I grew up with many Friday nights filled with live music, fried chicken, beer, dancing, blues, bid whist, long stories, full-throated laughter, and thigh-slapping folks who were just as serious about church on Sunday. Culturally and aesthetically it was a rich childhood. On these evenings, my two brothers and I were allowed to join the “party” during the first hour. To this day I can hear my mother’s words, “Baby, come on and dance with me.” I would jump up and copy whatever movement struck her heart. I distinctly remember her instructions to “Use your pelvis when you do the ‘jerk’ baby!” and “be sassy now” as I slapped my small behind dancing the Black Bottom.
One particular Friday night, sneaking out of bed to glimpse the later activities of the party, I saw, from my hiding place, guests in the living room facing the velvet rust curtains that divided the room from my parents’ bedroom. From their conversation, I knew that my Aunt Evelyn was “backstage,” a.k.a. my parents’ bedroom – Aunt Evelyn was not a biological aunt, but a very close friend of my mother’s who, because of the deep friendship with my mom, had the ability to praise and punish me like any biological elder.
As the music began, slow undulating rhythms accompanied Aunt Evelyn’s arm as it snaked from between the curtains. At that point, she was fully dressed, which is not how she would end the dance. With prideful dignity and grace, she unhurriedly removed her outer clothing, first her shirt and then her skirt. The removal of her slip was especially masterful. She ended there still sporting a ‘cross-your-heart’ Playtex bra and underpants because nudity was not the point and the “audience” knew it.
Her performance was not an invitation to, nor an example of, sexual promiscuity, but was rather “High Art.” Her improvisational dance was slow and elegant, glorifying her physical command and well-honed mature sensuousness – she tickled the edge of social perimeters. She slowed and accelerated time and injected gestures of sophisticated Humor. Her cappuccino-brown skin glistened as sweat beaded along her long arms. Energy shaped her dance as Signifying gesture and Call and Response engaged her audience, her bent legs Grounded her very tall frame and her shoulders, ribcage and pelvis moved in Polycentric union with the music. There was no distinction between her, the rhythms, the movement and grace.
Other evenings were filled with my mother and fellow musicians playing guitar in front of the same rust curtains. From early childhood, these Friday evening scenes of live music and dance shaped my artistic sensibility, as did the theatre of Sunday Church, the irreverent local ‘black panthers’, and the dances at the neighborhood community center where we showcased our best dress, strutted our cool, and basked in our virtuosic dancing.
I also remember dancing on the sidewalk as the showcasing and syncopation of black parades ‘stepped’ along the asphalt; soul-drenched family picnics on hot – humid afternoons at Lake Calhoun with my mother’s friends and their children; and sitting in the back seat of the car returning home late and listening to my parents laughter and the intricacies of their timbrel intonations as I drifted off to sleep. I smile deeply reminiscing the fun afternoon “tea” parties at the home of my mother’s co-worker – who was black, very gay, loved Etta James, and had metaphorical wit down to an art form.
As I critically look at my own art, or the lustfully listen to others in their art making, I can clearly see that all art is the repository of who and what we are as humans, as communities, as cultures, as ethnicities. I am African-American and grew up in a rich cultural pattern of ColorednegroAfricanAmericanblackness. While this does not make me a “black artist” this cultural pattern did give me early access to a rich artistic sensibility, or consciousness.
Several years later, when I began reflecting on the black art of my childhood, I realized the extent to which my formal dance training in the “Anglo mainstream” had obscured that early artistic sensibility. Not only were Humor and the aesthetic behind the blues absent from my training, but also much of what I had absorbed, as a healthy attitude toward life and the body, was absent — replaced by puritan directives. The body was sterilized – I found that thighs, butts, breasts and genitals did not exist on the dancer’s body…literally and allegorically, and individual expression within group collaboration was highly frowned upon.
During high school I trained at the Guild of Performing Arts in Minneapolis with Nancy Hauser. Ms. Hauser’s training had followed the German modern dance tradition with its emphasis in social motifs and qualities of movement – Percussive was percussive, not the sharp snap of my mother’s brown hands, and a swing was a swing, not the sway of warm sensuous thighs.
During my freshman and sophomore years in college I studied at The Minnesota Dance Theatre with Loyce Holton. It was there I fell in love with the Graham technique, a love that would last my lifetime. Here, at least, the contraction and release articulated the torso – dividing it into sections. My last two years of undergraduate work were filled with classical ballet and the modern technique of Eric Hawkins. The ‘movement for movement sake’ Cunningham technique filled my days at Mills College in Oakland, California as I earned my Masters of Arts degree.
Fortunately by the time I hit Mills College, I had found other modern dancers of color who were also straddling the chasm of brown skin and modernism. Back at the Minnesota Dance Theater I learned of Mary Hinkson and Matt Turney, the first African-American dancers hired in the Graham Company. Turney, like me, had trained with Nancy Hauser, but, in retrospect, I identified with Hinkson for the simple reason that her lips and cheekbones were like my mothers; her arms were muscular and long like mine, and her butt full.
While Hinkson wasn’t dancing “blackness”, she was blackness simply dancing Graham and I needed to witness this navigation of cultural descendancy and the modern art I was adopting for my own. She was fierce, playful, intelligent, powerful and inspirational for those of us who shared her skin tones.
Hinkson performed roles intended for Martha herself and danced for John Butler, Donald McKayle, and George Balanchine. As a teacher extraordinaire she guided thousands of students in the Graham technique. By the time I became cognizant of her existence she was no longer with the Graham Company, a position she held between 1952 and 1973. Leaving Graham in 1973, after a disagreement with Martha, her contribution continued in her pedagogy.
As a budding dancer in the Graham technique I needed her presence as proof that I could bridge the artistic and cultural chasm. When I heard of her death in late November of 2014, almost 40 years after finding her, I was stunned and loss filled within me. I felt as if my mother had died again.
I didn’t know she was so alive in me as my guide, a fierce blackness simply, yet intelligently dancing.