This is a paper I delivered Nov. 8, 2013 at the joint CORD/SDHS Conference in Riverside CA, sponsored by the Dance Program in Critical Studies, UC Riverside. The format is prepared for oral presentation:
Thoughts on Decentering Dance Studies -©Brenda Dixon Gottschild. All Rights Reserved
I feel decentered. NOT in a good way. I’m in a corner. I’m still cornered by SYSTEMIC racism. I want out. I want to move from the margins to the center. I want the center widened, biggered, more inclusive. Don’t DECENTER ME: CENTER ME! I want so-called white folks to be as angry about racism as I am. And I want you to realized that, behind the anger, is hurt and fear. Hurt, that my sisters and brothers of color are not admitted to the white comfort zone. Fear that things will never change. I can’t get out of the corner without you. And you can’t be humanized without me.
Priya Srinivasan wrote us speakers asking us to “meditate on the theme of the conference and the notion of ‘decentering’ as it relates to your own work.” So, here goes.
Why DO we do what we do?
What is dance studies? Dance research? Performance Studies? Any studies? Why do we study? What are our aims? What is theory? Theorizing? What’s the point and why? What are our deepest desires in doing what we do? Do our intentions reflect our desires, do our deeds reflect our intentions?
I know someone who applied to this program a few years back and was told her work wasn’t CRITICAL ENOUGH. An older student returning to academia after a professional dance career and now a campus administrator and student counselor, she was interested in certain topics around women and black dance. WHY was she rejected? Isn’t graduate school where we learn how to hook up theory and practice? She may have been in the practice corner, while the program’s in the theory corner. Both are corners, in opposing sides of the box—or the ring! Isn’t there another way?
In 2010 I was told by the director of the Dance History Scholars Editorial Board that my proposal for my most recent book was not THEORETICAL enough to be published in their series. I believe the Board was unable to understand DuBoisian ideas and the subject of identity as theory, especially when it was put to the test of practice, as I always do in my work.
Theory loosed from practice is like food without nutrients: WHITE BREAD, if you will—and the double entendre’s intended!
Scientific theory, mathematic theory, theological theory—at their best, all are studied in the service of advancing the cause of humanity, to extend and embrace the human good. And performance theory? Can we reach for humanistic excellence? If our aim is NOT to find ways to truly DECENTER by EXPANDING THE CENTER and removing ourselves from our boxes—to make the way easier for the next generation of “theorists,” to also shed light on the whys and wherefores of people dancing—that is, if our principal interest is not humanism, but theory derailed from its link to practice, then we might as well repose ourselves in that final box, the coffin!
I fear for performance theory because of its potential to make either/or DISTINCTIONS that ultimately amount to mean-spirited DECISIONS that continue the pattern of exclusion for scholars of color—blacks, in particular. I see this elitism rearing its ghastly countenance in a newly minted, millennial fashion. Young Diasporan scholars, largely women, are hired so that the Human Resources and/or Equal Opportunity Office can be satisfied that equity is alive and well at their institution. “We know how to recruit scholars of color: hoorary for us! We won’t lose our funding; we’re lookin’ good!” But what about RETENTION? Do these scholars gain tenure? Are they promoted? Do you want them in your family? It’s a sad story, and here’s an example.
Early in 2012 things reached untenable proportions for two emerging African American female dancer-scholars. For one it was around her MFA concert and degree; the other was at the end of her first year in a tenure-track position and was coming up for review. Long story short: both were being tossed dangerous curve balls. Each independently contacted me online to ask for any advice I could give. Now, I’d had this same scenario, different players, several times the previous year, and that’s a lot, given the small percentage of black dance faculty and grad students in academia. This time, I decided to take action, and that’s how the Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving(CDSM) came about. You can read our Mission Statement and Manifesto in your registration packets. [HOLD IT UP] And if you’re interested in the case of these two women in particular, read their abbreviated stories on the Movement Research website, under Conversations -Critical Correspondence, Sept. 5, 2013.
Another emerging scholar related to me this incident. She was at the CORD Special Topics Conference in Leicester, England soon after the death of Michael Jackson, one of the most astoundingly creative dancers whose feet ever graced the earth. (Okay, I admit: I’m biased!) Anyway, since no mention was made of his passing and his immense contribution to our profession, she did so at one session, and was met with little or no interest. I’d like to upend—if not decenter—old presumptions about who or what kinds of dance matter—presumptions that allowed for this kind of “invisibilization.”
