‘Black dance is American dance’

On August 27 in Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, the eight companies representing the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project—Ayodele Drum and Dance, Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, Deeply Rooted Dance Theater, Forward Momentum Chicago, Joel Hall Dancers and Center, Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago, Najwa Dance Corps, and Red Clay Dance Company (joined also by M.A.D.D. Rhythms)—share the city’s largest outdoor stage for the first time in Reclamation: The Spirit of Black Dance in Chicago, coproduced by DCASE as part of the Year of Chicago Dance.

“The companies themselves started the work of legacy,” says Tracie D. Hall, who began the CBDLP in 2019. “It felt like a question was being asked: Who is going to work to raise the visibility of the virtuosity of Black dance in Chicago? Who is called to that kind of stewardship? These companies were already delivering the highest levels of artistic and cultural production. They needed support; they needed others to come together and shout their names, not just to the dance world and the art world, but to Chicago itself.”

Reclamation: The Spirit of Black Dance in ChicagoSat 8/27, 6:30 PM, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph, RSVP requested at eventbrite.com, info at chicagoblackdancelegacy.org, free

Galvanized by the findings in Mapping the Dance Landscape in Chicagoland, a 2019 census and analysis of the individuals and organizations that participate, produce, and fund dance in the city, Hall, then director of the Joyce Foundation’s culture program, partnered with the Logan Center for the Arts to create an organization with the mission of advocacy, archiving, capacity building, and presenting Black dance in Chicago. 

“We have a history in Chicago of supporting arts and artists, but I didn’t know if we were always supporting Black arts organizations and leaders in the same way, to the same extent, with the same amount of funding, with an equitable amount of fanfare,” she says. “If we aren’t doing that, how do we repair that? And if we don’t repair that, what do we lose? Dance has been one of those art forms to which Black artists in Chicago have made specific and unique contributions but hasn’t always been funded accordingly.”

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Beginning with a cohort of eight dance organizations, the CBDLP intends to expand in the coming years. “I have observed the kind of acceleration that can occur when you try to uplift the sector rather than an individual choreographer or company,” says Hall. “I really wanted to test what that collective impact could look like. And I knew the project would need a home for the companies to be seen, supported, and nurtured. I thought of Logan immediately, because Bill Michel [executive director] and Emily Lansana [senior director of community arts engagement] had already demonstrated their commitment to supporting Black artists.”

Princess Mhoon Credit Patrick Orr

Since March 2021, the CBDLP has been under the leadership of choreographer and scholar Princess Mhoon, an alumna of five of the eight organizations in the CBDLP. “Chicago is my hometown,” she says. “My parents were founding members of Najwa Dance Corps and Muntu Dance Theatre. I came up through the ranks, and I always wanted to find a way to give back to the dance community.” 

During her research in Black dance and American performance at Howard University, where she obtained a master’s degree in history, Mhoon says, “I never saw any of the people who taught me. Muntu has been around 50 years; Joel Hall for 48. I learned from all of them, and they were not in the history books. So I did my thesis on Black dance in Chicago. This is American history—how can we ignore it? There’s artwork in museums all across America, books live forever, but dance is visceral, fleeting, in the moment. It’s so easy to forget it. So the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project is here for all of it: we’re here to help companies grow, to help companies from an infrastructure standpoint, to help artistic growth, and to archive and preserve.”

As the CBDLP grows, Mhoon’s perspective on the past and hopes for the future are expansive. “How can we be inclusive but remain focused on our core values?” she muses. “Black dance is American dance. During the transatlantic slave trade, we’re on plantations, we’re not allowed to dance, we’re not allowed to play music, and we come up with dances like the cakewalk and the juba jig. We’re using the polyrhythms from the drums, we’re communicating with each other, we’re making fun of them, and they think we’re entertaining them. And that’s because of their influence on us and our influence on them. That’s how musical theater started: us taking our social dances to the stage. Tap: Irish and African Americans being in New York together. Some people say, ‘Is there such a thing as Black dance?’ I think so. It’s the cross-pollination of cultures that creates Black dance.”

About Reclamation, Mhoon says, “The companies had had a conversation about wanting to have a concert together in Millennium Park—it’s the realization of their dreams. It feels historic. They’ve shared a stage before but not an audience of this size with this level of support. It has broken the silos between the companies and the different genres of dance; it really fostered the idea of collaboration.”

“I’ve heard them say they don’t think of themselves as islands,” adds Hall. “They understand they share students, audiences, supporters. I think they’ve had a lot of mutual admiration but haven’t always known each other’s organizational goals or what legacy looked like to each of these founders. Now they’re able to watch each other, participate in concerts together, and learn what each company contributes. Artists learn and develop in the company of other artists—that pushes the art form forward. That’s what we see happening before our eyes. We’re seeing Chicago dance advance.”

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