Tipping the Balance of Power in the Dance World and Beyond by Jawole Zollar

The following is a transcription from the keynote address by Jawole Zollar at the Black Women in Dance: Stepping Out of the Barriers conference and festival produced by Serendipity in Leicester, UK in May, 2016.  In the keynote, Jawole Zollar discusses the conditions facing women choreographers of color that led to the launch of the UBW Choreographic Center, as well as the initial Cohort structures and founding principles of the Center.  The keynote is included in a new publication published by Serendipity celebrating and exploring the impact that Black women have made on the international dance ecology and can be purchased here.  

 

I can’t tell you how excited and thrilled I am to be here, as this is such an honor and a return. We toured to Leicester very early in our touring life in 1987 in one of our first tours to Europe. It was such a significant marker for us as a company, so to come back again and be part of this great conference and festival is really fantastic. As a way to give you an introduction to where Urban Bush Women has been and where we are now, I would like to share a video we developed for our 30th anniversary. It’s been 31 years now, which looking round the room – many of you weren’t even close to be conceived at that point, so it’s quite a joy and a pleasure to share this with you.

(UBW 30th Anniversary video text) We started with movement, bodies, shapes, choreography. Then we became a movement, bringing to life untold and untold stories of the disenfranchised, from a woman-centered perspective as members of the African Diaspora community, tipping the balance of power in the dance world and beyond. Our movement made of movement; is fervent and big hearted. We are insistent and active. We are receptive and always learning. We are full of hope. We are Urban Bush Women.

My name is Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and I am the Founding Artistic Director and Chief Visioning Officer of Urban Bush Women. When I formed this company, it was with the philosophy of making work together; dancers, musicians, poets, visual artists. We told stories, beginning with a company of seven women.  We were performing all over New York City establishing our voices and right away we were embraced by the women’s community, the social arts community, the social justice community. We began touring. We performed ‘Anarchy’, ‘Wild Women’ and ‘Dinah’; dances about women who made their own way, on their own terms. Our dances had singing and story telling, and they were bodacious, but during a performance in Charleston, South Carolina, I looked out into the audience and I didn’t see any Black people. Well, I saw two. So Urban Bush Women decided to go out and find African American audiences and working class folk, and people of color, by visiting schools and churches and community centers. Someone told me this was “outreach” hmm… We wanted to go deeper. We made works about homelessness; ‘Shelter’, and it won awards. ‘Lipstick’ was about girls becoming women. It showed Urban Bush Women makes work about social justice and the buzz that followed both works led to more touring and more touring led to more outreach. But we still felt we had more to offer.  

In the early 1990s we were invited to plan and facilitate a long-term residency in New Orleans. We started calling our work community engagement to distance it from the concept of “outreach”.  Outreach was a term we began to define as a large institution reaching out but more likely “down” to what it considers a fringe population for the purposes of checking off boxes of how many where served instead of creating authentic relationships. We entered communities through town hall meetings, and talked to our hosts to let the themes emerge from the community. We didn’t present ourselves as experts from New York. We wanted to learn and grow with the communities we were there to serve. And we always kept dance as a powerful center to the community engagement work. We established our Summer Leadership Institute at Florida State University with a curriculum combining art, culture and social issues and aimed to train a new dancer for a new society. We were going deeper and then in 2000 we faced a financial crisis. It made us look long and hard at what we valued as a company. We fought to survive; we wrote and committed ourselves to core values that still guide us today. Urban Bush Women validates the individual, serves as a catalyst for progressive social change, build and nurtures trust through process, enters communities and co-creates stories, celebrates the African Diaspora, and recognises that place matters.

