Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dancing the Mask part 3: Wearing the Story- Project Reflection

Thunderbird Mask of an Ancestral Sky Being of of the Namgis clan of the Kwakwaka’wakw

"The Namgis relate how Thunderbird flew out of the heavens to assist a man who had been transformed into a large halibut, and when his assistance was finished, Thunderbird removed his headdress and winged cape and became human. When this mask is worn and danced during Winter Ceremony potlatches, the wearer opens and shuts the beak, revealing a human form within. " - Brooklyn Museum Website here

For every moment of doubt I have had about my writing and the stories I choose to tell, I always experience these huge moments of confirmation and endorsement by the universe, in some form or fashion, and always at a necessary appointed time. I say no to the notion of co-incidence and chance and deign that the same source of divinity that has allowed me to create worlds with my hands, is the same force that sanctions these periods of revelation and enlightenment.

One of these moments happened last week listening to Saul Williams and Sanford Biggers speak on afrofuturism, its relationship to 'Sankofa' within the West African cultural cannon and then the use of stories that represent our supernatural ability in the past and the construction of the future. The construction of new myths. Here it is that this particular mask above was in the space, and that I chose to build work around it, without taking due notice of its colors or its story. Yet after conducting enough research, I came to learn that it is the same narrative that my work has been pushing in these past 3 odd years, that is, life as sea beings (the man transformed into the halibut-fish), life on earth (the thunderbird becoming human and living on the land) and life in the sky (a narrative on flight and airborne ability). I had never before last week considered my own work to be part of a larger body of afrofuturistic artwork and storytelling.

It happened on my visit to Trinidad in the summer of 2013 when I was told that these 'characters' I had been writing about in my play were not mere constructions of different women in my head, but they were actual, historical beings with real names and real lives. I had been talking about them without knowing they ever existed. Herein is the magic of what we do. 

This dancing the mask performance was to serve as commentary on our rites of Jouvay, in the traditions that preceded ours. Even in the absence of direct connections. The open beak with the human face inside is the essence of what masking and masquerade is truly about:

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth."
-Oscar Wilde

This is what my work has been about, unmasking our truth, telling these very human stories in the shroud of gone legacies of supernatural living and fantasy. In fact, so long as there is a living God above me, what is there in my life that is not part of a superhuman experience? Dancing the mask is very much like dancing this skin, dancing these flesh and bones, dancing this body that makes me appear as though I were not really a spiritual being. It is a daily dance with a constantly evolving music. It is never about hiding, but playing the larger than life entity to reveal the truth about us. 

Dancing the Mask: Brooklyn Museum. Credit: Clifford Drouillard

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Dancing the Mask (Part 2)

I’m not interested in being ‘the cool teacher’ but I am insistent upon trying to understand the lives of my students which lends to keeping up-to-date on urban youth culture and what is happening in the wider community outside the classroom. It happened with the tragic when Kimani Gray got shot in 2013, it mattered that my male students- as brilliant as they are -were getting stopped and frisked by police on the street, it was necessary to (try to) understand young American women’s impassioned fascination with Beyonce and now in the recent weeks, young southern innovation has given us a dance called the “Nae Nae”.

When I saw the dance for the first time, I immediately thought it was a distanced evolution of ‘voguing’ which uses house music and emerged from the gay black and latino community many many years ago. The Nae Nae involves a certain bend at the wrist that causes the hands to curve outward, and one’s arms are stretched away from the body. This allows the dancer to take up/occupy a large circular space. The knees are bent and one rocks from left to right with a four-count freestyle move, then the main Nae Nae rock. (see video)

Finding these upturned hand-movements (that we can well consider to be effeminate) in a southern hip hop dance, is an interesting gender transgression for me, considering the prevailing attitudes towards the LGBT community within black urban culture. Additionally, the dance was being done mainly by young African American males and appeared to center on a certain mimicking of the female form with the chest-led swing and a posterior pop resulting from the knee-bend.

In hip hop, bell hooks talks about black men being subject to patriarchal objectification through the white male gaze thus leading to their feminization. Her argument is that in order to resist this domination, black men have resorted to hypermasculinity, 1 an image/idea that has no shortage of expression within hip hop culture. The Nae Nae reads as an alternate expression of black masculinity, one that moves away from the hard and fast, sharp movements of break-dancing and introduces something less rigid, more playful and gives a stylized performance of gender and gender-bending. This is refreshing to me on some levels because we are finally deciding that we having nothing to prove to the world and whatever gazes are being enforced, so that this then becomes the new resistance.

