June 2018 In Dance

SB: But you chose NY over SF, and you went to NY to dance, not to be a museum docent, right? TA: I went to New York to dance. My first Ailey audition was for the company, at Zeller- bach [Berkeley]. I made it through a cut and then Ms. [Denise] Jefferson, who was the head of the Ailey school at the time, pulled me aside and asked me to come to the audition for the Ailey school’s Summer Intensive in NY. She saw my really good ballet foundation from years before. Years later, I worked for Ms. Jefferson—I was her student assistant, her house sitter, her friend. She was the one who built that school. She was my mentor and I loved her so much, my NY dance mom. Several women were accepted into the sum- mer program, but—two of us, myself and Phyllis Byers—were asked to attend the schol- arship audition in New York. This moment changed the entire course of my life. There were 600 girls at the Ailey school audition. They give 35 scholarships a quarter, and they try hard to make sure that African American dancers are represented in that group. I audi- tioned for the scholarship and got it. TA: I would not have danced without Ailey. I owe Ailey a lot. But back then, Black women couldn’t have braids, locks, twists—the same reason I was ousted from ballet was happen- ing there. My generation got that changed. Ms. Jefferson went to the International Blacks In Dance conference where somebody talked about self-hatred, and she came back and changed the policy. All the higher level bal- let classes were mostly white. I’d be put in the back line, told by a (non-Black) teacher, “You’re fat, you’re lazy, you’re never going to dance.” It wasn’t always like that but even in a Black organization, that European body type is preferred, that ballet line. I defended my scholarship for 9 semesters. After a year and a half I looked around and everyone else was gone. And I kept defend- ing it. They make you audition every single semester. SB: Talk about precarity. TA: If your lines and turns don’t keep getting better, you’re gone. TA: During the New York years, I danced with Cleo Parker Robinson (in Denver), one of the Black rep companies. Basically all the repertory gets shared between Cleo, Dayton Contemporary Dance, Philadanco, and Ai- ley—we all did Donald McKayle, Talley Be- atty, Katherine Dunham. For example, I was a soloist in McKayle’s Nocturne , which was Sylvia Waters’ role at Ailey, but during a dif- ferent time period. SB: Was this supporting you? TA: Oh yeah. Once I went to New York all I did was dance professionally. When I was at Ailey I did three hours of answering phones in the morning. But I was at Ailey 12 hours a day. I was off on weekends. I taught some gymnastics on the weekends just to make some extra money. Once I was in New York, I was a dancer. I never got a “real job” ever again. I danced with Cleo in Colorado from 1994- 1996. Back in New York, I danced with Foot- prints, an Ailey spin-off, and Amy Pivar, a Bill T. spin-off. It was all concert dance, until the last four years. I had a career-altering abdomi- nal surgery, I’d say career-ending, but it wasn’t really career-ending, I just couldn’t do concert dance anymore because it was 12 hours a day of hard core physical work and partnering. SB: So what was it like at the Ailey school for you? SB: So who did you dance with during the New York years?

