Velocity Dance Center’s Founders Theater was filled to the brim on Sunday, February 28, with faces of the young and the old, of seasoned dancemakers and new dance enthusiasts. But one aspect stood out the most, simply because it is a rarity at Velocity, on Capitol Hill, and even in most of North Seattle: the majority of the crowd was black. They were there for Velocity’s speakeasy series titled “The Color of Dance: History of Black Dance in Seattle,” a community discussion held in conjunction with the performance Showing Out: Contemporary Black Choreographers on March 5 and 6.
If you’ve seen a lot of contemporary dance in the city (especially on Capitol Hill), it’s almost unremarkable that faces of color are not often seen—it’s just how it is. This fact is especially true for both African-American artists and audiences. But this weekend, Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas seeks to alter that with Showing Out, held in collaboration with Velocity and Spectrum Dance Theater. And the change is already happening; the crowds turned up in record numbers for the speakeasy discussion. The artists involved hope there’s more change to come.
Dani Tirrell, this years production manager and one of the artists originally showcased, said one of the basic premises of Showing Out is to provide mentorship, production support, and networking opportunities for black artists. The first iteration of Showing Out in 2013 was based on an idea from Spectrum’s Donald Byrd, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, and Sharon Williams, CD Forum’s managing director. This year, Byrd has curated works by five choreographers, including returning artists Jade Solomon Curtis and Alex Crozier, that span different aesthetics.
Randy Ford, one of this year’s choreographers, says black artists aren’t offered as many opportunities because they’re often pigeon-holed to a specific expectation. “Right now there aren’t any programs like Showing Out that cater to black contemporary choreographers; [it always seems like] there’s only one spot open for a black artist while white artists are offered many,” Ford says. “We see blackness and black art as one experience, and it scares us away because we feel we’ll have to conform to what is expected. Dani always says, ‘Why are we fighting for the same piece of pie?’ I love how [in Showing Out] all of our stories will be heard at once, and you don’t come across programs like this often.”
Even at the speakeasy discussion, choreographers Curtis (formerly of Spectrum) and Maxie Jamal (founder of The Mystiquesterium Dance Company) also spoke of similar sentiments. There have been times they were declined an opportunity because “they already got another black girl” or people expressed slight disappointment at their pieces because the audience or producers “thought we were gonna do hip hop.” Solomon says these expectations are frustrating. “All you want is to discover yourself like any other artists are.”
Tirrell, who took on more of a mentorship role in addition to choreographing this year, says the choreographers explored various topics, from aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement to experiencing queerphobia as a black person, and more. His work, Mama Can I Be a Princess Too? #ForLittleBlackBoys, deals with his gender identity. “I realize what I’m creating now is this alternate character person … always in makeup and glitter and looks really fun but has these deep, dark stories.” Ford, exploring a slightly related topic, will be performing a duet with Spectrum Dance Theater’s Fausto Rivera; originally created for Velocity’s Next Fest NW the work deals with gender policing as queer men of color.
Solomon’s piece, Black Like Me, is going to be part of a series that explores using art as activism. In her work for Showing Out, she investigates who is accountable for trauma that happens to black people. It was, in part, influenced by a question asked during a residency at a university in South Carolina, regarding the use of confederate flags. “[Someone asked] ‘Have you had the opportunity to mourn?’ And I was upset because initially I was like ‘that’s a really ignorant, stupid question why would you ask that? No.’ But what that person did was acknowledge that there had been trauma to black people, and for me, we’re still dealing with it.”
While Showing Out does its part to ensure black artists are represented on stage, another frustration that artists of color have is that a majority white audience often claims to “not get” their aesthetic or even experience. That kind of disregard can be discouraging to artists. The Showing Out team seeks to disrupt that echo chamber by inviting youth groups of color for tech and dress rehearsals, as well as extending advertising to communities in south Seattle and even south King County, to make sure people are aware a dance scene for black folks exists. “One thing I always shout out is that if kids don’t see themselves represented in the arts, people who look like them, they’re not going to pursue art,” Tirrell says. By bringing kids to the theater, Tirrell hopes they can see dancers who are older, who are creating work and making money off of it, and who are telling stories they can relate to.
Despite these efforts, all artists involved also recognize that programs like this are just a drop in the bucket of repairing failed race relations in the arts. Even Tonya Lockyer, Velocity’s artistic director, said during the speakeasy that the conversation is just beginning. Ford also acknowledges that there needs to be more diversity in event venues to make it accessible to people outside the regular dance community.
“Personally, as much as I am thankful for Velocity, I really do think we need more work seen in different spaces,” he says. “Turn the tables a little bit. Have a show at Langston Hughes or Washington Hall. Come on our side and see what it’s like to actually travel across town to see a show. I think that is the very first step in changing perspective and also giving people a chance to see Seattle art in all its entirety.”
Tickets and more information about Showing Out can be found here.