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Delta Debacle

TO:  Delta Airlines

RE:  Luggage Debacle, Skymiles #2242857007

 

August 7, 2019

 

To Whom It May Concern:

As is usually the case, I received via email an invitation to share my feedback on my experience flying Delta from Nassau, Bahamas to Kennedy Airport in New York.  I am accustomed to these emails, as I fly Delta a lot, and I normally rate the company highly based on cursory performance expectations outlined in the survey.

I was so enraged at the scenario I experience this last time, however, that a general survey response is insufficient.   

I am a professional dancer/aerialist touring with Cher most of the time, and Management there tries to ensure that the majority of my flights to and from these engagements are through Delta. My assistant also books flights for outside contracting gigs and personal trips on Delta as well. A family matter arose that required me to be in Atlanta at the tail end of my trip to the Bahamas.  Understanding that I spend an inordinate amount of time on planes and buses, my assistant, who saw my extended layover in Atlanta on the return Tuesday 7/30, simply booked a separate one-way flight from Atlanta to New York on 8/4 in lieu of attempting to change the flight.    

When I arrived at Nassau Airport, representative at the check-in counter assured me that although he could do little to alter the bag check destination, the airline would be able to pull my luggage in Atlanta, as it is Delta’s hub.  But when I made it to Atlanta and approached an agent at the in-terminal flight desk, I was told immediately that there was no way that my bag could be pulled.   It did not matter that this conversation was taking place at around 3:00 p.m., more than six full hours before my originally scheduled second leg.  As vexed as I was that I was at Hartsfield Airport, which boasts regularly over their PA about its superior, state-of-the-art efficiency, the Delta representative offered absolutely no explanation.

The officiate at the baggage claim office was equally cryptic.  She said simply that once a bag is tagged, there is no way to alter its course, even at Delta’s hub.

The Delta representative at the call center not only refuted this, she had the presence of mind to look at my travel plans beyond that day. When she realized I had also a separate, purchased returned ticket to New York for Sunday, she explained the position of the airline.  The stark policy I ran into is a response to efforts by some passengers to thwart full fares using a website called SkipLagged, which is designed to provide the cheapest airfare by combing the airline options to find layover cities that can become final destinations.  To discourage people from exploiting whatever algorithm the site uses to generate these possibilities, Delta will check luggage only to the final destination of the purchased ticket with no alternatives.  Period.

Understanding this was hardly my intention—and that I did not buy my ticket on the site—the representative authorized Hartsfield baggage personnel to pull my luggage.  She was kind, affable and efficient, instructing me to return to the airport as soon as possible so that staff there would have time to comply with protocols on file with my itinerary.

Except that once they found the notes (which was only after it dawned on me to give them the confirmation number for the Sunday return ticket instead of the initial international flight), and sent word to the intermediary ground facility where my luggage waited, they still could not promise my luggage would not board the JFK-bound flight without me.  I was incredulous, protesting that at this point, even if I wanted to use take the return flight home that night and worry about getting back to Atlanta on a new flight—no doubt on a different airline—Delta could not guarantee one way or the other what baggage handlers on the floor would do with the revision, nor if they would get it in time.

At this point I was livid.  

Delta had basically promised that there was no way they could ensure that I would be with my belongings by the end of the night, regardless of whether I chose to take my initial flight.  The representative gave me a phone number to call the JFK baggage claim directly, should my luggage end up there, to ask if they might forward the bag to me in Atlanta the next day.

The phone number was not only incorrect, it belonged to a private citizen to whom I had to apologize for disrupting.  Yes, this was the listing that the Delta Airlines baggage claim number in Atlanta had for its associate office in New York. Wow.

My guess is that I need not unpack more; the ineptitude of this entire operation is plain.   Staff at an airline hub were unable to authorize a reasonable solution to a customer issue, and then doubled-down by lacking the agency to comply with the solution set forth by the airline. How does an airline with $45 billion of revenue at the end of June 2019, with increases of over 6% annually for the last two years (and 8% the year before), have such a massive problem internally communicating—and executing—its own directives?

I had more questions.  Do Delta agents in all departments of customer service have access to the same dossier of passenger travel that is available to each of us on the app?  Does the frequency of travel and loyalty to the airline matter outside of reward status?  Does the corporate culture of Delta include some kind of cursory understanding of the dangers of open letters like this one from professionals in various industries who might make their discontent known on a grand scale?

Let’s try that last one another way:  Is there something in the training that would alert a Delta employee that when the customer mentions in passing his associate choreographer position with Cher, which may weighs into the luggage conundrum, it might be a good idea to follow up with something other than a hands-tied, dismissive apology, lest letters like this one get published on the internet?

Granted, I have no illusions that my airline patronage (or that of Cher’s tour for that matter) could even begin to dent a $45-billion revenue.  But I still have these questions nevertheless.  And it astonishes me that extreme, almost irreversible measures were put in place to curtail skip laggers from lowering Delta’s fierce bottom line.

I took a chance and decided to stay in Atlanta with hopes that the baggage handlers did indeed get the news, although no one could tell me when to come check.  When I made the first of two trips back to the airport, the baggage representative explained that at midnight, the system resets and the notes attached to my confirmation number would disappear, meaning that I would need to call Delta and go through the entire process again to make sure my luggage did not end up on an early morning flight to JFK.  Finally, someone took my phone number and vowed to watch out for the bag, and called so that I could make a second trip to the airport.

I got my bag at around 11:30 p.m.  

I sincerely hope you all really consider these questions in your effort to “keep climbing.”

 

Thanks,

 

Jamal Story

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Met Gala

I love a good surprise.   

I’m usually on the giving versus receiving end, so helping surprise a room full of celebrities by showing up on stage with Cher was a delight.

But this time, I got got.

First of all, being in New York on tour in rehearsals for the Met Gala and keeping it a secret from everyone in my world was challenging, especially since the majority of my NY family are in the business. The NDA we signed just to rehearse in the museum was three pages.  We were asked to remove any swag with Cher’s name on it just so that set-up staff working the event could infer nothing.  I’m still not sure from my conversation with Harry Styles backstage before the event if he even knew whom he was introducing. And staying mum was not just a matter of NDA job requirement, it was also about protecting myself.

The thing is, I am a hopeless fashion tragedy, a disgrace to prided homosexual values (however stereotypic), a parade of rebellion against efforts to look fabulous all the time. My gay card was temporarily revoked regularly by colleagues and friends – especially when I was on Broadway.  Compounding the abomination was my tendency to drape large flowy clothes all over what they consider a brilliant frame; this was wasteful.   I reminded them that as a dance captain on Broadway maintaining the show and putting people in it, I was basically always in rehearsal or performing, so why add costume changes?  And I loved winter because layering was essential (and slightly forgiven).   Still, out of love, Motown the Musical friends were the worst:

“No, Jamal, that’s not tight! Those pants don’t even fit!”

“The boot cut is done. Throw those away.”

“You look homeless. Really, you do. It’s not okay.”

“Just don’t wear anything. It would be such an improvement.”

I made efforts to defend myself to approximate the sense that I was wounded by these attacks.  But my lack of shame angered friends even more.

Eric LaJuan, who slayed his Jackie Wilson, Rick James and Billy Gordon roles nightly and would just shake his head in dismay every time I walked into our double dressing room, is in some corner of heaven—designer pants sewn onto his thighs—sipping a drink in disbelief.

Because the fact that I would now be at probably the most highly anticipated fashion event of the year is, well ironic—especially since I scarcely understood its industry importance.

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Zara / Top shop options.

Here is how it went down:

In rehearsal for the Gala, Diana Craig Patch, curator for the Egyptian collection at the Met, gives us a crash course in the fragile 1st Century BC sandstone Temple of Dendur, in front of which we would dance but not face squarely while exhaling.  I hug Bob Mackie. I joke with Baz Luhrmann as he stands in for Serena on stage left so that Melanie can incorporate into the rehearsal escorting her to her mark. We space the numbers and then started running things. When I am standing on the platform far out into the house, I spot an impossibly statuesque and short woman below me whose hair brings to mind Anna Wintour. I smile at her mid-step, connecting no dots.

Later, she comes over and thanks us all for being there, honored that we are performing.  She says other things as well, but I am busy berating myself for not processing sooner who she is, for not remembering that she annually coordinates the hell out of this event. I am cutting my eyes up at Eric whose I-told-you-so’s drop down and side-saddle every word Anna Wintour speaks.  

“I just want to know,” Ms. Wintour asks, “what will you all be wearing?”

Now, understand that I am on my knees talking to Cher when she arrives, and although the entire creative team are there, I am closest in proximity. Yet for an answer, she looks dead at me.  Not Melanie, who had the microphone for most of the rehearsal, not Cher or her famous manager who are sweating distance from me. 

And this is the real one, so yes, yes, that was a question, directed to the one person who could scarcely remember the colors of the costumes, let alone reference anything in the lexicon of fashion that would quickly get the paragon editor of Vogue the gist.

“As little as possible, of course,” I say.

Laughter.

Relief.

“That sounds great,” she says.

But I was not out of the woods.  A last-minute change required that I go buy a pair of stylish pants with holes in them, pants that fit. My large open sweater with the hood worked great provided I wore it with no shirt. But now I had the painstaking task of trying to dress this body.

For a number with Cher.

At the Met Gala.

Eric Lajuan is now surely in a full kiki, as I tromp from store to store trying on pants, irritated at how invasive they are, taking pictures to send to Baz Halpin (yes there were two), determined to find more boot options so as not to deal with exposing my Achilles—which is the new style.  I long for the bell bottom to come back.  Has nobody read about Achilles and how Paris of Troy slew him?

I consider this, as well as my healthy level of respect for Anna Wintour, who has taught naysayers the ways in which fashion affects all the business sector industries that consider themselves more important.  This is reason enough to surrender to the task at hand.

Of course, my private fashion odyssey proves worth it – the surprise Cher unleashes on that camp-clad room of celebrities is epic. While we wait, I teach Harry Styles how to pony  backstage right side where we warm up - he learns quickly! Soon after, Lady Gaga and dancers from the hit show Pose stand by so that she can introduce them.  In their blue and green catsuits festooned with keychains, key rings and keys, they turn it. I understand a few of the keys may have sailed into some of the camp drag in the audience, but it seems entirely appropriate for gay house culture to smack our consciousness any time it can.

Then, as is the case with “special appearance” gigs, the variable come fast:

Serena is stunning.

The stage is slick as hell.

Tracee Ellis Ross looks amazing. Flirt with her.

Watch your boss because stage left is slickest.

