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

Dance Education: Teaching

This past semester, I took Dance Education 3501 as part of requirements for my major.  It was a pretty general overview of the education system at large here in America and how dance/fine arts fit into the curriculum.  At the conclusion of the course, we explored “best practices” of teaching by leading forty-five minute sessions for our classmates in a genre of our choice. At the beginning of my journey here at OSU, I was astutely against teaching.  I vowed that I never wanted to teach because I felt that I didn’t have anything to teach.  I didn’t (and, to some degree, still don’t) feel that I had the technical ability or training in any specific genre to teach anyone anything, especially my extremely talented peers.  Frankly, teaching intimidated me.  However, I decided to draw from my love for improvisation and taught a improv jam for my Education class.  Surprisingly, it went really well.  I think that the peers that danced with me were the perfect individuals for the experience because they were so open-minded, engaged, and kind.  I am forever thankful for that.  They allowed me to relax and enjoy the experience for myself.

The class started off with some simple, guided “across the floor” explorations.  The focus of my class was the sensation of the body moved through space — what if the space was thick, light, heavy, resistant, etc.  In order to help the dancers find their way, I used a lot of imagery to better articulate my point.  The class then moved into some partnered exploration of negative space.  This was a really cool activity to watch.  The dancers were so creative and innovative.  The objective of this exercise was for it to start off slowly and sporadically and build into a constant, regular quick speed.  Afterwards, I decided to include a favorite from my first contemporary class here at OSU taught by the phenomenal Ann Sofie Clemmensen.  She introduced an open-space improvisational exploration; the major objective was to enter and exit the space while making choices.  Sometimes there were other rules, but that was the primary standard.  I used the same goal in my class.  This portion of the class was my absolute favorite; fortunately one of my classmates was able to get a portion of it on video for me.  I was able to dance with my friends and further engage in the experience for myself.  The link to watch is posted below! Enjoy. 🙂

 

Bloodlines

This weekend my first choreographed work, a solo entitled Bloodlines, premiered in the OSU Department of Dance’s Spring concert, “Absolute Existence.”  This piece was inspired by the lineage of my ancestors as African Americans in the Deep South.  All my life, I have grown up hearing stories about how my family lived and worked in Abbeville, South Carolina.  I have been brought up with a strong sense of pride in the people from whom I come, and their experiences of lynching and discrimination have fueled my desire to be all that I can be and to take advantage of the opportunities that they risked their lives to provide me with.

My distant uncle, Anthony Crawford was lynched in Abbeville in 1916 because he refused to settle for the poor price that a buyer offered him for his cotton crop.  His legacy has traveled from generation to generation to me, and I have been rocked with the understanding that one of my blood relatives was murdered in cold, hateful, and evil blood.  It fills me with a sort of righteous indignation akin to what I feel when the media splashes the death and mistreatment of youth like Martese Johnson, Mike Brown, and Trayvon Martin across my news screen.

Wess McBride, my paternal great-grandfather, my Great-Granddaddy, was the first black police officer in Abbeville County, where his grandfather was lynched.  He was also the first black sheriff’s deputy in the county as well.  This was a man that I knew; a man of whom I have faded memories.  I remember going to his house and sitting on his scratchy couch.  I remember his wrinkly face.  I know the stories that my father still tells of the kind of man he was today.  He was an upstanding man of integrity — much like the kind of woman I am striving to be today,

Mary Alice Smith, my paternal grandmother, my Nana, truly lived the role of the Help.  She started in domestic work at a young age, working in the homes of many affluent families in Abbeville as well.  She raised some families’ children from infancy, and they still hold her in high regard for this today.  She went on to work in the sewing and textiles fields, and carried herself with the dignity our ancestors has passed down.  For this reason, she was favored, and placed in positions of prominence in these fields as well.

Lastly, Walter Smith, my paternal grandfather, my Papa, was a man who has further instilled in me the value of hard work.  He worked on CSX Railroad, formerly Seaboard Coastlines, from the age of 14 until he retired.  He laid rail all the way up and down the Eastern seaboard.  The hot southern sun turned his skin a deep ebony, earning him the nickname Blue Steel because his skin had a faint blue tint. My Papa passed away when I was 11, but the color of his skin is something that has always resonated with me.  I look so much like him; in my baby pictures, he holds me to his face and our skin mingles together, almost the same shade.  Thinking about it now brings tears to my eyes; I miss him so much.

