Some assume that being at the bottom is a terrible thing.
We’ve forgotten that the leader of the wolves
walks behind the pack.
She guards what others can’t.
The back of the line is the gift of clarity.
It brought me to this point,
through the gateway of Soweto,
where I was crowned with the gift of grace.
Some assume that being at the bottom is a terrible thing.
Death has a way of waking us up, for a while. Yesterday, after hearing about the death of Arthur Mitchell, I retrieved my daughter from kindergarten with immense gratitude and received her love in full return. I was talking to Mr. Mitchell in my head the whole time, saying that I was sorry he never met my daughter. He should see her feet! I imagined him standing with us in the playground of the Nathan Hale Elementary School. I said to her, “I know you don’t like to perform on demand, but this is Arthur Mitchell. He’s a very special person and you have to point your feet for him,” and if she resisted, it wouldn’t matter, because he had a way of making people want to point their feet!
And I thought about how different it is to be a kid nowadays. Little girls and boys are steeped in ballet culture from an early age. You can buy a tutu at Target for goodness’ sake, whereas tutus, back in the day, were a right of passage. You couldn’t just buy one, anywhere, like a gun.
My daughter, Colibri, and I have a book about a dancing brontasaurus named Brontorina, who experiences predjudice among other limitations, but who continues to follow her heart. Finally, a community of children convince one skeptical teacher to come to Brontorina’s aid. It is easy to see through a child’s eyes, but applying Brontorina’s message into the real world is quite another matter. We adults know that this is a story about racism, a word that fires the trigger hairs of every American.
Brontorina is also an inspiring story about overcoming one’s limitations with the help of one’s community, because nothing big can be achieved alone. And about opening our minds in a way that will allow us to include everyone. That is what Arthur Mitchell strove to do. He was a black man.
Now we have books about little black girls who take ballet class and become ballerinas. I am a girl in that story. I want us to remember, and for our children to remember, how people fought to make the art form accessible to all. And to remember that sometimes you have to believe in something with all your heart. Mr. Mitchell fell in love with ballet. He, a black man, gave the world permission to allow everyone to love ballet, that is, to see things in a new light.
I meditate daily on the cost of change.
When someone that you love dies, for a while, everything reminds you of them. This morning it was overcast. Suddenly the sun burst through the clouds, and it was Mr. Mitchell’s sun bursting into the room, into the studio, shocking, purposeful, burning, determined, relentless.
I remember that sunlight smile as he offered his hand to be led by the ballerina to center-stage for his signature bow at the end of the performance. For years, while in the corps de ballet of Dance Theatre of Harlem, I dreamed of one day being the ballerina to get Mr. Mitchell from the wings, and when that moment finally came, it was a cherished honor, a moment when all our disagreements vanished, and I was so proud to receive his knowing gaze.
Last year, we spoke on the phone for what I knew would be the last time. Even though his health was failing, his voice was as sure as ever. Hearing it made all my cells stand up in salute. He was organizing a performance and wanted me to return to dance Firebird. I laughed, as it’s been years since I stood on pointe. But our conversation was warm. He had softened over the years and so had I.
Dear Mr. Mitchell,
I know you can hear me. I feel you hearing me. I want to talk to you as never before, while you’re still around for a few days, overhead, making the rounds. I could not sleep last night because of all of the souls here on earth, especially me, who are trying to contact you now. A comedienne recently said that when she dies, she wants everyone who ever loved her to take off from work. It was funny, the way she said it. I took today off just so I could talk to you in a way that I never could face-to-face. You just had this way of overpowering everything around you.
Sometimes, talking one-on-one, you would drop your performer’s armor and I could hear you, like when you told me over and over again that I had to wear the mantle, and I tried to keep myself from buckling at the knees. I am one of yours. I didn’t know my father, so any male in my life was bound to be resented. I don’t have words to say how sorry I am. I was such a jealous daughter. You tried to teach me how to stand in my power. I came to you already broken. I was fighting for what was mine like a wild dog. I’m sorry for that. You saw me as “smart” and as a “pure dancer.” As a black girl, I desperately needed to be acknowledged for having something that was good. I’d been beaten. All I knew was how to beat myself and the others around me with my disdain. In your own words, you said you wanted us to look like hungry dogs, and I saw the beauty in that. I was like a Bladerunner, hacking at my weaknesses. I thought I had to break myself in order to understand where I began. You warned me, but I didn’t listen. I had yet to learn how to trust, how to love.
