Meet the Black Women Who Paved the Way for Postmodern Dance Today
Today, black women like Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire are dominating the New York City downtown scene with tenacity and genius. Just this summer, Okpokwasili's solo performance Bronx Gothic was featured in Andrew Rossi's documentary by the same name, and Chipaumire premiered #PUNK as part of the French Institute Alliance Française's Crossing the Line Festival.
In celebration of these trailblazers, we're highlighting some of the influential black women who came before them, and have been changing the game in the downtown dance scene for almost four decades. They continue to thrive and survive, although in the case of Cummings, posthumously. As young dancemakers, we have to know the shoulders on which we stand.
The Bridge | Blondell Cummings navigated between modern and postmodern dance with charismatic gusto. Her cross-cultural activism led her to host workshops for dancers and non-dancers alike. She encouraged participants to dive into issues like menopause, life cycles, family and food. Cummings' work, from Chicken Soup to The Art of War/Nine Situations, was radical and revolutionary. Cummings passed away in 2015.
The Matriarch | Dianne McIntyre's illustrious career spans over four decades in dance, theater and film. Her unique approach to movement and musicality spawned generations of dancers charged to explore new conversations between sound and the dancing body. During Come Around Part IV , McIntrye embodied the physical manifestation of sound, fluctuating between her own world and that of the musicians and exuding a meticulous playfulness that drew you from one moment to the next.
The Pathfinder | Bebe Miller, artistic director of Bebe Miller Company, grew up taking dance classes at Henry Street Settlement House with Alwin Nikolais dancer Murray Louis. Her young movement world was composed abstract lines, shapes, space and volume which would later marry with elements of humanity, virtuosity and emotion. Today, Miller balances spending summers at Bearnstow camp, creating new work and touring with her company. Up next for Miller is In a Rhythm this November at Wexner Center for the Arts.
The Organizer | Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is the founder of Urban Bush Women, now in its 33rd year and still a powerhouse of performance. The company highlights social issues through movement and music, and gathers communities for annual workshops including the Summer Leadership Institute and The Generative Dancer. Zollar encourages thoughtful young leaders to move, shift, sustain, resist, yield, reimagine and remain curious about dance and art-making. She is a 2015 Dance Magazine Award recipient and in October will receive the Bessies' Lifetime Achievement Award.
The Wild Child | Nia Love is an artist, performer, activist, mother, grandmother and educator. She is an enormous force, gentle truth teller and vessel of memories. Her work wraps curious commentary around blackness and embodied memory while destabilizing notions of performance, place and power. From hosting Epic Memory Labs that explore self-care, domesticity and memory around a potluck feast provided by participants, to serving as a Racial Equity Advisor for Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Love is an inspirational force reshaping what it means to be a woman, mother and artist.
The Beacon | Charmaine Warren is a vivacious performer, historian, consultant, writer and professor. For years, Warren performed with David Rousseve/REALITY, a multidisciplinary/multicultural company. She is the founder of the Montclair Dance Festival series "Dance on the Lawn," and co-curated Harlem Stage's E-Moves for 11 years. Today, Warren stays busy offering a living legacy of dance through her writing and remains an advocate for dance in NYC.
You know Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo as the men who parody your favorite ballet variations—and make it look good. But there's more to the iconic troupe than meets the eye.
A new documentary, Rebels on Pointe, goes behind the scenes of the company, and it's full of juicy tidbits about what it's like to be a Trock. These were some of our favorite moments:
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
You know that how you care for your body before curtain can impact your performance. But with so many factors to consider, it can be difficult to nail down an exact routine. How much rest is enough? How close to showtime should you eat? We asked the experts.
How do you make your athleisure collection stand out from the pack? Get the ultimate studio-to-street seal of approval by having dancers star in your campaign, of course.
For his second collaboration with activewear brand Carbon38, ready-to-wear designer Jonathan Simkhai traded in his usual top models like Gigi Hadid and Karlie Kloss for the original Hiplet dancers—and the resulting video is as cool as we'd expect from such a fierce collaboration.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
I first started pulling out my eyelashes when I was 9, after removing fake ones at a dance competition. A few of my own eyelashes came out and I felt a new sensation. It hurt, but the prick also felt so good.
Eventually, I was pulling even when I was not wearing stage makeup, sometimes unaware of what I was even doing. It happened while I was reading or doing homework, or when I was sad or angry.
For the next five years, I secretly pulled my eyelashes, then moved to my eyebrows and eventually the back of my scalp. Finally, at 14, I told my mom what I had been doing and she took me to see a child psychologist. It turned out I had trichotillomania (a.k.a. "trich"), which is one of a group of behaviors known as Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors in which people repeatedly pull, pick, scrape or bite their hair, skin or nails.
Again and again, dance teaches me that when the filters fall away between people—when the boundaries of geography, religion and politics soften—the beginning and end of our relationships is always human.
In March, I traveled with Keigwin + Company to Cote D'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Tunisia, on a tour sponsored by the US State Department and facilitated by DanceMotion USA/Brooklyn Academy of Music. Our mission was cultural diplomacy: Simply, to share ourselves with diverse communities, to promote common understanding and friendships.
Our last stop was Tunisia. Until that point, we had mostly been learning varieties of traditional African dance, and sharing American modern dance. But Tunisia was different. The dancers already had a solid grasp of contemporary movement invention. Though we didn't speak the same language, we could make movement vocabulary with surprising ease. Everything about our backgrounds was different, but there was this special intersection through dance that seemed to present an open door to collaboration.
Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet was huge news when it premiered last winter. The choreographer shifted the setting from the home of a well-off German family to the Chicago world's fair, making the hero the young daughter of a working-class, Polish immigrant sculptress. This month, WTTW Chicago, the city's public broadcasting station, will premiere Making a New American Nutcracker, a new documentary showing how Wheeldon and his high-profile collaborators made the magic happen. Premieres on WTTW11 and wttw.com/watch on Nov. 16 before appearing on public television stations across the country. Check your local listings.
For most dancers, walking into the theater elicits a familiar emotion that's somewhere between the reverence of stepping into a chapel and the comfort of coming home. But each venue has its own aura, and can offer that something special that takes your performance to a new level. Six dancers share which theaters have transported them the most.
GLENN ALLEN SIMS
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
Glenn Allen Sims in Alvin Ailey's Masekela Langage. Photo by Paul Kolnik, courtesy AAADT
Favorite theater: Teatro Real in Madrid, Spain
Royal details: "The theater is gorgeous and ornate, with deep red upholstery and gold trim. There is a huge royal box in the center, which takes you back to when kings and queens were watching performances there."
Impressive facilities: Even the dressing rooms are a sight to see: Amenities for the dancers include large, carpeted rooms, and towel service.
The business side of dance can often fall second to the art. Contracts, which usually appear after you've done the hard work of securing a job, can seem like an inconsequential afterthought. You might decide to simply sign without reading the terms—or be understandably confused by all the legalese.
Ultimately, though, contracts can play an important part in setting the expectations for your job. A basic understanding of the legal terms you might see can go a long way in making sure that signing is a positive step toward growing your career.