Musings

Finally, A Sisterhood

I’ve spent the last few days completely surrounded by pure Black excellence. Inundated and wrapped up tight in it.

This was my first time at the International Association of Blacks in Dance conference , and while I was very excited to go, along with a group of 7 other students from my Department, I am struck now (as I am writing this on the plane back to Columbus) with how important IABD & spaces like that are, especially for young artists like me.

Yesterday, I sat in a workshop led by the indomitable Dr. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, one of my personal idols and a pioneer of Black dance theory, & a panel of five other Black women. One had just received her doctorate from Temple University. Another is a professor at Appalachian State University. Gaynell Sherrod, from the dance department at Virginia Commonwealth University was there. Zita Allen, one of the best dance critics to ever enter the field, and a pioneer for writing about Black dance/Black dancing bodies, spoke. And Vershawn Sanders-Ward, graduate of Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and founder of Red Clay Dance Company in Chicago shared as well. There were so many other important, notable dancers and artists in the room…

…and everywhere I went. I took class with folks who had studied with Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham personally. Folks who travel all over the world to work with royalty. I sat in the room with some of the primary figures is Black dance — Karen Brown, Cleo Parker Robinson, Joan Myers Brown, Lula Washington, to name a few.

But as I sat in that circle of women, I found myself becoming emotional. All these women are where I want to be one day. They have lived the life I want, walked in the places I hope to go, and are sharing their wisdom with me. I sat there choking on tears as woman after woman spoke life into me, thinking, I want to know you all. I want you to be my aunties and mothers and sisters. For the first time in my dance life I felt like I had a sisterhood. I felt supported. I felt loved by a group of women who didn’t know me, or know anything about me. I wanted to stay in the safety of their embrace forever, and the truth is, I can.

That’s why all Black art spaces like IABD are important. There are the people who know, who understand our common struggle. There’s no cliché in our truth, there’s no doubt about the validity of our stories. I’ve spent so much time wondering whether my stories are okay. Whether it’s okay that all I want to talk about, write about, make about is completely wrapped up in my experiences with race, class, and gender. And at IABD, I was reminded very clearly that my artistic voice and perspective is valid.

I’m so grateful for this experience. It was such a necessary blessing.

Love & Light.

#ButForOhioState

I’m sitting in the Ohio Union right now in a spot I’ve sat in countless times in my time here. I just finished meeting with a friend and making plans for our Buckeye Leadership Fellows capstone project — a business, a unique brand with my name on it.

Three years ago, I never would have even imagined myself as being able to use my art form to change the world. I never thought about owning my own business or branding myself. My time at Ohio State has taught me so much. I was pushed so far outside of my comfort zone and that pressure was so necessary. I was a diamond hiding deep underground. I had no idea what I was capable of or what I could even do with dance. OSUdance and Buckeye Leadership Fellows have opened my eyes to the world beyond the ballet barre. There’s more to the dance field than just being a ballerina in American Ballet Theatre or a star in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

There’s so much theory and history behind what gets presented on the stage, and while I love to move and create and want to continue to do that with my life, there is so much more that I have to offer to this field. It took me coming to college to find myself – a Black woman – at the heart of American modern dance. I struggled to love myself, my body for so long until I learned that my ancestry sits in the heart of so much of American culture and performance.

I want to make sure that no more little black girls have to wait until they’re 19 to learn that truth. The research and work that I am doing now for my senior project within the Dept. of Dance seeks that goal. While I thank God for Horton technique and Alvin Ailey, knowing about Black women choreographers like Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham would have proved life changing for me in high school.

Beyond that, I refuse to be a poor, starving dancer living in a shoe box in New York, broken and bowed because I’m not dancing with fill-in-the-blank company. I want to use dance to do something – to challenge the status quo, to change the way that blackness is portrayed of and on the performance stage, and to diversify the bodies that we put on stage as well. I want to have my own collaborative dance company as an avenue for that creativity.

But there’s more… I want to be an academic. I want to fill the gap in academic literature that deals with Black performance theory and the African/Africanist elements in Black American culture, American pop culture, and American performance. I told my friends today that I’ll be sending them copies of my first book within the next five years.

And about that brand that I mentioned at the beginning of this – that’s going to happen too.

There’s so much in my heart, and over the years of my education, I have learned that there is no need to limit myself. I can do, and be, whatever I want.