What did we decide for this non-shield alternative here?

EPHRAIM SYKES???

JAWAN JACKSON??

This is the moment I get got. Surprise!  Two family members from Motown the Musical along with others I love from the close knit black Broadway tribe, make themselves known to me.  They are here no doubt because of they are amazing as The Temptations in Ain’t Too Proud. So no it is not handsome RuPaul or ecstatic Sarah Paulson or real marvel(ous) avenger Naomi Campbell who surprise me.  It is my talented friends who are there to witness me at this fashion event.

I gag in high definition.

When it is time for me to leave the stage and trek to the platform at the edge of the audience my friends accost me.  We have a quick, hug festival reunion, temporarily leaving the Met Gala and entering the bliss of comfort that only comes with this kind of familiarity.  

Word to the wise: when an icon is on stage, everyone does everything they can to get close.  We are as far away from it as possible at the platform, so the bulk of my audience are the dancers from Pose. I could not have asked for better.  Never in my career was a developpe a la seconde into a back fall more necessary.

I finish the number, exit, make the costume change into our black for If I Could Turn Back Time and come back to stage.  Because we were added at the last minute, the dancers are thinking about blocking. I am no exception. Even with 17 years of hearing the song in shows, I work to bring it to my consciousness.  Punch on turn, back and time. Peace out on reach, the and stars. Switch positions on key cues…

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I dash past the many celebrities at the King Arthur-style table on house right to make it to the platform for the end of the number when I realize that Serena is not on the corresponding side of the party; she is where I first saw her stage right.  This means Melanie cannot escort her on to the stage.

After Cher leaves, I fly past the King Arthur table, run up the stairs, sprint across the stage to the other side and jump off of it to land in front of Serena. 

I extend my hand.

“I got you.”

She comes with me up the stairs.  Crisis averted.

There is a misconception that because you perform at the Met Gala you are attending the Met Gala.  It’s hogwash.  The minute we are done, we are whisked to the green room to get out of costume and beat the parade of Escalades and Cadillacs getting stars out of the building.

I peel off the Top Shop pants, cursing (and missing) my Broadway family and friends.  

Then over a very strong margarita, I work out how to tell this story.  I am wearing a large, blissfully comfy pair of black sweat pants…

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How to Remember the Time

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The MJ Dilemma 


Over the past month and a half, I have been asked several times my thoughts on Leaving Neverland.  I stood down every time, assuming interest in my talking head was only about my proximity to the world of superstardom—I danced with Madonna early in my career and with Cher currently.

But when a family member asked recently, I could see the desperation in her eyes deeper than scoop lust:  she needed help sorting years of love for the King of Pop with the moral dilemma of jamming to his music despite absolutely compelling allegations.  The ignorance that was bliss, an ignorance that often insulates us from the imperfections of  our beloved icons, is gone.

It dawned on me then that many of us are having the wrong conversation, since beneath “Did he do it?” is the trouble of what to do with the flashback to that kiss when The Way You Make Me Feel came out. Or how to now process the triumph of self-esteem from successfully learning the entire Thriller dance break as a teenager after so many MTV airings.  Although Michael Jackson is a worldwide icon, America for sure has always struggled with disposability politics muddled by a firm situating of celebrities on Rushmore high pedestals.  Our better-than-you society, braised in capitalism and seasoned with calibrated likes on Instagram, enjoys the luau of pardon-heavy praise and worship.

It is not a new phenomenon. 

We went through this with Bill Cosby only moments ago when TV executives, hip to the presence of #metoo in the Zeitgeist and afraid of bottom line endangerment, tossed the entire collection of The Cosby Show episodes, even at the expense of the good work of dozens of writers, producers, actors, guest stars and consultants accused of raping no one.  And a quick glance at the music industry will give us a full gamut of miscreants, from Phil Spector to Ike Turner, from Peter Yarrow to James Brown, all with substantial cultural contributions to consider. Through it all, consumers generally have to tough out whether it is okay to enjoy the art despite the artist.  (Conspicuously—and on purpose—I exclude R. Kelley from the dialogue, mainly because the art he released commented on the alleged crimes in real time, i.e., Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.)

            Those of us who work alongside these entertainment paragons get to see firsthand that they are people first. We learn to accept them on their own terms.  We realize their fallibility. Unencumbered by the magic that floats stars over our heads, we get to be less conflicted. We know the eyebrow-raisers, and we sign NDA addendums with our contracts because managers know we know.  Often, the result is that we love them more. 

            Mostly, we truly get the one thing that I explained to my friend: reconciling is less about indicting or exonerating  Michael Jackson than it is about making room to accept that all of the things can be true IF they are:  he was a history-making artist of epic proportions, he was the phenomenal standard of brilliant musicianship, he was an active philanthropist devoted to raising money to fight AIDS and hunger, and he was a adult with a troubled childhood and questionable, inappropriate relationships with little boys.

            It can all be true.

Aside from the fact that disposing wholesale of a phenomenon like Michael Jackson means also dumping from your playlist the music of any artists whose brands were inspired directly by him (bye Usher, bye Mario, bye Justin, etc.), it makes no sense to squash the moral compass here.  When we buy a pair of jeans, we understand that brand transparency be damned, there is no way to ensure that some of the 73 million kids worldwide working in hazardous conditions for pennies at this very moment did not construct the denim.  Reading this article on an iPhone means supporting a company whose inhumane manufacturing contract with Foxconn subjects workers to 60 brutal hours a week of standing on swollen legs and occasional dying from explosions.  The list of responsible consumer checks goes on.  Although we try, this kind of consistency is untenable because we live in an America anchored on oppression and churned by greed.

And soundtracked by a brutal music industry, however shiny, that is known to chew, suck and spit.

So let’s have this other conversation instead, on how to make peace with a whole human truth no matter how great (and possibly damaged) the human, on how to dismantle those pedestals and find new ways to regard these artists and their work. 

  Maybe there, we can find permission to listen, permission to continue varnishing memories that Michael Jackson’s music accompanied.

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Hairgency

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In all sixteen years I’ve danced for Cher, my one physical challenge has not changed: the hair problem.

For most of my post-adolescent life before her, I enjoyed a low-maned, maintenance free existence. Get up in the morning and go. Rub something on it and call it a day.

Until Doriana, then director/choreographer, told me our boss is a hair girl. “Do not cut it. Period.”

This Samson edict has been manageable with few hiccoughs except on tour. Granted, the constant toggle between numbers with headpieces and numbers with hair out has been taxing, and made funner with quick-changes. But after a certain length of hair the only solution is cornrows.

In Melbourne’s South Yarra, this means struggle.

Now, in my younger days, I would chase the do. I horrified friends and family by trekking to somebody’s living room in Southside Chicago after the cashier at the CVS offered to braid my hair when she got off. And was it Glasgow where Akua @onlyupward, who was at Dance Theatre of Harlem at the time on their UK tour, rowed my stuff back in the hotel?

But post-youngster, the stakes are a little higher, as is my position at work. So I aim for tamer pursuits.

I ask the concierge if they can recommend any places.

They cannot.

The local physical therapist mentions a stylist at an upscale salon nearby.

No appointments this week.

On the way to pick up a white sweater I saw the day before, I see a trio of beautiful chocolate women walking toward me. I stop them and ask the one with braids where I can get cornrows.

“Footscray.”

The others nod vigorously,

“Oh yeah, it’s nothing like this area but you’ll be fine,” another says.

“Can I get to it by train?”

“Oh yes, it’s a stop on the train line.”

“And is there a certain place I should find once I get there?”

The ladies look to each other for confirmation before one says, “No, just go. You’ll be fine.”

The handsome Turk running the Cipo and Baxx disagrees.

“You don’t want to go there, man,” he says. “That’s the ghetto. I’m sure we can find somewhere closer to get you what you want.”

“You think so? Go for it.”

He 90’s-baby’s that phone, gets a number, calls it. “…Yes cornrows…for a man…how much…$110?…and when is your next appointment….next Tuesday.”

He is appalled on my behalf.

“You know what, Footscray is not so dangerous,” he says. “I can’t imagine it’s like the ghettos in Chicago or Detroit. I just know Australia gives off this impression that because the murder rate is among the lowest in the world there’s no crime. There is theft and vandalism every day, organized theft.”

Organize theft? Turns out that segregated gangs of Pacific Islanders, Sudanese, (mostly white) bikers, and Vietnamese thugs take things from people quite a bit, the primary targets Indians in descent.

“Why Indians?”

“They’re thought to be more nicer, gentle people.”

Never in my black American life have I heard people from India stereotyped as docile. Now, my quest for a hair solution on tour has run me into new stereotypes, international misconceptions and consideration of ghettos.

When I make it to Footscray, I understand what the three ladies mean. Folks from two different regions of Africa stand on the corner near a Chinese woman and two Indian men, waiting for the light. The entire area looks very much like a well-kept swapmeet of sorts, with a coffee shop down the road that could still slay Starbucks. I walk toward it and run upon a barber shop and salon. Assuming that if there is probably one woman in there, she can probably braid hair, I check it out.

A woman with a baby and stroller is having a time with the door. I help out. A young Ethiopian joins me and I pray she is my answer. She is.

“Show me what you want.”

I pull out a picture of Collin Kaepernick.

“Sure. I can do it. $50. This okay?”

“Yep.”

“You sure?”

She had no idea how much stylized braids cost in the states, nor how beneficial the exchange rate was for us.

Nor that my hairgency superseded cost concerns at this point.

“I promise it is.”

She begins combing out my hair.

“Feel free to braid product into if necessary.”

She shakes her head. “Your hair is nice. It combs out easily.”

She looks at the picture again and begins to strategically part my hair. The braid feels amazing. I try not to compare her to the Nigerian women in Harlem that are painfully skilled - emphasis on painfully. Memories of a face pulled so frozen that Botox would be jealous came back. The difference is that with Bella, my current hair solver, I am able to hear her story, that she is a nursing student who prefers hip hop and R&B to Ethiopian music.

A barber, most likely the alpha, comes over to look at Kaepernick on my phone and converse with her in Tigrinya, one of the widely spoken tongues in Ethiopia. I interrupt the music only to explain to him that the longer pull of hair into the the center is the aspect of the picture I want them to copy, not so much the number of braids. He explains this. I am thrilled that I have these two beautiful East Africans sorting out my hair in a language I seldom hear.

I sneak a photo.

It takes Bella only 40 minutes to braid my whole head. During this time, I ask her if this area is as mild as I think it is.

“It’s not too dangerous. If you are a good person, do your thing, people don’t bother you.”

