On Tuesday night in Doheny Memorial Library, Visions and Voices hosted a conversation with female artists of color in conjunction with Arts Leadership at USC, the Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs and the International Association of Blacks in Dance.
The discussion was moderated by Charmaine Jefferson, former director of the California African American Museum, and included 22 panelists who boasted diverse backgrounds ranging from dance and theatre to music and arts administration.
At the panel, chairs were organized in a circle in the center of the room, rather than linearly. Jefferson said the purpose of the unorthodox arrangement was to give the event the lively, colloquial atmosphere of a “dinner party” rather than the “stuffiness” of a formal, academic setting.
And, indeed, watching the discussion unfold was like witnessing the reunion of a group of old friends. The outpouring of empathy and support in the room was palpable as the five founders of the IABD spoke about their struggles to be accepted within the dance community as black dancers: the lack of funding and opportunities; the erasure of iconic and pioneering figures in dance history; and the importance of preserving their legacy for the next generation of artists and the bittersweet nature of handing over the reins.
“I knew that nobody saw me as a dancer,” said Cleo Parker Robinson, the Vice Chair of the IABD Board of Directors. “I went to studios and they all thought I looked different from them but when I looked at myself, I thought, ‘Well I don’t look so different from anybody else.’ But when I went into a class, it didn’t feel right. So I wanted to create an environment where anybody who walks into that door knows they belong.”
Current members of the IABD, such as Marjani Forte-Saunders, an experimental dancer and artist, were also given the chance to express their appreciation for the founders, speak on their own experiences forging new ground and point out areas where there is still work to be done.
“I think all the work that is happening in my body still looks like the work you all have done in terms of connecting with my community and working in partnership with the people around me to fulfill my vision,” Forte-Saunders said. “As a radical experimenter in the arts, I am still very much a part of the lineage of black dance and black ingenuity and black experimentation.”
Jefferson also made sure to spotlight the other speakers, including Reena Esmail, composer-in-residence at Street Symphony, a nonprofit organization that hosts outreach concerts for underserved members of the community. Esmail discussed the cognitive dissonance present in being the only artist of color selected to perform, knowing that her mere presence onstage meant that the opportunity would be denied someone else.
“When we’re in that situation, we know that we have to be the representative of our entire race and gender, otherwise no other brown woman will ever get on that stage,” Esmail said. “At the same time, paradoxically, we also know that by our being on that stage, it prevents any other brown woman from being there because we are the quota for the year.”
The event concluded with a participatory dance flash mob facilitated by the Viver Brasil Dance Company. The dancers led a conga line that weaved its way through campus, from Doheny to the Tutor Campus Center ballroom. There, participants skipped and swayed along to the thumping, high-energy Afro-Brazilian music, proving that dance is a universal means of expression.
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