New works were created and our methodology grew even stronger. We began talking more confidently about our community engagement processes. Then in 2009 I hit a creative wall. With great courage and faith I put the company on a two and a half year hiatus. I wanted us to really look at what we needed to support our artistic work, our leadership work and our engagement work and the processes that center that work. We needed to put the art making instead of the market back in the center. During this time we focused on leadership development, our work through ‘BOLD’: Builders, Organizers and Leaders through Dance. We reflected on our mission to see where we had drifted. We examined everything. Then we came back strong after taking time to edify and look at that which makes us unique. We deepened our partnership with the People’s Institute to strengthen our work, to understand the structural analysis of racism and how it impacts the stories we need to tell.

Research, Do, Delve Deeper, Learn! This exemplifies the Urban Bush Women way. I am, you are, we are Urban Bush Women.

The video gives context and history to the work and now I’m going to go a little into how we articulate where we are now.

ORIGINS OF CURRENT THINKING

I looked back at the idea of post-modernism as a defining place for American modern dance in the 60’s and 70’s. There was a generative period of experimentation that was mostly defined through a White post-modern lens while ignoring the robust experimentation that was going on in Black and communities of color.

In looking at the Judson Church, Fluxus, Grand Union and other White postmodernist movements, I began to look at the underlying philosophical frameworks of how people were thinking and creating. At the same time I began examining Black radical experimentation, content, structure and form.  I wanted to look at what would be the underlying mechanism that supports Black radical experimentation, and it took me to the ‘Ring Shout’.  As a person interested in global movements, my primary lens is as an African American woman, raised in segregation who came of age during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. My international travels have heightened my curiosity and study of what is uniquely American and in particular, African American.

I’m going to offer up a provocative statement.

I’m starting to think that White European derived forms focus on heightened abstraction, form and structure to diminish emotionality. Africanist derived forms focus on heightened emotionality to define form, structure and abstraction. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but I’m saying there are two different ways. However, one has been lifted up as the center of the universe.

European derived forms are not the center of the universe; they are part of the universe, but not the center.

Ballet and classical and contemporary European art forms are part of my training and they have great value.  But what if we look at them in the way my dear friend, choreographer Liz Lerman would, she talks about the horizontal in contrast to the vertical and she has a great book called “Hiking the Horizontal”. So if we see; Hip-Hop, Tap, Ballet, Contemporary Dance, Martha Graham technique and so on… the standards of how we judge what is good, what is excellent, does not hold ballet at the top, or at the center. And this is a place where, in the United States, there is still a lot of struggle and hierarchy in what gets lifted up as excellent, and what gets funding, and how the many forms of dance are spoken and written about, when ascribing their value.

It’s important for us to look at experimentation, and the legacy of experimentation, and creating work in Black radical forms, and I look at everything from music to writing to film, and that was such an important thing to me when coming to Leicester in ’87, and seeing the film coming out of the Black community here, and seeing it as a challenge to define and push my own work. As I look at the current landscape, the need for UBW to establish a choreographic center that lifts up Africanist approaches by female choreographers of color, particularly in experimental work, is pressing.

UBW’s Choreographic Center is how Urban Bush Women has chosen to go forward to influence our current dance landscape.  We launched our Center in January 2016 with two focuses; supporting and strengthening leadership and vision in individual choreographers, and then bringing about systemic change in the field of dance.

RUNNING TOWARDS THE FIRE WHILE YOU ARE ON FIRE

Another way I describe the aesthetic of the Choreographic Center is “running towards the fire while you’re on fire”. That was the urgency in the 60s and 70s that we felt, our communities were on fire, we were on fire and rather than say “no, we’re going to go into a different idea and form” and back away from the urgency of the political and social contexts affecting our lives.  No!  We were saying “we’re going to run right into that fire” because we were on fire with passion, anger, frustration, love, joy, and we’re going to acknowledge that and create from that. So feeling this urgency to speak truth to power. Bringing the multitude of our traditions to the center, and looking at the writings that came out, particularly in the 1970s and looking at language, and how language could reflect a whole cultural identity.  One example is on language and the value of the vernacular. There was a poet called Don L. Lee, who changed his name to Haki Madhubuti. He wrote a very influential poem at the time, and it took vernacular language and brought the poetry of that language to the surface. One of the lines from the poem is:

Him so cool, super cool, him don’t even stop for red lights.”