“yeah, then Footscray is not ghetto to a black American.”

“You’re black?”

I am astonished. It takes a second to process that it is not my skin color; the gradient spread of Ethiopians in the shop is as wide as any other part of the black diaspora. She is reacting to my hair. Because I washed and conditioned it 36 hours ago, it cooperated with her comb way too easily. The sisters who pioneered the Mixed Chicks line would be intrigued - and verified.

“Yes, Bella,” I say. “All day long and evenings too.”

When she finishes, the beautiful alpha barber who turns out to be the owner asks his associate, Yousef, to edge me up. He is as meticulous as Bella, and I am glad to have nothing to do other than wander around the museum later. Somehow, the music has now shifted to Jay-Z, Will.i.am, Nicki Minaj.

There is dissent about how much Yousef should be paid. I want to sort it out, agree to the higher fee. But I selfishly enjoy the musicality of the argument. Solo handles it (I tip Yousef to make up the deficit).

Hair problem solved once again. We’ll see what happens in Sydney.

In the meantime, if anybody black finds themselves in metropolitan Melbourne needing braids, an edge or both, go to Footscray, specifically Solo’s shop on Paisley Street, IG @solo.barber.footscray.

Bella was kind enough to share with me the word for Thank You in Ahmaric, the other widely used tongue in her homeland: Amesegenalehu.

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Indeed. Amesegenalehu indeed.


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The Art of Conviction

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Aboriginal art already hangs in my house.  On tour in 2005, the last time I was here, I bought enough to share with family members. Prints, limited editions, small works of eels, watering holes, mimi spirits, goannas.   Because at that time, I could not walk three blocks without seeing a boutique gallery specializing in the sale of indigenous art.  And as a student of aboriginal culture, I owed it to myself to make this sacred energy a part of my housewarming.

Thirteen years later, finding this art it is like re-enacting a CSI episode. 

In Brisbane, the hotel sent me to a gallery in Fortitude Valley that had only art I cannot afford.  Another curator down the street from there explained that fraud trends closed down several shops. New policies on the sale of art have also complicated matters.

So in Melbourne, I head to the Koori Heritage Trust, cultural preservers of the First Nations population of south-east Australia.  The facility has no art for purchase but sends me to a place called The Torch in St. Kilda.

Sarah, the woman who works there, is new. But in cosmic harmony, Kent Morris, the man who runs the place, walks in behind me.

I tell him about my art pursuit.

“You’ve come to the right place,” Kent says.  “The Torch is a non-profit that uses art to support incarcerated indigenous men and women with opportunities for life after prison and income for their families while they are in prison.”

As he says more, I study a few gorgeous pieces in the lobby gallery of the small shop.  One large, detailed one in particular stands out. 

“That one is quite special and it’s here because we are preparing to photograph it for an upcoming book about The Torch,” Kent explains. “A Victorian ex-premiere, Jeff Kennett, saw it and wanted to buy it. When I told him that Victorian government policy prohibited prisoners from making money, even under these circumstances, he wanted to find out more about what The Torch did and is now chairman of the board.”

The circumstances are that while Indigenous Australians account for only 3% of the population—partly due to the attempted genocide they suffered on Tasmania and on the mainland—they comprise 28% of the nation’s prison population. Thus, they are the most incarcerated ethnic group or race on the planet per capita.

They are being put away not just for criminality that comes out of displacement from their homeland, or extreme need in neighborhoods rendered inhumane from resource reduction, or lack of consideration of domestic abuse during sentencing. They are also fifteen times more likely than whites to be convicted for swearing.

Swearing.

Kent peppers his lessons with references that suggest a personal connection to aboriginal culture. I try to infer, confused.  

“My father was always worried about what might happen to me and my sister due to discrimination he faced as child. And I never understood the worry because we don’t look like him. But over time I learned that once people find out you’re Aboriginal at all, discrimination can follow.”

And this is when I understand. This white man before me is of direct Aboriginal descent.  Suddenly, I see the clear features, more robust than narrow, the set of the eyes, the shape of the mouth. But of course anywhere in the world, this man would present as nothing other than white. Not fair-skinned. Not passing. White. We speak of being white adjacent in America. We understand the penalties of even black association (see the movie Mud for a well-executed, contemporary version of this). But I had never considered the penalties of black adjacency, and in this case I mean adjacent by bloodline, not by way of pursuit.   Whereas proximity to whiteness in terms of skin color still affects ones station back home, Aboriginal people are so reviled from both racist and xenophobic places that Kent loses a massive chunk of his privilege the minute people learn his heritage.

I relate a recent conversation I had with a white Aussie who, after acknowledging the horrors inflicted on Aboriginal people, posited that countless social programs exist to ease indigenous transition into mainstream society. That Aboriginals are recalcitrant, combative and uninterested. Lazy.

“Did he mention that the condition is that you give up all of your beliefs, all aspects of your culture? You have to separate from your family permanently and bring nothing of your traditions with you.”

The answer is no, he did not. And what a civilized deal.

The ex-premiere helped Kent and his non-profit negotiate with the state government to alter the government policy so that these prisoners, most of whom were locked up for petty offenses in an effort to covertly extend holocaust, have a chance at life outside.   The goal:  that 100% of the proceeds from sales go to the artists directly. No split. No sharing. No cut for the prison system or the state.

How does Torch stay afloat?

Kent tells me as I comb through dozens of original and magnificent canvases that they have laid out for me to browse.

“Donors sponsor the 10% commission,” Kent explains. “We can at least raise this.”

I am beyond impressed.

There are scarves too, beautiful silk scarves made by an inmate at one of the women’s prisons. I must also budget for at least three, lest the recipient of one inspire some hateration from other loved ones.

Two hours later, Sarah notes that none of the work I select has been priced.  She promises to gather the information as soon as she can.

In the meantime, I struggle to figure out what wall space can be cleared in my house…

 

For more on this and to see the art, please visit www.thetorch.org.auIf you look through the gallery, know that the pictures do this art no justice.

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Missing Mr. Mitchell

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cheata term that describes exploiting the audience lack of depth perception to “pretend” to look at a person or persons upstage (behind) of your profile sight line in an effort not to turn the head or body too far from front.

I had never worked with Arthur Mitchell.

              During my senior year of college, a close friend auditioned for Dance Theater of Harlem’s studio company with a video of us dancing Raymonda. They offered me a gig too, but I turned it down, in part because at the time I was secretly afraid that I would never be able to meet the aesthetic and technical standards of a New York ballet company, especially one founded on the principle that black dancers can and have to do it better. 

              Last year, glorious retired DTH principal Lorraine Graves, for whom I have no No’s, called and invited me to dance I’ll Be Seeing You for the concert portion of a Columbia University effort to archive work connected to Mr. Mitchell.  

At the tech rehearsal, Lorraine attempts to introduce me to him and I attempt to re-meet him. 

              He shoos me away and I flee, relieved there is no fly swat.

              He shouts at my friends on stage as if they are still tweens learning to stand up correctly.  These are venerable, google-worthy colleagues like Alicia Graf and Paunika Jones and Akua Parker, who have had laudable careers and enviable levels of discipline in their bodies. He loves them like they are his.

              Yet they can do no right.

              In an escape attempt, I try to apply all of their notes.  I run my solo, in which a shirt is used to represent a loved one who has passed on.  There are gestures before the music starts. 

“What is that? What is he holding?”

If I can hear it closely from the stage, Lorraine’s ears are scorched. I continue dancing, understanding that now I have to be pretty flawless to thwart annihilation.

I carry on with the synecdoche. More gestures. Feelings. The shirt reminds me of the loved one. I bring it to my chest to feel it close.

              “Well is he smelling the shirt?”  It comes as a javelin from the house, less a question than an accusation.

              When I get off stage, Mr. Mitchell asks me what the solo is about.

              “It’s about an experience of loss. The year Lorraine saw it, three black male dancers in three different generations had passed, including Albert Evans—”  

              “What does that have to do with me?”

              Every answer that might work seems fraught with button-pushing potential toward my demise.  Giving him his flowers while he’s living might imply that he’s a relic on the way to extinction.  Explaining my connection to his legacy via the resurgence of DTH through studio performances years back might invite him to ask why I never auditioned while he was the artistic director.   And I’d sooner yank out my tongue than use it to throw Lorraine under the bus, although she probably has a small flat there when she’s coordinating for Mr. Mitchell.  I am stumped. I reply the best way I can.

“I wanted to perform it as a tribute to you because of your influence on us all.”

It suffices. Barely.  He proceeds to re-choreograph the top of the solo. I follow every instruction, noting that since he did the same with Rasta Thomas earlier (see paragraph above about venerable colleagues), I am in good company. To make the soft cotton read as a garment, I have to keep it buttoned for the whole piece, which means I cannot put it on at any point during the solo.  I adjust.

              Then for the show, Mr. Mitchell sits in a special downstage right, just beyond the proscenium, and proceeds to curate the evening. No wonder the interview; he needed to know what to say.

  He plans to introduce each piece before we dance. 

We are horrified.  

Brooklyn Mack (another paragon to add above) and I pray for Mr. Mitchell’s microphone to be off during the pieces, until we realized that he is situated so close that his commentary would need no amplifying.  Somehow, we all arrive from this unscathed, and I am thrilled when the smile he returns to my bow is warm.

              Months later, for another intimate dance event Mr. Mitchell would curate, Paunika asks me to dance with her a 1970’s pas de deux from a piece made on titans Keith Saunders and James Washington.   I immediately prepare my spirit for brutalizing rehearsals, a few deep digs, an alert that really I’ve sucked all along, perhaps some admonishment for not training at DTH. Etc.  It’s old-school and borderline abusive, but because I’ve already been beat up and broken down by similar mentors, I am ready to be blessed with anything Mr. Mitchell has for me.

Unfortunately, a fall at a gala takes him out of commission for a while, leaving Paunika and me to our own devices.

              On the day of the show, after the four, half-hour tech rehearsals that run from 9 to 11 a.m., just as Rasta Thomas, NYCB principals Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar, and Paunika and I are heading to the dressing room to prepare and right before the stage would be cleared so that the house could open, Mr. Mitchell swoops in. When I say swoops, I mean that he enters as robustly as an octogenarian recovering from a recent fall can, determined, focused and angry at the cane for its necessity.

              “Okay, let’s begin. I need to see everything.”

              As soon as he sits, a beautiful older black woman with a glorious neckline and joy in her eyes comes to hug and kiss him. She may as well be a swarm of wasps because he shoos her too.

