to make. For no other reason than that they want to. Dances about history and trauma and politics and yes, joy and love and fluff. I want that for you, young choreographers. So much.
The most recent person to ask me if I support myself solely through dance was an orthopedic surgeon who was looking at an MRI of my “good” knee. I used to get defensive and self-conscious when people asked me that. Now I just laugh.
During one of the darkest times of my life I made a show about love. Ken James and I had been dancing in one another’s work for a decade when we took critic Rita Felciano’s advice that we “should do more together” and made The Adventures of Cunning & Guile. People told us it was romantic (we were invited to do part of it at a wedding!), and grouchy critic Allan Ulrich thought we were married… but it wasn’t even vaguely a show about romance. It was about friendship. Dancer friendship.
I have never had another relationship like the friendship I have with Ken James. It has persisted despite the fact that Ken left San Francisco 14 years ago. We can go into a studio and lie on the floor and drink coffee and eat chocolate and somehow emerge a few hours later having choreographed a series of physical interactions that feel organic and fun and magically appear to the audience that way as well. I’ve never had those kinds of physical conversations with anyone else. Non-dancers have looked at me funny when I’ve tried to explain it, assuming it’s got to be sexual but that’s not what I’m talking about. Dancing with Ken has been one of the most soul-sustaining, joyous experiences of my life. We’re not doing anything traditionally virtuosic or flashy but we’re communicating — with each other and the audience. I keep writing and writing, trying to capture what that connection truly is but I can’t. Part of what is so precious about it is that it’s not something that exists in words.
The last time I performed was in February, 2020, a month after my father died. This is the longest I’ve been offstage since my first school play at age 6.
How you know you’re onto something choreographically: when suddenly seemingly every child in the California Academy of Sciences is leaning over your shoulder: What are you doing? Are you being a bird? I can be a dog! Watch! Mom! I want to do this!
In 2011 I was an artist in residence at the Academy. For five months we rehearsed on the floor of the museum, moving around the kids and tourists. I had an incredible group of collaborators: composer Erik Pearson; performers Rowena Richie, Jennifer Chien, Sophia Chudacoff, Juan De La Rosa; and my extraordinary principal collaborator on the project, Kevin Clarke. A few weeks into the process, I started to panic. I didn’t want to make a finished piece. This was the art, right here, this was the dance: noodling around on the floor of a museum with books filled with pictures of extinct animals, trying to recapture some physical essence of long-gone bodies different from our own and letting people see us figure it out, answer their questions, and yes, even let them laugh at us.
Five years later, I made a self-funded piece called there’s nothing wrong with beauty with another spectacular group of collaborators: Xochitl Colmenarez, Kim Ip, Courtney Moreno, Alicia Ruth, and Sienna Willams. I wanted us to embrace things we loved. There was no tech. I played the score — Bowie and Prince, the ocean and Maryam Mirzakhani talking about math — off my phone and an iPad, both visible on the edge of the space. I would wander over to press play. I sang “Landslide” unironically and asked the audience to close its eyes at the end since we couldn’t have a blackout. It was bits and pieces strung together, snapshots and moments, and I loved it and the women in it so much. An elder of the dance community asked me later if I was going to finish it. I simply said no. But in my head I said, It is finished. This is the dance. This rawness, this seeing of the people behind and in it. Dancers.
When I made my solo show TOUGH, I asked several people I respected, admired and trusted to give me input and guidance. Amara Tabor-Smith was the first person I approached. Her generosity and wisdom in those weeks of work had a profound impact, not only on that piece but on my sense of myself. She led me backwards on long walks through the Mission, and as I watched the sidewalks and buildings and people recede from my view, it felt like I was literally looking into the past and watching it slip away. I punched the pads she held up for me until my knuckles bled like the bareknuckle boxer who had inspired the project. I danced in dark rooms where she helped me conjure that fighter, John L. Sullivan, and my grandmother, Catherine Egan. And finally, we went to China Beach and in a blindfold I fought the sea like the mythic Irish warrior Cú Chulainn. When I had waded out of the waves and could see again, she told me a pod of dolphins had swum by, and she had been tempted to let me stop so I could watch. At the time it was the right choice, to stay in the cold water in my own head with John L. and my grandmother and Cú Chulainn. But today when I wrote this out, I realized that now I would choose the dolphins.
You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.
– Jimmie Fails, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
I am leaving. After thirty years, I am leaving San Francisco. If I leave, am I still a dancer? This city has been one of the great loves of my life. And my life here grew around dance like a tree grows around a rock. My life bent around dancing: how I spent my time, how I paid my bills, how I raised my kid, all fit around this central thing of dancing. And the soil it grew in was San Francisco. I don’t know what will survive when I pull up those roots.
Some mornings you walk down the hill, barely have to pause before sliding up the stairs of the 22, slip off at 16th St, skim across two crosswalks, don’t break stride and glide up the steps of the 14R, completing the choreography of some anonymous urban planner who once took a dance class in college.
The city has changed and so have I.
The abandoned dance I grieve the most was called The Murmurations Project: an impossible, decades-long project about artistic transmission, place history, and chaos theory. It was to be a rolling installation that traveled across the city from the ocean to the bay. It was going to be non-linear; no section was to depend on what had happened before. I wanted to commission groups with history in different neighborhoods and areas to make sections: indigenous dancers, immigrant communities, displaced residents. I wanted to name the ghosts of San Francisco artists who influence us all, whether we know it or not: Isadora Duncan, Anna Halprin, Ed Mock, Remy Charlip, Chitresh Das, Keriac, Della Davidson, Augusta Moore, Terry Sendgraff, Kathleen Hermesdorf… The list will never end.
To everyone who loves this art form and this city — enough that they sometimes also hate them — I wish you joy.