Breaking the ice: Boosting Black culture via dance

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There are a few defining features about the city of Minneapolis in Minnesota, which regularly makes it to the ten most liveable cities in America. One of among the features is that it is a major hub for the arts, especially, the arts that accept no boundaries. Minneapolis is where I spent the last year, rather the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and came to know about the arts scene quite well. One of the young companies that caught my attention is Brownbody, set up by former competitive figure skater Deneane Richburg.

Deneane Richburg with photo credit solo
“Grounded in African diasporic perspectives, Brownbody builds artistic experiences that disrupt biased narratives and prompts the audience to engage as active participants in the journey,” explained Deneane. In race rife America, there is little new about such a company. Many Black and artists of colour are doing the very same. But, here is the difference, “Brownbody accomplishes this through a blend of modern dance, theatre, social justice, and figure skating,” said Deneane describing the ‘unboxable’ quality of the art that Brownbody makes.

In this circle of artistic participation and overlapping of multiple circles of the arts, Brownbody locates its work. Deneane hesitates to call it performance. “I struggle with the idea of performance,” she said, “for when it relates to Black culture it is very complicated. I think of Vaudeville and other examples of popular art that reveal the exploitation and appropriation of Black art forms, and the perpetuation of oppression of Black people.” So, instead, Deneane describes her work as “creating an experience and honouring the lineage.”

According to Deneane, the world of the melanin-blessed is not homogeneous and every Black artist is going to have a different answer to the questions about race politics and it is often linked to their personal experience. Growing up in the world of competitive skating Deneane immersed in an ideology that excluded her ancestry’s truths. “Working and growing in this space, to quote Zora Neale Hurston, I always felt most coloured when thrown against a sharp white background.”

Even today, figure skating in the Twin Cities is a largely white and expensive activity, with only a sprinkling of people of colour. “In the 80s and 90s, there were even fewer. It took a great while for a Black girl to be recognised. I had to work very hard to move from the bottom few to the top ranks, and I ascribe that partially to the fact that skating officials were not accustomed to seeing the Black body on the ice in competition,” she said recalling the reality of her experience. She also appreciates the support of her mother who chose to volunteer at the figure skating events to prevent her daughter from being overlooked. Soon the judges began taking notice and were forced to give her what was due to her. Many years later, she injured her knee and had to give up on competitive figure skating.

But the injury did not prevent her from continuing her dance which until then was an adjunct to her figure skating training. Now, she got more involved with dance and theatre. She worked at the globally recognised Penumbra Theatre, the oldest continuing Black theatre in America and at the Pangea World Theatre, which through its work endeavours to build bridges across multiple cultures and creates sacred and intersectional spaces, both based in the Twin Cities area. “At Penumbra, I saw the beauty in Blackness, from working with powerful and beautiful Black people. Pangea made me aware of another place of power that I had,” said Deneane recognising those who have contributed in making her who she is today.

Talking about dance, she was involved in western dance, ballet, jazz and tap and received her Masters in dance from Temple University renowned for its cutting-edge dance programme, and another one in Afro-American Studies from University of Wisconsin at Madison. “It was that point I needed to carve out space for myself and my ancestral history, using the skills that I had.” Thus Brownbody was created in 2007, and since then, blending dance, theatre, and skating, Brownbody brings on to “centre stage,” stories and topics important to African diaspora communities. In doing so, it expands horizons and changes perspectives, apart from breaking the ice and welcoming the communities of colour. Dancing on ice is nothing new. But, what differentiates the work of Brownbody is the fact that the work is least concerned by the optics of beauty and draws its claim not from waif-like bodies clad in sparkly costumes but from the beauty of the stories it tells, and how it tells them, as well as the impact it has on the lives and thoughts of people.

While some people have described the work of Brownbody as “site-specific dance”, Deneane sees far greater intentionality. “In our programming, we witness, reflect, dialogue, dance, and heal,” said Deneane, “even as we disempower destructive historic ideologies and learn how to self-define nourishing change.” Their programming is designed to awaken connections to the histories and topics relevant to individuals of colour through artistic productions and workshops.

In the past, Brownbody has presented several pioneering projects for the stage and the ice, including Living Past (Re)memory, a stage work based on Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved; The Most Perfect Human Specimen, (part of a 2009 production, Being Branded ) which focuses on Saartjie Baartman, the South African Khoi Khoi woman, taken to London and Paris and exhibited and exploited during the early 1800s. Due to her large posterior, she was exhibited as an attraction in exhibitions and freak shows in 19th-century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus. “Hottentot” was the old name for the Khoi people. Her body was eventually used as the foundation for racist science. Till the start of this century, her remains were on display in Paris where she had died in 1815.

In 2013, Brownbody produced Waiting For You…, at Highland Ice Arena in St. Paul, an on-ice production featuring a re-worked version of Living Past (Re)memory, engaging Afro-modern dance and figure skating. In 2015, Brownbody presented Quiet As It’s Kept at Victory Memorial Ice Arena in Minneapolis. This work, created in collaboration with celebrated Twin Cities actress and vocalist, Thomasina Petrus, blended Afro-modern dance, figure skating, theatre, live vocals, and excerpts from the speeches of Ida B. Wells, one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People- NAACP. It explored America’s history of lynching and racial oppression as means to understand its residual impact on modern American lives. This production received a Sage award for the outstanding dance production.

“Every time I get a grant or acknowledgement it is really meaningful and I get all choked up, even as I want to shout out aloud that someone believes in me,” said Deneane referring to the feeling she experienced on the first ever award she received from the American composers’ forum. A feeling replicated when her latest work Quiet As It’s Kept won the Knight Arts Challenge grant in 2015. This production is made more meaningful because, with this, Brownbody entered the collaborative space. In this case, it performed with the Brooklyn-based, very powerful, a twenty-year-old company of African American women, Urban Bush Women set up by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Zollar along with a host of other artistes-award winning choreographers, Camille Brown, MacArthur Fellow, Kyle Abraham, Temple University Professor, Dr Kariamu Welsh and Minnesota’s own multi-talented “conceptualist” Ralph Lemon, have inspired Deneane.

She is aware that just by being herself she fulfils a very important function for her community and her people. The lack of role models and the associated expense has put skating out of consideration for many individuals of colour, leading directly to under-representation in the field. This is where the work of Brownbody presents a strong alternative just by featuring professional skaters of colour.

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