Black social movements have routinely called for the public to not simply nod along to the expressions of our pain, but to listen—to acknowledge that the flagrant violence wielded against Black bodies in this country is an intentional outcome of the nation’s social and political systems. In the dance world in general, and, perhaps, in concert-dance spaces (ballet, modern, contemporary) in particular, racially-biased double standards are among the consequences of such systems.
Dance artists Jacqueline Green (current principal dancer at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater), J. Bouey (a former Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company artist and founder/host of The Dance Union podcast) and I discuss our personal experiences navigating this inequitable reality.
Thomas Ford (Rail): It’s been months, and I still can’t—but can—believe armed people waltzed through the halls of Congress with absolute impunity … at least at first.
J. Bouey: Well, I think something that’s important to remember is that we would never do that. [Laughter]
I think Black people collectively know that us attempting something like the Capitol Riots will go a certain way for us because that’s the reality we all live in. So, we don’t do those things. It’s a part of our Black culture to not storm federal buildings.
But specifically in the art world, in one of the first shows I saw when I came to New York City—it was at Gibney—a white artist literally took money out of one of the board members’ wallets as part of their improvisation performance, which ended up being a few hundred dollars. And then dipped. During the gala afterwards, all the conversations were like, “Has anybody seen this before? I thought it was just an improvisation thing?” Like, this white man stole money, and Gibney had to go back into their reserves and give their board member money out of their own ticket sales or something like that. So, the double standard exists like that. When a white person does it, it’s art. But I wonder what the response would have been if that artist had been Black. I could also start to talk about how white artists can make work literally about nothing and get thousands of dollars for it. But that one is too easy to talk about; we experience it all the time.
Rail: No, I would love for you to talk about that more, please. I don’t think that everyone knows that, and I think that’s partly why we’re having this conversation.
Bouey: Right. That’s the funny thing to do when you’re kiki-ing with your friends. That’s just some Black shit that we do. We go to work, and we come home, just like the times of enslavement—it’s not too different—and when we come back home, we talk about the “masters.” Because we have to. We have to know them to navigate around them, because our knowledge of them translates to our safety. Then, we make comedy out of it because we’re that fucking genius.
But the thing about white art is that it’s lazy, because white art always congratulates itself for doing nothing. So, it’s not an actual testament to compare white and Black art or white art with art of Indigenous and oppressed peoples. It’s like trying to judge a fish for climbing a tree. We’re not going to ever be seen as intelligent or as competent as white people under a system that congratulates whiteness. It doesn’t matter what we do; the inherent trip is that we’re fish trying to climb a tree. But, on the other hand, you have these monkeys on the streets, and you’re congratulating them for being in their environment, benefiting from a system that was made and designed for them to succeed. And they literally did nothing in the process.
Jacqueline Green: That is so beautifully said, J. I’m sitting over here like, “Yes, yes!”
I can only speak from my own experiences, but you notice that there is a discrepancy in terms of opportunity and progression when you realize that you may be the only one there. So, for example, I started dancing in high school. Now, I’m from Baltimore, which is predominantly Black—but in my high school, I danced with white, Black, Chinese, Spanish dancers, and more. And so that space was pretty balanced. But I noticed that when I got into all these prestigious summer intensives, I was one of maybe two people of color—not just counting the dancers, but also including the choreographers, teachers, and administrators. And I would be like, “Oh my God! Every time; every summer!” And for a time, I felt like “normal” was my high school. But then I realized that my experiences in the summer were literally the dance world.
Rail: Yes. It can feel like being the only Black person in the room puts you at a disadvantage.
Green: Exactly, and especially when it comes to networking. In an industry dominated by whiteness, white artists tend to have far more connections, and get more opportunities to get grant money, to build work and hire dancers within their networks.
Rail: What strikes me so much is when you [Jacqueline] talk about the burden of representing and constantly being the “only one.” And that is something that many white people will never have to deal with or understand. When I consider my career—and I feel like this is a safe space to speak on this—I feel like I should be further than I am right now. I am constantly recognized, often the only Black dancemaker invited to some spaces, like performance labs and stage opportunities. And it’s interesting to see how much comes from those things for the white artists who’ve participated with me, but not for me. I feel like I’m doing extra legwork to network and to establish connections. But instead of seeing my own ascension, social-media stars get picked up for choreography commissions by New York City Ballet. I don’t get the same level of return on investment.