Helping Black female choreographers to find their urgency, their passion and their voice by examining their entire familial, community and cultural history brings a valuing of the many physical and vocal languages that can inform their unique way to tell their story.

THE MARGINS AND THE CENTER – FINDING NEW MODELS BY UNDERSTANDING INTERNALIZED RACIAL OPPRESSION

Finding new models, for those of us who have lived involuntarily at the margins – we can find strength from the margins as a way to critique the crumbling center of White and European dominated culture and ideas, because the center is changing. It’s falling apart and it needs to fall apart. I’m not talking about being marginalized, I’m just saying standing back, we can see what’s going on in the center and we can create from that place and it’s a very powerful place.

We can find liberation by examining internalised racial oppression in our methodologies, teaching and art that we produce. So we work with an organisation called the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and it does workshops all over the world called understanding and undoing racism. And they hold two central ideas about internalised racial oppression; one is internalized racial superiority and internalized racial inferiority.

Internalized racial superiority is by people who’ve become to be called White. So it’s the assumptions that you learn, you carry, the unexamined assumptions that are a part of that background history, legacy and present day for people who become to be called White.

Internalized racial inferiority is the legacy that we carry as people who’ve come to be called Black, of how racism, affects us; the unexamined ways the messages of our inferiority are expressed in our art and our life, and how these unexamined manifestations of oppression can show up in our work even with the best of intentions, because when their unexamined we don’t even know it’s coming forward. This unconscious, unexamined place is what allows us to duplicate colonized methodologies of creating and teaching dance while de-emphasizing experimentation and risk.

TOWARD A LIBERATORY PRACTICE

In order to create an environment of risk, it means people must have permission to be curious and permission to fail. How many of us grew up with a ballet teacher with a stick? I began to notice that in poor communities and usually in poor communities of color the most rewarded behavior is obedience. You see it in the schools. You see it in the institutions. The value that is held up the most is obedience; obey this step.  I noticed that when I went to institutions of privilege, I saw the highest value and most rewarded behavior was around critical thinking, not obedience. Obedience is preparing poor people and Black people from the school to prison or military pipeline. But critical thinking is a value that you see in the educational systems populated by those who inhabit race and class privilege.  They are prepared to answer the question “how do you understand the world that you’re in and become prepared to comment on and take action in that world”?

If we’re going to step up an environment of risk, we have to embrace critical thinking, curiosity and thinking way outside the lines.  I came up in old school teaching methodologies in dance and I have really had to work hard to undo militarism.  The old school training process, which meant only the strongest will survive, and the teacher’s stance was “I’m going to let you know if you’re one of the weak ones you’re going to know real quick, because I’m going to put you down. I’m going to talk about you with your mom and your momma’s momma, to make sure that you’re strong enough and tough enough.”  I understand this approach and it can be very effective in making an obedient accomplished dancer.  There is another way to achieve excellence and grit.  You need grit. We need to be tough to move out into the world but not at the expense of our humanity.  We can accomplish both. We also need environments where you can think, where you can fail, where you can investigate, where you can inquire, so if our focus is only on obedience then a risk environment doesn’t have a chance to succeed.

When you jump on a dancer with a correction and you have the force of your authority, you’ve just cut off risk.  If you say “that’s wrong” and keep repeating that and after a while you get obedience; you might get excellent obedience, but you’re not getting the creative, generative dancer that we at Urban Bush Women value and look for. Women and Black women become more victimized by this colonized methodology. Because there are fewer male dancers than women in our field, the male dancer gets a lot of affirmation on the importance of their presence and creative voice.  Women are told directly or indirectly you are a dime a dozen.  This cuts off the idea that we have an important creative voice.

