heritage

&…

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. 

   

  

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Fall 2015 – Reflections and Preparations

There are like a hundred other things that I could/need to be doing right now (sleeping, doing work, sleeping, reading one of the 20 books that are currently on my reading list, sleeping…), but the semester is nearing a close and some reflection and looking toward the future is long over due.

This has been one whirlwind of a semester.  I was crowned Ohio State’s African American Homecoming Queen/Miss Black and Gold (an experience in marginalization that opened my eyes to the reality surrounding students of color on this campus in a new way), and won first runner up in the district Miss Black and Gold pageant as well.  I have delved deeper into my minor in creative writing and discovered just how connected choreography and writing are and found so much confirmation that I am pursuing the right path.  In many ways, I’m excited and can’t believe that I only have three more semesters until my undergraduate career is over, but in other ways I’m so overwhelmed by my looming future.  I’m really excited about the year and a half left because I have decided upon a topic for my senior project and am beginning to embark on that journey.

I took a History, Theory, and Literature of Dance class last spring with the amazing Dr. Hannah Kosstrin (who is serving as the advisor for my senior project, yay!) which focused a great deal about the African/Africanist influence in modern dance (and ballet!) here in America.  My final research paper explored an interest I had in this topic and sought to help me better understand and accept my own self in this history.  The title was “Black Female Bodies in American Culture and Performance.”  This class really ignited a spark in me; I finished the paper, but found myself looking at race, identity, culture and community in almost everything around me.  As I was taking this class and doing this research, I was simultaneously choreographing Bloodlines.  All of these thoughts and ideas are closely bound to my own journey of self-love.  I seek to understand the Black dancing body as a whole in hopes to better know myself and where/how my own body can continue in the steps of my predecessors.

So this is my senior project — continuing to research Blackness in American dance and culture and to develop choreography (group and potentially some solo work) as a response to my research.  I am planning to do a distinction project, which will require me to do defend my thesis before a jury and then do some rewriting.  Overall, I am super excited to begin this journey, and I am incredibly thankful to the women who have inspired and helped me thus far — Dr. Hannah Kosstrin and Bebe Miller.  I am so looking forward to working with the both of them on this endeavor.

Hopefully, I will do a better job in the coming months of documenting my work and you all will be able to join me.

On a side note: I am writing this post on a laptop that I fear will quit on my at any moment… I am in desperate need of a new one that will allow me to record all of my notes and work without worry and unwarranted technological frustration.  If you would like to help me fill this need, please feel free to visit this link and make a donation.  I am so appreciative of every little bit! Thank you 🙂

 

Black Princess in Costa Rican Rainforest

As I and my classmates prepared for this trip to Costa Rica, I found myself wondering what it would be like to be a Black person/woman/American in a Latin American culture. I was interested to see what, if anything, passerby would call me as I had been told that comments such as “Gringo/a” & “blondie” were common. One of the speakers we had come in one of our pre-trip orientation sessions told me that it would not be surprising to hear “negra” as a reference to my skin color (negra = black in Spanish).

There are many cultural things that are unique to Black and African American culture. Often our hair is a topic of many conversations with people of other ethnicities. Currently, my natural hair is cut pretty short, and because I tend to sweat in my hair a lot, it doesn’t keep a style for very much when I’m dancing heavily. That being said, I decided to get flat braids done before I left for San Josè so that it would be easy to deal with & require less maintenance. I wasn’t surprised that one of my first experiences with my host family was about my hair style. My host dad, Carlos touched my hair and told me that it was “muy bonito.” He then asked me how long it took; my response of “about 2 hrs” astonished him. Internally I laughed, because I’ve had braids styles that have taken 8+ hours to do.

During my 1st year here at OSU, I have fallen in love with wearing head scarves. I have a couple that used to be my mom’s; they are over twenty years old which makes them near & dear to me. I brought them with me on this trip because I knew that I wanted to have some versatility and not always wear my hair out. I wore one for the majority of our weekend trip to the beautiful Manuel Antonio National Park.