              “Not now, I need to do this. I’m busy.”  

(I feel instantly better when I later learn that she was one of his first principal ballerinas ever.)

              The dancers know better than to speak unless spoken to, reserving our admiration, greetings and hugs for some other point in the distant, post-show future.

              “Let’s start with Doina.”

              It isn’t even first on the program.

              Without looking squarely at him, I see Rasta laughing. He was generous enough to help us earlier by giving us at least one brief rehearsal with notes and suggestions.  He also knows that I ran the pas de deux twice moments before, which means this first one for Mr. Mitchell would make three before the performance, if I made it through with just one run. I feel Rasta’s prayers and sympathies.

              I do not complain. I go to my place Stage Left, grab Paunika out of a handstand and assort her on to my body so that I can enter slowly with her.

              “Use your stomach muscles. You have to use your stomach muscles to roll up,” he says.

              She is the target this time, thank God.  He shouts a few notes to me as well, stern enough to dare me to get any of them wrong.

              Then it was time for Maria and Amar in Balanchine’s Agon pas de deux.  Silent, I sit on the side and watch Mr. Mitchell rehearse this masterpiece made on him over half a century ago.  The clarity of his insights blows my mind.

“Remember,” he says, “she can’t do anything without you. You lead all of it.”

Very much how Mr. Mitchell lived his life, leading “all of it” in the face of guerrilla racism, providing generations of dancers shoulders to stand on.  This was a man notorious for crazy goings-on, for coordinating dancer proficiency expectations with the zodiac, for terrorizing the entire administration of his company, for being general irascible most of the time.  But privilege is when nothing—not even inhumane Big Brother tyranny (Steve Jobs), nor a very public marriage to your step-daughter (Woody Allen)—besmirches the gratitude history pays your legacy.  Privilege. And as a black man from anywhere, Mr. Mitchell had none.  As I sit on the floor learning, I understand how important it is to balance this deficit with our stories.  It means understanding the paradox of pioneering blackness into an inherently exclusive aesthetic art form while maneuvering around the tendrils of it that cradle self-hatred. It means forgiving him for places where he might have fallen short.  

He had the self-esteem to lead all of it nevertheless.

Rasta tells me after this 92nd Street Y noon-time performance that Mr. Mitchell complimented his performance from Columbia based on a subsequent video viewing. 

“He saw it though, right from on stage, yes?” I ask.

“Not really. He was cheating.”

“Lies!” All that stress only to find out he missed a lot of it until he saw the video,

“He was concerned about lighting that cheekbone. You know that man is vain.”

And I am so much better for it.

The whole world is so much better for it.  

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How #aborigines #Cher and #dance came together

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When I boarded the plane for the 15-hour flight to Sydney, I did not have an itinerary with our rehearsal and performance schedule over the six days I'd be working there.  But somehow, I knew that I would connect with the First Nation. I would find time, by hook, crook or sleeplessness.  

You see, the last time I was in Australia, I had just read Marlo Morgan's cultural immersion testimony, Mutant Message Down Under.   This only encouraged to me to refresh my research on everything I thought I needed to know about the aboriginal community there.  And when I got there, I bought lots of aboriginal art from the artists with corresponding perspective and DNA.  This way, my house could receive these vibes every day, and my walls would remind me daily how simply and wholly and positively life can be lived. 

So I had to connect.  And the universe (or perhaps a kind mimi spirit) responded. In January of this year, a small, but powerful contingent of First Nation dancers came to the International Association of Blacks in Dance Conference (IABD) 30th Anniversary conference and festival, bearing a wonderful energy of exchange, presence and warmth.  And my downstairs neighbor reminded me that she was a dance presenter over in Sydney and that she could connect me with local concert dance forces there.  

One of them invited me to do a full interview at Koori Radio, Sydney's First Nations radio station.  I couldn't have been more thrilled.  I hopped on the train, to Redfern, had a beautiful latte in a small cafe near the station, and then sat with Gavin, the show host who connected the hashtags of this post long before I did, for over an hour.  

We covered a lot, connecting dots of a circles that include, among  many other things, IABD, his background as a dancer who trained at NAISDA Dance College, aboriginal embrace of Cher as First Nations family because of her Cherokee descent, and my experience in Australia during their Mardi Gras a second time.  (For the full interview, please visit https://www.mixcloud.com/mako-khan/in-conversation-with-jamal-story/ )  It was ultimately the most fulfilling full-circle, aha moments I've had this year. 

The good news is that the year is not over and I have a sense that I will be back there in 2018.  I plan to connect even more firmly with this corner of the black diaspora, and through its serene spirit of inclusion show where more of these oft disparate hashtags converge. 

I can't wait.

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On Playing Jesus

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After our third performance of the Luminario Ballet show Breathless, the man in this picture approached me, his eyes shining, and told me I was amazing.  I He said, “I am 90 years old and I’ve seen a lot. Watching you up there invigorated me. It makes me feel like I have more life in me yet.”

There is no greater compliment than this, of course.  No review gets you to the level of joy and divine clarity of purpose that this kind of moment__and human being__provides.

It also helped me to reconcile right away all of the demons I faced over the processes of The Last Supper, a 45-minute aerial/dance extravaganza that explores the hypothetical of Jesus, Mary and Judas going to Coachella. Although another work of mine was featured in the show, The Last Supper was the only piece I danced. And last year, as much as I was intrigued with the idea of it, I had issues to work out before I could commit to helping choreograph the work. Fortunately, Judith, the co-choreographer and mastermind of this, was unfazed by my challenges. That I had never been to Coachella, for example, or that inasmuch as I resemble the Jesus described in the Bible—woolly hair and all—I had no personal connection to the grunge music canon she wished to invade. I had to research Weezer and The Sweater Song before I could figure out how it might serve as the backdrop for the Crucifixion.  I grew up with Nina Simone’s Take Me to the Water, not The Talking Heads Take Me to the River.  This was not my scrapbook to mine.

Then there was my deficit of ego.  How did I think I was worthy of playing Jesus?  The lingering DSH (dance self-hatred) is ever evident in the fact that I not once bothered to judge whether others, like John Legend in the upcoming live version of Jesus Christ, Superstar, should play Jesus. No, this question mark was reserved only for me.  (NOTE: Most pre-social-media-age dancers, especially those who have had extraordinary careers, suffer from DSH, but if you need more clarity, please ask and I will blog about it subsequently).

The good news is that last year, I had no space for such issues.  I had specific, narrow windows of time with my aerial partner Sheila to work out our Mary/Jesus hammock duet, and only a week to choreograph the dance material I was responsible for. During the course of all this, I figured it out:  Jesus is about humility, dummy, not ego.

Other than a persistent foot injury to navigate, I had fewer issues this year, especially after friends and family members, who are (thank God) often merciless in their honest responses to anything I’m in, enjoyed the show and me in it last year.  They bought my Jesus.  And it dawned on me that there are only a few other artists I know who could—and would—agree to the technical and aerial challenges the show promises.  For example, just to make the entrance on to the stage during the Resurrection requires that I climb a silk in the third dark wing, wrap myself in a lock and then hang out until the preceding duet ends.

All of this was worth it the minute that Dorsay, the woman pictured, brought over to me her brother Sonny, a nonagenarian who saw the assassination of MLK when he was my age and whose grandparents were probably slaves.  He said, “I felt so energized – it made me realize that I could fall in love again.”

My cousin Benny, who is more like a sage uncle, turns 90 this weekend.  And shortly ago I received the link to a feature on a 91-year-old trailblazing physician in Harlem. https://www.facebook.com/heyirisdotcom/videos/1705054572895222/   They, and Sonny, have taught me so much in the last few days, not the least of which is that as long as you're here on the planet, living continues until you decide it stops.

And clearly, minor injuries notwithstanding, I'm not done living on stage.

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Artists of Ailey Petition

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We don’t do it to get rich, this so-called artist "thing." We do it because we must. For years, the one piece of advice I have offered elite professional dancers trying to balance out the art/business binary is to ask for what they are worth relative to what the employing organization has to offer them. It is a paradigm often more fair than anything that happens in the business world, where most professionals (for better or for worse) demand standard compensation irrespective of their employers’ resources. But I would never expect to make with Lula Washington Dance Theater, a struggling nonprofit, what I make with Cher.

That said, when there are means to pay artists, as is the case with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, those means should create livable salaries so that dancers can simply dance - not search for second jobs to keep up with the rising cost of living in New York City. Dancers in the most decorated collection of black movement artists in the world dancing the most seen ballet (Revelations) in the canon of modern dance ever should not be worried about making ends meet, especially when their associate artistic director makes $1.3 million a year, the presiding artistic director half a million, and the artistic director emerita (legend notwithstanding) $217K – and that was in 2015. Don’t take my word for it; a quick Google search will pull up the I-990 tax document that is public record for all nonprofit organizations. Pages 16 and 43 of the 2015 return are particularly noteworthy: 
https://projects.propublica.org/non…/organizations/132584273

The dancers have launched a petition asking for support for their pursuit of fair wages, a movement whose first large public moment was their boycott of an annual Kennedy Center gala designed to raise millions for the company every year. As an advocate for dancers/artists and a board member of SAG-AFTRA, the sister union to AGMA who stands behind its Ailey dancer members, I urge you to sign this petition.

Understand that this is not an assault on the legacy of Alvin Ailey, nor a declaration of war on the art his company produces. It is simply a call to action that big business ideals not invade and exploit artists in an artistic space - or at all.

By supporting the dancers, you are supporting the Ailey vision. You are supporting high art. 
You are supporting what’s right.

After all, there is no performance without them.

To sign, click here. 

https://www.change.org/p/aaadt-i-support-the-artists-of-ailey

 

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Why I was devastated leaving Black Panther (spoiler alert)

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It is a glorious film.  It is a symphony of black excellence, from acting to wardrobe to direction to storytelling.  It is a festival of authenticity. It is a mining and then remix of the lesser understood, often ignored beauty (and wonder) of African technological advancements, especially in Giza where brown and black genius is still plain and utterly visible. It is a testament to the nurturing in our relatively small village of black performing artists, as several folks my colleagues/friends and I know are in the movie with lethal vibranium spears or holding down the title role.

              It is all the things. And I love it with fervor.

              Yet I found myself overwhelmed with devastation on several occasions throughout the experience.  It started with the moment T’Challa dropped into a forest as Black Panther to help rescue a group of young women being carted by militants across Africa.   The fight sequence was exciting, and the forward momentum of the storyline__he “froze” shonuff__brilliant.  But it was not enough to slow my tears over the real Boko Haram girls—there is no Black Panther to rescue them. 