These are the things that were in my spirit as I began the process of making this piece.  I wanted to honor my family, and all that they have done for me to be able to live the life that I currently enjoy.  Sharing this part of myself with the world has been an incredible experience.  I have been totally humbled by the responses that I have received, and I believe that it truly was a success.

I will close with the spoken word segment that I conclude my performance with:

These Bloodlines run strong in me. 

Coursing through my veins, driving me. 

See,

the blood on the root never dried. 

The fruit on the tree never died. 

No

A seed was planted. 

You — Uncle Anthony, Great-Granddaddy, Papa, Nana — live on in Me.

Below are pictures taken by my lovely classmate, Hana Newfeld, of Bloodlines.  

Enjoy.

Martese Johnson

Gabriella Wiltz

I don’t usually talk about the police brutality that surrounds this generation, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. It’s hard for me to process and comprehend the scrutiny people of color are under constantly and it is especially difficult because I am surrounded by people that can’t even begin to understand what it is like to be a minority in this country. My heart aches for the Trayvon Martin’s and the Michael Brown’s and the Eric Gardner’s. No man is deserving of what they endured. No one period.

Martese Johnson is an honor student, a man of Kappa Alpha Psi, the latest victim of police brutality, and my friend. If you looked him up on google prior to yesterday’s events all you would see is articles on the scholarships he’s been awarded, how active he is on his campus, and pictures of his goofy grin and nice bowties…

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Daryia, Disappointed.

Daryia, Unbalanced.

The title of this post is probably misleading. As you’ll soon see, the tone of this post will be that of anger topped with a hint of disgust. Shall we begin?
I have a stuffed animal. I made him at Build-A-Bear a while ago with a friend. His name is Ali Shahid Muhammad. You’re probably thinking “this post is about a bear, how angry could she be?” keep reading.

There’s this guy, lets call him… Rick.
Rick and I have known one another for, I’d say, a few years now.  I wouldn’t describe our relationship as “romantically involved” for reasons you’ll soon see.
Rick is, and always has been, problematic.
However, for whatever reason we hang out occasionally.

Rick and I pretend that Ali Shahid Muhammad is our “love child”, constantly bickering about how much time he spends with our “son”, my lack of parenting skills, and Ali’s future; attending…

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Leigh Anne Tuohy, Racism, and the White Saviour Complex

The Belle Jar

Leigh Anne “That Nice Woman Sandra Bullock Played In The Blind Side” Tuohy recently posted the following picture and caption on her Facebook and Instagram accounts:

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We see what we want! It’s the gospel truth! These two were literally huddled over in a corner table nose to nose and the person with me said “I bet they are up to no good” well you know me… I walked over, told them to scoot over. After 10 seconds of dead silence I said so whats happening at this table? I get nothing.. I then explained it was my store and they should spill it… They showed me their phones and they were texting friends trying to scrape up $3.00 each for the high school basketball game! Well they left with smiles, money for popcorn and bus fare. We have to STOP judging people and assuming and pigeon holing people!…

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From Fear to Success

For the final study in my Composition II course, we were directed to make a piece, 3-4 minutes long, to a song/sound/music of our choice. Pretty much there weren’t many parameters set for us.  I had been sitting with an idea for a piece that I was already calling “Bloodlines” in my head, and I decided to use this assignment to begin to develop it.  “Bloodlines” is an exploration of two of my greatest passions: dancing and writing.  I wanted to integrate spoken word into dance, allowing myself to share everything that I had with my audience — the things that I cannot articulate in words through dance and the things that I can best say through poetry.

This piece is for my people — my ancestors.  I have grown up with a strong sense of familial pride. More recently, I have learned the story of how my great great great uncle, Anthony Crawford, was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina, in 1917.  My great Granddaddy was the first black deputy sheriff in Abbeville, which is recognized as the birthplace and deathbed of the Confederacy.  He could not even arrest a White man for breaking the law on his own.  My Papa helped to build the CSX railway up and down the East coast, a hard and cruel work.  His peers called him “Blue Steel” because his skin was a deep ebony that looked blue at times.   My Nana worked in many of the affluent white households around town for many years; there were times when she had to neglect her own children in order to take care of theirs.  It is hard for me to explain articulately in words, but all of these things stir my soul in a very powerful way.  Today, my Nana is one of the most well-known and respected women in the Abbeville community among both blacks and whites.  I am here at The Ohio State Univeristy, majoring in dance, a concept which could have only been a figment of her imagination for a significant portion of her life and that sometimes she still struggles to understand completely.  My great Granddaddy and Papa passed away many years ago, but not before they could touch my life in an immense way.  I wanted to make a dance that recognized them.  The life, blood, sweat, prayers, and tears that my family gave up in order for me to have the present in which I am living.

