In Episode 1 of Black Dance Stories, a web series that launched on June 25, 2020, Stefanie Batten Bland talks about how she has no childcare. In another episode, Leslie Parker Zooms from the Twin Cities, where she is having solo rehearsals at a theater three blocks from the epicenter of the George Floyd protests. Nia Love starts her episode with an energetic dance that grounds her before she dives into sharing that she is recovering from a case of COVID-19 and is grieving the transition of family members.
Love emphatically states that dance is "the place where I name myself in a way that I can feel connected." This type of wisdom has become essential during more than a year of a global pandemic and racial reckoning, during which for the first time, maybe ever, people have truly been sitting with and observing their emotions and where they are located in their bodies.
Created in response to the sociopolitical events of 2020, but reflective of a foreknown reality for Black dance artists, this week the series celebrates its one-year anniversary of documenting voices that are often unheard, perspectives that are not often prioritized, and ways of telling that are often overlooked.
The series is a gift dreamed up and executed by Charmaine Warren with an ever-growing team that began with Kimani Fowlin and Nicholas Xavier Hall. Just like the dance community, this team is composed of multi-hyphenates; they are performers, choreographers, professors, recent college graduates, writers, curators and more. Streamed weekly on YouTube, the series is not a dance history lecture, but, rather, each episode is a series of overlapping stories told by two or three Black dance artists in whatever manner they please.
Through Black Dance Stories, we have met and witnessed artists wherever they quarantined: Marjani Forté-Saunders is in her Pasadena, California, backyard, where her spirited son Nkosi runs into her lap mid-conversation. Wanjiru Kamuyu sits in her Parisian home-library/office, where floor to ceiling bookshelves frame her face. In his Jersey City bedroom, Oluwadamilare "Dare" Ayorinde hops excitedly off his bed in order to grab Saidiya Hartman's new book, which inspires his storytelling for the evening. It is through this intimate invitation into people's homes and lives that Black Dance Stories creates a tapestry of Black history happening right now through the lenses of those who study the Black body by moving their own as both practice and craft, as well as sharing stories at the intersection of two of the most impacted demographics in the U.S.'s crisis over the last year: performing artists and Black folks.
According to the CDC report on COVID-19 Hospitalization and Death by Race/Ethnicity, Black or African-American, non-Hispanic persons are infected, hospitalized and die at rates of 1.1x, 2.9x, and 2.0x higher than those of their white, non-Hispanic counterparts, respectively. And while vaccination distribution is well underway, with plans to reopen theaters in fall 2021 in alignment with Dr. Anthony Fauci's predictions earlier this year, arts workers continue to sustain a devastating economic impact, with 95 percent of artists and creative workers reporting loss of income, according to research by Americans for the Arts. The study goes on to say that Black, Indigenous artists of color "had even higher rates of unemployment than white artists in 2020 due to the pandemic (69 percent vs. 60 percent) and lost a larger percentage of their creative income (61 percent vs. 56 percent)."
These staggering statistics quantify what Black performing artists, specifically Black dancers, understood in our bones even before the past 15 months of ongoing crisis. This understanding is aptly characterized by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me when he states matter-of-factly, "In America it is tradition to destroy the Black body." Our connectivity, or, as The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond calls it, a "net that works," is a model for surviving and thriving when life can be particularly tenuous for Black people at any time. And so, we listen to Black dancers who not only contend with the destruction of their Black bodies under the weight of racism and capitalism, but who have made a life of transmuting the harms of interlocking oppressions through practicing movement.
I'm not an objective observer here; in fact, I'm an example of this connectivity. I participated in the series opposite Raja Feather Kelly in Episode 7. I have a treasured relationship with its founder and co-creator, Charmaine Warren. I am also a former programs manager for 651 ARTS, which is co-presenting the spring 2021 season. Many of the folks featured are my colleagues, friends and mentors, bonded by our adventures in the field of dance.
My web of relationships in and around Black Dance Stories exemplifies the interconnectedness of the dance field, especially among Black artists, and this is a good thing. As my friend and colleague Ali Rosa-Salas, director of programming at Abrons Art Center and associate curator at Jacob's Pillow brilliantly asserts, there is no such thing as neutral.