I remember the time my complications first met up with your complications…I was at DTH in the summer of 1987, at the age of 17, dancing with the Ensemble under Nancy Shaffenburg. We were finished for the day, so I went upstairs to watch the main company, as had become my habit. You stormed out of studio 3 after raging at the dancers. You spotted me in your crosshairs and shouted, “Oh, you’re the one from Madame Darvash! (like that wasn’t a good thing), and marched abruptly into your office. Thank God for Sharon Williams-Duncan for saving us in those days. She has glory, under God.
I didn’t know your middle name was Adam, until yesterday, but how fitting. You were the first. I can’t imagine what that cost you. In yesterday’s New York Times article, Jennifer Dunning wrote about your premier with New York City Ballet. She said it was in Western Symphony in 1955. She writes that, “Years later, Mr. Mitchell recalled hearing gasps and at least one racist comment from the audience when he entered the stage that night.” (Arthur Mitchell is Dead at 84; Showed the Way for Black Dancers. nytimes.com)
But I remember you telling that story very differently. In my recollection, your premier was in Swan Lake. You’d asked Mr. Balanchine not to write a press release. You didn’t want there to be any controversy stirred up before you hit the stage. I think that was a brilliant move on your part by the way. Besides, dancing Swan Lake is hard enough. I’ve seen people piss their pants with fear. Anyway, when you stepped out onto the stage, someone shouted, “Oh my God! There’s a nigger on the stage!” And then some patrons started to exit. Some of the Balanchine dancers were quite young, and their parents had them removed from the company, because they didn’t want their daughters to be near a black man. That’s the way I remember you telling it, and I want people to know. We have to tell our own history or it will be erased.
By the way, you were right about it being a mistake for me to go to Boston Ballet after DTH went on hiatus. I couldn’t understand why you felt so betrayed at the time. Honestly, it surprised me. I see now that being in a white company was never the point. The point was to continue to celebrate what we had in the hard times. You needed me then, but I was too caught up in my own agenda to understand that. You know how hard it is to let go.
A dear friend, dancer, choreographer and teacher, Robert Garland, recently shared a video of the renowned ballerina, Gelsey Kirkland, on my Facebook page. Seeing her again led me down a rabbit hole of memory that I thought might be better served as a blog post.
Unfortunately, I only ever saw Gelsey perform on video but even the force of her two dimensional image was enough to change the way I thought about dance. The first time I saw her was in fact in Robert’s apartment. We watched her perform in Baryshnikov’s “Nutcracker.” This was back in the days of VCRs and I repeatedly asked him to tediously rewind to her Sugarplum solo so I could etch it in my memory forever.
Among other things, I was amazed at her pointe work. It wasn’t simply that she had the sort of beautiful, high arches that dancers crave. It was in how she used her feet. They were like sensuous tongues lapping the floor in a kind of prayerful reverence with each step.
During my own training, the only note I got at my yearly evaluations was that I had to work on my feet. After seeing Gelsey that first time, I suddenly knew that the feet could become as expressive as hands, as eyes. While practicing, I would sometimes imagine that eyes were at the soles of my feet, seeing, expressing and being seen. Arthur Mitchell, my director at Dance Theatre of Harlem offered rare praise at my transformation.
Around that time, I could often be found studying Gelsey’s videos at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. This reminds me of something Robert used to say: “People often mistakenly assume that dance is not a studied art form.” Well, I can assure you that it is. I think it’s important to spend a lot of time watching dance if you want to dance well. I learned as much from watching great dancers as I did from teachers and I watched them in class, rehearsal and performance.