              My Vulcan self kicked in soon after: of course the “what if?”of Wakanda is only possible to display if contextualized with current, real-world tragedies affecting black people.  To leave these out would imperil the thesis statement central to the movie.  But the paradox for me is that during each moment of poignant realism, I had to face my pain about it.   There were respites of course__the visual festival of Wakanda in its balance of technology and natural surroundings, the glow of age hierarchies and corresponding respect within the culture, the sense of humor both in global and afro-specific punchlines. But my melancholy persisted.

              Black Panther took the worst parts of our current situation as black folks in the diaspora permanently scarred and culturally disfigured by colonization and presented us with a mecca that had only two options:  one, to continue to live in cultural black utopian isolation while ignoring (in large part) the devastation inflicted on its brethren, or two, colonize our colonizers by inverting the status quo, thus becoming our oppressors.   I couldn’t shake it. After all, these two options were played out in the war between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger throughout the movie, orchestrated with aplomb to remind us that no villain exists in this clash.

              And though T’Challa offers us a third scenario at the end, the sharing of scientific, and thus synonymously, cultural riches with the world via UN treaty, there is little historical information to justify the feasibility of such a gift.  White colonizers have always leaned heavy into using might and weaponry seasoned with xenophobia to disempower and eliminate aboriginals in places they wanted to be.  Pizarro did it to the Incas of Peru.  Cortez did it to the Aztecs. And for good measure, they did it to each other as well; the Vikings collected Slavic and British slaves for five centuries.    And while one could argue that pre-colonial peoples of color are also guilty of participating in acts of conquest with each other, none have resulted in or aimed for the annihilation of entire civilizations based on supremacy.

              So it is hard to rejoice in the possibility that even with a Wakanda in the Motherland, we might get Anglo participation, that those who sit on their thrones of patriarchy might be interested in black and brown concepts like cooperative economics and collective work and responsibility and community momentum.  Cousin Erik, whose sociopathy was clearly a consequence of his successful climb from racial oppression through the American dream scaffold (thank you Marvel for not getting in the way of all this real talk), experienced the “No” of this firsthand.  His suggestion was that we simply skip the UN part, the efforts at peaceful ascension together, the inevitable attempt to pilfer technology that did not require a ransack first, and then jump to the part where it’s us or them.

              Perhaps I’m too cynical, or maybe just worn down by everything from Philando Castille to Trump.  Perhaps I need to hold out some hope that today, as white patriarchy has taken a huge hit with Weinstein and Spacey and the like, T’Challa’s ideals have promise.  And maybe when I see the movie a second time (yes, of course I’m going back), dryer eyes will have room for the audacity of hope.

              In the meantime, Wakanda Forever.

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Take a Gorgeous Breath

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I had experienced these failures before. 

Yoga had  happened to me in in 2003 in Germany somewhere, and earlier this year when a friend yanked me from the decline bench at my gym and dragged me into his hot yoga class at Crunch one Sunday.

              But this was yoga by Karine Plantadit, dance goddess, life coach, Tony award nominee, ex-Ailey-an, humanitarian and good friend. In a pre-production rehearsal with a handful of other mature artists, the rehearsal directors made the mistake of pairing us for the exploration of a Warren Carlyle Latin number; much to rehearsal their regret, I (we) had more fun doing this than anything else this holiday season.

              So when Karine invited lovely chocolate youngster Ahmad, whose name inspiration our mothers' shared, to try her Yang Yin class at noon on Sunday, I was inspired to go to.

              The class was so full that there was a waiting list for cancellations. One woman came in asking about class at another time and, upon hearing Karine’s name, said, “Oh yeah, the one with the funky hair? I like her, she’s cool.”

              Cool?  Really?  Instant indignation with “Why don’t you know who she is—Google her dammit!” righteousness ensued.  Which was good, because now I had something to tame in this yoga class, right?

              I walked into the room and picked one of the last two spots available, up against the stairs in the back of the room.  I spread my mat out and laid the towel over it, only so that Karine could suggest that I move to the front of the room right in front of the door where she came in.  It dawned on me once I did so that the area I left was the only place from which she could actually teach.

              Thus commenced the first of my series of failures.

Horizontal, face up, taking wonderful breaths, inhaling generously through my nostrils and sending from my mouth, I heard Karine ask us to use the blocks to rest our open thighs. Odd. But I put the blocks on top, wondering if perhaps the sensation of even a little bit of weight was all the body needed as impetus to make the inner thighs let go…

              Karine took the blocks off and re-positioned them under my knees for support. Oh, that’s what she meant. Resisting laughter out loud at Microfailure #1 was necessary so as not to disrupt all the Zen in the room, which I did anyway shortly after to make Microfailure #2.  You see, the moment I realized that my upper body was too tight to facilitate Downward Dog without substantial discomfort, overcompensation and weakness, My hands slid away from me often, lowering my hips, sweat from the heat filling my eyes giving me "Apocalypse Now!" I had to laugh at myself.  It couldn’t be helped. Because I might not make it to the end of this movie.  

              Then I was okay for a while with the Yang portion, robust movements that required us to move in and out of Downward Dog and into things like Warrior 2, which my hips loved. Figure eights for infinity because this is life. Glimpses of Sun Salutation.  Karine’s musical voice driving us through with warm reminders—take a beautiful breath, take a gorgeous breath. I surrendered, stopped worrying about whether someone might open the door into my head during the flatback. I celebrated my newfound maturity of not making fun of the poses and renaming them as I did years ago to the chagrin of my mini-(better-than)-me adopted family Kyle when he became a yogi.  Yes, yes, sure. Cherie, I am yoga...

              Until she asked us to stand on one leg, open up the back hip, look up into the sky, grab our hearts with both hands. And then grab the leg with the back hand to stretch the quad.

              “Balance is not stillness but constant motion, a series of small movements…”

              I have been dancing professionally for 20 years and the majority of it has seen no dearth of ability to be on one leg, do some impressive things on it in fact. But in this moment, no combination of small movements was going to keep me balancing on this leg.  I tried to look up to the ceiling and felt myself falling the five inches into the yogi beside me, a professional with handstands and cobras under his belt. I grabbed the wall desperately to keep myself out of fallonmyassana (sorry Kyle, old habits die hard).   Thank God Karine put me there.

              The only thing more devastating than this Epic Failure #1, was getting to do it on the other side.

              My Zen was gone.  It was on the floor next to those blocks I didn't know how to use. Now, I was just trying to survive.

              The good news is that I figured out why yoga is so hard at first for bodies like mine. Hypertonic muscles fire all the time, involuntarily and with no effort.  It used to be a huge problem for me learning dance technique because I could not disengage the specific muscles that were prohibiting me from achieving whatever small task was at hand—plie, tendu, lengthening, whatever.  Success in dance for me has been an evolution of letting go of the right muscles at the right times so that I can get to a neuro-skeletal connection and feel space in my joints.    

              I’ve figured it out with the staples/fundamentals of most modern and ballet techniques (ask me if you want this scintillating information).  So in dance, I can be efficient. I can find a space of peace and Zen inside of complicated movement because it takes only moments to figure out efficiency in them and transcend my physical self.  Introduce me to something new and now I have to learn the vocabulary so that I can get out of my head, which applies a Matthew Bourne approach to moving that says "fire everything at will."  It just means I need to (and will) take a few more yoga classes to get there__maybe a lot more.

              Understanding this nugget was my Big Success in class until we got to the Yin part, the smaller moon consciousness that involves introspection.  Stretches.  Deep lack of thought.  Internal consciousness.   Smaller movements. I remember years ago when a critic said to Donald Byrd that I was going to be a brilliant dancer once I figured out how to do handle small movement. How ironic—now they are my safest space. I told Karine after that I need an entire class of Yin Yoga, please. 

              The beauty is all the laughter that comes out of experiences like these, knowing that all of these failures are actually not failures at all, but gifts of having nothing to prove.  Why did it take so long to get here?

              Please go take Karine’s class.  I don’t care what she’s teaching. Yoga, dance, martini mixing, Home Depot shopping, whatever.  Currently, she’s at Modo Yoga in the West Village, 434 6th Avenue.

              Just make sure you sign up hours before you go…

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Auntie Brenda

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Since we are in a ceremony meant to celebrate Brenda, I have to admit she would be pissed if I didn’t tell this story. Years ago, I invited her and my mother to the Opening of The Color Purple, my first show on Broadway. When we got to the red carpet event, she stood before a cluster of my esteemed colleagues and corrected my introduction:  “No, no, I’m his ghetto auntie Brenda.  Those other ones you meet are just faux aunties.”

I had been trying forever to get my mother and aunts to try the Lush store lotion, Sympathy for the Skin.  Not normally one to buy into cosmetics zeal too much, I thrust this product upon them, justifying the price tag with regular accounts of how moisturizing it is. 

This is what I use now at the hospital.  I find that when our loved ones can’t do for themselves, all we can do is pick up where they left off.  With stage four cancer, most of it is up to God.  But the parts that we can cover, we cover.

 Of course beyond her address on Marcelle, there was very little ghetto about my ghetto Auntie Brenda.  She took care of most of the people in her life, took no short cuts, and saw far beyond the immediacy of her environment. Inasmuch as I’m a dancer/aerialist, she is far more brave. Tried exotic foods.  Invested in new workouts before it was a thing.  Bungee jumped from the Queen Mary when she was 56…

She doesn’t believe in ashy skin at all, is as pissed that nobody has addressed it as she is that the partial paralysis from the stroke has left her tongue motionless to say anything.  Fortunately, my luggage was still in the car, Lush sympathy for the skin in it. So I lotion her legs, letting her know that my mother would fall completely apart before she could even get it on her hands. 

She was a baby boomer who refused to live her life in fear, who understood loyalty and taught me, by example with Mom, how to be a good friend.   And she constantly chastised me for taking too long to take over the world.

I start to feel odd, halfway expecting Auntie to jump up and holler at me for the impropriety of it all.  A nephew had no business rubbing anything on her thighs. Mid-thigh would have to be as far as I went.  The crime is amplified by my aunt’s usage off these legs – she had become so skilled at salsa over the past ten years that I dared not attempt to dance with her, my vocabulary unsuitable.  The temptation to insist the nurse conduct this moisturizing passes; she has been more than kind so far.  I watched her turn my aunt over on her side earlier to prevent bedsores.   

