June 2018 In Dance



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IN A 1993 INTERVIEW, T oni Morrison said, “The people who practice racism are be- reft. […] It feels crazy. It is crazy. […] If you can only be tall because somebody’s on their knees, then you have a serious problem.” 1 I thought about Morrison’s words as I sat in the Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts theater on June 25, 2017, witnessing Grown Women Dance Collective’s annual Juneteenth celebration, Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars . The performance com-

And “that Black” was Eurydice [Ross], one of the original members of GWDC. She was the only Black concert dancer I’d ever seen in my actual conscious memory. SB: What happened after you missed your chance to be the single Black snowflake? TA: I went to Janet Sassoon’s Academy of Ballet. Richard Gibson had just come from the Joffrey. I walked in, this little 12-year-old with flawless turns and arabesques behind my head, 42 pounds in the 7th grade. I was skin and bones, which is why my ballet teachers loved me… SB: …because they could see the lines… TA: …right. American teachers often had been really mean to me. But Richard, who was really nice to me, jumps me to the 15-17 year old girls, until Janet comes in and says I’m in the wrong class and puts me back with the 12-year-olds—and I was thrown to the wolves. Then, one day Janet looks at me and says, “Dear, your hair is very ethnic.”At that point I was 13 and starting to notice what I looked like in the world. I never went back. I couldn’t enter another dance studio for 7 years. SB: So you just stopped dancing? TA: Yes, until 1986 when I left for UCLA. I was the first person in my lineage since slav- ery to go to college. I went to UCLA because in that time period all of my friends were being murdered and locked up under Three Strikes for a joint in their pocket. The depres- sion and survivor’s guilt is really bad when you come from an environment where people are actually being targeted to not make it. When I transferred to Cal in 1989, I bought $5 rush tickets to Cal Performances—Ailey, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Garth Fagan, and Bill T. Jones with Uncle Tom’s Cabin . I’m one of the only brown folks in the theater and just crying. In that moment I realized you can cre- ate social change with the arts. In my junior year there was a company called Voice the Movement, a project put to- gether by Anne Reeb, daughter of the white minister [James Reeb] who was killed dur- ing the Civil Rights Movement. In 1989, she made a piece about Medgar Evers. Reggie Savage was Medgar and I was his wife, Myr- lie. During this process, I figured out that people can actually do this as a job. So my senior year, instead of scooping ice cream on campus, my job was dancing. “At that point I had convinced myself that dancing was the only thing I was good at.” –TONYA AMOS SB: Did you dance with the Graham folks at Cal? TA: I did not. I was an Anthropology ma- jor. I was studying African American history and taking Egyptian hieroglyphics. I was like, we need Black people who can read primary documentation, so I did three years of glyphs, which when I moved to NY in 1991, two weeks after I finished college, kept me out of trouble because I had like $200 and had no place to live, no job, no food. I would go to the Met and pay 24 cents to get in and I would spend 8 hours and just translate stuff off the walls. When I graduated from Cal in 1991, people kept telling me to take [class] with Alonzo [King]. And I was like, Who is this Alonzo? Finally, someone dragged me in there and I was like, He’s Black! Why didn’t anyone say he was Black! None of the Black folks in his class had done any ballet but they were just so happy to be in his presence. And he treated everyone with loving respect. He encouraged me rather than flattening my already low self-esteem.

bines concert dance and a multimedia presentation to honor the Black musi- cal artists we’ve lost since 2000. When I saw that much talent on display in a society that works hard to vilify the bearers of that talent, combined with that much loss, the cognitive dissonance of anti-Black racism was laid bare. I realized I was listening to the sound of social life in social death, the sound of uplift, the sonic landscape

(top) Tonya Marie Amos and Andrew Pacho / photo by Lois Greenfield, (left) Tonya Marie Amos/ photo by Femi Corazon

SB: Where did you take these classes? TA: When I was a kid I was at ACT. For dance, I was at San Francisco Ballet. We’re talking about the 1970s. I was literally the only child of color in the studio. Every other kid in the school got

