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To Be Black and in Dance

Happy Black History Month everyone! As I write this on the first day of this beautiful month of celebration, I feel so proud to be in this skin and in this work. The contributions that black people have made to dance are undeniable and I’m feeling incredibly empowered by their legacies. From Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, Arthur Mitchell, Pearl Primus, and so many others, we have gained an incredible amount of cultural vitality. They’ve left imprints on us that will never be forgotten.

For so long, this world decided that black bodies were not good enough for dance. They looked at our shape and our build and decided that grace could not exist here. How foolish! Naturally, we’ve proved them wrong every step of the way. Not only excelling in techniques they created, but exploring and refining our own. I just love the way Katherine Dunham went to Haiti and studied the African-based rituals of the people there. She looked at these practices and saw grace and beauty then brought them back to the United States and made them her own. Since then we’ve continued to experiment. Take Ronald K. Brown for example, who has incorporated West African movement into modern dance and brought it into the concert dance space. We’ve constantly shown that not only do our bodies have grace, but that grace has existed in our cultural practices since the beginning. We are inherently worthy to thrive in this dance world.

My only hope is that our black audiences stay strong. I feel that there was once a time where concert dance was something the community shared in. I think of my grandfather telling me how he saw Katherine perform right here in Chicago. He wasn’t a dancer himself, more of an avid music listener. Just a regular person living on the South Side, yet Katherine’s work was still a part of his world. I don’t know if we reach those same populations today. I think a lot of this has to do with our access to free time and resources to enjoy the dance world before us but I’m honestly not completely sure about the why. I do know that today in Chicago we have a plethora of black-led dance companies doing the work. There’s South Chicago Dance Theater, Red Clay Dance Company, Dance Loop Chicago, and more. I hope that the reach of these companies is felt all across black communities in the city, allowing for the transformative power of dance to take place.

So happy Black History Month to all! As you celebrate in whatever way you do, look for your black artists. Find out what work they’re doing in the virtual space as we push through this pandemic and make plans to see them live when it’s all over. Our ancestors used art to connect and restore so much. Let’s continue that tradition.

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