TEACHING METHODOLOGIES – DECONOLONIZING OUR METHODOLOGIES

Let’s focus on how UBW is looking at decolonizing our methodologies as dancers and choreographers as a part of the work of the Choreographic Center. When we started this Choreographic Center the idea was to bring about a different awareness, understanding and examination of our practice as a way to create liberation methodologies. This idea of decolonizing our methodologies and how we train in dance is essential. Dance traditionally has been hierarchical, that there’s an all knowing teacher, that by hook or by crook gets you to submit to the authority of that teacher, and participant or student then regurgitates back through the form the teacher has given what they have learned.

There’s another way. There’s another possibility. We hold that the generative dancer, holistic dance training and choreographic practice follow UBW’s process of art making which involves iterative cycles of rigorous embodied research informed by a vast field of movement practices and by radical Black experimentation in the fields of culture, politics and history. The UBW performers develop a self-directed solo practice that allows them to devise original works through a collaborative process.

The dancer becomes responsible for that research and in doing so helps the dance gain a sense of their own power. It is not enough to know a step, to be able to execute steps. There is a complex training methodology that supports that our work that includes ballet, modernist and post-modern forms, contemporary, vernacular and social dance as well as theater based practices. There is a heavy somatics focus that is a part of our work and training, and it includes the Ring Shout --, ways of knowing that are ancestral, that are connected to our elders in our community, and at its core is pelvic awareness.

When I teach at the university, I teach at Florida State University, most of the dancers are come into the program are primarily ballet trained or coming from a background in dance competition. So pelvic awareness is a big thing, because they have been taught to stabilize their pelvis and hold onto that stabilization for dear life. We’re saying that even within certain modern practices, that’s a holding, tensing pattern that does not allow you to be responsive. A question that guides our research is “how can we create core strength and core stability without that holding, tensing pattern within the pelvis”? How do we honor our Africanist traditions of movement practice that release and see the fluidity in the whole spine? Both things can be true, it’s not an either or. It’s a di-unital concept, both and, both things can be true – core stability and pelvic fluidity. We’re looking at connectivity, not only physically, spatially, but also historically, politically. When we’re working for connection, initiation and sequencing, all of that connects to history, political awareness. We’re saying these are connected, and we bring this into the room by our assumptions whether we’ve examined them or not.

We look at strength and strength is very important to us. As a person who grew up with a certain desire to understand and be a part of what people called the “release” movement, I found that the many ways I wanted to express strength, I wanted to express power and I wanted to express “grit” and resilience with Africanist movement practices at the core were not reflected in what people at that time were calling “release”. But I needed to express strength, power and grit because that is part of our cultural lineage. I want risk, inquiry, investigation and experimentation inside of a training methodology that would help me gain a full sense of my power and my full humanity. 

UBW’S CHOREOGRAPHIC CENTER

Our Choreographic Center and our work with choreographers support the development of leadership and the strengthening and supporting the vision of Black female choreographers and women of color choreographers.

I like to use nature as a way to bring clarity to conceptual ideas.  We have a structure of three cohorts of choreographic development each with a different need.

THE SWAMP AND THE DESERT – COHORT ONE – FINDING AND ARTICULATING VOICE

What I see in the U. S. is a pattern of disempowerment around subject matter and choreographic choices.  When a young, Black, choreographer is starting, their usually starting from the swamp, the gut, the feeling. It’s often in response to something that has happened.  In Florida and across the U.S. we saw lots of pieces responding to the murder of a young man, Trayvon Martin. We saw lots of work like that responded to with rage – from the gut. Often the works are emotional, unsophisticated and didactic. I see this as a beginning step in their choreographic journey.  In the universities I see they are often cut off at the limb with an unwillingness to see the validity of the choreographer’s ideas. I hear “that’s bad work”. As opposed to saying that is the beginning, this is a beginning place working from the swamp, and this is an important place. If we can value that as an important place then we can learn how to put the tools in place to help them make this work better. What I often see in the very budding voice is a lack of support for the choreographer. The choreographer gets very confused, disempowered and starts to then take on “if I want to be a good choreographer I need to leave that behind my culture, my passions and take on other kinds of assumptions”. I see working from the swamp as a first and important step.