of Black joy— and the soundtrack of my life, to this American life. In the face of the sheer dominance of these voices, I could sense in my bones the crazy Morrison describes, the pathology and supreme waste of time of white supremacy—to work that hard to build yourself up by shooting down what so clearly soars. My generation’s K-12 history books never mentioned Juneteenth, so Tonya Amos, Grown Women Dance Collectives’s artistic director, had to educate me. 2 In sum, on June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Major General Gordon Granger and his Union sol- diers arrived in Texas to read the proclama- tion and make official that which slave own- ers had sought to keep secret: slaves were now free. Jubilation among former slaves ensued, followed, unsurprisingly, by a tenaciously ad- hered to revisionist history. So, white folks get to honor Lincoln, the white man who freed the slaves without any muddy chronology to contend with. On January 1, 1980, Juneteenth became a Texas state holiday, and there ap- pears to be a steady rise in consciousness and celebrations nationwide. In the spirit of "In Practice," this interview focuses on the labor of Amos’ dance journey, and the love that established and maintains GWDC’s Juneteenth project. It’s about Amos’ dance training history and how it reflects the racializing and racist history of American con- cert dance. GWDC is comprised of concert dancers, currently between the ages of 48 and 54, who come out of retirement each year for Fallen Heroes —from my point of view, they only get better with age. Amos, like so many dancers, was hesitant to talk to me, afraid to expose things about elite concert dance company culture. Many, many dancers grin and bear it for the chance to dance. Amos and I spoke at Peet’s Coffee on Col- lege Avenue on August 22, 2017. In Dance is publishing our interview now to coincide with the 9th Annual Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars Ju- neteenth performance at the Malonga Center, June 23-24. Tonya Amos: I grew up in San Francisco, Sunnydale neighborhood -- no running wa- ter, no electricity, no food. My parents put all of their money towards our education. I went to fancy schmancy schools, and I took ballet classes, acting classes, and all this stuff that kids in the projects didn’t do. Sima Belmar: You’re a Bay Area native. Tell us about your early dance life here.

to be in The Nutcracker , but I was never al- lowed on stage. So, after three years my dad went and spoke with the director of SFB and they were like, Yeah, Blacks can’t be on stage. I remember my dad saying something not very nice, and then, “We’re going elsewhere.” SB: Where did you go after your dad took you out of SFB? TA: So this was pre-BART and there was tons of traffic in northern California, unlike now [laughs]. My parents were in the car all the time trying to make sure we had access and to minimize the racial trauma of being a Black kid in the 70's. I ended up at Diablo Gymnas- tics in Walnut Creek (the kids were horrific to me there). A woman who was watching prac- tice said to my mother, “Why isn’t she danc- ing?”This was Lareen Fender of The Ballet School. Lareen approached me with my mom’s permission and said, “You’re beautiful. You should be dancing.”And I said, “I don’t want to dance anymore.”And she asked, “Why not?”And I said, “Well, Blacks can’t be on stage.” I was 9. And she said, “Nonsense. You can be on stage with me.” So Lareen trained the hell out of me for a couple of years. She was wonderful to me and made sure to never let the racial undertones that were thrown out by kids and their parents become overtones. At the same time, I was going to school at Nueva Day in Hillsborough with people who had 18 burners in their kitchen and horses. Anybody like me was cleaning someone’s house. Meanwhile, in my house it’s pouring rain and my whole family is in my bedroom because it’s the only room that doesn’t have water pouring through the ceiling—mom, dad, two sisters, two dogs, and the cat. When my mom got pregnant with my third sister, she couldn’t drive me to Walnut Creek anymore. So I went back to train in the city, bouncing around between pretty major acad- emies. One of them is gone, a boarding school for ballerinas, LaNova Academy [Ballet Ce- leste International of San Francisco]. 3 I didn’t live there, but ballerinas came from all over the country to study there. I remember there was a Nutcracker audition. I was about to go home when people asked why I wasn’t audi- tioning. I was like, Well, Blacks can’t be on stage, and they were like, “Oh, that’s right. Ok! See you next week!”They were kind of glad—the little girl with the leg behind the head and the three pirouettes en pointe at age 11! But on my way out, one of the moms said, “I hear what you’re saying, but Ms. LaNova is very open-minded. You should go talk to her.” So this old Russian woman looks at me and says, “Nonsense, dear. Blacks can be on stage. There’s a black snowflake in Nut- cracker . But we already have our Black this year, dear. You should come back next year.”

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ON THIS PAGE / In Practice:

Tonya Marie Amos by Sima Belmar 4 / A Lifetime of Acheivement for Lily Cai by Rob Tayler 5 / Contact Improvisers Consider #metoo by Cathie Caraker, Rosemary Hannon, and Miriam Wolodarski Lundberg 6 / June Performance Calendar 8 / Traveling and Touring by Katy Dammers 10 / GERALDCASELDANCE at 20 by Heather Desaulniers 12 / Cultivating Freedom and Power in the Dance Classroom by Jochelle Pereña

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