Rejection put me on a path of discouragement and insecurity. Deep listening brought me to a journey of alignment and empowerment.
If you told me two years ago that I would move to LA to be a dancer, I would have looked at you in disbelief and insisted, “But I love Philly!” Honestly, I did feel comfortable because I knew the city so well, I was asked regularly to share my gifts, and my social life was poppin’. On the other hand, I did feel burned out over and over again from work and I had a hard time understanding how to stay balanced when I was spread thin across different kinds of projects. After 9 years, I knew I did as much as I could for the early part of my career and I knew it was time to take a risk, leave, grow. And that choice has been affirmed by all the doors that have been open to me since then.
I haven’t ruled out going back to Philly later in my life – part of me wants to “settle down” there, whatever that means. A big part of me wants to work bi-coastally, but that might take a few more years for me to figure out. All I knew was that I saw myself so clearly in the community here and that has been affirmed by all the connections I’ve made during my first two months.
Finding my wholeness as a dancer feels like a process of rediscovery and empowerment. I feel like a seed cracked open, putting myself in the soil I need to thrive. But being able to vision for that didn’t come without painful circumstances as a younger dancer that made me question whether or not I should be a performer at all.
I was always a passionate mover and I had good opportunities for pre-professional training, mostly based in ballet and modern. It took me longer to find the interconnectedness of Latin and African forms in a contemporary performance context. And before I could really see that for myself, my confidence went through years of painful setbacks. Here are a couple of those…
One winter, I auditioned for a pre-professional training program in Philadelphia. I was at the audition with several of my college classmates at the time. I was accepted into the training program the previous summer, but because I had already committed to an internship I decided to turn the opportunity down. So I expected to be accepted into the program during the next cycle. I know I performed well and the panel did say, “Alright, everyone here can dance.” But they continued and said,
“If you’re serious about your dancing, you need to be serious about your weight.”
…and they proceeded to call out a list of audition numbers who would be cut from the program. Mine was the last number they called. I was humiliated. I was in front of my classmates. In a moment that was too quick for me to process I swallowed a deep sense of overwhelming shame. Maybe that’s what led to underlying depression during my second year of college. I was totally disempowered from believing in myself. I felt like I was inherently inadequate for this craft I wanted to pursue.
Maybe one of my academic friends can remind me – who is the scholar who talks about how ballet is made to make you feel like failure at ballet is failure at all of dance? So this feeling of never being quite good enough compared to my peers was ongoing. My tender little dreams were crushed and it took me years to recover.
I experienced a lot of this brand of discouragement throughout my early college years. Another time, I was invited to understudy for a graduate student’s thesis performance. After the first rehearsal I was dismissed from the process. Gently so, but I was dismissed. They said it was because of the budget for performers, but I knew I also didn’t perform to their expectations in rehearsal. And this one was hard because I especially looked up to this person as a performer. If someone you admire isn’t willing to cultivate with you, they’re probably not the right mentor.
As a recent graduate I would audition for local choreographers here and there and be told no, with feedback for further training but without the opportunity to train directly in the process. I admired the work of local touring companies and ended up in plenty of regular company classes, but with those directors using totally Eurocentric bodies in their work I knew I would not meet their selective criteria.
And the type of discouragement seeded in body shaming started even before that. With my early training based in ballet and modern, at times I was made to feel as if I didn’t have a dancer’s body and the dancers I admired would regularly reinforce this belief. I was always creative. Raw. An improviser. A maker.
Now, I know those ideas about the ideal dancer’s body are complete bullshit.
Not only am I in the best and most versatile shape I’ve ever been in, but I’m constantly surrounded by bodies of all shapes, colors, sizes. I know now that I have every physical capacity to meet my goals as a performer because I have identified the training that will set me up to create within those forms.
There were so many times I felt like I didn’t have people who believed in me. But I finally started to believe in myself.
