Views from the Porch: Reflections on Dance as a Practice of Being

By Audrey Johnson

October 9, 2023, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE
A dancer reaches her arms with knees bent, in a grassy space surrounded by trees and foliage and a large concrete silo on the left
Photo by Audrey Johnson
[ID: Audrey is mid movement bending in a spiral with arms reaching diagonally, back facing the camera. Audrey is a lightly melanated Black woman with a low afro puff ponytail, wearing loose clothing. The plants are lime to dark green, there is a dappling shadow of a tree in the foreground.]

Editor’s Note: Audrey Johnson is a Spring 2023 CA$H grantee. This article highlights her funded activities and vision.

As I sit on a porch overlooking a small meadow, the sky in a sensual humid holdout with the rain, crickets holding their breath as the trees tease coming winds, I am breathing within my now near daily practice of attunement. The meadow, the porch and I are on Cherokee land in the Blue Ridge mountains of northern Georgia, on the final days of an artist residency at the Hambidge Center. Here to dig into my performance project land|body|memory, much of my time has been spent attuning, breathing, feeling and just being.

On this porch, I am a few hours’ drive north of Macon, GA, the hometown my grandparents left for Detroit, MI, which is Anishinaabe land, along with so many of our folks during the Great Migration. Eventually they ended up in a house on Whitney Street, where in the ‘90s and early 2000s I would spend frequent days of my childhood sitting on my grandmother’s porch, eating Oreos, making mudpies in the dirt with my cousins, playing in the small urban meadows across from and to the left of their home (in other contexts also called vacant lots, abandoned, or blight).

​​Though the home is no longer in our family and my memories are colored in the skewed blurriness of a child’s eyes, the home and street is a present place in my body-memory. The feeling shows up as a sense of slow wonder, and a reoccuring attraction to open grassy spaces, such as those speckling the neighborhoods of ungentrified Detroit.

These mini meadows, and the meadow I am looking out at now, are necessary spaces in which I have experienced my own Black queer feminist imagination, breathing, delicious boredom and zoning out dreaming time.

Here in Georgia on the porch, and in all the life that will happen beyond it, I locate myself as a part of this land, through my lineage as well as my present experience and participation with it. In my reattunement to the experience of “just being,” I give a dear nod to bell hooks, who in Belonging describes porches as liminal spaces, meeting places, places for Black fellowship and “a willingness to be known.”[1] hooks writes, “A perfect porch is a place where the soul can rest.”[2]

​​I’ve been practicing letting my soul and body rest, and allowing myself to know and be known by the land. This has been the crux of my creative work here really, once I let go of the expectations/assumptions that a residency should be more “productive” creatively than my life at home. Taking full breaths. Naps. Walks in the trees. Gazing at the sky. Time to listen to the plants and bugs, tracking the rhythms of the cicada and cricket chorus, their shifts in musical scores throughout different parts of the day and night.

All of these practices have been, for me, methods of attunement: to the land and to ourselves.

A somewhat blurred image of Audrey walking in the grass at Fort Mason, the San Francisco fog in the background
Photo by Aidan Jung
[ID: Audrey is a lightly melanated Black woman wearing a grey/purple shirtdress, brown pants, pink tennis shoes, hair in a braid w/ a blue barrette on the side. She is walking, mid movement. There is a red roof of a building seen below the hill, fog in the background. Yellow flowers are on the grass.]

My project land|body|memory has become another one of these slowing down time, sitting and gazing out, attuning and listening practice spaces. The work has appeared in the world as a solo outdoor popup at Fort Mason in October 2022, and at ODC’s State of Play Festival in August 2023 as a duet with my dear friend Laila Shabazz. These performances and the coming iterations I am building now activate movement towards spacious breaths, body connected to the earth, attuned to the connectivity of being on this planet.

There is an ache I cannot ignore that arises within the capitalist, colonial project that rules many of our commonly accepted orders of space and time; an ache that no longer wants to deny our inherent connection to each other and the land, that instead asks for breath and healing connection to the land and each other. I am asking myself how the dance and performance making space I embark on can be a salve to that ache: a re-membering[3] of ourselves as part of land, and a reminder that we can do this re-membering in the most simple of ways, ways that allow our souls to rest, such as sitting on a porch.

My residency time in Georgia has asked me to go still, be quiet and notice, dancing as a place where the noticing blends with the being, the stillness spreads open like unstructured time; memories, dreams and visions mesh. While I pursue making dances that allow for this kind of spacious freedom, I am growing in questions of how to keep working in this field in ways accessible to my own human body, a body that is changing—just like everything else. Out of physical necessity, I’m straying away from “impressive” moves or phrases that rely on a certain physical capacity, and moving into a rigorous commitment to presence, a space that asks me to really listen.

As I continue to understand land|body|memory as a project and a practice, I commit to my continued attunement process, dropping my shoulders when I can, breathing in rhythm with the earth when I can. Perhaps the next time we meet dancing, we’ll start by just breathing. Hopefully we’ll get in some good time just simply “being.”

Pretty much all of the ways I think about land and presence, and rest as radical practice, come from Black people and Indigenous people. I am thinking and making dance inside of a lineage of Black feminist thinkers, Black women, Black queer people. Additionally, as I learn about ways to connect with land and empower myself and community through my passion in plant work and herbalism, my teachers are and have been Indigenous folks, Black folks, and Brown folks. If you, like me, live on colonized land and have some access to resources like money or time, consider paying a land tax to Shuumi land tax/Sogorea Te’ or to the Ramaytush Ohlone land tax and advocate for rematriation in moments possible. Land Back!

[1] Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks, page 144

[2] Belonging: A Culture of Place, bell hooks, page 152

[3] The space between re and member is intentional. I recall a talk in which Alexis De Veaux described the word remember as a calling back of something in our bodies, a return of “member” as in a part of the body, a piece of ourselves. Allied Media Conference, 2020.

This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of In Dance.

Audrey Johnson (she/her) is a queer, Black, mixed-race dance artist and plant worker with roots from Detroit, Michigan/Anishinaabe land, currently based in Oakland, CA/Ohlone land. Audrey’s work experiments with improvisation and embodied time travel in refusal of colonized time and space.