“It’s been generations in the making for me to be where I am in this exact moment. To not acknowledge that is a disservice.” Alicia Mullikin and I sit huddled (and 6 feet apart) under the awning in my backyard, rain pouring down as Seattle’s November rears its wet, ugly head, but Mullikin’s eyes are shining through the darkness, her passion for dance and the reasons she dances warming the cold, wintery night.
Within minutes of meeting, Mullikin is knee deep in explaining the foundations of all her work, cutting right to the heart of her artistic process and personal motivations: to honor her ancestors. “My grandparents and parents sacrificed hard so that I can be where I am, so that I can have the opportunity to do what I love…because that was not an option for them. Their only option was to feed themselves and their family.” Mullikin grapples with this responsibility, a deep part of her identity as a first generation American, anchoring her art in a profound gratitude for those she loves. She runs through the questions that she’s looking to answer, and it’s apparent she’s asked them one thousand times before: “How do I honor my ancestors through my work? How do I make use of the American Dream that I’ve been given? How do I acknowledge that there have been generations of hard work so that I can be here?”
Sitting with Mullikin, mesmerized by the glow of her animation and drive, I was reminded of La Primera Reina, a dance film Alicia made this summer to honor her 99-year-old grandma. The film features Mullikin, as she dances amongst the mountains, clutches her grandma’s small hand with the widest smiles imaginable spread across both their faces, and whips her long braided hair in large slow motion large arcs. La Primera Reina, meaning “The First Queen,” also spotlights her grandma, with beautiful panning shots of the older woman sitting powerfully, holding sunflowers and donning a spiked gold crown.
Mullikin’s dedication to her family and to her art cannot be better illustrated than through her determination to film La Primera Reina. It was her first ever self-produced dance film, created during her long recovery from having COVID-19, amidst a global pandemic and civil unrest. As her nana turned 99 and the world felt like it was falling apart, she could not wait a minute to capture the beauty and power of her grandmother. “I’ve never felt like enough in the dance world. I’m too brown for some spaces, too big for others, but in my nana’s world—in our world, I’m enough,” she says. “I was trying to capture and hold onto that world where women like my nana and I are more than enough, where they are queens.” (You can, and should, watch the film here).
“You inherit queenliness from those that have been part of your lives,” Mullikin says. She thinks of her grandma as the first queen and her mom as the second. La Tercera Reina, meaning “The Third Queen,” was actually the first piece I saw of Mullikin’s, almost two years ago now at Tint Dance Festival. I can still remember the power Mullikin and her dancers brought to the stage that night, filling the Erickson Theater with sharp hisses and muscular movement. That piece, Mullikin notes now, explored how she has been stepping into her role as queen and continues to honor her ancestors.
Mullikin’s perspective on dance flips the longstanding dichotomies of performance on their head: often we’re taught to dance either for the expectations and judgements of others more “expert” than us, or if you’re particularly self-affirmed, to dance for yourself. But Mullikin instead explores what it feels like to move out of love, for someone else but without criticism. She explains, “I have a responsibility to honor those I love with dance.” Her pedagogy popped the individualistic, admittedly White supremacist, bubble I’ve been consumed by in my own relationship to dance. I felt lighter just talking to her.
“As a kid and actually all through college really, I was constantly second-guessing who I am and how I fit into the world,” Mullikin explained. “Being a plus-sized dancer, woman of color, Native American, Mexican American, first-generation American, I would constantly see the dominant White culture define how I should be, act, look, dress, or say my name. I never felt like being myself was enough.” Near the end of her time at Cornish College of the Arts, Mullikin said she realized she was “sick of trying to fit myself into boxes that were never made for me. Why am I even trying to force myself into that box?” From then on, she decided to “make the kind of work that I want to make and spotlight people that look like me and have histories like mine.”