MOSTLY I’m interested in DECENTERING the race trope: the assumptions, biases, and knee-jerk, goose-step patterns we fall into when white comfort levels and centrality are threatened by the presence of THE OTHER. So, back to square one: yes—I want white people to be as angry about racism, bias, exclusionism, and elitism as I am! I want it to be the task of white people—not only black and colored people—to speak out. Here are some questions to ask yourself: [READ ALOUD CIRCLED ITEMS IN TEACHING TOLERANCE MAGAZINE, FALL 2013, P. 44]
So let’s end with a decentering meditation—the task the conference organizers set before us. Close eyes, sit comfortably, and for this Guided Meditation, ask yourself: who am I and how does my dance trajectory relate to anything Dr. Brenda said? [60 seconds]
Here’s the brief essay I wrote for the Boyzie Cekwana (South Africa)/Panaibra Canda (Mozambique) performance at New York Live Arts. Their concert opened the fall, 2013 season. The ensemble is incredible, laudable, sterling.
The Discomfiting Discord of “The Incomati [dis]cord”
“I turn my back on a future I don’t remember . . . .” “I do have to get back, for the past is under siege, and I have a truth to tell.. . .” “But then again it could be a lie.” “I don’t remember I ever had a name and who it was that gave it. . . .I’ve walked so far into the future that I’ve lost the present.”
These musings, extracted from the litany uttered by Boyzie Cekwana, invoked in me my own memories: the news of the day in all its horror; the voices of reporters putting spin on fact; the impotence of people in the face of power—all adding up to the surreal reality of life “as is,” on this planet, at this time. How do we remember/recall/retrieve who we are and on whose ancestral shoulders we stand, when the ground we inhabit and the air we breathe is polluted with lies?
There are three movements or moods to The Inkomati [dis]cord, and there’s a kind of music to the madness: the calm before the storm (lento); the storm (presto); and finally the aftermath/commentary section (tenuto). The parts hang loosely in a structure that keeps improvisation precariously riffing and balancing on its frame. The calm opening moves slowly, deliberately, building up a backstory with intimations of repression. Cekwana’s voice, throaty, husky, draws you in. (He sounds like Harry Belafonte in another incarnation, without the songs or the panache.) He tells of lies and wasted lives. His articulations are Kafkaesque, and he may be addressing them to an interrogator. In the sustained conclusion the cast calmly sit together and act as subject (Maria Tembe), translator (Amelia Socovinho), interpreter (Cekwana), and reporter (Canda) in a scene that is both hilarious and bitingly ironic. We leave with the message that speech is compromise, truth is lies, and words can be re- and mis-interpreted until their meaning is transformed to meaninglessness.
But I want to focus on the duet—the storm—that is central to the middle section. When Maria Tembe is catapulted from her wheelchair to the floor, all hell breaks loose—presto/change-o! To the strains of Astor Piazzolla, she and Panaibra Canda tear across the stage and collapse, run-fall-collapse, again and again, laid flat by beautiful music when it would’ve been bullets in the life described by Cekwana’s utterances. But, we remind ourselves, this is theater. Tembe’s and Canda’s duet is shocking. Not leaning on emotional expression but tapping deeply into kinetic reality, they roll/tumble/scuttle across the stage, on top of, under, beside each other, giving, taking, throwing, catching weight and hiding none of the effort. It shocks, at the beginning, because this duet’s moves are predicated—that is, extended and limited—by the fact that Tembe is legless. Exploitation? No! As the duet continues—and by the expression of agency and power in her half-body, by her beauty as a dancing half-body, by her facial expressions—we come to understand that she is nobody’s victim. Occasionally she stares at the audience, her visage calm, sometimes almost haughty, as though she’s saying, “and you thought I was handicapped!” Sometimes it looks as though she’s trapped underneath Canda and trying to escape as they race across the stage, crawling, crouching, running. They’re panting—but it’s physical effort, not emotional. At one point he makes a yoga bridge, supporting himself on hands and feet with hips and chest lifted, and in this pose carries Tembe atop his torso across the stage. Then they switch so that she’s underneath, facing him, her arms holding onto his back as he walks dog-like, on all fours, while she suspends herself from his chest, her short torso swinging back and forth like breasts on his body.
This duet makes a layered statement. It bespeaks torture. How can we not assume, given the words spoken in the first section, that Tembe’s condition is anything other than the result of malfeasance? But, then, it also speaks transcendence. They’re dancing a kick-ass contact duet, unlike any that’s ever been danced on any concert dance stage anywhere else, as far as I know. Just as the first time two males danced a love duet on some stage decades ago and forced spectators to rethink and revise, so also here. (Or think of Arthur Mitchell for the first time partnering a white ballerina in “Afternoon of a Faun” on the staid New York City Ballet stage in the 1950s.) This one makes us look, see, and maybe accept a wider lens on beauty, moving us farther away from our preconceived notions of who should dance, on a public stage, and why. And that’s what I want from my dance world: stretch me, reshape me, open me to embrace what I’d never imagined.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild is the author of Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance_Dance and Other Contexts; Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era (winner of the 2001 Congress on Research in Dance Award for Outstanding Scholarly Dance Publication); and The Black Dancing Body – A Geography from Coon to Cool (winner of the 2004 de la Torre Bueno prize for scholarly excellence in dance publication). Her most recent book, Joan Myers Brown and The Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina-A Biohistory of American Performance, was published in 2012. A freelance writer, consultant, and presenter, and former consultant and writer for Dance Magazine, she is Professor Emerita of dance studies at Temple University.