While in Philly, some of the forms that always made me feel good about my body were capoeira. House. West African. Salsa. Bachata. Postmodern. Even a former professor noticed that I was more confident in my body when I started training in Afro Latin forms. And what I did get from working in Philly after graduation was many creative residency opportunities. I had a lot of good projects as a maker and collaborator. I still see so much potential in myself for this. And during that time, I learned how to take care of myself, where my limits are, and I know how to build community.
Most important for my growth, I stopped being intimidated by surrounding myself with dancers who are better than me. And I found myself closer and closer to mentors and role models who aligned with where I was going and what I was deepening into. Throughout my training, I had fantastic teachers who affirmed the potential for skill they saw in me, but the leaders who aligned with my creative vision came a little later.
I remember the first time I took a master class with Maria Bauman, who was a company member of Urban Bush Women at the time. I was 15 years old. Even at that age I knew I was surrounded by kindred bodies. Fast forward to 2017 when I had the opportunity to train with Maria at Gibney Dance. I felt so affirmed in my body and spirit through her pedagogy and process and she took time to affirm where I was in a really generous way. That intensive influenced the way I taught class for a whole year.
In 2018, I did my first training with CONTRA-TIEMPO. That’s when the intersection of all my dance vocabularies started to make sense, when I saw an established company creating work at the intersections of African diaspora forms, street and social dances, and western contemporary dance. I saw exactly what I wanted to grow into in the company dancers and surrounding Afro Latin community. I knew I had a place in the Los Angeles Afro Latin community. CONTRA-TIEMPO inspired me to root more deeply and fully in Afro Latin diaspora forms. And by committing further to training in salsa, bachata, house, and técnica cubana I began to feel the communal and sacred power of dance.
Dance is an expression of reciprocity, abundance, and liberation. It is our technology for organizing, healing, and resistance.
I was heartbroken leaving Philly but I had to leave to find the mentorship I needed. This was affirmed when I studied with Ananya Dance Theatre. Ananya demonstrated through her pedagogy how it’s possible to feel power and love and connection with people through dance, and she taught us the responsibility of the artist: chiseling pathways to transformation. The whole company truly embodies people powered dances of transformation. And it’s all through rigor and discipline in training. I’m also taking the time to reflect on how I show up as an organizer. Urban Bush Women’s Summer Leadership Institute, a program that has thrived for over 20 years, showed me what it looks like to build empowered communities. It takes time, radical honesty about power and privilege, building transformational relationships, incremental growth, and long term commitment to excellence.
Now I’m actively training in LA. By focusing on house with teachers like Jackie “Miss Funk” Lopez (Versastyle) and Emiko Sugiyama (Open House LA), and Afro Brazilian (Viver Brasil & affiliated artists), I’m soaking in so much. With underground and ancestral forms, there is a deep commitment to knowing the form and its history, reverence for elders of the practice, freedom and liberation in feeling and embodying the dances.
Rigor. Discipline. Excellence.
This is what I am living by to become the artist I am meant to be. And I’m experiencing it all through forms that embrace my body. Ananya said over and over again to be generous with the hips. The rhythm and weightedness in Yorchha made sense to be and felt so nourishing and satisfying in my body. House begs me to let go of any and all fear. I’m still getting there, but I feel how much I have to let Spirit take over and FEEL. Kyle “JustSole” Clark says it all the time:
“House is a feeling.”
This is all very humbly in progress for me. Incremental growth and commitment to excellence means a lot of patience and honesty about where I am. But there is a spaciousness to rebuild myself, fellowship, and create new community through that. Time to gently cultivate trust and tenderness with my peers and new friends – people who I’m dearly fond of. Opportunity to rediscover family.
Sure, I wish this kind of growth came earlier in my 20s, but I really am in the right place at the right time. Throughout my early and mid twenties I was still so tender and it took time to develop the tools and support mechanisms I need to be most fully me, at my best. I learned what it takes for a community to be healthy and how I have to show up. And I am fully ready for these years ahead. All my potential is in me and ahead of me.