If Auntie could talk, she would say to pull the plug, except that there wasn’t one to pull.  This was bout number three with cancer; stellar genetics and will helped her win the first two.  Her family has several cancer survivors, and a few octo- and nonagenerians, so she is prone to outliving loved ones.  She is also a realist. With a mouth. “You know, nephew,” she told me only a few weeks before, “you have to hurry up and make some money cuz me and yo mama are too old to be out there on the corner. Don’t nobody want no old snatch, and you have to take care of us.”

So it makes sense that this festivity is about living, really living, since she showed us, her family, friends, associates and colleagues how to do it. We’re all blessed because she helped fashion nooks of heaven right here, long before she got to the real one.  I'm sure if she is in the ghetto there, every angel wants an invite. 

[Brenda Josenberger passed 10 weeks ago after a second stroke related to deterioration from a chemo/radiation combo treatment. The italicized text is from remarks I made at her homegoing celebration August 17.] 

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Sikiliza

Where are the highway lamp posts???

Where are the highway lamp posts???

I’ve been 40 only two weeks and it is clear I’ve not learned enough to see it coming.

 On a tour of the state-of-the-art facility I would be working in for a week, Deb, the energetic, robust and spirited woman who hired me, pointed to the lodge up the hill and instructed me to follow her there.

 “So just make sure when you open the room door and the closet doors, you want to go slow just in case there’s a rattlesnake or bobcat in there,” she said casually. 

 “I’m sorry, a what?” 

 “Yeah, they’ve been known to sometimes end up in the lodge or on the grounds; we’re out here in mother nature territory so you’re bound to see something,”  she said. 

 “I see how this works, you neglect to tell me this stuff until—“

 “After you get here, correct.” Add smart to the list of adjectives above. “And now you’re here!”

 “Here” is Stallion Springs, home of Woodward West, a sprawling, 23-acre gymnastics/parkour/biking/skateboarding/action sports paradise of a summer camp for hundreds of kids that I might have killed to be one of back in the day.    They have foam pits in not just the gymnastics gym, but also the airplane hangar sized building where athletes on wheels could negotiate landing flips and tricks with their bikes.   The high profile nature of the facility I was clear on.

 Bobcats and rattlesnakes? No.

 In fact, I had a whole different set of concerns based on an advance research that the closest thing to a city, Tehachapi, is a conservative small town fond of homogeny and comfy in xenophobia, where an interracial relationship might invite property damage.  Woodward West is a cultural oasis twenty minutes away, which meant an idyllic drive from the freeway through sprawling wine country with one screen-saver-worthy vista after another.  But until I got there I should be concerned.

 Like any individual with a pulse and an imagination and an afro, I worried. I had seen Get Out twice.  Its eerily stunning and effective theme song Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga - Swahili for “Listen to your ancestors, run” -  played in my head.  And even though I had made it to Stallion Springs, the ruddy Steinbeckian men who hopped out of the gray, battered pick-up truck at the lone gas station down the road gave me cause for pause. And the waiter at the lone diner across the street unnerved me with her accusation that I wasn’t from there.

 But none of this turned out to be the issue.  The guys at the gas station were affable, Sikiliza came back only at night driving through Blair Witch pitch, and that same waiter yucked it up with me at lunch the next day.  In fact, save the Chinese proprietor of a massage parlor in town who chose audacious racial profiling on two of us (another blog for sure), I suffered no reasons to get out.

 Except maybe the Nat Geo Wild realness. When we got to the lodge that first day, Deb clapped her hands hard three times during the tour of these grounds.  First to get to the stairs, then to exit the hallway to the promontory where I could see the prison housing one of the Menendez brothers and at one time Charles Manson, and then once we got to the room.

 “We own the lodge so there isn’t really a front desk....” Clap. 

 “We convert wind into energy and then sell it to Los Angeles for electricity....” Clap.

 "Why the claps?"

 “Just to startle anything that creatures that might be in your way.”

 Insert pearl-clutching shriek of horror here. 

 “And what happens if I see an animal that isn’t paying Woodward for occupancy on these grounds?” I asked.

 “Just call me and I’ll call the maintenance people to get rid of it.”

 You mean I can’t just pick up the old school Dial M for Murder phone on the counter next to the bed for anything other than to try it as a weapon?

 I was way off. I needn’t worry about dying in a tumbling pass or going missing forever.  It was the potential for annihilation by a snake or bobcat or gaze of raccoons.   

 Or an elk.  

 Yes, days later, Deb recalled how an elk made recently stood there next to her car, threatening it and her.  She had the nerve to show me pictures.  I promptly added the damage waiver insurance to the rental car, so that if I survived I wouldn’t have to pay for the pieces of the Kia that were left after the elk had fun. (I should point out that Deb drives a Kia too.)

 Now she made up for all of this of course.  She took us wine tasting. I hung out with Bart Conner.  I choreographed a quick dance on Laurie Hernandez.  And she surrounded me with beautiful 20-somethings hell bent on giving me no time to remember I had just turned 40.

 But dammit did she ever make me challenge my nature fears. And make me  regret not having  paid more attention to Morgan Freeman’s voice on the Discovery Channel whenever it was on in the house. Before we leave racial profiling completely, note that we’ve never seen Morgan out there with the lions and elephants.

And I have to write Michael Abels and thank him (or curse him out) for that movie theme...

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On Tony

He taught me a huge lesson about auditions and self-esteem right off the bat. 

The first time I ever toured with a legendary artist, the show was confronted with a dancer injury and a side-lined swing.  The show needed someone right away, and the director could think of no one with the skillset to cover the guys, as we each brought special things to the table.

“How about Tony James?” I offered.

“Who’s that?”

“Tony James!  Don’t you remember? He was amazing at the audition. We applauded when it was his turn.”

“Really? What does he look like, remind me…”

I was stunned.  I couldn’t understand how anybody could forget:

It was the final callback and the legend was sitting in the front of the room watching each of the “specialty” folks do our thing.  Tony took off his shirt and shoes and stood in the corner, a pair of black jazz pants hugging his massive thighs. There were sinewy, caramel muscles on top too. And when they started the music, he commenced to do everything.

By everything, I mean everything.  Sort of like the 20 acrobatic tricks Velma Kelly says she and her sister Veronica did in their double act with “splits, spread eagles, back flips, flip flops one right after the other..." Except that Tony danced between his tumbling passes and X-outs, this on a hard studio floor without the protection of a sensible Nike. 

I was awestruck.  Pissed (I was next). Enamored.  Envious. And the first to applaud DURING a freestyle that was surely a precursor to Simone Biles’ floor routine.

How could they not remember? 

I understood, processing that people have goldfish memory and MTV Cribs attention spans, that no matter how talented we are, we can never rely on employers to remember it when it counts. Nor can we assume that the organization of the hiring process in commercial dance (or acting for that matter) is gushing with common sense.

I insisted that they look for his perfect headshot. Upon reviewing the video (imagine!), the creative team was excited once again and sought him out.

Not to disparage the creative team, or digress too far from the emotional gravity of Tony James having departed this planet, but this lesson has never left me.  It has colored my experience and restricted me from personalizing the other side of the table.

I’ll also never forget Tony.  We got to hang out for the short time he was on that gig (the first of many times over the years). Throughout the stress of getting the show up, he was always affable, good-natured, sanguine, unencumbered by streams of negative consciousness.   Nothing was too, too serious and I always wanted to be around him.  He was all the things—Timon playful and Genie shrewd, boy-next-door cute and threatening stud bootylicious.

He even had me convinced that his eyes were really green until he confessed his contact lens concealment techniques. 

“You want to know how I do it?” he told me one night, a gigantic grin on his face. “Go ahead, tell me I have beautiful eyes.”

I bit, moving in toward him in the organic way that people always do when giving this compliment.

“Thank you!” he said, as he turned his head in slow motion and lowered his lids shut so that the smile could upstage my efforts.

I laughed for two days behind this.

That's the other lesson. The Biles-worthyfloor routine, amazing jumps and energized dancing were buoyed by the fact that people wanted to be around him.  So through my devastation about yet another memorial fund replacing a wonderful artist too young to be gone, I am reminded to smile.

Doriana, a dear friend__and also boss for many years__told me that during the 80's, when she had lost so many friends in the space of only a few years, she coped by telling herself that they were simply on tour.   This is an applicable strategy and I'm borrowing it.  I'm sure God tours too.

And If Tony is on that one, our maker is getting a good kee kee.

And a split.

 

To donate to the Tony James Memorial Fund to help with his arrangements and the fund, please click here.

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Elite

Tuesday, November 1

Osaka

 

I like to think I’m an elite traveler.  I get to the new city unafraid, on a mission, and walk with the velocity of somebody who knows where he’s going better than even the people who live there.  In this way, I’m truly a soloist, moreover than even in dance than in any other aspect of my life including dance. Like the stoic spy from any Hollywood blockbuster who knows languages, topography, civil engineering and cultural nuances of every major city in the world.

Except that I’m not this person outside of my mind. 

Especially not in Japan.

But this does not stop me.  I am famished, you see. So once my ever-so hospitable hosts chaperones me to the Daiwa Roynet Hotel in a part of Osaka I haven’t bothered to learn the name of yet, I swoop out of it in my Zara black Matrix coat, make a left down the street and walk briskly until I see something that looks fetching.  The place two blocks down on the corner is promising, so in I go.

When a place is so small that the seven people in it turn to look at you when you walk in, it’s hard not to commit to it.  Think bar/restaurant where television investigators or police chiefs of assistant DA’s show up to vent or unwind, only a third the size.  Sam Jackson’s curse words wouldn’t have even had room, let alone an actual Tarantino fight sequence.

So I sit at the bar, understanding that the host—a little more Waffle house vet than obsequious Japanese woman—doesn’t speak English really. She has some scant sense of the language, which is that she is fluent in comparison to my Japanese.   She asks if I want a drink, and when I suggest no, she pushes the point, helping me understand it is mandatory with a menu.

“Sake” is a Japanese word I do know.  I say this.  She brings me a menu that has about 10 different kinds (there are that many?) of sake. I pick one with authority.  After all, I am an elite traveler.

She then brings me a food menu with nothing but the three full alphabets with which Japanese is written. I gag. The Kenji is intimidating. I understand the prices and that’s about it. Not a picture anywhere.  I surrender my elite traveler status and confess the obvious, that comprehension on my part is futile. 

She points to a space of wall behind and above me with pictures of entrees.  I pretend to know what is depicted on the pictures.  She starts to explain, and the word “pasta” jumps out.  Then I shamelessly point to it like a small child, feeling very much like an insipid, stupid American.   She nods emphatically.