At the request of the Program Director of Dance USA I’ve organized a session that I’ve titled “‘Can We All Get Along?’ – Addressing Racial Bias in Divisive Times,” for the upcoming Dance USA conference in Philly June 12-15. My wonderful panelists are Joan Myers Brown, Founder/Exec Artistic Director of The Philadelphia Dance Company; and Lela Aisha Jones and Deneane Richburg, Co-Founders of The Requisite Movers. It will be a community conversation. Quoting myself from the online proposal: “This is an attempt to create a ‘safe haven’ wherein an honest discussion based on real-life examples might lead participants to ACT in more informed ways. ACTION BEYOND DIALOGUE is the aim.” If you are planning to attend the conference, please come to this session. And please spread the word.
The Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving, part 1 – Brenda Dixon Gottschild in conversation with Jaamil Olawale KosokoPosted in Uncategorized on May 12, 2013 by bdixongottschild
Curator/choreographer/performer Jaamil Olawale Kosoko talks with Brenda Dixon Gottschild, whose scholarship on the presence and influence of Africanist aesthetics in American dance forms has made an indelible intervention in the genealogy of dance history and contemporary dance. Here they discuss what led her to a career of writing about dance through the embodied perspective of a black female dancer. Their conversation also touches upon Gottschild’s most recent endeavor, the Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving; a nation-wide network of support organized to assist black scholars who have encountered racism in their attempts to attain degrees, tenure, diversity, etc. within U.S. university dance programs. This interview is part one of a two part series dedicated to this issue. Check back for a conversation between two dance scholars who found support through this resource.
Date of Conversation: Tuesday, March 12, 2013, Philadelphia, PA
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko: I have the honor and pleasure of sitting with one of the premier scholars of dance. Brenda Dixon Gottschild is a cultural critic, a scholar, and author of four esteemed books: Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts; Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era; The Black Dancing Body – A Geography From Coon to Cool; and her most recent book Joan Myers Brown & The Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina: A Biohistory of American Performance. Brenda, it is such an honor, such a pleasure to be sitting with you. Thank you so much for allowing me and us into your home.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild: It’s my pleasure, Jaamil. I honor and respect the work that you are doing.
Jaamil: I know you foremost as a writer and cultural critic, and what I enjoy most about your work is how you use dance as a vehicle to measure society, and the pulse of society, what is happening in contemporary times. This is very much the course of thought in Digging the Africanist Presence. What led you specifically into this direction with your scholarship?
Brenda: I somehow feel like I’ve been on this road all my life. Early readings before I was even in graduate school — my first husband passed me books when we used to scour the bookstores in New York; things like Lawrence Levine’s Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom, and of course Janheinz Jahn’s Muntu: African Culture and the Western World and his marvelousThrough African Doors were out then. Those books introduced me to a world of diasporan expression and accomplishment that I had never dreamed of, that I had never been introduced to in all of my schooling, which at that point was undergraduate. I think that kind of stirred up an interest. At that point I was a performer in New York. I danced with various and sundry dance groups — usually the only person of color — like Mary Anthony, or Edith Stephen, or these “under the radar” companies.
Jaamil: Really, Mary Anthony was under the radar? I guess at that time…
Brenda: Under the radar in the sense that she wasn’t the Martha Graham Company or Paul Taylor. I wasn’t in that stellar league of modern dance. I gravitated to avant garde theatre, the experimental theater of the sixties. I studied at the Herbert Berghof (HB) Studio from ’69 – ’72, first with the incredible William Hickey, and later when I was pregnant, with the great and wonderful Uta Hagen. Students in Hickey’s class were “shocked” to see a black woman taking on white southern gentility when I spent a whole summer working in class as Blanche duBois on scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire. Only Bill and I weren’t phased. I was also a member of the pioneering group of the Open Theatre that created, for instance, The Serpent and Terminal. With them I had the opportunity to take some workshops with Grotowski himself.