At some point we have to go to the desert, that means you have to strip away, you have to take away all of the essentials. You have to be in this kind of barren, vulnerable place that’s very scary. But it’s really not barren, because there’s lots of life in the desert, you don’t necessarily see it at first. This process with the swamp and the desert is what we are identifying as our Cohort One – the emerging choreographer. We are examining how we support emerging choreographers, looking at their work from the swamp, and then being in a process of the desert, helping them strip away assumptions. It’s not an audience centric process, and this is where I find that audiences that have been programmed to only see the values of “steps”, have very little patience for this stage of investigation, because it’s experimental and it doesn’t quite know where it’s going.  We can educate audiences to be curious and excited and watching work in this developmental stage.  Yet, I see experimental White choreographer critiqued in a very different way in the US, when I see White experimental choreographers who are in the desert, who are stripping away, but who are less concern with social political issues and more concern with form, structure and abstraction.  This in itself is not the problem.  What is the problem is the valuing of one type of beginning experimentation over the other.

In both of these cases it’s not audience centric, but the audience is important as a witness. The audience is not at the center of what the choreographer needs to learn. So when Urban Bush Women first started, my training was Cunningham, Graham, Limon, and that was their voices.  I wanted to find my voice, to strip down. I went to the UBW dancers, and declared you cannot point your feet, I don’t want you to “pull up”, I want us to go to a primal, emotional place. Strip away everything that we’ve thought about in order to find a unique voice. It’s a very important period, and it must be supported. The choreographer has to be encouraged to wildly experiment and strip away fear based on assumptions of what “good choreography” is supposed to look like.

THE MOUNTAINS – COHORT TWO – ARTICULATING AND DEEPENING CRAFT, RIGOR & VISION

Then what we have is our second cohort. People who are learning to scale the mountains. You need engineering and tools. You need craft. You can’t just go up the mountain and hope for the best, you’ve got to figure out the ways in which you’re going to get up and down that mountain. This is where your craft and your rigor, and your attention to detail come in. You’ve got to have a strong rope and you’ve got to have tested your systems. You need support to achieve your highest vision. In regard to our middle cohort of choreographers, this is where we want to assist. This is where dramaturgy comes in really strong; why are you doing, what are you doing? Really being granular looking at the processes of the work. If we do this with the first cohort, it’s almost too soon; it’s almost shutting it off. We want to turn on the valve for that Cohort One. For Cohort Two we want to support how the vision climbs to the highest peaks. How can you create your most excellent work, and how can we support that? And we’re putting together teams of dramaturgs, historians, directors, choreographer who can mentor this process.

THE OCEAN AND THE ISLAND – COHORT THREE – SUSTAINING THE VISION

Now for Cohort Three, you are doing your work but you are in the middle of the ocean. You have vast possibilities.  You are getting support, commissions and residencies but you need a lifeboat because you don’t have infrastructure. You don’t have the things that support this amazing vision. In our performance you will see the work of Nora Chipaumire vision with dark swan, So how can we at the Choreographic Center support that period of being in the ocean, where the possibilities are vast and unlimited but you can swim out there by yourself forever.

THE FOREST

Then somewhere when you’re in that third cohort you get lost in the forest. So you start to achieve success, build infrastructure and an organization to support your vision and everyone’s telling you that you’re doing good work but you’ve lost your path because you start to think “maybe success means this” or “maybe success means that” or “I should keep doing that. That was successful, maybe I should repeat that.” so you start to get lost in the forest and begin to second guess your path or maybe you can’t find your path anymore.

THE ISLAND

Then you go to an island. Spend some time of the island, reflect, come back into self.