If I think about it, beyond, perhaps, a Kyle Abraham and a few others, it doesn’t really feel like we exist in the choreographic space as much as we should.
Bouey: Well, I’m glad that you mentioned that, as well, because it’s one of those things, right? Being the “Black person for the week” is a reminder that once an institution recognizes a Black person, they tokenize you. And that can be an alienating kind of loneliness, which is how we’ve lost so many Black men artists.
They beg men and even beg Black men to be in dance—part of a fetishization. We get free scholarships, and boys don’t have to start dancing until—you could be, like, 20. But then, here comes a Black girl from your same hometown, struggling to get some of what men get. And we have such a nuanced system that interweaves within our own communities when whiteness is present; we have to dismantle all that, as well. With Black men, and Black gay men, too, we have to realize we are part of that problem—or at least we’re being used to perpetuate a system. And we can’t really help Black women unless we know how we’re playing a part in that.
Green: I have a question for you, J. For me, it was important to join a dance company that told stories that I could relate to. Do you find frustration working with choreographers who will immediately put you in a binary category of gender? Or have you had experiences where choreographers have allowed you to be fluid, and how is navigating that in the dance world? Because for the most part, it’s very much: man on stage; woman on stage; heterosexual relationship.
Bouey: It’s interesting actually: as an art community, dance is still so performatively binary, when every other art form is like flying off, away from binary gender expression. But when I was dancing with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, I was dancing with “S” who also doesn’t identify within the binary. It was nice for us to combine our worlds of gender non-conformity and create from that.
There was one time when Bill specifically invited me to move more effeminately, which really compliments my lines and structures. And he was saying that the masculinity is there, but that he would love to see me play around with some more femininity: some more hips, some more curves and, just, sensuality. I was brought to tears because I was like, I didn’t know I was waiting for that permission.
Green: Wow. That’s so interesting. I don’t think any choreographer has ever asked me to be more masculine—maybe subconsciously.
I do sometimes get frustrated with our brothers and sisters who are immediately defensive to someone asking us about our experiences, because you can tell if somebody is being malicious or not. The thing is, you have someone who’s willing to hear you out. We have to have the patience to communicate it to them so that they can better understand.
Bouey: I, too, get frustrated. Because I understand how it’s hard to be able to perceive those moments because of the trauma we’ve experienced and, you know, we’re not always ready for that conversation on any given day. Like, that’s real, and sometimes you might need to say, “Hey, please, don’t bring this up no more. Like, I’m telling you this one time, but don’t bring this up again.” And I think even in that, you’re still caring for yourself, caring for the other person, and caring for the actual knowledge that you’re about to pass on to them. It’s okay to say, “This is precious. I’m about to give it to you. Now, I need you to treat it with some respect by not bringing it up again.”
Rail: Where do we draw the line, then, between being that bridge and protecting our mental health from the impact of revisiting trauma?
Bouey: Well, let’s take that image of a line drawn in the sand and just let that slowly dissolve. Because to find—or even create—this arbitrary line, we are going to have to keep creating lines. At that point, you might as well just respond.
Rail: That’s interesting, because in the past when we’ve spoken about this, you’ve said that the burden of research is on the white person, not us. Do you feel differently, now?
Bouey: Yes. Every single moment is a different one. There are way too many factors for me to create a line, because I need to consult all of these factors to place the line. And just to rattle some off: how do I feel that day? Did I eat? Do I have a migraine, and did a Black person die recently? Did I nap? Do I know this white person? Is this white person presenting male or female? There are just a million things that inform where and how I draw that line—and the decision I’ve made now is to just respond. And in that, I am learning how to just trust whatever decision I make in that moment.
Rail: Totally. Thank you for that. I hope that for younger dancers reading this, and especially young Black dancers, your words help them navigate their dance spaces with more confidence, you know?
Bouey: Yeah. That’s always my goal.