Earlier this week, I told you about how Jomil Bell saved my podcast. Today, I’m going to tell you a story of the time Jomil Bell saved my choreography:
The year was 2017. I had been working on a new lyrical piece for my studio kids (all brand new high schoolers at the time) to compete for the year. The previous year I had given them an upbeat, kind of quirky jazz dance, so this time I wanted them to really get into their feelings and work on letting the emotion shine through in their dancing. I picked a song: Sandcastles by THE QUEEN (Beyonce, that is). Full of passion and life. I figured that, even if the girls had not lived this experience personally, the music, melody, and texture of the vocalist’s voice would all lend a hand to their creative expression. Well, about half way through the process, the girls just were not moved. They were doing the steps, but it felt flat. I couldn’t get out of them what I was looking for. They just weren’t feeling it. I went home that night completely defeated and extremely annoyed (lol), so I did what I always do when I’m feeling defeated and/or annoyed…. I poured a glass of wine and called a friend!
While venting to her about my frustrations with the dance, I had the idea to have the girls dance to a spoken word piece. And of course, being on the phone with one of the most beautiful and brilliant souls I know (who just happens to also be an outstanding poet), I asked that she play around with some ideas and let me know what she came up with. She called me back THE SAME NIGHT with a 4 minute poem she had written in her head while in the shower (how’s that for BOSS).
Over the next few weeks, the girls and I read the poem together, dissecting each section and discussing which parts resonated most with them. The piece was a HIT! People called the studio to request a live performance of the dance for the next 2 years! Every time we presented it somewhere, it was slightly different and ultimately unique for that particular space. Sometimes we had 8 dancers, sometimes we only had 3. Sometimes the girls wore costumes, other times they wore pedestrian clothing. Sometimes they danced on large stages, and sometimes the performance was small and intimate. But each and every time, the words of the poem, together with the movement of the dancers and the openness of the audience members, told the perfect real life story that SO MANY women of color live out every single day. It resonated in the spirits of those watching, and an EXTRAORDINARY work of art was born…. from a concept many of us know as, just a fact of life.
This is the finished product performed two years later by a few of my MCDF student alum who are now in college. After setting and working the piece on the high school girls for two years, it was interesting to see how life experience inspired the movement of the young women who performed it for this video. Not necessarily better, just different. Different voice. And it would be different still if danced by a group of more “seasoned” dancers such as myself (DancingOver30, wink wink). All 3 groups of women telling the same story, but through a different lens; informed by different experiences. I think this piece is so powerful and I absolutely love to share it. I hope you have time to explore both the video and the written poem (we had to shave it down significantly for competition time regulations). Two Queens coming together to share a bit of our ordinary life… through art. Enjoy!
Living Out Loud
BY: JOMIL BELL
I’m sorry that my presence makes you uncomfortable.
That the moment I entered the room, it was like a vacuum, evacuating all the air so quickly it created a density that paused time for a moment.
Just long enough for you to question the validity of my presence,
Comparing the preconceived notions you’ve closely held for much longer than you could even spell the stereotypes that would have more accurately described the expectation of this moment.
And the song you played over and over and over in your mind for the split second it took to comprehend the stark contrast you’re witnessing due to my presence,
Searching for the most politically correct way to say “Oh, hello.”
Really, I’m sorry if my movement makes you uncomfortable.
If the way my hair thrusts in naturally robust coils, malleable like bamboo warrior bows shooting stardust as I walk.
And strong like oak branches, rooted in genetic grace, giving shade to a sun-kissed face is somehow considered unprofessional.
Or how my feet walk flat, connected to the ground with assured steps not tiptoeing around the elephant in the room but instead climbing its side to ride confidently on this intellectual ride is secretly labeled as prideful,
Another unreasonable Black girl, angry with the world.
Or if when my hips embody the rhythm of the bass, becoming the drum beat itself,
Pumping blood…giving life…flowing like an under-current, beautiful as an ocean and powerful as a tsunami it raises an eyebrow questioning my chastity.
Or if when my mind deconstructs the fabricated layers of fairytales told as though they were factual accounts of my story and I find holes in the whole narrative and request explanation and have an expectation to explore and discover truth for myself.
Or when I find it and retell my own story. And when my story unlocks the closets holding skeletons from generations past and it is arrogantly dismissed like folklore and conspiracy theories.
I truly am sorry that my being may threaten you
And by sorry, I hope I’m not confusing you with an apology.
It’s really just me saying, I find it unfortunate to see;
And perhaps I feel maybe this much empathy,
Acknowledging the intimately intimidating feeling I hear your non-verbals screaming when I’m found dominating my own space in a place that has for so long since been stolen, reconstructed, vailed, and roped off from my race…sex…class…or really any other manner manufactured identity society created to marginalize me and my genetic ancestry.
I find it baffling but somehow not at all surprising.
But I’d be lying if I said that I have much time to psycho-analyze the cause and effect of small-minded mindsets.
I can’t fly for you. I’m too busy crafting my own wings. Spreading them daringly over high winds and tall mountains,
Swallowing the rushing air that is far thinner up there,
Diluted by cutting eyes, sharp tongues, and ill-wishing spectators who hope I fly too close to the sun simply to rationalize why they never leaped or spun their own hot air balloon from the hot air they spew.
I can’t will for you. I’m too consumed with living my own dream and envisioning my own being that the energy I invest but vibrate higher than petty things. I can’t apologize for being me. I met her recently and found out she’s really freaking amazing. I truly hope you find the same.