Now, as I sit at the cusp of making everything that I’ve talked about a reality, one piece of Scripture my mom has instilled in me my whole life resonates deeply in my spirit:

“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘ plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” -Jeremiah 29:11, NIV

Looking around me and recognizing where I am now and remembering where I have been is proof to how great the Lord’s plans for me are. I’m graduating with Distinction in May 2017, but I’m not afraid. I finally feel that I’m walking fully in my calling. His plans for my future are big and bright, and I trust Him to help me achieve them.

Love and Light,

Kylee

Untitled.

Heads up, this isn’t about dance.

I should be asleep right now.  My alarm is going to go off at 4:45am in the morning and I won’t want to wake up, but I can’t sleep anyways.

I don’t know how we, my people – Black people in America – have done this for so long. How we went from watching our sisters and brother being mutilated on the whipping post, humiliated on the slave block.  How we watched dogs rip our fellow runaway slaves bodies apart.  Or how we watched crosses burn in front of our homes and churches.  How we hid in the woods when the lynch mobs came.  How we comforted the families that had huge, important pieces ripped, tarred, feathered, and burned away from them forever.  How we opened the caskets of our son’s disfigured body so the world could see what really happened.

How did we do all this and still keep going? Because today, the murder of Emmett Till keeps happening over and over again.  Too many Mamie Tills mourn the loss of their sons and daughters right now…at this very instant.  I don’t know what to do.  I don’t know how to go on.

Today, we can scroll down our social media feeds and see a life be taken, gunned down at point blank range – a modern day lynching.

Ask me how many times I have cried today. I tried to try to rub the tear lines off my face when I cried in my classroom alone at work.  I cried myself to sleep last night for a family I don’t know, for a man that I will never be able to meet. And now, just as I was preparing to try to get some rest tonight, I was greeted with the (what would be fatal) shooting of another black man.  His girlfriend shared the situation in real time on Facebook Live.  I couldn’t even watch the video.  It was too much.

It hit me then, all at once, that this has happened so many times without any change. I read tweets like, “Cops still shoot on video now. That’s how much they know the system will protect them.”  My heart breaks at this – that we have so little hope left.

I sat in my bed and sobbed. I sent a text to my close friend and told him “My heart hurts.”  I called my Nana.  I asked her, “How do you keep going, Nana, when these people hate us and keep killing us?” She told me to rely on my faith.  To trust that God still has a plan, in spite of all this evil and tragedy that surrounds us.  That, she said, is how she was able to look the Klan in the face and still keep going.

I’m not even 21 yet, and I am already exhausted.  My Nana is 80.  I can’t even imagine how she feels to see that the Klan she faced isn’t gone, it just has a new face.  Right now, I am praying for faith like hers, because at this moment, I don’t know what else to do.

 

Service, Nerves, & Honor – a Quick Update

So much has happened since I last posted.  First, let me apologize for falling off my bi-weekly plan.  Hopefully, I will resume my regular schedule now.  Keep reading to find out what’s been keeping me away from you all…

Spring Break. This school year, I’ve been talking about how much I wanted to get more involved in community service.  That being said, I was very interested in going on a Buck-i-SERV, OSU’s alternative break program, trip over SB this year.  I ended up getting on a bus full of 49 other people I had never met before, and driving down to Biloxi, Mississippi for one of the best learning experiences of my life.  I spent two days in a swamp removing an invasive species that was harming the environment (if you know anything about me, you know this was a big deal for me!), painted baseball facilities, went kayaking on the Mississippi River, and even spent a day in New Orleans where the beignets were every bit as good as I was told.  However, what stood out to me the most on this trip was learning about Hurricane Katrina and the very real affects it is still having on the community there in Biloxi.  We would ride around town, and I would be struck by this thought, “Wow. This used to be completely submerged under feet of water.  None of this used to be here.”  I was in the 5th grade when Katrina hit; it was something that never really had a lasting affect on me that had suddenly been brought sharply into focus.  I also felt that it was incredibly powerful that we came and partnered alongside folks who had worked in their communities for year without much support.  It seemed to me that we came alongside them and said, “Hey.  We see you.  We believe in you. Let us help.”  That’s a powerful and necessary message to share.

