In Chicago, keeping the heritage of Black dance moving

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In Chicago, keeping the heritage of Black dance moving
Members of the dance companies that are part of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project’s 2023 cohort practice a routine in Chicago, Aug. 16, 2023. An initiative started in 2019 helps to address funding disparities and offers a vision of Black dance as a form whose categories refuse to be static. (Mustafa Hussain/The New York Times)

by Emma R. Cohen

CHICAGO, IL.- On a warm July afternoon, Princess Mhoon, the director of the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, was sitting in a bustling cafe on the outskirts of the University of Chicago’s campus in Hyde Park. Wearing a purple and orange dress that billowed around her arms, she gestured out of the window to show me where she went to high school — Kenwood Academy, not quite visible from where we sat, but less than 2 miles away.

“I was a theater baby,” she said, describing the Chicago arts world in which she grew up. Her parents met in an African dance class, and her father was a drummer for local dance companies. “I have memories of sitting in the theater during tech rehearsals,” she continued. “We could not eat candy. In the Black Arts Movement, there was no junk food. So, we had cherry vitamin C — that was my candy.”

Recounting her early life, Mhoon, 47, moved through a who’s who of Chicago’s rich Black dance scene. A neighbor taught Katherine Dunham technique, maintaining the legacy of one of the city’s brightest early 20th-century dance stars. Mhoon trained in African dance with Muntu Dance Theater and learned techniques of the African American diaspora with Najwa Dance Corps, both near where she grew up on the South Side. And on trips home from college, she would take classes with Homer Bryant, who has worked since 1990 to make ballet training accessible to all students at his studio in the South Loop.

Several of these companies are now being brought together by the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project, an initiative that strives to help sustain Black dance makers in the city and offer lasting acknowledgment for their contributions. “The idea,” Mhoon said, “was to give all these companies their flowers while they were still here.”

The companies involved in the project — established in 2019 by the Joyce Foundation and the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago — have all persevered in the face of significant disparities in funding. A 2019 report, titled “Mapping the Dance Landscape in Chicagoland,” showed that organizations like the Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, in predominantly white sections of the city, have been the major recipients of grant dollars, even as more than 30% of dancers and choreographers in Chicago identify as Black.

And while many Black dance makers, Mhoon included, experience the scene as a vibrant network of beloved characters, it is easy for companies to retreat into a sense of competitiveness because of the scarcity of financial support.

“We are such a siloed city,” Nicole Clarke-Springer, artistic director of the modern dance company Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, said during an interview in an atrium above Bryant’s studios. “We’re each in our little parts of Chicago trying to get funding, we all have our heads down. We know of each other and we love each other and we share dancers, but there was never an intentional moment when we came up for air.”

The Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project wants to change that by working to address both the lack of funding and the attendant fragmentation. Bringing together well-established and newer companies alike, it offers money, assistance with archiving projects and organizational support. That support takes the form of improvement plans that are developed for each company, including guidance on board governance, marketing strategies and executive coaching.

Participating companies also gather regularly for peer-led knowledge sharing, and they collaborate at least twice a year on group performances: The cohort of 10 companies, brought together at the beginning of 2023, will share the stage Sept. 7 at Ravinia, the outdoor pavilion in Highland Park.

Bril Barrett, the founder and director of M.A.D.D. Rhythms, a tap company that joined the Legacy Project this year, grew up dancing at community centers on the city’s West Side. But as he became more focused on tap he began to travel across the city for classes, eventually performing around the country. Founding M.A.D.D. Rhythms, in 2001, was an opportunity to return to the city, and to share the expansive potential of tap with young dancers in his hometown. “Tap dance opened up the world to me,” he said in a video interview, “and I wanted to use it to try to open up the world to my community.”

While Barrett found warm support for his company in some quarters, he often felt sidelined by the broader dance community. “I’ve always had to fight,” he said. “My identity as a Black man in America has never been separated from my identity as a tap dancer fighting to be recognized by the dance world.”

But Barrett characterizes his experience with the other companies of the Legacy Project as one of relief and warm identification. “We were having these watershed moments of being in a room full of people who get it,” he said.

While the structural support offered by the project has been crucial for his company, the community it has offered Barrett has been even more valuable. “That’s the top tier of importance,” he said, “the shared knowledge base that comes from sitting at the feet of people who have done it.” He recalled a conversation with Regina Perry-Carr, artistic director of Muntu, about the challenges of taking over leadership of a 50-year-old company. It prompted Barrett to think seriously about that question for his own company: “What happens when I do turn over M.A.D.D. Rhythms to another director?”

M.A.D.D. Rhythms is now in its 22nd year. But even companies much older than Barrett’s have found the Legacy Project to be a valuable partner for ensuring the endurance of their companies and history. “My mission is a 200-year mission,” said Joel Hall, a pioneering dance maker who founded Joel Hall Dancers & Center in 1974. And one of the essential components of securing his legacy, in Hall’s view, is working to support the perseverance of the field as a whole. “All of these are my children, period,” Hall said of the other companies. “It’s my responsibility to look after the flock while I can.”

A concern for longevity has motivated Barrett to create more sustainable structures for his company’s operations, but it has also spurred him to tend to the group’s archives. When he heard that the Legacy Project was partnering with the Newberry Library, he jumped at the opportunity to store materials at the research institution. “This is dope,” he recalled thinking, “this gives people access to this history that we’ve built.”

Barrett loaded up his car with large plastic bins full of papers and ephemera to bring to the library. In the Newberry stacks now, alongside rich black-and-white photos of Muntu performances and glamorous headshots of Katherine Dunham, you can find beaming images of a young Barrett and custom sneakers with carefully affixed Capezio tap soles.

Of course, archives aren’t the only way to record the history of these companies. The dancers are already doing the work of preserving and passing on their embodied understanding of their movement practices.

“We’re dance historians,” Sheila Walker Wilkins said of her work at Najwa, though the same could be said of many of the companies in the Legacy Project. “We are preserving dance styles that reflect our heritage and traditions.”

“But to add to that,” she continued, “our traditions are ongoing as a group of people.” By gathering together such a wide range of companies, practitioners of different techniques at varying stages in their artistic careers, the Legacy Project offers a vision of Black dance as a category whose boundaries refuse to remain static.

In addition to bringing tap into conversation with other genres, this year the Era Footwork Crew has also incorporated footwork, the fast-paced technique developed in Chicago, into the Legacy Project. Like Barrett, members of the Era collective expressed enthusiasm for the opportunity to work alongside artists that they consider to be mentors. But they are also aware of the ways that the inclusion of footwork in the Legacy Project may push the older companies in new directions.

The Era Footwork Crew’s co-founder, Jamal Oliver, who goes by Litebulb, said that each company has its own stores of knowledge to offer to the group, and that this solidarity is part of what makes the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project effective.

“It’s a revolving circle: We need the OG’s and the OG’s need us, and we need the youth that’s younger than us to make it all work. We all have advantages that we can give to one another — that’s how you stay ahead of the game.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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