Then actually you start this process all over again. These are the three cohorts, but anyone of them can get lost in the forest at any time, any one of them might need to go to the desert to strip away. Any one of them might need tools to scale a mountain. So this is what our hope is to do in terms to support choreographers. So when people ask us what the structure around the Choreographic Center is where it’s housed. It’s not housed in a building. In fact we actually don’t want a building, unless it comes with millions and millions of money for capital to operate the building, because we’re seen too many organizations go under from having a building they can’t maintain. When we get to that point when we can have that, yes we want a building, we want a space, but part of that we want to focus on now is partnerships with organizations that have spaces; University centers, community centers that can provide residencies, that can provide support for the work that we want to do.

The Choreographic Center is an amoeba like structure.  It is responsive. We’re not saying the Choreographic Center is rigid. We’re flexible and responsive. As creative people we’re always changing. We need to change. This is our greatest challenge with funders.  They want to define, hard and fast, ways in which we’re working. And what we’ve learned also from our Summer Leadership Institute, which I’ll also talk about, is that from our community practice it is the same. Funders would say “what are you going to go out and do in the community, outline it and tell us your outcomes”. If we tell you that we haven’t done our process, our process is to go and talk with a community, seek a mutual agreement, look at mutual risk, look at mutual investment and then we can talk about what might happen. But if we write down what will happen in advance, we’ve not been in process, we’ve been in the funders’ process, not our process. So the same way with the Choreographic Center, How do we explain this? We want the funders to understand that this process is important because it is the process we use in creating work. How many people have written a description for a grant for funding for a piece that you haven’t even been in the studio to discover what’s real yet? You’re trying to write a good fiction, but the truth is you really don’t know because you haven’t been there yet, but you try and make up the best fiction that you can in order to secure the funds. What if funders really understood that?

UBW’S SUMMER LEADERSHIP INSTITUTE (SLI) AS THE RESEARCH BODY FOR THE CHOREOGRAPHIC CENTER

Going back into our SLI, which is now in its 16th year.  The SLI looks at activism and art making, again in a holistic way. Now doing it 16 times, not 16 times in a row, but 16 times, we started being a four-week SLI, but we realized we only got young people, because they take off four weeks in the summer. Moving it to be a 10-day allowed a more diverse group of participants.

So this is what we’ve learned from Urban Bush Women’s SLI, and what we hope to embody in our Choreographic Center. Lizzy Cooper Davis, has summed up UBW’s work and belief system with the following statements:

1. WE BELIEVE COMMUNITY IS STRENGTHENED BY EACH INDIVIDUAL’S FULL PRESENCE AND HOLISTIC ENGAGEMENT.

We want to bring all of our histories forward; personal biography, presence of mind, body and spirit. We’re not saying one history is more important than the other, but how do we create an environment where everybody feels they can bring their history forward?

2. WE BELIEVE THAT ART ARTICULATES COMMUNITIES, AESTHETICS AND ETHICS.

When I talk about the Ring Shout, you see the Ring Shout from Beyoncé to our dearly beloved Prince, you see those forms within Black American traditions. You see it in Arthur Mitchells work, you see and hear it all over the world.

3. WE EMBRACE MULTIPLE ROLES: TEACHER, STUDENT, ORGANIZER, LEADER, MENTOR, MENTEE, ELDER, ETC.

 

There is not a hierarchy of what that is; it’s a role at a particular point in time. If I only say I am a mentor, I am an elder; I lose an opportunity to learn and to grow. These roles can happen all at the same time, you might be all of them at once.

4. WE VALUE EMBODIED LEARNING AND MOVEMENT AS METAPHORS FROM MOVEMENT BUILDING.

When we’re learning about racism in our SLI we also look at it’s physicality; how it’s impacting us and where is this information hitting us? And we look at how we can then embody our internal states to learn more about who we are and how we are processing information.

