we must name our dance teachers


the dreams of the native
fanon says
are always dreams of muscular prowess
he says again
are encouraged
and black girl dreams of grace and sublime reckoning beauty
are deflated not deferred  
after beige flesh colored patches 
on costumes
on black skin


i barely call myself
a dancer
renee and matthew were my first dance teachers with brown skin
they are of course
so much more
than that
renee and matthew were my first dance teachers with brown skin
because black life
where i am from
has but a few institutions
and really
no institutions parallel alvin ailey american dance theater 
and call black dreams to shed beige flesh on white stages
black hearts to set their feet on the ground knowing
bodies are 
blood memories
in montreal
what bodies
know how
marie-thérèse zémire marie-charles mcgill marie-josèphe angélique
moved à montréal
white flesh covering blood history sounds like
“je me souviens”


i barely call myself
a dancer
something of a born-again-come-to-jesus-
came with modern
into a studio where we danced facing not mirrors but
facing the lachine canal
(not far surely from where on the morning of august 5
mohawk warriors rose to set fire to french settlements)
modern dance
where I stayed
meant drums
but mostly
it meant that
when the heart reached towards heaven
the head no longer turned away


i barely call myself
a dancer
“we must name our dance teachers”
was elizabeth alexander’s injunction
i name
the eyes that returned to the studio
to repeat
as though
in a lab a field a court a club
an experiment with exhilaration
with time with timing with gravity
with metaphors
with repetition
of layered shapes
and breaths
of flesh marked with
an incontrovertible drive for rigor, rhythm, beauty, and abandon
i carry with me
linda marchand
michelle raimbert
benny dryer
nathalie huot
amanda chicoine



dear rachel

lying on my back
on a saturday afternoon
with my legs bent and my hands around my waist and my thumbs pressed lightly against the skin on my back
i felt clarity
settle in
the stillness
through my right thumb

during the q&a
on the saturday
of our performance
renee explained that for her
beauty and clarity are one
the clearer a diamond is
for instance
the better light shines

from renee’s lips
came words similar
(to rihanna’s)
to those you had spoken
months before

my body
had ever been clear about anything
before that saturday afternoon
when i was lying on my back.

white halls white rooms white streets white studios
(what is white fragility besides an anxious protection of white violence)
home demanding unyielding unwavering pushing sometimes beating
this body
had not settled into itself
settled down
or out
into an economy of desire
or through an economy of abjection
of black matter living
of black sugar burnt in my bowl

something about lengthening
(what is it about lying on the floor)
and having renee
grab pull watch lay her hands on me and tell me and everyone every time all the time and

there was a straining
which had not been altogether unpleasant
quite the contrary
that i let go of
the tension and holding things together
as i tried to let
the muscles
in my lower body

and the clarity just came.

organizing bodies


dearest rachel,


i am so sorry you didn’t get my last (first) letter.


there are so many reasons why it makes sense for me to think of you in relation to the ailey company. my presence in your country of birth and your presence in mine, as quebec media has published, over the last two weeks, a series of pieces defending blackface, always generates in me a deep sense of humility.


the letter i wrote was about a sense of possibility.


humility because our sense of what is possible is always contingent on hegemonic and counterhegemonic discourses, but it is also determined by what our bodies have learned. last week, on the last day of our two weeks of intensive rehearsals, I was so tired my legs were shaking and my arms were sore before the end of the warm up, which we did sitting, in part, i imagine, to better feel the movement of our torsos.


there is so much i have taught my body not to want.


i can’t really express how much dance has meant to me. it might be that the near totality of my sense of my own beauty is due to ballet and modern dance. and nina simone!  perhaps some tango, despite everything. working with renee robinson has been an unexpected exploration of my body’s relationship to beauty and love.


these past few months have prompted a second reflection on the relationship between my dancing body and my walking-in-the-world body.


this is the first time in my dance (non)career that i have so consistently experienced a new sense of possibility. allow me to explain. as you know, there is this tension in dance between creating beauty with your body and loving your body. by love I mean acceptance, support, care, preservation. with renee’s body work, the love, the care, takes you to the beauty. the longest extensions are reached by releasing joints and muscles and movement is enhanced by perfecting cooperation in the body, namely through opposition.


my resolution this year is to let go of fear and grief.


one bright moment last week came about two hours after the very work out that had my legs trembling. renee informed me that my weight was a bit backwards, on my heels, and though she had mentioned this at least twice before, this was the first time my body understood what that meant. i stretched my spine and reached my body higher, arms up and shoulders relaxed, and as i did, i felt my body go forward slightly before renee’s approving gaze.


i am grateful for this feeling of possibility and even hope.


what possibilies exist for a black body in quebec? my sense of what possibilites might someday be created, through constant work, have never been greater than since i met you. renée speaks of dancing with the body you “organized” (aligned, extended, balanced) during the warm up and i can’t help but connecting that notion to your investigation of somatics your call for us to practice radical politics in all areas of our lives starting with our intimate lives.


here’s to dancing with the bodies we organized –



Is It Possible to Grieve Dance?


cathexis |kəˈθeksis|
noun. Psychoanalysis
the concentration of mental energy on one particular person, idea, or object.

Note: I started writing this post a few days before the show. By the time performance day came, I had more of a glass-half-full perspective.