Certain racial things happened, however, which made me understand that even though I hadn’t really deeply experienced racism in New York , I was somehow still separate from this basically white, modern dance and experimental theatre world in which I had lived so comfortably. In 1969/1970 I was on a long tour in Western Europe with the Open Theatre. We had started dedicating each show to the Black Panthers by saying, “Fred Hampton was killed in his bed in Chicago, Bobby Seale is on the move across the country, Heuy Neuton is this… da da da da da. We dedicate this performance to the Black Panthers.” Well, I am the only black person in the group. Muriel Miguel is Native American, she’s in the group, and everyone else is white. At some point, maybe half the group rebelled and said, “Why are we dedicating this to them?” Also, we were scheduled to perform in Algeria. A third of the group, if not more, were Jewish and they didn’t want to go to Algeria, so all of these tensions began to erupt in the group. Upshot was, I was not asked to come back.
I left the group and my first husband and I began teaching at Bennington College. While I was there I directed a very singular production of Sonia Sanchez’s SISTER SON/JI; a one act play of a black woman talking about her revolutionary life. The Attica Prison riot happened while we were at Bennington, so this was like 1971, 1972. Esty (my first husband) and I felt like this could not happen without some kind of response, so we did one of those moratorium days at Bennington. Bennington never had any kind of political thing like this before. [Laughs] We worked on white guilt, inviting up artists from New York like Willie Kgositsile, a poet, and other black artists, musicians, dancers, and what have you. We had money from all of the departments at Bennington to bring them in . . . and then I did not get rehired.
Jaamil: How long were you at Bennington?
Brenda: Just one year, ’71 until ’72, and by the end of that year I was pregnant. So then, how did I get into all of this? This is why I say that I feel like I’ve been in it all my life. To make a long story a little bit short, after leaving Bennington in ’72 I become a parent to my wonderful daughter in 1973, I separate from that husband, I go back to graduate school at NYU just to keep my head together and to keep some sanity after a very difficult separation. I am introduced to Performance Studies, which was still the drama department at NYU. Richard Schechner was there and people like Brooks McNamara who studied vaudeville and minstrelsy, white minstrelsy, largely.
It made me understand that the things in my background that I had inklings of with Muntu and Lawrence Levine years before could actually become a course of study for me, and that I could contribute something to that course of study that any — excuse me — but any person who was not a diasporan person could not contribute. I had something different than them; not more than, but different than Lawrence (who became a dear friend of mine during a Rockefeller Bellagio Residency grant I received to complete the minstrelsy chapter of my first book in 1995), different than Janheinz Jahn, or Schechner or McNamara, or anybody else to contribute. I could contribute to it also from an embodied presence. There was nobody dancing doing that. There was nobody African American doing all of the things that I was as a black female dancer/scholar.
Jaamil: And this department was largely white and largely male, I imagine.
Brenda: Definitely. You mean Performance Studies at NYU? At that point it was. This was before people like Marcia Siegel joined the faculty. I got my doctorate before they were there.
Jaamil: Had you experienced cultural bias being in this course of study that may have not easily been understood by your peers as it was by you?
Brenda: Richard Schechner was my mentor and guide. He was just open for it all. He was the one who was looking at Mecca and Maya (the Hindu concept) and trips to India and Arab lands as anthropological theatre. He was the person who influenced me, and was my dissertation advisor. People had thought Brooks should be because he does popular entertainment, but I knew that Brooks would never get behind me doing the kind of political dissertation that I did. Of course, Richard was fine with that.
Jaamil: So was this early dissertation the beginnings of Digging?
Brenda: No, actually it was what became the second book, Waltzing in the Dark. My dissertation was on this wonderful ballroom dance team, Norton and Margot. They are on the cover of Waltzing in the Dark. That’s really why I went back to graduate school.
I was doing one of those SEEK programs at Hunter College where I was a tutor when I was still doing my masters program and had very little money. A theater friend said they were looking for tutors at Hunter College, one of whom was John Felder, who always had an interest in African American endeavor and history.
John introduced me to Harriet Johnson, an independent cultural historian who had a black theater collection in the Chelsea Hotel where she lived. She curated an exhibition that was going on in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum on Green Pastures and the touring company of Green Pastures during the depression, with costumes and ephemera — this was like 1975, ’76. Margot Webb was on one of the panels they had with some of the performers discussed in Marshall Stern’s Jazz Dance like Ulysses S. Thompson (a legendary early vaudeville dancer) who was still alive. When Margot began to speak I felt this incredible déjà vu – she too had wanted to be a ballet dancer, at some point she lived around the corner from where I grew up in Harlem — so, we immediately bonded. I spoke to her after and asked her, “Can I write an article on you?” At that point I was writing for a now defunct black magazine called Encore American and World Wide News. That’s how I used to get all my tickets to performances. I wrote an article on Margot for that, and that was why I wanted to go back to graduate school, because I wanted to write a book about her.
I was in a master’s program at NYU; my master’s thesis was on Bertolt Brecht and my interests were there as well. Then I knew I wanted to get a doctorate, because I wanted to write a book about Margot Webb and that became my dissertation. The world was not ready for a dissertation like that to be published in 1981, even though Richard Schechner praised it to the heights. He felt like it was really a wonderful dissertation. What happened was that unlike many of the graduates from there, my dissertation didn’t get immediately published.