I couldn’t support weight on my pelvis any- more. I didn’t trust my body at that point. I’d be okay for two weeks and then I’d be dou- bled over in pain, I didn’t realize that for years I was working with scar tissue and internal bleeding. I was just in pain all the time. So my last four years in New York I turned to musi- cal theater, because I could be a dancer but not be a dancer. So I did the international tour of West Side Story and some other Broadway tours and reviews, including playing Ernie in a ginormous, hot costume in the national tour of Sesame Street . I did a lot of fitness model- ing, so when you see someone flying through the air in a business suit, that was me. TA: After 9/11, my husband and I backpacked through Latin America for a year. When we came back to New York, my apartment was sublet, so I stayed in California after visiting my parents. I’d been trying to retire for 10 years. At that point I had convinced myself that dancing was the only thing I was good at. I couldn’t start over. I [didn’t] have any real skills. The dance career is really bad for the self-esteem—you’re yelled at non-stop, people are throwing chairs at you and cussing at you, with the occasional getting swatted on the butt by a choreographer. That abuse over a long time, that’s in your nervous system at that point. There was one other choreogra- pher that I still wanted to work with and then I found out he was doing the same thing to his dancers so I was like, Yeah, done. I was using my return to the Bay Area as an excuse to do something new. At this point I’m 35 years old. After two years trying actively to teach, I opened a Pilates studio in Concord. I opened in 2006 with no business experience. From concept to opening day was six weeks. I wasn’t supposed to make it out of the projects. I definitely wasn’t supposed to have a 15-year dance career after not danc- ing for seven years. I wasn’t supposed to have a really successful concert dance career as a Black dancer, period. Luckily I had people around me saying do it. I’ve won five busi- ness awards—Small Business of the Year, Best Woman-Owned Business of the year, Female Entrepreneur the Year, 100 Influential Women of Pleasant Hill, and Best Pilates Studio. SB: No one had related to you that being a dancer involves a whole range of skill sets… TA: …I had no idea! I went from a ballerina to the Ailey institution, and whether you like it or not, when you’re part of the incredible Ailey institution, you don’t know anything else is out there, that’s the only thing that’s legitimate. You go out into the world and you can dance circles around everyone else but if you stand next to Desmond [Richardson] ev- ery day in class, of course you think you suck! TA: After opening my studio, I started get- ting really itchy artistically. At the turn of the millennium, we were losing some really kick- ass people in the African American commu- nity—Ossie Davis, Gregory Hines, Nina Sim- one, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King. Michelle Ned, who I danced with in Voice the Move- ment, and I thought, someone has got to do something to honor these people. We decided to make a show, just bring our friends and family to see it. I called Eurydice and Marisa Castillo. My husband, who’s a computer geek, put together a multimedia to tie the dances to- gether and holy shit, we have a show! Our first year was at Laney College in 2009. We had 150 people in the audience. They were mostly all my clients. So we moved it closer to my studio to leverage my clientele. For the next six years we did [it at] Pleasant Hill and Concord, we sold out our shows, 600 people, lines down the street. In 2015 we moved the show to a new theater in Pittsburg to try to reach the Black community there. SB: So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? SB: So what drew you back to dance and the formation of GWDC?

But folks didn’t know concert dance and be- cause we don’t have funding, the tickets were too expensive. We always sponsor 100-150 kids, but I couldn’t get the tickets cheaper than $28. Then, most of my clients wouldn’t come to Pittsburg because there were too many Black people. Y’all want a dance history con- cert but you don’t want to be around black people! Black people were afraid to come to Pleasant Hill for fear of being pulled over. White people were afraid of Black people. So I moved the show to Impact HUB in Oakland 2016, and this year [2017] to Malonga. I think it will stay there. My dream is to get it in a bigger space and make the tickets $5. SB: For those who’ve never seen Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars , the multimedia presen- tation of images and songs by Black musical artists alternates with dances choreographed by GWDC. And the dancing is amazing. TA: I only work with people who are kick-ass dancers who I trust intimately because I’ve worked with them in companies. SB: I feel like your story demonstrates that dancing is not about ability, but about a com- mitment to changing approaches over time. Aging dancers teach audiences that it’s not about being in shape… TA: …it’s about sharing wisdom. The power you have in your little finger, the experience you have in your body. If you can walk onto

the stage and snatch the air out of the theater, then I trust you. Tonya closed her Pilates studio this past March to focus on GWDC and expanding Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars to create a robust Civil Rights program. “As a dancer I didn’t have voice. Now, I know: I started something from nothing. There’s a part of me that needs to go back to dancing, not for the sake of dancing, but to use dance as a modality for social impact and civil rights work. We are grown-ass women, carrying on the Black tradition of protest, agency, and providing access. We can do anything we put our brains to. It might be hard, but we’ll figure it out.” 2. For more information about Juneteenth, take a look at Emmaly Wiederholdt’s article about Amos in the June 2012 issue of In Dance . http://dancers- group.org/2012/06/juneteenth-a-celebration-to- remember/ 3. Merriem LaNova Bischof had been a dancer with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. SIMA BELMAR , Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Depart- ment of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the U Ohio. Her scholarly articles and book reviews have appeared in TDR , the Journal of Dance & Somatic Practices , Performance Matters , Contempo- rary Theatre Review , and The Oxford Handbook of Screendance Studies . 1. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=CGeNJewyo4o&t=2381s

Grown Women Dance Collective presents Fallen Heroes, Rising Stars: June 23-24, Malonga Arts Center, Oakland. grownwomendance.org


in dance JUN 2018

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