There, everyone seemed to have this incredibly positive and intrigued response to my scarves. I’ve worn them before, but never to such critical acclaim. One of the highlights of the trip was when our sweet bus driver, Marvin, called me his “Jamaican niña.” In Costa Rica, my scarf seemed to connect me with a culture that I’ve always appreciated, but with which I have never personally identified. I will agree, combined with the lovely dark brown the Costa Rican sun turned my skin, I acquired a rather Caribbean look.

At Playa Manuel Antonio, I had a really Pura Vida experience with a cool Tico that struck up a conversation with me because my scarf reminded him of his mother. He was of mixed ethnicities: his mother was a black woman from the Caribbean side of the country, and his father was from the Pacific side. We ended up taking a photo together & becoming Facebook friends.

On Friday, several of my cohorts and I were dining at Cafe Kalu, a phenomenal cafe that I would recommend as a stop for anyone visiting San Jose. I was wearing my favorite purple scarf that day because I had actually taken my braids out because they had gotten wet at the beach. My table had just placed our order when the server came back to my table with a dessert. I was protesting that it wasn’t mine when she told me that “someone among us likes the way you wear your scarf and wanted to buy you dessert.” I was shocked. Later, the man came to my table and explained himself. He told me that he was happy to see me displaying such a bright and colorful symbol of my heritage and that he hoped that I carried it with pride and continue to do so. The encounter brought one of my Asian American friends to tears and quite literally made my day.

For me, the experience was the best moment of the trip. It gave me an increased awareness of how my personal appearance allows people to perceive me. It was ironic to me that my scarves brought me so much when the real reason that I wear them has very little to do with my heritage. Most of the time, I don’t like the way my hair looks and don’t want to share the mess with the world. Being in Costa Rica has brought an entirely new meaning to my head adornment. Previously, I felt more of a connection to African culture than Caribbean culture when I wore a scarf, but now I have an appreciation for the whole of black women everywhere that have been crowning themselves with beautiful cloths for centuries, from African queens and princesses to regular, everyday women like me today.

Dancing in Diversity

The college experience is often said to be a hands on experiment with and exposure to the “real world.”  There is so much emphasis about diversity in culture, ethnicity, faith, etc.  But why should diversity be limited?  Why cannot the dance world be explored in terms of diversity?  As a freshman dance major here at the Ohio State University, I am learning on a first-hand basis how diverse my passion is.

Last week, in my freshman seminar class, we interviewed several individuals across the globe in Europe and South America.  I found it incredibly interesting to see that there are Italians dancing in Sweden and to learn about the state of the dance world in Buenos Aires.  Not only are people crossing cultures and creating incredible multiethnic dance companies and groups, they are bringing their individual heritage to their work.  To me, it is extremely heartening to see that earning a living by dancing in a community or country other than my own will not cost me my heritage.  Jessica Andrenacci, one of our interviewees, said something really striking, “Multinational dance allows you to learn more about yourself and others also.”  One of the things that is most beautiful to me about dance is that different dancers can bring so many diverse things to the art form simply by gathering from their life experiences.  It creates life and breath in choreography, taking humble steps and turning them into something powerful.

For me, dance has always been an incredibly global idea.  I have always said that one of the reasons I want to be a professional dancer is because I want to see the world.  It would be the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to have my passion for dance take me to places I could never go otherwise.  I also think it would benefit me greatly as a human and as an artist to be able to observe and take part in cultures other than my own.

Currently, I am taking a class in classical Odissi dance, a traditional Indian dance form.  My respect for the precise, exact grace of the movements has only increased throughout the course.  Simple things like taking a class in a cultural dance form can broaden an artist’s perspective in an innovative and unique way.  I feel that such experiences are fundamental to the growth and continued vitality of dance in the world we live in today.