I got onto a totally different track with Digging, and that happened largely because of the culture wars. I was writing criticism by then for Dance Magazine and I was seeing ballet as well as modern dance and sensing that everyone adored Balanchine. But sensing also, again, with my always looking for the black in the white, that there was something else going on there.
Brenda: And what is it that makes him? He is the Americanizer of ballet. What’s so American about this? That line of questioning…
Of course, there was all of this other stuff going on during the culture wars from say the late 80s through the mid 90s, and I’m starting to get involved in American studies. I start going to American studies conferences, not dance conferences, where people knew nothing about this kind of stuff. But when you went to American studies, every panel of the hundreds of panels would somehow be talking about African influences in da da da. It was through American studies that I encountered the use of this term “Africanist” — I think it was used by [Joseph E.] Holloway. He had done an anthology about Africanist presences in American life. And then, of course, Toni Morrison’s incredible work on literature: Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.
I had role models, if you will, in American studies to support what I wanted to do in an embodied way in the dance world. I really feel like I kind of siphoned that information into my work, which then was disseminated in the dance world, despite of a lot of resistance I had from the white establishment in the dance world. It’s out there now.
Jaamil: And thank god it is out there.
Brenda: Who would have known?
Jaamil: So we fast forward to the 90s and the aftermath of the culture wars, and you have been teaching at Temple University, and you meet your love. You begin a process of creating work that leads you into some really tough questions. Themes of identity and gender and so I guess we can say his name?
Brenda: Yes, Hellmut Fricke-Gottschild. Brenda and Hellmut. [Shows picture]
Jaamil: Wow, that’s a wonderful poster.
Brenda: It’s from Middlebury, probably in ’03 or ’04. This was on the cover of the Arts & Entertainment section of The Inquirer, July of ’03, “Couples Working Together.” We toured with this piece, Tongue Smell Color and again –American studies — I was on the International Committee of the National American Studies Association in ’98 or something. In all of the exchanges we were having, one committee member said, “I like your interventions, I’d like for you to do something at the upcoming American Studies Association conference.” I told Hellmut and we decided that we would work on something together, instead of me being a talking head. So, for the ASA of 1999, in Montreal, we did the first version of Tongue Smell Color. (Just to backtrack a little bit, we had been working together before that. We did a big piece in Philly in 1996 calledFrogs, which had nothing to do with the kind of issues we were dealing with in Tongue Smell Color, but Hellmut and I had indeed been working together for quite a while. The immediate predecessor to Tongue Smell Color was a piece we did in Germany called Stick it Out. We were being provocateur at that point, so you can imagine Stick it Out had many different layers and meanings.)
So, as I said, we performed Tongue Smell Color in 1999 at the ASA conference. Various people came including Holly Hughes, who was performing there; Shelley Fisher Fishkin, another very wonderful American studies friend of mine who wrote an incredible book called Was Huck Black? exploring Africanist influences in Mark Twain’s writing; Susan Foster was there; Tommy DeFrantz . . .. Hellmut, with his wonderful nose for creating the right atmosphere to move forward (he was the artistic director of his own dance company, Zero Moving Dance Company), put together a beautiful PR packet with blurbs from people who had seen it like Tommy, Holly and others. His friend, Beatrice Schiller, did this photograph. [Shows image] We toured that piece from 2000 to 2008, when Hellmut said he didn’t want to do it anymore.
Audiences were hungry to have someplace to vent, embrace, enter and air out feeling around race, nationality, gender, memory, guilt — those are the types of issues that came up. Frequently, following the piece (which is about an hour) we would open it up by asking people: “Can you please extend the performance beyond what you saw into your own life?” in other words, “Enter it where we left off.” Then people would begin to say, “Well when you did that, it took me back to this,” or, “I grew up in Virginia, and until I was five this little black girl was my best friend, and then my grandma said you can’t be friends with her anymore because you can’t wash it off.” Crazy comments came from the audience in various and sundry places where we performed. The conversations after the performance often would go on as long as the performance itself.
We performed Tongue Smell Color for the last time at the end of a really nice residency Tommy deFrantz got me a couple days every week at MIT for the whole month of February in ’08. For the final performance, Hellmut and I decided that we were going to do it in a different form; we would do a retrospective of it. We showed videos of various performances of it while he and I then talked about it and did some of it live. He’s so creative, always coming up with incredible new ways to present the material. After that he was really…
Jaamil: I’m done! [Laughter]
Brenda: I’m telling you, the appetite. There seems to be, again, a new interest, in the age of Obama, in talking about race. I can see, again, that it’s not about how little or how much progress we’ve made. The real deal is, it’s never over. We need to continue to talk about this all the time. That’s what I feel like people don’t realize.