In Gelsey I witnessed a pure vessel. By that I don’t mean that she was a pure human being. Her struggles with anorexia and drug addiction are well known. By a pure vessel I mean that when she danced, she was in complete service to the art form and to the Spirit that danced her. As such, she elevated ballet to such an extent that nowadays I am often grieved to see it reduced to a kind of soft porn by certain contortionist ballerinas.
For all the Spirit that shone through Gelsey’s dancing, she seemed to have an intellectual center. She was analytical when it came to her work and she needed to understand every moment. It is useless to tell someone with an intellectual center, “Don’t think. Just do,” as choreographer, George Balanchine, once make the mistake of saying. I wonder if one of the reasons Gelsey had to leave the New York City Ballet is because she needed room to be smart!
I do not mean to imply that City Ballet dancers are not smart. All dancers at that level have a kind of genius. I just mean that Balanchine seemed to prefer his women a certain way: young, anorexic and worshipful. Gelsey needed to find a way to worship her own substantial genius.
It is regrettable that after leaving New York City Ballet, that genius was overshadowed yet again by another male, namely Baryshnikov. That would drive anyone over the edge. Nevertheless, Gelsey bestowed her gift to so many, including me, and I don’t think I could thank her enough for all she gave and at such cost.
Dedicated to all my Sisters who are married to white men
Baby. Hi. Please hear me on something. If I describe an issue as racial, please hear me openly before you judge. Put yourself in my shoes for a moment: To white people, I am black. To black people, I am light-skinned. And to Latino people, I am flaca. Whereas, to everyone, you are always white.
Consider, intellectually, how complicated that is. Consider how emotionally complicated. How Spiritually and Physically complicated. How historically complicated. How can I reconcile all these voices, all these Ancestors? That is something I have to answer moment-to-moment in order to maintain equilibrium.
Anyway, put yourself in my shoes. And don’t worry, I’ve been putting myself into your shoes since I was a kid and saw Captain Kirk for the first time. You cannot argue with Capt. Kirk, unless you are Spock. I was like, “Damn. I want my own ship…,” and further damn, I want to be Wise.
Get it? There were no black Captain Kirks. No black Spocks. I could not even DREAM without going outside the box. That’s a lot to ask of a child.
If you feel defensive towards my words, then please, just be with that. Be with your defensiveness. What is it you want to defend? If you do all these things, and you still think I’m overreacting, I will accept some truth around Tai-needing-to tone-herself-down. Tai is being dramatic.
I prefer to think of myself as wild. There has always been that in me: a place that will not be tamed, like the forest of trees on my head. I am in the business of reclaiming my power. I am off-key a lot. I am exploring this voice inside me that wants to talk, to wail, to sing her names into the seven winds. I want to be heard. I want justice. I want equality. I want America to come together unlike ever before in the butchery we call expansion. And I know you do too.
So, for example, yesterday, two twenty-something white women rang my front doorbell. They started talking at me with a kind of hidden violence, meant to disarm me. The thing they were trying to sell, in this case, was one of those third-party energy scam policies that are rampant in Roxbury right now. So first of all, I was annoyed by the unscrupulousness of the scam itself. Then I felt irate at the people who took advantage of these young women and finally, I felt mad at the women themselves, for participating in the greed at my expense. They flaunted these terrifying masks of invulnerability.
It was like a bad dream.
“Summary: First performed by American Ballet Theater on April 22 1948, Fall River Legend is the story of Lizzie Borden, the Massachusetts spinster who was tried for the ax-murder of her father and stepmother. Although Lizzie was actually acquitted, in the ballet she is convicted and hanged. De Mille creates a portrait of a shy, sensitive but receptive girl, turned into a murderess by her father’s psychological abandonment in favor of his second wife, a sour, jealous, manipulative woman who frustrates Lizzie’s budding romance with her minister. Gothic in tone and deeply perceptive in its depiction of the consequences of love thwarted, Fall River Legend reveals a truth deeper than reality.” From http://agnesdemilledances.com
Fall River Legend is one of my favorite ballets. The masterful choreography by Agnes de Mille was matched by an epic score by Morton Gould. Fall River did the thing that art can do at its best: be a vehicle for feeling. Fall River articulated the hush of hidden things, longings, humiliation, humor, frailty, the dream of the mother.