Senior Project Proposal. I’ve been talking about my senior project as if it has been a done deal for several months now.  However, while I have long known what I wanted to do, recently, I official turned in my first (and hopefully only) draft of the official project proposal. It will be reviewed by a committee, and Lord willing, it will be approved.  I am so incredibly excited to formally begin the process, but a bit nervous as it makes its way through the committee.  My project is unapologetically pro-Black and rooted very firmly in my own personal experiences.  I was quite concerned that it would be taken the wrong way until an old friend shared a message of encouragement with me: “It’s your truth, and it deserves to be heard.”  I’m resting at peace in that now.  My perspective and thoughts have value.

SPHINX.  Sphinx is senior honorary here at OSU and is the oldest honorary on campus; it was founded in 1907.  On Friday, I had the honor of being “linked” into the family.  Sphinx is one of the oldest traditions on campus, and I am incredibly proud to become a part of that legacy.  I’m looking forward to developing 23 new friendships over the course of the next year.  What made it even more special was the fact that my mom flew in to surprise me.  I was making the “Long Walk” from one end of the Oval to the other when I saw her and promptly burst into tears. My dear friend Dominique had called her months in advance to tell her I had gotten in so that she would have the opportunity to make arrangements to be here for me.  It was such a well-timed blessing to be able to celebrate such a momentous occasion with someone who loves me and to spend a relaxing weekend away from campus.  I think it was just what I needed to power through the next few weeks.

Looking ahead.  This coming week is the premier of my latest choreographic work, a trio, entitled Nou Led, Nou La.  I am so excited to be presenting our months of hard work, and to be on the other side of the stage for once.  You can visit here for more information about the entire concert, showtimes, and tickets.

Be blessed!

Love and Light,

Kylee

 

&…

Bear with me, the title will make sense in a bit, but first let me provide some context…

Today, the Department of Dance hosted one of the most iconic figures in dance, Arthur Mitchell.  He came and gave us an amazing overview of his incredible life — from growing up on the streets of Harlem, how he found dance, becoming the first Black man to dance with the New York City Ballet (then under the direction of George Balanchine), to when he founded his own, now world-renowned company, the Dance Theater of Harlem.  He’s such a beautiful soul, so full of joy and life at the wonderfully seasoned age of 81.  (His 82nd birthday is next month, actually!)

He talked so long that we didn’t have much time for questions,  but my hand shot up as soon as we were able.  I thought of this last night: How do we change the perception surrounding dance in the Black community and engage more Black youth in ways that encourage them to pursue dance professionally.  So often, there is this perception that dance is not good enough for us.  We have to achieve more, do better, and prove ourselves to society.  “Anybody can dance.  We need more Black doctors, lawyers, etc.” is what I’ve been told.  I asked Mr. Mitchell about this, and he told me that “you just that you have to make up your mind for yourself.  You set the example.”

In a blessed coincidence, I happened to be at the elevator at the same time that he and one of his dancers, Paunika Jones, were being escorted back to their car.  Paunika started chatting with me further about my question, and we ended up walking out of the building together.  She then proceeded to blow my mind and challenge every single perception of myself that I have. She asked me if I was taking the ballet class that Mr. Mitchell was teaching later today.  I told her no, and she asked why not.  I said, laughing, “Oh, I’m not a ballet dancer!”

She looked at me and said, “Do you hear yourself?”  I stopped and was immediately blown away by the way in which I was refuting myself.  Ballet is inextricable from all classical forms of dance.  I do ballet here in my studies at OSU.  I grew up in the ballet technique.  So why do I label myself?  Why do I put myself in a box?  That’s part of the problem, Paunika told me (in reference to engaging Blacks in dance).  We tell ourselves that we can’t do things; we limit ourselves in our minds.  Just because something isn’t my greatest talent, doesn’t mean I’m incapable of doing it.

I found myself tearing up.  My biggest fight since I’ve been in dance has been overcoming myself.  My insecurities about my body, about my technique, about my inadequacies — no one has ever given them to me.  They have all been dredged up and put on by me.  Mr. Mitchell said today in his talk that we can be anything that we want to be.  We just have to work to be our best selves at it…

My name is Kylee Cedreice Smith.  I am a Black dancer…

& a contemporary dancer

& a modern dancer

& a ballet dancer

& a choreographer

& a writer

&…

whatever else I ever want to be.