In this sociopolitical moment, we are suffering the consequences of not knowing and understanding enough of the intimacies and histories of Black life, while being witnesses to legislative attempts to keep it that way. Just a year ago, across our country, well-meaning white people discovered the depth and impact of the racist history of the U.S., and it is because our traditional history-telling—storytelling—has been one-sided, prioritizing the written word, from an objective, neutral (read: cis-white ableist fat-phobic patriarchal heteronormative colonizer) voice. Stories are told from a voice that often records and documents (read: misrepresents) what it does not understand because it is not a part of it.
Black Dance Stories, in the tradition of storytelling in the African Diaspora, privileges and celebrates the relational, the ancestral, the genius in collective knowledge, the oral/aural, the call and response, the intergenerational dialogue, the responsive and improvisational, the ritual of gathering with libation (directions on how to prepare for your episode as a featured storyteller highlight in red font "Have a glass of wine or drink") and, of course, movement.
Some episodes feature names you may know, like Camille A. Brown, whose choreography has been featured on major concert dance stages, on Broadway and, recently, in the feature film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman. There's Okwui Okpokwasili, standout performer in the 2019 revival of For Colored Girls at The Public Theater, and brilliant art maker in her own right known for her work Bronx Gothic. She and Kyle Abraham, each featured in separate episodes, have a long list of accomplishments, but perhaps the most notable shared between them is that they are both MacArthur "geniuses." In these cases, Black Dance Stories deeply humanizes these artists beyond their accolades, in a way that seems too rare for artists who've made a name for themselves. We are privy to their fears and inspirations, family heirlooms and thoughts on love.
Many episodes, however, feature artists whose names you might not know, and that's important. We have a problem in this country, born of individualist and capitalist values, where we worship celebrities and often only recognize people's impact posthumously. Our study of Black history often begins and ends with a recitation of a list of firsts, such as our most recent notable example of Kamala Harris, the first Black person elected to Vice President. Black Dance Stories features artists with established careers and rising stars alike, pairing storytellers in an episode based on their calendar availability. This game of chance catalyzes rich conversations that fill in gaps and answers the questions radical historians often ask: Who is not here? Who else's story has yet to be told?
In each episode, both the hosts and storytellers name their familial lineages and the indigenous land they are on, and through that telling locate us geographically, Diasporically and ancestrally. We listen to the mundanities, the challenges, the joys and the liberations of everyday Black life; a conversation between Rennie Harris and J. Bouey dives into mental health challenges and Black masculinity, while Bebe Miller traces her family line back to enslavement and Kyle Marshall reminisces about dancing in church.
Some stories lean heavily into the telling of artistic lineages: yon Tande places us with him in Howard University's dance studios in the 1990s, studying under Dr. Sherril Berryman Johnson. Zane Booker takes us from dancing as a Philadelphia teenager as part of Philadanco under the tutelage of Auntie Joan (Joan Myers Brown) and Talley Beatty to tough discussions with Jiří Kylián, at Nederlands Dans Theater, about whether his Blackness is a costume.
Jason Samuels Smith, literal dance royalty, names family and artistic lineages that heavily overlap for generations. He speaks fondly of cousin Debbie (yes, Debbie Allen) and his father JoJo Smith, whose Hell's Kitchen studio, JoJo's Dance Factory, pioneered the modern-day dance-studio model of teaching multiple styles (jazz, ballet, tap, etc.) under one roof.
What is most heartening is that the series gives each artist their proverbial flowers while they are full of life to enjoy them—a radical act in the age of Black Lives Matter.
I invite you to let these stories wash over you; absorb what you can and let the rest fall away. This is an opportunity to get to know some of our greatest embodied culture-bearers, and it is a launching pad to uncover kinship with artists and artistic life; there is so much to learn, and these skills are transferable. Hear and witness how these dancers metabolize the world around them through movement. The artists are offering us their grounding practices, their reflective practices and their dreams. They are modeling thriving community connection, alongside worldviews that urgently need to be heard.
With Black Dance Stories, we are witnesses and participants in a simultaneously ancient and Afro-futuristic mode of documenting history that privileges the voices of the people the story is about. This is dance history. This is Black history. Black Dance Stories is our history.
Black Dance Stories episodes are streamed on Thursdays at 6 pm ET, live on YouTube, and remain available for replay afterward. Guests in upcoming episodes include Danni Gee and Debbie Blunden-Diggs (June 24) and Mikki Shepard and Joan Myers Brown (July 1). The series is free to watch, but donations through fiscal sponsor International Association of Blacks in Dance are encouraged. The spring 2021 season of Black Dance Stories is co-presented with 651 ARTS, Brooklyn's premier institution for the African Diasporic performing arts.