And those goddamn consecutive pirouettes, from fourth-to-fourth, that changed direction. Fall forward! Put on the brakes!
For me, Virginia Johnson of Dance Theatre of Harlem, defined the role of Lizzie Borden. Of course, she managed to make those damn turns look easy, as one skipping into the throes of first love. Those turns…not perfect, never perfect, but so fully alive. Virginia spoke to us in how she picked up the axe. Picked it up and hid it in her skirt. The horror of realization. The chill up the spine.
How does one make sense of the need for sexual love in a world like Lizzie’s, that is, 19th century religious New England? How does one meet that need within when something about you doesn’t meet the society’s standards of worthiness in that area? How does a spinster feel good about her need for sexuality, when, at least externally, she has been stripped of it? How could Lizzie love herself when love was not reflected to her? How do you see past the reflection, or without a reflection? These were some of the underlying issues that Lizzie faced. I was fifteen the first time I saw Fall River, hardly a spinster, but for different reasons, outcast. As such, I was also desperate to make sense of those questions.
Lizzie falls in love with the pastor, and in doing so, reveals herself to be more than her pain. She is a sexual being. For this, she is punished by others for reflecting what they had denied in her and denied in themselves, through her, which was of course, her beauty. Her beauty, unique in this world. Her beauty, broken, but still full of dreams. Just like all of us. (Blade Runner 2049 airhorns!).
Where was I? Lizzie was punished by the preacher, whom she felt betrayed her. She was punished by her jealous mother-in-law. Lizzie was punished by her father’s indifference. And it doesn’t end there: she was punished by a community that tried to console, but lacked the togetherness of spirit and rituals that give a warm coat to the cold night of grief.
Lizzie kills her father and step-mother. Please, understand, I am not advocating killing anyone, but why is it, that when men kill the bad guy, they are seen as heros, but when women kill the bad guy, they are labeled, shunned, imprisoned, burnt at the stake?
The towns-peoples’ rejection of Lizzie is a rejection of themselves. They are unwilling to look at their own failure in the matter, or to even recognize that they have a responsibility towards Lizzie, and so they chose Lizzie as a scapegoat. In other words, they choose to reinforce an idea of separation between themselves and the “other.” That’s how we hate. Lizzie had no one. Her tragedy points us in the direction of love.
I could not have articulated all of that upon my first viewing of the ballet in 1985 at age 15, but I could feel the mystery that it stirred within me. That first experience of Fall River was one of the few examples I remember then, of seeing a complicated, thoughtful woman character, through the medium of art, that looked like me, inside and out. For the first time, I saw myself onstage, especially through Lizzie, but also through the predominantly black community portrayed by Dance Theatre of Harlem’s version, dealing with issues about being human in the way that only stories can.
If you’re not in the story, you’re not fully in the collective consciousness. So art, and in this case, Fall River danced by Dance Theatre of Harlem, put me in my own narrative. Dig that.
Firecrackers so close
a gun to the ear of every teacher,
our poor and unprotected.
I want to run inside
the house I blessed just yesterday with Carmen and Coco.
WHERE’S MY BABY
Remember your Sleeping Beauty?
The power you betray
will come back and curse you.
Only love will awaken, but
who wants that, right?
And still, with Donald Trump,
we suffer your guilt
on top of it all.
Enjoy those hotdogs.
Your 24-houred openness pulses
artificial light like an oasis
in the New York night.
Boston has many beautiful things:
rowing clubs, turkeys strolling the esplanade
and artisanal donuts,
but I miss you, New York bodega,
your consistent comfort
of coffee, regular, in paper cups.
Remember that time my bougie boyfriend came to Harlem?
We went to a big bodega up by 145th.
He said excitedly,
like an anthropologist in the throes of discovery,
“They even use their own money up here!”
I said, “Nigga, those are food stamps. How you livin’?”
He broke up with me and moved to Oregon
to design sneakers.
Bodega, mecca of American cheese sandwiches,
you taste the same all these boyfriends later.
Can I get some Raw pre-rolls,
a strawberry condom
and some evaporated milk?