In my own experience, I have too often played the ‘male role’ at my church’s dance classes whether it was ballroom, latin or contemporary, and these instances never made me more masculine than I was, but it instead gave me an appreciation for what my dancing partner was doing and kind of empathetic understanding. Knowing both ends allowed me to communicate better with my partner which builds trust, co-operation and ultimately community.

Christmas Dinner: Photographed by Nicholas Nichols, © 2012.

Imani Perry notes that “African American performance has been a site for the imagination of future possibilities… the political, imaginary, and historical reckoning” 2. The Nae Nae makes me question the possibility of realizing sameness and equity within the black community. What if just like these high school kids, we’d put our differences aside, enjoy each other’s company and engage one another. Dance can be a political instrument of unity, and change. What would happen if we lived beyond the stereotype and danced (as the cliche goes) like nobody (or no system of bodies) was watching? Dancing out of the entrapment.

1. hooks, bell. "Feminism Inside: Toward a Black Body Politic." Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art. Comp. Thelma Golden. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994. 127. Print.
2. Perry, Imani. "B-Boys, Players, and Preachers: Reading Masculinity." Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham: Duke UP, 2004. 122. Print.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Dancing the Mask Part 1

In the last week I remembered how I’d been working with a stage director ten years ago and she remarked “Oh I forgot you don’t like to move too much, can you do a crawl instead then?” While I welcomed the note then (mostly because it was the truest thing ever), I consider now how changes have taken place in my life that have caused me to appreciate the role of dance and movement as a transcendental thing; as communication, as memory, building community and a celebration of life. This was not always the case for me, it was something I regarded as ‘outside myself’ and admittedly not belonging to a person with a certain amount of poise, my own snobbish bias.

This attitude of mine might have come from a number of places, but I can point to my immersion in Western Catholic values as one of the primary sources. Even though I boast of my unusual folk training as having come from my (relatively rural) church, with drumming and African dance classes and Ella Andall (Yoruba) music, I must confess that even though I had all of these experiences, my understanding of modesty and the expectations of a ‘pure’ young woman constantly conflicted with this New World African female body, considered vulgar and ‘wrong’ by nature. (See: Saartjie Baartman)

There is an unruly-ness that we have historically associated with African dance, which extends itself to our Carnival traditions in the Caribbean, classed as overly-sexual and profane. I had played mas for many years as a child, up until I ‘became a woman’ around the same time I couldn’t find a band that wasn’t intended for much older patrons and had the kind of fabric coverage I desired as a Christian woman. In other words, I wasn’t down with the bikini movement (still am not actually), but still had a certain respect and admiration for the mas as a whole. In my teenage years, I refused the whole clubbing scene and partying, mostly because these types of environments made me feel both uncomfortable (the fete as a predatorial lair) and awkward (I don’t dance, I don’t drink, I don’t like talking that much, what I going there for?).

It was interesting what my Brooklyn experience was able to bring to the table. The issue of safety and uncomfortability was often eliminated by the fact that my friends were the ones hosting these parties, and in their homes, safe spaces. The issue of awkwardness is also taken care of by what I call ‘dancefloor autonomy’ where I was now free to dance and move on my own ground without being constantly interrupted by a male (or even female) presence inching their way up to me trying to ‘take a wine’ (notice how they take, don’t ever ask). In fact, ‘wining’ (contrary to what most Caribbean people might want to believe) is actually not the only genre of dance that exists in the world, on a dancefloor. This was another relief to my own sensibilities. Here I feel like I do not have to compromise my faith or my Christianity to enjoy myself with people I actually care about. I have much more control over my space and who is allowed to share it with me.

Additionally, it would be important to note that I am at a place where I am now at home in this body after years of struggle with weight and what I look like, and (almost) every young woman’s superficial crisis of whether I was beautiful enough. Acceptance has ushered me into a state of freedom and David-ness where I acknowledge the human body in all its amazingness and form and ability. I am fighting the disconnection between mind and body. I am relearning how the feet can move, how the hands are made for praise and how the heart is the first rhythm of the body. I found God in an afro jazz song last night, and I thanked him for giving me these abilities to hear, to feel and to move!