No more limits. No more, “I can’t.” Starting today.

Thank you OSUdance, for continually bringing me these opportunities that change me and allow me to grow in invaluable ways. Thank you to Arthur Mitchell for sharing, & thank you to Paunika Jones for taking a few minutes of your time to be a true mentor. 

Me & the Legend, Arthur Mitchell. 

   

  

The Power of a Movement: #UnconventionalBlackBeauty 

I originally wrote this about a week ago, and I finally worked up the gumption to post it.  So here we go…

I got a notification from Twitter this morning saying that some of my friends were tweeting about “#UnconventionalBlackBeauty.” Immediately, I logged on to see what it was all about. I was stunned by the message that Black women especially were sending through this simple hashtag. They were saying, “I am beauty too. I may not be Naomi Campbell with the slender nose and long straight hair extensions, and I may not measure up to the Eurocentric standards that define beauty in today’s society, but I am the image of beauty as much as they are.” It immediately struck a cord with me. I found myself getting emotional, because this message strikes so closely to my own heart as well.

In my opinion, being a Black dancer, is often like being told that you have to fit into a predetermined mold that you often cannot even begin to identify with. Maybe your body fits into the shape, but the color of your skin will never fit the mold. My body doesn’t fit the shape, and for this reason, I have literally hated my body, my God-given shape and genetics, since the 6th grade. I’ve struggled with a positive self-Image for so long that even now the lines still get blurry for me. It’s not that anyone explicitly told me that I was too fat (and too Black) to be a dancer, but I always knew that I would never be able to be a ballerina because I didn’t have the “body” for it. I told myself this so as to not give anyone else a chance to hurt me with this knowledge. I resented the things that made me look so much bigger than the other girls standing at the barre. At 12, I was mistaken for a 16 year old. At first, I thought that this was because of the way I looked in my face, but it was actually because of the way my body had developed.

My senior year in high school, the only thing I wanted to do was lose weight and get into a good dance program. For me those two were tightly linked because my biggest fear was that someone would reject me because they thought I was too big. It got to the point where I lied about my weight on some of my applications.

In college, I started to accept myself for who I was a little more. I’m fortunate to be in a dance department now that is comprised of a variety of body shapes and sizes. It became a little bit less of a worry for me, and after I returned from Costa Rica last June, I was finally able to say that I was happy with my body. I liked the way I looked. But then, those little voices of doubt started to eat away at that self-confidence. I look at pictures of my self and wish my thighs weren’t so big. I wish that I had a thigh gap and a super flat, toned stomach. I wish my leotard didn’t cut into my butt so much.

I’ve contemplated eating disorders. I was a middle schooler counting calories before I really even knew what they were. I’ve cried myself to sleep over this. Agonized over bathing suits and tights over this. I have been miserable because if this.

But today, I realized something: forget trying to fit into the mold. I am unconventional Black beauty. I have hips and a nice, big, round behind. I have thick thighs that spread when I sit down. My stomach isn’t always flat either. These are things that I identify with my ethnic heritage — with my mother and my grandmother and my great aunties — one of the very most important parts of who I am. So I have a message for the dance world: I’m done hating myself to try to make you love me. Either you can accept me as I am or miss out on the gift that God has given me to share with the world. I’m going to share it with or without your approval. I’m going to shatter the tired, Eurocentric standards of beauty and dance to pieces. You can either join me or stand in my wake. I will not rest until I can help another little black girl learn to love herself without all the struggle and heartache that I have endured. #UnconventionalBlackBeauty

Composition II: First Reflections and Analysis

This semester I took what has come to be one of my favorite courses in my undergraduate career thus far: Composition II. This course, taught by the amazing and incredibly talented, Susan Hadley (seriously, google her!), was a journey in choreography.  While we created several solo studies, we also discussed and had opportunities to work with groups on entrances and exits, formations, choreography, etc.  I learned and grew in my artistry so much as a result of this class.  The following is my first thoughts and reflections on my work in the course, circa September 30, 2014. Enjoy!