Jaamil: I agree whole-heartedly.
Brenda: People think it’s over. I spoke to somebody at DanceUSA who said that many of their members say: “We’ve been doing this for twenty-five years, why do we need to have a race sensitivity session at the conference on this now?” Because this is America. Condoleezza Rice said years ago that racism is America’s birth defect. Coming from Condy Rice, you know, I think she’s right. There is always the need for this.
Jaamil: It is my personal belief, and please feel free to interject, that it is a conversation — the act of the discussion is what influences and evokes the healing process.
Brenda: Right, and over and over. We can’t say, for instance, “Why do we have these same questions about sexuality now?” Every generation has to go through it again.
Jaamil: You’ve been doing this work for half a century.
Brenda: Yes, I’m seventy years old.
Jaamil: These are issues that are cyclical; each generation has to combat them essentially.
Brenda: Combat and come back. I don’t feel it’s bad that we have to come back. You pointed out to me this very recent article in The Inquirer about being white in Philly, which allowed me to show you that in 1995, Philadelphia Magazine had a whole spread on the issue of race. [Shows magazine] And, incredible, The New York Times (this is in 2000) had done a series for a whole summer, pre Obama. [Gestures at a copy] And, I love this cover of a Hassidic man and a woman wearing dreadlocks in The New Yorker; 1993, culture wars time. [Picks up the issue] We are always at war, culturally.
Jaamil: Being in an inter-racial partnership, and a creative partnership as well, what have you and Hellmut learned from each other as a result of that companionship?
Brenda: One of the things is what we’ve learned from the world, and particularly with these performances, what we’ve learned from audiences — again, in terms of the need to have a safe comfort zone for discussing things. Also, what we have learned from each other is in many ways, I think I said it in The Black Dancing Body or in the new book, that most of the time I forget that Hellmut is white. One of the things that we’ve learned, of course, is that love conquers all.
It’s not that we are the same, we certainly disagree. One of the things, and I don’t think people understand this so I will be careful how I say it: anyone who is white still carries racism that needs to be dealt with. It is foolhardy to assume it’s over even when you are in an interethnic relationship. Hellmut is smart enough to not assume that. He knows what he is working out. I know probably some people who hear this will be upset. Well, then are only white people racist? It has to do with power. Even though every white person doesn’t have power in the sense of systemic and structural racism, these things of course can only be carried out by individuals; in that sense it is that white people have to deal with racism. It’s not that black people have racism, though we may have lots of other things. An excellent book that deals with that subject is a book called Seeing White by Jean Halley, Amy Eshleman and Ramya Mahadevan Vijaya. They so clearly show why this is true.
Jaamil: This brings to mind the movie Django Unchained that recently surfaced over the holidays, which is a really interesting depiction of stylized slavery and racism. What I did see in there though was how the black body was engineered to hate itself, as was portrayed through the two lead characters, the slave and the freed man, Sam Jackson and Jamie Foxx. So with the power that Steven [Head House Slave played by Samuel L. Jackson] had, he was able to provoke this fear in the plantation. The only reason I bring that up is to bring up a racism that is embedded in black people that is a learned, systemic racism of self-hatred, essentially meant to break that community.
Brenda: Absolutely, which I think though, is very different from systemic racism and white racism. For instance, I get so annoyed when people say, “Well, you know, slavery wasn’t invented by white Americans, there were blacks who put each other in slavery in Africa.” Yes, so!? We know that, Orlando Patterson already talked about all of that. We know that slavery has existed as long as prostitution and rape. All of those things have existed throughout all cultures, but there’s a very different heritage of it in America.
Jaamil: To change gears a little bit. I want to think about your current life as a Buddhist; how that has affected your writing and your overall take and how you approach mankind.
Jaamil: Thank you for that correction.
Brenda: I would be lying if I were to say that I am a Buddhist. I can’t truly follow any particular calling. And of all my many old friends who are Buddhist — Lanny Harrision, Meredith Monk, etc. — will not admit that Buddhism is a religion. But, it does have its rituals, its altars. You put up Rinpoche or whoever on your altar. To me, that is a religion.
The improviser that I am — just as I improvised a new stratagem for embodied dance research — I think I have improvised, from Christianity, Buddhism, and Hinduism, my own particular way of acknowledging my guardian angels. I’ve certainly taken from Buddhism, and I love Pema Chodron. I’m not in that sense a practicing Buddhist. I’ve taken some things, like when I do the Lojong teachings or Tonglen, I devise my own way of doing it, which isn’t even how Pema would say you are supposed to do them. I find, though, that I am certainly grounded by sitting, but even when I do a sitting (now they call it mindfulness meditation) I have my own fashion in which I’ve figured out how to do that.
