Photo by Debra Lopez
my first exposure to white folks modern dance in high school was very telling...i was told,
"i was raw & had no technique"
by ms. jane kleinman, the drama school teacher goddess of ransom-everglades. so technique mattered, not talent (which is defined as raw). raw, I took it to mean, anything that is simply felt and expressed as its own true self w/out needing a "amen" chorus. which i was fine with after i saw what "technique" looked like...
being a poor kid, i took dance at the black community center where i was told i didnt "feel it" like black folks so it wasn't true. i was desperately trying to channel Thelma from 'Good Times' or Ailey's muse, Judith Jameson because I believed black folks "felt" dance while white folks anesthesized black dance movements in to gymnastic routines dependent on pointed toes and awkwardly arched backs w/a big Fosse smile plastered on your face and black face vibrating palms. i didn't feel that either. i felt like I was watching a fair-to-midling Nadia Komenech floor routine whenever i watched what broadway deemed worthy. i saw clear, distinct African movements "cleaned-up" of culture,history and truth and turned into something palatable and mechanic for white audiences who wanted to see a little bit of "soul" without black people and all their feelings, history and story involved.
i felt nothing when watching it, but applauded the rigorous labor. i wanted to feel something....the something i felt when i danced. i didnt find it in Thelma or Judith's routines either because their traditions (which I was told were mine as well simply bec we were black) either. i loved and admired them but I didn't feel them bec they were not my cultural & spiritual affinity which is the place from which all my storie live.
then one day, i peaked through the blinds into my abuelo's backyard, i felt my first Tambor (look it up, the research will do u good). i didn't understand what I was seeing. i didnt understand why the feet were moving in an opposite rhythm from the arms. but I felt something. a touch of meaning, a touch of history...the movements like the elements all around my south florida and caribbean hometown. i felt a dance in sync with the ocean...i felt connected to the centuries of stories told to me about how the thompsons and the grahams ended up on the lands of this border town called miami. this was dance. it had a story, a purpose, a form, a beauty as wide as the horizon...something was happening here...and i knew what i had been told about acting, dance, story was DEAD WRONG.
later, I saw a video of Carmen Amaya's "Alegria" & my world turned on its head. something deep inside woke up and screamed "yes"
This was dance because the precision, committment, life or death stakes were a testimony that demanded heaven's response. I couldn't sit still. I needed to scream to the Goddesses, " wake up, u got to see this shit NOW"
There is something about how the spanish, the moors and East Indians interpreted West African religious movement(which is essentially what makes flamenco, flamenco) in Flamenco and Afro Cuban religious dance that spoke to me. The feet, the hips, the arms, the drums in the feet refuse to be ignored. they tell the story of a peoplewho crossed mountains, deserts, oceans often in chains or chased by raiders that deeply spoke to me.
Later, as I learned what was in my DNA: the Dahomey, the Arawak of Cuba & the Bahamas, the Ibo of the Gullah peoples; so much made sense. This mestizaje of cultures created steps that are the story of how I was made. And like certainof god's creatures can hear certain notes & frequencies that are beyond the human ear's capacity; I could hear the 20 different polyrhythms of my history. In these dance forms, those rhythms found a house big enuf to hold all the stories. They felt trueto me in a way that no other contemporary American dance forms did. These forms required a committment to the truth of who we are and how we got here and to me, that is the purpose of dance. to call on our gods & goddesses to witness our truths in the sway of Yemaya's hips ass we crossed the waters, to the steps of the Dahomey Amazons crossing deserts to wage war upon all who dared to challenge them. These forms all hold a feminine demand to acknowledge the value of life as witnessed by the things these women must survive to live life fully in the joy that is one's birthrite.
From the hummingbird-light feet of the Zimbabwe's Shona to the released shoulders of the Masai wedding rituals to Ron K Brown's liquid chocolate caribbean arms lifted in supplication to Camille Brown's ferocious feet stamping out our new destiny on the worn timbers of slave ships.
These forms combined a little bit of the grand story of my making. They made me want to shout because they were TRUE.
i realized that dance focused on "getting right" instead of "getting it true" is are movement, not dance. dance is a true story that must be told that comes from an emotional imperative...
that's how i became the actor, writer, speaker, dancer i dreamed...technique is a means to an end. truth is the goal at all cost bec w/in its pages lie the storiesof survival, sacrifice and celebrations that moved deserts, mountains & shackles allowing us to dance in the sunlight.
April Yvette Thompson