I didn’t want this dance to be done at the end of my composition class, so I decided to conquer my fear and adjudicate it for the Department of Dance’s spring concert.  (Adjudication is basically like an audition, but to put a choreographic work into a performance.)  I entered into the process with one goal, to put my name out there.  I wanted the Department to become more aware of my presence, and essentially know, that in the midst of all the amazing talent that we have here, Kylee C. Smith is here, and she has something to add too.  Being selected for the concert was a dream of a dream.

I guess I should have more confidence in myself.  I was shocked beyond words when I received an email saying that my piece was among those that had been selected.

So, “Bloodlines” lives on, and as with any life, it will grow and stretch and change over time.  I am incredibly excited to be given this opportunity.

Below is the most recent video of the work.  Excuse the blurry quality, but technology and I don’t see eye to eye right now.  Don’t worry, I’ll be keeping you updated and posting more videos soon!

Blessings, Love, and Light.

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.

Watching. Learning. Generating.

As a dancer, I see movement in very different ways than other people may. I watch how people walk – whether they are wing-footed or pigeon toed, how people stand – sway-backed or pulled up, how people react to music in dance – rhythmically or non-rhythmically. In my Laban Movement Analysis course this semester, we have been learning how to analyze dance and movement. In one of our assignments, we were asked to reflect on how we as individuals attend to movement – the things that we notice when watching, learning, and generating movement, and even the things that we ignore. Below, I will share with you some of my findings.

When observing dance in a performance atmosphere, one thing that always stands out to me is the emotional response that I have to the movement. I think the reason for this is that when I am performing, I always strive to move my audience in some way, whether small or large. I find that I pay attention to the small things such as hands and focus as well. When I am watching my classmates’ choreography in Composition class, I am very attentive to the hands – their placement and energy are of specific interest to me. Focus is of equal importance to me because it can completely transform the energy and impact of a piece.

The way that I approach movement that I have to learn usually depends on the style. I think that I learn ballet combinations fairly quickly because I am familiar with the vocabulary of ballet as it is very codified, and I’ve had a good deal of experience with it. With contemporary movement, which is very individually stylized, I think that I try to build the material from base up. I gain a general comfort with the basics of the movement, and then add on the details and flairs from there.

When I am generating movement, I typically tend to go with an idea or image that I have in my head. I do not actively sit and imagine choreography before attempting to set something, but rather, I will have an idea and then explore it until I find it to be unsuccessful or it leads to something else. While I notice hands and focus in other’s material, I have come to find that it is usually not something that I pay particular attention to until after I am finished creating and have begun the cleaning/clarifying process.

I don’t know if there is anything that I consciously ignore, but I do favor moving at a moderate pace. Fast movement is hard for me to generate and to maintain for more than short bursts of time. I am working on a piece for my final project in my composition class, and I am struggling to develop choreography that moves for more than a few steps and then dissolves into stillness. When I am dancing my own choreography to silence, I rarely think in terms of counts. My internal timing directs the piece, and I have a difficult time setting counts to material such as that. However, when I choreograph to music, I struggle to separate the timing of my choreography from the beat of the music. I think very much in terms of rhythm even without music, and it is something that is always subconsciously present to me when music is playing, even with I am not actively listening for the rhythm.

I am learning to better analyze the intent behind my movement. If something is supposed to be light and airy, do I achieve that goal? I think a great deal about the quality of the movement itself as well. Qualitatively, do I want my audience to perceive heaviness from my movement, a staccato phrasing, etc.? I make sure that I am on beat when there is an audible one, and I try to find ways to make my internalization of rhythm interesting and dynamic. My composition class has really challenged me to reach beyond the normal parameters of movement that I have set for myself and create movement that breaks my mold.

In conclusion, this assignment has really caused me to stop and tune in to things that I normally do not notice. It is important to know our own styles and habits as it keeps us aware of our potential biases. Once we are aware of these, I think that we have gained access to another level of honesty in our art form.

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.