5. WE STRESS THE IMPORTANCE OF AFFIRMATION, HONORING AND CELEBRATION.

When I was growing up in Kansas City, we use to have a party for everything. So your dog got house trained, you have a party, because it’s important to celebrate. It’s a tradition. We do hard work so we have to affirm and celebrate what we’ve accomplished. Sometime they’re big accomplishments, and sometimes their small, but that tradition of honoring and celebrating is an important part of communities from the African Diaspora. I grew up in segregation in Kansas City, Missouri, so I didn’t encounter White people socially until I was in college. When I was invited to a party by a group of White friends I kept sitting there thinking when is the dancing going to start? A couple of hours now, lots of drinking but when are we going to start dancing? Because in the tradition I grew up in, a party was a celebration of dance. Somebody said you were invited to a party it meant a celebration of dancing, not a celebration of drinking and talking. So these cultural distances, of affirmation through dancing, this is what we’re saying is important to us as a cultural value.

6. WE RECOGNIZE THAT WISDOM RESIDES IN THE GROUP AND MODEL LEADERSHIP THROUGH FACILITATED DIALOGUE AND COLLABORATION RATHER THAN INSTRUCTION.

The dialogue and collaboration with the dancers and their research that they are bringing to the table is very important to how work is created, how we’re learning. If I am in a dialogue with myself, then it gets convoluted in my head. I’ve got to know from other people, and I don’t ever believe that I’m the smartest person in the room. I think that’s a real trap.

7. WE VALUE THE PROCESS OF CONTINUED RISK, FALL AND RECOVERY OVER ASSERTIONS OF STABILITY, BELIEVE THE WOBBLING IS THE BALANCING AND THAT BEING PUSHED OFF BALANCE WILL ENHANCE RAHTER THAN INHIBIT THE GROUP’S ABILITY TO PERFORM AND SUCCEED. 

I grew up with that concept, “be on your leg” and that holding, gripping, pattern to get on the leg does not create stability. The oscillation and the movement that you have to find, that you have to be aware of in order to find stability is really important, and sometimes it’s big, and sometimes it’s really tiny. So that the wobbling and being pushed off balance, deliberate destabilization, within the learning process, a place where you are destabilized in order to learn. It doesn’t mean someone holding a stick over you and beating you into submission, but it means by unearthing assumptions of what you hold to be real. If this is what I have known, in order to find a new place, I’m going to have to let going of something. That is going to be destabilizing. It’s going to change something, shake up something and destabilize my whole emotional self, and if I’m not willing to go through that whole destabilization I will only do what I know, I will default back to what is comfortable. We talk about this in the company all the time, be aware of your defaults, because they lead you back to what’s comfortable. We’ve got to be willing to risk, be off balance, and to understand that that is what’s going to take us to a new place, that is what is going to help us succeed and find new information. What’s true one year is not true the next year and I can definitely tell you that from the aging process. What’s true one year, one month is not true the next. It’s a constant realigning of oneself and one’s environment.  

THE RING SHOUT – THE BIRTH OF BLACK AMERICAN ART MAKING TRADITIONS

The Ring Shout is a particular Black American form.  When I look at how experimentation and dance in the Black community is shaped, the Ring Shout is the foundation for the practice.  The following statements are articulated by Lizzy Cooper Davis in her documentation of UBW’s Summer Leadership Institute work.

·      The Ring Shout is a practice that originated in the Caribbean and US south, and was an embodied practice of worship of the enslaved.

·      Participants moved in a counter-clockwise circle while singing songs of worship or prayer to the rhythms of their shuffling feet and clapping hands. The ring facilitated the range of deep expression and release essential for the health and maintenance of the community

·      Sterling Stuckey (1988) explains, the Ring Shout was “a central organizing principle of slave culture”

In the United States, what was really interesting about how slavery was practiced is that the enslaved were separated from each other – ethnic groups were deliberately divided -- there was a conscious movement to make sure that ethnic groups were not together and could not speak the same languages. As the practice of Christianity was imposed or brought to the enslaved, the slave owners were disturbed by the movements with which the African American people brought to their worship. We didn’t just sit still and sing, as was the Anglican practise. The African enslaved were moving and embodying their worship traditions. This started to become embodied into the Ring Shout. The rhythms of the Ring Shout are achieved through clapping hands and the use of a broomstick in replacement for the drum. This was due to the fact that drums were outlawed very early on during the period of slavery – beginning approximately in 1740 and continuing forward.  The shuffling feet, the hands, the clapping, the broom or stick that’s pounded on the floor; those became another way of the drum being expressed. The ring shout is the way we released and expressed our feelings and ways of creating community survival and resilience. Davis further elaborates:

“During a time when their dancing was forbidden and considered blasphemous in religious settings, the Ring Shout’s subtle footwork fell strategically outside European definitions of dance and thus smuggled the movement so integral to African cosmologies into black American prayer. Within the safety of the ring, expression ranged from supplication to joy and from flailing grief to trance-like prayer but the circle, its motion and its song, remained constant.”

Hearing about the shout and experiencing it are two different things so I thought would be interesting show you a bit of the Ring Shout with the company, the transcription of which follows.

There are a lot of different Ring Shout songs. In the shout there’s a caller, clappers or broom person and singers. It’s a call and response form.

Tendayi sings: I say “run Mary run!” and you say “oh Lord!”

Tendayi: “Run Martha Run!”

Group responds: “Oh Lord!”

Tendayi: “Run Mary Run!”

Group: “Oh Lord!”

Tendayi: “You got the right to the tree of life! You got a right, you got a right!”

Group: “You got the right to the tree of life!”

Tendayi: “You got a right, you got a right!”

Group: “You got the right to the tree of life!”

And there’s the clapping and you can join us in the clapping, and you can create sounds with the clapping. So if you go to the base clap you want to cup [your hands]. Higher pitched clapping [with your fingers] and mid-level [flat hands]. You can choose where you want to come in – if you want to be in the bass, the soprano. And when I ask them to move, they’re young, they’re dancers – so I ask them to think how their grandmothers would have moved, otherwise we can go into a more contemporary idea. There are people in the US who are beautifully taking the legacy of the Ring Shout into contemporary forms. I want to give you more of a sense of its legacy.  The idea is really to embody that’s place of grandmothers, grandfathers, great-grandmother, great-grandfathers – our ancestors.

Many of you may recognize aspects of the shout in the masterful work of Mr Ailey, ‘Revelations’. You may also see the actions of the shout embodied through caricature and humor. I think of it as a sacred dance. It is sacred dance; it carries sacred histories and contains sacred practices. In contemporary practice you’ll see the legs crossed, you’ll see, we talk about shouting churches or Holy Ghost churches, or Pentecostal churches, and you may have seen people in the various aspects of the shout.  We recognize that it is a somatic process, practice and belief. It is about connecting an internal state to an external state and it is rooted in all aspects of African American culture.

IF we think of the Ring Shout as foundational to the Black experience in worship, prayer, music and movement, we can begin to see how many historical and contemporary forms have their roots in the Ring Shout and the importance of this legacy to what differentiates the art-making, storytelling and physical impulses from the origins of the White post-modern experimentation and art-making.  Black being-ness is rooted in this tradition and continues to shape what we hold important to bringing our art to the world.

WE CREATE THE CONTAINER AND BELIEVE THE CIRCLE WILL HOLD US, HONORING THE ETHICS OF COMMUNITY INHERENT IN THE RING SHOUT. 

Within the value of the Ring shout, if we create an environment where we can Be, where we know we are supported by a community. It doesn’t mean everything’s lovely, it means that we’re challenged, that there’s rigor. Then we are honoring the ethics of the Ring Shout, which honors the struggles we go through at the same time as moving forward toward resolution.

In the spirit of learning, generosity, love and gratitude, I’m so happy that we are here in Leicester; that we can share something about Urban Bush Women’s journey, how we’re thinking right now, and where we hope to go. Your questions and comments will help inspire all of us to think more deeply and more powerful about what’s possible.

REFERENCES

UBW 30th Anniversary Video. https://vimeo.com/149164982

Stuckley, Sterling (1998) Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black America Oxford University Press

 

 

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Photos by Julieta Cervantes unless otherwise noted.