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  • Nicole (Johnson) Williams

13. Dancing Our Truth

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

White ain't always right..

When I was 5 years old, my mother and father enrolled me in ballet and tap classes. Every year, my sister and I would learn one ballet dance and one tap dance at our predominantly white studio from our all white instructors, then perform them at the

annual dance recital in the spring.

As a result of my parents' split, my mother sought emotional solace in an African dance class every Friday night. She wasn’t the best dancer in the class, but it gave her a sense of community. It gave her a sense of tradition. It gave her a sense of her power and connection. It gave her a sense of herself. Naturally, being a child inclined to dance and music, I also found the same sense of community, identity, tradition and belonging that my mother had found in West African dance. I believe this grounded us in a very real way.

I practiced African and Afro Cuban dance until I was in high school, when I transitioned into the studio/competition culture. From that point on, my focus would be primarily on more popular genres like ballet, jazz, and contemporary modern. I always shied away from tap and hip hop. The last thing I wanted was to be "Good....... for a black girl." So my mother drove past the 3 black owned dance studios to get the "best" training 30 minutes away at a White studio in Keego Harbor, MI. There, I was the oldest in my class, and of course the one lonely black girl. I studied only ballet and pointe because ballet (as I had been told) was the foundation of all dance. At the time, all we knew was: White was right. The few years I spent training at the Russian ballet school I was proud of my progress, but always longed to be expressive in my craft like my friends who danced at the black owned studios. There was something missing.

As my technique improved in these genres, and I went on to study dance in college, I felt more and more valid as a dancer, but continued to feel overlooked and undervalued. There was always a feeling of disconnect. No matter how many classes I took or how “good” I became, there was always something that felt untapped.

This became abundantly clear as I began teaching ballet, jazz, and contemporary at a competitive studio.Year after year, I had given my students choreography that was aesthetically pleasing and up to date with what was trending in the dance world. I experimented with music and style. I worked with many groups of dancers, but the movement would always only go so far. There was always something missing. I began to ask myself, “How do I get black women and girls to feel confident and worthy dancing our own truth instead of striving to achieve what’s been taught to us as a depiction of perfection?

One year, when my dancers came to me and said (in so many words) “Miss Nikki, we’re not feeling this,” my heart was broken. In one rehearsal, I had lost my voice. I racked my brain to figure out what my next step would be. I stood still and examined the reasons why I dance and why this small setback caused me to question my validity. I dance to express myself and I dance to tell stories. I also dance because I

have the coordination and physical capacity to do so. But I realized that I had not been dancing to express my own feelings, tell my own stories, or celebrate my own body. I had been dancing to prove myself worthy. I was dancing to prove that I was capable of embodying far more than the scraps we're always given. I wanted to show them that I could dance too! But whose dance was I dancing? Whose story was I telling? I had not been seeing myself in my own art, and I had not been teaching my students to honor themselves in their art either. I had been perpetuating the cycle of Keeping Up with the Joneses.

Today, I stand on the shoulders of my ancestors as I tell the stories that are native to my own tongue. I use my own experiences, those of my ancestors, those of my students, and those of the everyday people in my community to connect the artist to the art and to make a very real and necessary place for the dancer in the telling of history. My goal is to equip myself and my students with the tools necessary to find truth in ANY movement, but to always remember HOME in our own bones.

Always know that there is power in your own story. Nothing and no one has the authority to tell you that yours is not worthy and necessary. When I decided to break away from what "looked right" and began to embrace what FEELS RIGHT, my life began to change. I began to dance! I am immensely proud of my work which reflects a reality that is full, messy, complex, and beautiful. I am proud of my students for taking the step to be unapologetic in their craft and identity, and who trust me again and again to usher them into unchartered territory. I am proud of the work we've created together. And I am proud of the stories we've written, that will bring life in the future to the experiences of this present moment. I am proud to be among the artists of the world that will paint the picture of the story to be told for generations to come. I am valid. I am whole. I am proud. Thank you 🙏🏽

Me and the girls, comp 2018 💙

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