Mullikin credits her parents for her drive. “From the time I was a child they always said ‘you can do anything because you’re an American’ and if I can do anything, then I’m going to dance.” Armed with her parents’ encouragement Mullikin began dancing at A.B. Miller High School which has a phenomenal public school conservatory providing access to dance to hundreds of students of color each year. “The program is now in jeopardy and is being systematically eliminated.” Mullikin started this petition a couple months ago in hopes of getting the district’s attention. “It is all of our responsibility to make sure that young students of color are not continuing to be discouraged, eliminated, or underrepresented in the arts.”
As a single human, Mullikin holds so many diverse and intersecting identities that bring layer after layer of complexity, insight, and emotion to a field that has been long dominated by the same old White stories. But in trying to do what she loves, most every school, institution, publication, producer, and funder have tried to stamp out the wondrous gifts that make Mullikin who she is and give her art such gravitas, in order to continuously favor thin white bodies that can afford lifelong Ballet training. “When I step into the room, I’m already not perfect. People’s expectations of what I’m going to be able to do versus what a tall, thin White body is going to be able to do is…well, you can only go up when you’re on the bottom. I can’t fail anymore than what you’re expecting me to do. In some ways, the pressure is off, and I’m going to show up like a boss.”
Mullikin’s experiences with the white supremacy embedded into Seattle’s dance community, as well as dance as a whole, fueled her in collaborating with eight other dance artists of color to write Recognizing Systemic Racism in Dance, an extensive list covering in detail how the dance community participates in upholding anti-blackness, racism, White supremacy, and cultural appropriation. During the height of Black Lives Matter protests this summer, spurred by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers with impunity, Mullikin felt frustrated seeing a lot of the dance community repost Black Lives Matter messages again and again, thinking “ok you’re reposting but you’re also perpetuating this in dance spaces.”
Worried that it wouldn’t be as powerful coming just from herself, Mullikin reached out to several other activists in the dance community, mostly from Seattle—Albee Abigania, DJ Baluyot, Cheryl Delostrinos, Imana Gunawan, Sue Ann Huang, El Nyberg, Noelle Price, and Coral Taylor—seeking to add credibility and help people understand that dancers of color experience this on a regular basis, not just once. She said she felt anxious and sick the whole time she was working on it. “As a person of color, you’re taught from day one, you don’t speak out. Just keep your head down and do what you need to do.”
The article certainly shook Seattle’s dance community, rightly forcing people to confront their institutionalized, systemic, and internalized racism. “Ironically, people who reshared it didn’t credit me or the other contributors.” One repost had over 50,000 views, but none of the authors were tagged. Because of the article and her continued work, Mullikin is frequently fielding requests to speak on panels for equity and racial justice in dance.
“I use dance as my language. I say what is important and what I want to say through dance.” And Mullikin has a lot of big, beautiful, powerful things to say through dance. Currently, that takes the form of EL SUEÑO, a dance film in collaboration with filmmaker Devin Muñoz, about the American Dream. The work spotlights women of color and focuses on the first-generation American experience. “It’s an awesome group of powerful women who bring their open hearts and vulnerability into the process,” Mullikin says. “It’s amazing to be in a space with people who have experienced similar things and can say yeah, I get that, I totally understand what you’re saying because I’ve experienced that too.” A release date for EL SUEÑO has not been set, but you can catch a preview and a discussion with the artists this Thursday Nov 19th 6-7:30pm via Zoom. RSVP here and follow the project on Instagram at @el.sueno.dance
If it’s not already abundantly clear, Mullikin is an amazing human with a huge heart and spectacular ideas, talents, creativity, and drive. You can catch her at www.aliciamullikin.com and directly support her work by donating. As she’s busy dreaming up her next project, I hope that we, as the Seattle dance community, support her (and the many wonderful artists of color that call Seattle home) in sharing her art, crediting her work, removing the systemic obstacles that could have and continue to attempt to keep Mullikin from dancing, and finding new and beautiful ways to honor her ancestors. Let us discover together what it means to dance not for the judge or the critic, but for the people we love.