Twenty minutes later, as I sip sake that will certainly leave me unable to walk the 50 meters to the hotel after, she comes out with a beautiful black bowl of ramen and broth with fish. Yellowtail? Mackerel? It doesn’t matter. It is divine.  Go figure I come to Japan and the first meal I have is the authentic version of the one I used to have as a kid because it was easy to make and great for lower income and/or single parent households. 

The older gentleman at the table with two women walked by and said a few words in English I understood, welcome, thank you, medical. Before I could put the last one together, my more relaxed waiter now said some things in English connecting to the “medical” part of the conversation.

“Show. I watch…” she said, trying to find more words. 

“Show, show, a medical show?”

“Grey Anatomy.”

“Grey’s Anatomy!!!!! Yes, I love it! It’s great isn’t it?”

“Yes! Yes! The doctor die in sixth season.”

“Dr. Sheppard. Patrick Dempsey!”

This was the connection I needed to feel okay.  There in the too-small for TV/film restaurant/bar with no translator, this waiter was connecting to me in a big way about a vital ingredient for human sustenance, wait for it -

“I don’t speak English but I watch! I like, like the Chinese girl," the woman says.

“I love Christina Yang.”

“Yes! Yes! Yang!”

“But you know it’s human. Of course you understand anyway…”

And this was my introduction to elite traveling alone in Osaka. Maybe God was co-signing on my taking this teaching gig, where the primary communication between me as a sensei and the dancers in each class will be body language, by connecting me with a person through a television show using "anatomy" as a super-metaphor.    My lesson:  people all over the world love Grey’s Anatomy and if there is ever a language barrier, Shonda Rhimes is a good place to start. Maybe when I make it to Brazil on a dance performing or teaching assignment, I can say Annalise Keating when I run out of my limited cursory Portuguese…

 

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Arigatou Gozaimasu

Public restroom at Moronomiya subway station in Osaka. There is no filter on this shot.

Public restroom at Moronomiya subway station in Osaka. There is no filter on this shot.

I broke down and did it. For the first time in 15 years I had a McDonald’s cheeseburger. And fries.  I was starving.  You see, the reason that the Japanese are so enviably snatched is that they eat smaller portions, and I don’t mean European-size small. THIS is something different, on a Pai Mei torturous eat-that-bowl-of-rice-and-walk-up-those-stairs-with-two-buckets-of-water kind of way (yes I realize I went to China just now but bear with me cuz I'm about to ping pong you through worse).  If I order a fish entrée, it’s hard not to see an appetizer because America has ruined me in yet this way as well. Turns out that I’m not a fat bitch inside by myself – America is comprised only of fat bitches and the degree to which our ginormous stomachs need sating is proportional to our degree of ruin... 

The point is, I was starving, dreadfully and hurtfully.  Last night I went to two different restaurants to eat, first in a shrimp joint that served the crustaceans with heads and shells on (I peeled, avoiding being grossed out) and then at a random place where I had chicken skewers and fries. 

So today I had to just do one meal that didn’t make me want to suffer the embarrassment of ordering two full entrees in the same sitting.  As I sat with my cheeseburger,  which miraculously tasted like it came from a real cow, and drank my coke that was mostly real ingredients in a small cup instead of the trough of water and chemicals they sell at home, I had an epiphany about hospitality.  I had been wondering why everywhere I’ve been abroad this year, people delivered it in spades, genuine hospitality..  The Israelis went out of their way, coloring our endeavors with education about the whys, hows and cultural origins.  The Bajans were equally lovely, resort expectations notwithstanding. The Japanese are on a whole other level, somehow obsequious and relentlessly proud at once.

Between fries, it occurred to me that perhaps genuine national warm welcome is engendered by connection to a sturdy culture steeped in thousands of years of tradition.  The sharing and cultural exchange is built into the pride; what I experienced abroad this year is the native interest for visitors to not only behold the unifying legacy, but to feel it too.

It was never more clear until I got to Osaka, mainly because the Japanese, beyond being hospitable, are exemplary.  I stood over the subway platform and saw a railroad free of refuse, litter, rats. My awe followed frustration that I could find no trash receptacle anywhere to dump my litter because these folks believe in finishing their ingestibles before making it to the station, let alone the train.   The people here respect their stuff. 

So it’s no wonder that when I walk into a class, the students stand and greet me with a chorus of welcome before giving me their undivided attention to gather whatever information I have. They call me sensei because they trust that the people who hired me know what they’re doing.

And this is why I have felt like such an alien when people discuss America in terms of cultural pride. I can’t relate.  We have jigsaw-pieced together a construct of culture that takes bits and pieces of every settler (read: invader) who showed up.   Our cultural scaffold is theft, which is why I try to contextualize my censure of Beyonce (see link of her xeroxing  European choreographer Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker’s work for her video to understand how I got here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDT0m514TMw); she’s all-American.  Anyway, thievery is just one part; the instruction manual had other steps.  Devalue the natives. Snatch the resources. King the robber barons—these are not judgments yet, I’m just at what actually happened in America.  Then incorporate whatever fragments of culture from England, Spain, France and other colonialists to make something new.  Add the Puritan work ethic, for example, and convince everyone that following it means success.  This is our Cliffnotes, fast-track path to national culture.

Don’t get me started on where black folks fit in, since our culture-ancestral reference points were annihilated on the boats. Let’s forego the re-appropriation debate and just jump to facts:  the White House was literally built by black people, which is why when Barack was campaigning to be in it, I shouted Hallelujah at Michelle revealing that she felt nationalism for the first time at age 46. I was right there with her (now we’re at judgment).  If our contributions extend beyond economy- and brick-building, it is because black excellence has often been a direct reflection of suffering. The lion share of our patents, from Sarah Boone’s ironing board to Charles Brooks’ street sweeper, were borne as solutions to hard labor (pun intended).  And the hymns and rhythms that became sediment for the entire American songbook were first sung in field of fatigue.

So even with our inclusion, we’re back to theft and oppression ONLY as common cornerstones of a melting pot American culture.  How then, would we arrive at genuine pride about it? Something tangible other than our celebration of difference and the option to not rebel?  No matter how “free” we are in our system, Americans don’t get to not participate in it and live there. So how do we teach our kids to respect a country that shows them every day the brutality of its nervous system, the sketchiness of its skeleton? 

I’m not letting millennials off the hook here, just identifying other things that play into the profoundly beautiful arigatou gozaimasu (#thank you) I’ve experienced here in Japan. And let’s be clear, I am certainly not suggesting that Japanese legacy is absent horrors. Ask the Chinese and they’ll gladly tell you. Also, many would find an imperial nation so steeped in regimen Borg-ish in the most unappealing, Orwellian way.  My guess is that a Japanese homosexual banished from his family for disgrace might prefer American tradition, until of course he makes it to a Southern Baptist church that agrees with his folks.  I maintain, though, that an old nation with an ancient culture is clear on the composition thereof, good and bad, and the value is—in this case—clean gumless sidewalks, a freakishly low homicide rate and trains that arrive and depart on schedule to the second.

For me, the South is as close as we get in the States. There is a clear persistence of mores and customs that dictate how people ought to speak to, respect and host each other (there’s the legacy), heinous chattelization of black people notwithstanding (there’s the horror).  With the cultural status quo clear, I can better understand the Southerner who delights in feeding me home-cooked dinner while telling me between my bites that I’m going directly to hell for sleeping with a man.

Which brings me back to these fries. Real potatoes were involved.  Because the Japanese equivalent of the FDA believes people should eat actual food.   I have more to think about on all of this of course; we’ll see what happens during the morning sushi meal…

 

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Hiplet?

Years ago in Glasgow, the Cher Farewell Tour I was on intersected the Dance Theater of Harlem UK Tour.  After gushing with rehearsal directors Keith and Kellye Saunders about running into other black people on the street, I took company class and spied on a rehearsal. I watched the Robert Garland ballet Return and became a huge fan of the dancer doing the “Mother Popcorn” solo set to James Brown at the top of the ballet.   Please allow me to digress:  Dionne Figgins was tremendous because she was able to apply star power and black girl magic to the already challenging job of negotiating classical steps with old school, vernacular jams our parents did at dance halls back in the day (i.e., the slop, the four corners, etc.). This was a rehearsal, yet Dionne danced 100%, not a single step taken for granted.

I was off that night and able to see the DTH concert.  It seemed that Dionne was understated. She was dedicated on the pointe shoe and then physically inhibited in vernacular steps. The incredible flip between ethereal lift and booty back black that awed me hours before was missing.  It turns out that she had been given a note by then Artistic Director Arthur Mitchell to dial it back. Too much hip, too much weight, too much getting down into the ground.  This was a ballet company, after all.  The dancers needed to look dignified.

I was horrified.  It devastated me that a visionary who leveraged his unprecedented privilege in classical ballet with a garage to train young, otherwise rejected black folks in it saw no value decades later in offering social dances belonging to our “classical” form equal respect.  The slop needs to be revered and fully danced with all the information—in this case the heaviness and stank and sweat and years of recovery from slavery—as sou-sou, releve and fifth position.  Honor needs its life in both idioms, even if they are choreographed into the same eight counts.

This is why I have a hard time with the “Hiplet” these young ladies are doing.  It’s not that I cringe at the fusion of ballet and hip hop. But this fusion should recognize and respect the specific attributes that authenticate them both as art forms, and the difficulty of maintaining the key ones (especially in a point shoe) through this merger is tremendous.  To do disservice to point shoe mechanics for the sake of a groove doesn’t make us better or imaginative or new. It makes us irreverent.   Because the truth is that critics, employees and colleagues (myself included) would never have forgiven Dionne had she forsaken classical ballet specificity just because James Brown was screaming on the track.

As much as I’m happy to see my young sisters on Good Morning America, I can’t forgive compromises on ballet technique in this context any more than I can stomach the re-appropriation of hip hop by white folks who lack the information (see third paragraph since a lot of those things apply here too).  Please note the qualification—not all white people, just those who make no effort to understand the origins of hip hop and are unable to connect to whatever rhythmic imperative our black grandmothers involuntarily bopped their heads to.  The reason dancers cringe when we see the theft is that there is profound audacity in building on a dance language when the perpetrator lacks the fundamentals.

In the case of Hiplet, we’re talking about masterful usage of the feet, articulation of the arch, precision on the box, a second-nature relationship with fifth position, and a whole lot of other things that non-dancers would be bored silly reading in this blog. That mastery needs to be there in spades before we get to the butterfly or the cabbage patch. The evidence is there in the first two counts of eight, when the ladies are in place approximating very classical footwork that comes straight from the syllabus.  You shouldn’t fly the plane before you ace the simulator.  You oughtn’t reverse two-and-a-half somersault dive from the platform until you’ve worked out flipping dry in a harness. Most would call it dangerous; so is subjecting an unskilled foot to the precarious nature of toe shoe. The bottom line is that this Hiplet presentation wasn’t ready to put before the five million folks who watch Good Morning America.  

