"Do not be afraid of them; for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the Lord.
When Jeremiah was 13 and I was 18, he told me he wanted to be like me. He committed himself to learning how to gain complete control of his (then) spidery collection of limbs and torso. He would learn to tumble. He would stride with laser focus through any obstacles between him and solid ballet technique. He tread water and then swam laps under the same paces Lula Washington put me through.
He didn't stop there. One year he trained at the San Francisco Ballet school and strove for enviable, in-your-face classical aesthetics (fifth to fifth double tours, textbook lines, etc). He spent hours with his straddled legs against a wall waiting for his hips to open up. He grew up, taller and bigger than I, majestic in his presentation. Of course, he added the relentlessly deep perspective of black dance performance and seasoned his craft with it so that every time he stood on stage, he snatched focus, as if channeling both dance ancestors and spiritual saviors alike.
When Jeremiah was 18 and I was 23, I wanted to be like him. I would sit before him, even while offering whatever counsel I had, and marvel at how he attacked life with the force of a grande battement (kick). Unlike me, he was gloriously unafraid of failure. He put the pursuit of his artistic self—which some of us know as “getting your life”—over worries of how things might turn out. He made choices. He went after things. He learned lessons. And then rather than re-spin them into back pedaling pleas of being misunderstood, he had the audacity to own and share his foibles with others. He was generous that way, as much off stage as he was on it.
He was also unafraid of what people thought. He cared perhaps, but he was never afraid to face it. A pair of daisy dukes and a second-skin tank and a little eyeliner did not stop him from a trek to deeper Brooklyn. “They can bring it if they bad enough,” he told me when I eyed him with worry. “I put these headphones on and press, I'll be fine.” Who didn’t want to be this brave, this unapologetically unafraid?
So yesterday, when I woke up a 38-year-old artist, I had to remind myself that Jeremiah would not condone my slow slide into an emotional abyss, even if his exit from the world pushed me there. He would remind me of all the ways that I was more like him than I knew, and that to forego class or an audition or a dance date would be unbecoming. I’m supposed to go twirl in somebody’s ballet combination, or stomp down a club pumping the right beat. Or turn a prosaic sidewalk into the last great runway… I’m supposed to press.
I will miss him forever nevertheless. I loved Jeremy the kid as if he belonged to me and Jeremiah the adult as the brother every only child wants to claim. But even more, I recognize him as one of the last products of a dance generation too reverent of our predecessors to shirk our responsibility to dance craft. In a time of commercialized art and a world teeming with young dancers so dangerously submerged in their egos that their service to art suffers, Jeremiah maintained respect. He never needed our teachers to prove themselves worthy of our attention. He realized that his expertise was built on the backs, legs, arms, torsos, and physical articulation of our predecessors. Jeremiah knew names like Ralph Glenmore, Carmen De Lavallade, Talley Beatty, and Gwen Verdun, and honored the artists who owned them. He never complained about the work, he simply did it. And as confident as he was, he always understood he could be better.
So it’s no wonder he danced up until his last breath, that he had just finished a solo as grand as his most fabulous ensemble. He was as fully committed and fearless, ancestors on call, dancing at his grandmother’s 80th birthday party as he would have been at the Kennedy Center, or at an elementary school auditorium for a classroom of kids. Because he knew that he was engaged in his divine purpose on this planet and at the splendid mercy of every bit of God in him.
We should all want to be like Jeremiah.