I think one of my main difficulties thus far has been locomotion.  I have been told that I am a “stand and deliver” kind of dancer.  In some ways, I avoid creating extremely active choreography because it is harder for me personally to produce and to fully realize in my own body.  I have this worry of forgetting my choreography while presenting, so I make up things that are easier for me to recall and perform well.  Furthermore, my life right now does not lend itself to hours spent in the studio perfecting material.  So when I do have the time to choreograph, I put together something that my body and I can remember with less practice; unfortunately, this leads to the creation of the “same old, same old,” regular movement style that I am familiar and comfortable with: “stand and deliver.”  I’ve found that when I am pushed to go beyond this, however, the material becomes much more “interesting” in many ways.  I think that in order to explore these new areas, I have to push myself to turn down the road less traveled and trust myself to have the ability to make it to the end.  Even failure can lead to much gain.  

Another issue that I have struggled with is being authentic with my weight.  I have this idea of falling as a bad thing, so its use tends to be on a very superficial level.  Last week, in my inversion study, Susan coached me to really use my weight in an honest manner.   What happened? The piece traveled.  I think in many ways, addressing this problem will, in turn, help to solve the other.  I feel that the reason that I do not use my weight is because it is not something that always works well with my current choreographic sensabilities.  I don’t tend to simply improv, throw my weight around, and go wherever my body wants to go.  I much more prefer to put my body where I want it to go.  In fact, I find it extremely difficult to follow my body’s “lead” because oftentimes, I have put it in places from which the options are very limited.  Perhaps exploring a new method of choreography will help me solve both of my issues and arrive at the end of this journey with a greater sense of confidence in mobility and authenticity in weight.

Life Round Here

This semester has actually been hell.

I think the more I admit it, the better able I am to cope and accept it.  Or maybe not. Either way it’s true.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I started this semester off rigorously rehearsing for Sullivant’s Travels.  What I didn’t mention that I was doing this while in the midst of my first few weeks as a Resident Advisor here at OSU and taking a full course load of 18 credit hours.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I was scheduling last year, but none of this was a good idea.  My plate has been entirely too full. I have been going full throttle since before classes even started, since I was here weeks before Move In Day.  This high-speed lifestyle has truly taken its toll on me both physically and mentally.  I’ve been seriously ill more this semester than ever which has left me wishing desperately for the tangible presence of my family who I left at home in South Carolina nine hours away.  Mentally, I’ve been struggling with a debilitating sense of homesickness like never before.  Of course my personal life decided to really fall apart during the week of midterms for the two General Education courses I am taking as well.  Those grades were subpar, and for my microeconomics class, still aren’t looking much better.

Poor academics have a extremely negative and discouraging effect on me as I have always been the one who does well despite the odds.  I just feel as if I am doing nothing especially well this semester.  It seems that everything is threatening to overwhelm me, and I am standing on the brink of being overcome by it all.  There’s this thing called the “Sophomore Slump.”  I’d venture to call it the “Sophomore Struggle” brought on by a large amount of stress induced by gross over-commitment.

And then, Ailey II came.  The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and all of its affiliates have always been near and dear to my heart.  They represent the pillar of black and dance excellence in so many ways.  The thought of Ailey ignites a spark in me like few other things.  The opportunity to take a master class with some of the phenomenal dancers of Ailey II was just what I needed.  The classical Horton technique that they taught brought me back home to the studio with Ms. Lynn, my first modern teacher.  The movement was a welcome change from the contemporary movement that I do daily.

After class, we were able to talk to the dancers about their real world experiences.  They told us about touring, everyday schedules, outside work, taking care of our bodies, money… basically everything that we as undergraduate and aspiring professionals wonder about.  What made it so effective was that these were young people that are living the life we dream of now.  They weren’t graduate students that have been there and done that.  They are presently living my dreams.  

I left renewed.  Filled with excitement.  Reinvested in my purpose and path here at OSUdance. I got my second wind. Watching the Ailey II company performing later that evening, I was reassured that this is what I want to do with my life.  I want to be on stage and bring young people the joy that Ailey brings me.  Maybe not in the same way, but in the manner that God has set forth for me to do.

Next week, the Department has its annual fall performance, Dance Downtown, and I will be performing in one of the pieces.  I have new-found enthusiasm and look forward to leaving my mark on the audience.

Thank you to Ailey II for coming and imparting with me, and an even bigger thank you to my God for being right on time.

For more info on Dance Downtown, visit dance.osu.edu/events/dance-downtown.

Love, Light, and Blessings.