Nor was it ready to be shared on Youtube prior.

So that we’re clear, this is not about shaming young people.   I want these girls to succeed; my investment in the first ever audition for black ballerinas by IABD in January was about seeing that they have places and opportunities to dance professionally.  If Homer is able to profit from this buzz in a way that will result in enrichment, financial opportunities, scholarship and maybe master training for these ladies, fine. I mean them no ill will.  But otherwise, this prematurity does the young ladies in the video few favors.

Consider this:  Misty Copeland, and a slew of her contemporary black colleagues whose names the world unfortunately does not know, honored and respected that point shoe and all the expectations therein.  Every trite expression applies:  She defied the odds. She persevered to make history.  Whatever doors she didn’t break down, she walked through them ready to win.  She did not get there presenting sub-par point technique. This video provides the naysayers, ballet “purists,” and racist gatekeepers of classical ballet a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card for perspectives that impeded Misty’s—and her predecessors'—ascent.

God knows I am so happy that Homer Bryant has, like several dance teachers with fewer resources than they deserve, taken up the mantle of bringing young people to dance. And God bless him for opening his mind to ways of keeping kids invested. But there has to be a balance (pun intended) between reach and integrity—and if anybody wants to find funding, I’d be happy to fashion a solution that will get these kids closer to this balance, along with the fusion they are after.

In the meantime, can we stay out of cockpits and off of diving boards, shall we? 

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Inspiration

I was only in the plush Uber for three minutes when SIRI announced over the speaker: “Bitch, oh you faking today, huh. Okay.”

There was a lot to process but before I could get it together, the dreadlocked brother driving said, “I’m so sorry about that man. My girl issues all up in the car. Faking? This thing said ‘bitch’ so it might as well have done ‘fucking’…”

Then I put it together completely.  And without a complete re-hashing of my war on technology, this moment reaffirmed that at the very least, conveniences like automated text message notification sharing in the car creates a management problem.

Especially if you’re an Uber driver.

With a rider. 

Who was at this point laughing hysterically.

“It’s all good, man, no worries,” I said.  “Sometimes they get upset…”   Yes, I know it was terrible to egg him on, but I was leaving DC, where I had spent the majority of the week investigating how a 2013 conversation between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks about black female voices could be fleshed out with movement on six black women dancers at Howard University.  For the third time in my career, I had completely cast aside male perspectives (including my own, to a certain extent) to make something resonant about women; I deserved to hear this dude.

“I met her at the club and she was supposed to be a one-night stand. She caught me off guard. I’m not gone’ lie. It’s like when I’m dealing with her I’m dealing with myself.  I’m used to sticking with my normal thing.”

“What’s the normal thing?”

“I call it Build-a-Bitch.”  Uh oh.  “You take a six or seven and turn her into an eight.  I don’t mess with females that are too established because they start acting like you need them.  This one is established. She’s a sweetheart but she been through a lot with men and it’s made her cold. But you know, I’m feeling shit for her now, so I might have screwed up.”

Whoops. Maybe not this dude. 

“She got me all messed up man. And then there’s my girl…”

“By that you mean the one you’re with?”

“Yeah, yeah, you know the one I been kicking it with for years.  But we’ve been through a lot. Trying to live together, working stuff out and but the chick that texted is pissed I’m still boning old girl…”

I was riveted. I had missed the last few episodes of Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, so this was delicious.  But I had to make sure I had taken care of business first.

“I told you Dulles, right?”

“Yeah man, and don’t worry. I’ll get you there.  People always trip when they find out I’m a paraplegic because when I’m driving this car, I gets it in.”

He was proud for sure, articulating five syllables of paraplegic (you didn’t know there were five?) as if saying Heisman Trophy winner. This is when I peered into the front seat to see the hand controls.

“Did it cost you a lot to get this car hooked up for that?” I asked.

Get it hooked up? It would have cost $1500 to get it hooked up. But I did it myself for $300.”

It’s important to note that I gave myself a quiet mental reminder to apologize to everyone who loves me for getting cozier in the car instead of pulling him over right away in exchange for a new Uber. I figured with yet another 501c3 needing me to perform (for love) services they could not afford, God probably was going to keep me on the planet intact for a while longer, so I wasn’t worried.  

Despite the hubris, and the sexism, and the irony, and the presumptuousness, I clearly had a lot to glean from this experience.  Here was a man who did not have a mastery of a specific trade, or English, or full usage of his legs. Yet he did not share my deficiency of ego.  It made me start to wonder where in the path of artistic development did my legs—like those of so many dancers—surpass my ego’s capacity for admiring what they can do.

“…yeah I’m not looking for nothing. I just wanted to show her there are good dudes out there. But, I had to ask for more. I opened Pandora’s Box and I guess you have to be prepared for whatever comes out of it…”

On some level, this man was an inspiration for my ego to do better.  It is finally time to do everything I need to do for self.

“…then I got beat up by her son…”

“Naw man, really?”

“Look, no man in his right mind is going to watch a kid disrespect his mama. I called him on that shit and he knocked me out of my chair, and got to swinging. He’s a teenager so I told his mama to get him to stand down cuz if I had rolled over on his ass it would have been game over…”

Yes. The one-man show that I sat down one summer three years ago and wrote finally needed to happen. Because if this man could dance, or do a shushunova, or tumble a combination pass, he would be a superstar.  Actually, with social media the major life-connecting artery that it is, he still might be one anyway; it turns out his paralysis is temporary. 

“Once I get through this physical therapy, I’ll be back walking again, man. I’ma miss the footage I get from my iphone from my chair height though. I be pretending I’m texting and I get the good ass shots. They don’t even be knowing.”

My show. It’s coming. 

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The Body of Color in My Voice (Entire Piece)

Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry debacle underscored a problem that I have seen for years with successful, top tier black women who are exemplary at their craft: they often lose agency for their voices.  Either the gatekeepers (often white men) keep these women dangling like chandeliers from the glass ceiling, or the sisters are removed from the ballroom altogether.  When I stood in the front of the studio at Howard University and looked at almost a dozen promising brown women who have Melissa Harris-Perry promise, I realized that they thus have the same opportunities to be silenced; the responsible thing to do was address it in making a ballet.   

It was ambitious as all hell. In five days I had so much to address:  creating a piece from scratch, committing the women to using the discipline in their bodies, erasing the slavery-based, self-hatred-submerged notion that ballet technique is the only codified language of dance that matters, erasing the ladies' notion that a deficiency in it means a lack of worth to the field, and eliminating the general fear of a process they did not think they were capable of.  These objectives were more challenging to reach on some days than on others, but I knew I was asking a lot. Of both myself and the room. 

But we made it to the other side. And I reminded them that this is about them, and that while I am the dance maker, they are the authorities on what it is to be a black woman today, that the piece does not succeed without their information. 

Of course, when they enter the  world of the performing arts as professionals they will feel it more; dance does not excuse these women from CNBC-style shutdown.  I’ve watched friends experience it on Broadway, in television and film, and in dance companies. In fact, the black women who run some of the dance companies that inspire the Howard University students have spoken about the mountainous funding treks they take just to present their dancers and choreographers in concert.  It dawned on me that even the meteoric rise of friend and colleague Misty Copeland is a reminder of all the equally gifted black ballerinas whose brown bodies never made it into companies where their artistic voices could be heard and adored.

Since I was there to help with the first ever audition held specifically for such bodies (see "dipping a black toe in" blog for that), this experience has continued a theme for me.  So I urged my dancers to watch or re-watch the 2013 dialogue between Perry and bell hooks, the full 90 riveting, poignant minutes of which is on Youtube. In addition to text from it, I used the music of Laura Mvula, a performer who, in the spirit of Nina Simone, includes the politics of her body and color in her art.  (Unfortunately, Youtube has restrictions that prohibit me from posting the video with Mvula's music.)  

I've since met Melissa Harris-Perry and was as blown away by the episode of her new show #nerdlandforever that I saw shot live at the pop-up Museum of Drug Policy as I am by her general gumption. Please check her out. 

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The Body of Color in My Voice

Watching the Melissa Harris-Perry debacle underscored a problem that I have seen for years with successful, top tier black women who are exemplary at their craft: they often lose agency for their voices.  Either the gatekeepers (often white men) keep these women dangling like chandeliers from the glass ceiling, or the sisters are removed from the ballroom altogether.  When I stood in the front of the studio at Howard University and looked at almost a dozen promising brown women who have Melissa Harris-Perry promise, I realized that they thus have the same opportunities to be silenced; the responsible thing to do was address it in making a ballet.   

It was ambitious as all hell. In five days I had so much to address:  creating a piece from scratch, committing the women to using the discipline in their bodies, erasing the slavery-based, self-hatred-submerged notion that ballet technique is the only codified language of dance that matters, erasing the ladies' notion that a deficiency in it means a lack of worth to the field, and eliminating the general fear of a process they did not think they were capable of.  These objectives were more challenging to reach on some days than on others, but I knew I was asking a lot. Of both myself and the room. 

But we made it to the other side. And I reminded them that this is about them, and that while I am the dance maker, they are the authorities on what it is to be a black woman today, that the piece does not succeed without their information. 

Of course, when they enter the  world of the performing arts as professionals they will feel it more; dance does not excuse these women from CNBC-style shutdown.  I’ve watched friends experience it on Broadway, in television and film, and in dance companies. In fact, the black women who run some of the dance companies that inspire the Howard University students have spoken about the mountainous funding treks they take just to present their dancers and choreographers in concert.  It dawned on me that even the meteoric rise of friend and colleague Misty Copeland is a reminder of all the equally gifted black ballerinas whose brown bodies never made it into companies where their artistic voices could be heard and adored.

Since I was there to help with the first ever audition held specifically for such bodies (see "dipping a black toe in" blog for that), this experience has continued a theme for me.  So I urged my dancers to watch or re-watch the 2013 dialogue between Perry and bell hooks, the full 90 riveting, poignant minutes of which is on Youtube. In addition to text from it, I used the music of Laura Mvula, a performer who, in the spirit of Nina Simone, includes the politics of her body and color in her art. 

If you are in the D.C. on April 8 or 9, please see these dancers.  You will be as edified as they are supported by your presence. 

 

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