I still am very influenced by Christianity. I am involved now in the Episcopal Diocese Antiracist Committee here in Philly. I’m involved in the Episcopal Church as I was in New York because the Episcopalians that I know on the east coast are very involved in issues of social justice. I used to go the Episcopal Church in the West Village when I lived in Westbeth, St. Luke’s. Again, that was a church that was really committed to change and this one here, not far from where I live, St. Martin’s, we just had a reading group on Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. I am working with them on various and sundry things. And of course there was liberation theology as well, that also attracted me to a certain level of Christianity. So, yes, I would say, certainly the idea of the 17th Karmapa, and who could not be enthralled by and revere the Dalai Lama. So their presence certainly affects me. I have my prayer flags all over the house.
Jaamil: Does your affiliation with this anti-racism committee play a role at all in spawning the idea for the Coalition of Diasporan Scholars Moving?
Brenda: No, actually, if I may, I’d like to address this Coalition of Diasporan Scholars Moving. Maybe early 2011 a friend at a university that I will leave unnamed, let me know about some obviously ethnocentric or biased incidents that were being thrown at her by her chairperson, which were obfuscating her movement forward, just on merit review, even before tenure. I went back and forth trying to give her ideas, then in the fall of 2011 Liana Conyers, out of the blue, emails me. I can’t remember how she got my email address, but somebody suggested that she contact me with some blatantly biased, discriminatory practices that were happening almost to prevent her from getting her MFA completed.
I at that point sent out an SOS to senior scholars that I knew who might be able to help her. Halifu Osumare at UC Davis, Tommy deFrantz who was just moving to Duke, Yvonne Daniel who had been a professor at Smith and is a dear friend of mine; we all began to give Liana ideas. It turned out we were able to give her not only practical support, but spiritual support. And then, this past fall, 2012, I get this SOS from A’Keitha Carey who had left her job at SUNY Potsdam for obviously (I’m sorry) racist reasons. At that point I felt I couldn’t keep doing this by myself, or just sending out these SOSs. This should not be happening in the new millennium, post-Obama, post-whatever, although we see what crap is happening in Washington now, and do not doubt that is because we have a black president.
In any case, that is why I started the Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving. An immediate onslaught of feedback came in. I sent every dance scholar in academia whom I could think of a notice saying these are the things that have happened. Also, around the same time I realized that the International Association of Blacks in Dance was going to be giving it’s 25th anniversary conference, so I sent a note to Denise Saunders the chair of IABD, asking if I could do a panel there with some of these people speaking to see what we can garner. Out of that came the Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving. We have two lawyers on board. It’s not like we are going to go out and prosecute anyone, because of course we are really working against the system.
Jaamil: The institution…
Brenda: The institutional racism — and there you can use the word systemic racism, institutional racism. But, of course, that plays out in individuals. It plays out in some individual chairperson who is giving you grief because you, as this new scholar, are so attractive to the young students who are looking for that kind of wonderful expressive energy and talent and research that you are bringing to the table. Just as I brought a kind of research to the table, these young dance scholars are bringing a new kind of understanding of what it means to dance and to have a company and to write as well. It’s very scary for those people in power.
Jaamil: I know you have the mission, and I was wondering if you would mind just reading it aloud for us.
Brenda: I would love to. So, we had a wonderful panel at the IABD conference and the bullets in the mission statement were prepared by Lela Aisha Jones and Deneane Richburg. I put together the entire thing with the manifesto, so here it goes.
Manifesto and mission statement of the Coalition for Diasporan Scholars Moving:
As movement researchers and performing scholars of the African Diaspora, we have all experienced some form of either outright discrimination or subversive, exclusionary tactics by the academic community. CDSM is our response to millennial-style racism in our supposed post-racist era. Like those involved in the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century, we are resolved to be proactive. Our fledgling organization is creating a database, disseminating our Mission Statement, and gathering resources (including legal counsel). We welcome new members from across the Diaspora as we extend our base. A voluntary, non-profit coalition of concerned dancer/scholars, we do not collect dues or elect officers. We are a service organization, ready to “trouble the waters” in order to embrace our future fully and fairly.
To offer strategic advice for Diasporan scholars and movement artists in academic settings
To maintain a database for networking and announcements
To configure an organized process of pairing mentors and mentees in times of growth and crisis
To serve as an accessible hub for national/international collaboration and partnering for efficient processes of sharing resources and social capital
To serve as a medium through which members can share experiences and advice, discuss best practices, and offer support.
We can be reached at email@example.com.
Jaamil: That is a very clear vision. I personally applaud you inaugurating this coalition, for taking the initiative, for seeing a need, and attempting to really fill that gap, that void, and create a space for young scholars to essentially have an outlet and to create community; to bridge those who are in these esteemed positions of power and those of us who are not, but struggling to get there. Thank you. It’s so needed.
