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.