Brenda: There is a little bit of mentoring going on right now. It’s a service organization that kind of exists under the radar. But a couple of people have been set up, and again, I don’t want to name names, but a couple of people who are having real issues with their chairs or universities have been set up with senior scholars who are at least giving them moral support. The lawyers on board really told us that the most we could do is mentoring, networking, and moral support , but lawsuits against the university, that’s unlikely.
Jaamil: In closing I want to ask you, in the grandeur of your seventieth year, what may you say is your truth at this moment, and how do you share that truth and offer it to a younger generation of future scholars, and cultural critics and crusaders?
Brenda: That’s a heavy one, and a mouthful. Interesting how you said it: what is your truth? I mean I wouldn’t have put it that way. What I have had to do, whatever it’s worth to other people, is to function as though I had nothing to lose. There are so many people that I see that need help. I mean indeed, the many people who never get an education and are out in the street and all of that, so why should I mince my steps?
My message would largely be, please move as though you have nothing to lose. Move from your gut and from your heart (and your head is someplace in there). You need to choose what you feel is your integrity, somehow things will fall into place. Putting one foot in front of the other, that’s another thing. I never had a master plan. I didn’t ever think that I was going to be what I call myself now: an anti-racist cultural worker using dance as a lens. I guess also being open to improvisation. And then, of course, my Buddhist sense of being mindful of the present and being present to the present. The present is a present, it’s a gift, and we don’t know how much longer we have.
Jaamil: Move from your center, move from your gut. It’s sort one of the elemental instructions that we are given in Dance 101, Modern 101.
Brenda: And in Yoga, always working on your core.
Jaamil: Exactly, strengthening your core. What a wonderful final idea. Thank you for this moment, it has been such a pleasure, such a gift Brenda.
Brenda: Thank you.
Brenda Dixon Gottschild is the author of Digging the Africanist Presence in American Performance: Dance and Other Contexts; Waltzing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era—winner of the 2001 Congress on Research in Dance Award for Outstanding Scholarly Dance Publication); and The Black Dancing Body – A Geography from Coon to Cool—winner of the 2004 de la Torre Bueno prize for scholarly excellence in dance publication). Her most recent book, titled Joan Myers Brown and The Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina-A Biohistory of Performance and Race, was published in January, 2012. She is Professor Emerita of dance studies at Temple University and a former consultant and writer for Dance Magazine, and she performs movement theater works with her husband, choreographer Hellmut Gottschild.
Jaamil Olawale Kosoko is a performance curator, producer, poet, choreographer, and performance artist. He is a 2012 Live Arts Brewery Fellow as a part of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, a 2011 Fellow at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and an inaugural graduate member of the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University. Kosoko has created original roles in the performance works of visual artist Nick Cave, Pig Iron Theatre Company, Keely Garfield Dance, Miguel Gutierrez and The Powerful People, Headlong Dance Theater, as well as anonymous bodies (a performance company he co-directs with Kate Watson-Wallace). He has sat on numerous funding and curatorial panels including the National Endowment for the Arts, New Dance Alliance, MAP Fund, Movement Research at Judson Church, and the Philadelphia Cultural Fund among others. For more information, visit: www.philadiction.org
What can I say in the time given me to thank you– my sisters, my brothers—-my children—for bestowing this honor upon me? In this month, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, what can I say to make this moment linger in your minds—no, IN YOUR HEARTS!!—as something to take with you that you’ll remember years from now, as part of our dance emancipation? Well, first of all, please read my books (!!), and use them in your schools and studios so they stay in print and the history and culture I’ve recorded is not lost!
There are other things I can say that many of you of a certain age already know: that the going’s been tough, the road’s been rocky, and the journey has often been lonely. Because when I completed my first big research on African American dance and culture with my doctoral dissertation–in 1981!– the idea of a black woman researching African American dance history and theory was easily pooh-pooed not only by white scholars, but even by black scholars in the social and political sciences. For them, the thought was, “dang, how serious can anyone take a woman whose “research” is on tap dance and nightclubs??” One professor at Temple University told me, “When you were hired, I couldn’t figure out what you were doing: I imagined you were Debbie Allen correcting your students with a cane in hand!”
Well, I walked a bed of hot coals in the 1980s and 1990s to prove that DANCE, OUR DANCE, BLACK DANCE, is CENTRAL to life on this planet—to prove and DOCUMENT the fact that black dance has shaped and COLORED, if you will, every walk of life, every nook and cranny of the world—HIGH AND LOW!!! And you and I are all here, tonight, to TESTIFY TO THIS TRUTH!
SAY AMEN, SOMEBODY!!!