There is no doubt I am not alone in having had various blog post ideas come and go without ever committing them to paper. One of these I had a few weeks ago, as I was trying to better understand the quality of movement Merce Cunningham intended for his work. A lot of us get in trouble in class for “épaulement,” that divine and automatic head tilt associated with certain movements. This somewhat inane tradition of gazing at one’s hand or foot somewhat adoringly is, upon reflection, one of the things I love the most about ballet. In Graham technique, one of my favorite movements is the spiral, the subtle but powerful dissociation of the upper body from the lower, starting with the focus.

Thinking about épaulement, I came to realize  that part of ballet’s entrancing (and therapeutic) quality for me comes from the cathexis of space, from that feeling of sculpting beauty first with my limbs, but also through a vaguely admiring gaze. I never stopped to consider this before, but one might conceive of dance as a form of self love, and ballet’s particular relationship to space might in part show how.

Although Cunningham’s work requires the dancer to use her focus differently, using less affect (vaguely adoring or otherwise), I have nevertheless been cathecting his movements just as much as I have ever anything else, if not more. I wanted my body to sculpt these new and intricate forms I was discovering, forms which had graced legendary bodies. The extent to which I had been cathecting of course became all the more clear to me when I injured my calf muscle and was no longer able to dance most of the choreography I had learnt and embodied. I have been trying to infuse that energy into the three sections I am still doing, but it isn’t easy. It  feels like I am grieving those movements, grieving the feeling I had as my body carved them curvethrough space, as I pushed myself to be more precise and to better capture Jennifer, Meg, Neil, and Merce’s vision.

I had actually just figured out what I thought to be the perfect way to do those  fast pas-de-chat type movements in my jig. Meg had been trying to coach me to make them fast and snappy, and by using the floor to resist and push off faster, I thought I had finally achieved this and was excited to show her. The day of my injury, I also got the correction to relax my arms a little more, which I anticipated would be a compelling challenge: to better strike the balance between arms that were held, but still relaxed and natural. More still, perhaps, I miss precisely what I was doing when I got injured: running and jumping across space in that triplet rhythm.

I write about this because injuries are a part of dance, and because cathexis and grief are a part of art. The act of (re)creating is an act that engages with death, and this project in some ways has been a response to the idea that Cunningham’s work may die. Needless to say, the experiment has been successful, since it has moved 17 students to cathect his technique and his choreography through our bodies and through our writing, thus allowing it to live on in new and rich ways.


Where Else Will Cunningham’s Legacy Travel?


I did not go to an Ivy League university as an undergraduate. I went to McGill, known by some (present company excluded) as the “Canadian Harvard,” and paid about 1250$ per semester for tuition. Residents of Québec pay the lowest tuition fees in North America and students are currently on strike (various departments across most campuses have stopped going to class) and have taken to the streets in order to secure the accessibility of post-secondary education. Last week, on March 22nd, 200 000 people marched in downtown Montreal in what was, by some accounts, the province’s most successful protest ever.

I mention this because had I not grown up in a city that boasts universities that are at once some of the best in Canada and the most affordable, I might not have ended up at Yale. So my question is, where else will Cunningham’s legacy travel? Where else could I have experienced the quest for the ever-elusive-lower-back-curve and the many permutations of twist and curve, not to mention Roaratorio, Pond Way and the other choreography we have learned? What are the mechanisms that make transmission possible and how are they facilitated? Is the experience of a modern dance tradition contingent on certain kinds of privilege? How do we make modern dance more accessible across lines of class and race? How could modern dance in turn be transformed by a broader engagement with lovers of dance?

I remember, I was only a few years younger than many of my YDT colleagues when I had my first modern class, with Linda Marchand, who has remained my teacher back home (and who encouraged me to audition when I told her about this project). I remember doing improvisation to Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” learning modern dance technique – the spiral, the contraction, the high lift, suspension, triplets – and discovering a quality of movement, a rhythm, a dynamic that finally seemed capable of taking me outside of myself, to I place I had been longing to go.

I don’t believe in fate, but I found out about YDT through such a random series of events (most important was being in a seminar on Caribbean intellectuals with the wonderful Emily Coates) that I am almost convinced that this was meant to be. Emily told me she needed translators for a troupe of francophone dancers who were coming to dance and teach a workshop at Yale, and I shyly told her that I also danced. She told me about the upcoming audition, but I was so terrorized I tried to forget about it and never brought it up to her again, until I saw the infamous cover of Yale Daily News on Thursday December 1st 2011, at 9:26am, on my way to Spanish class.

So that is how I came to this unique opportunity, through a series of very fortunate events (and social democrat government policies). I could not have willed this if I would have tried. And I never would have expected having such an experience at Yale (none of us could have really, since YDT is so young), but now that I have been here for almost two years, I know that opportunities like this define Yale (forget lux and veritas).

Is modern dance a commodity whose value is contingent on its limited accessibility (like an Ivy League education) and specifically on limited admission for working class families and people of color?  What small or large measures can we take to break down some of the barriers we have erected? How does YDT challenge some structures of inequality in dance? Does the presence of “dance at Yale” legitimize and institutionalize this artistic form in a needed way? Is the choice of Payne Whitney as a location in New Haven for our performance a step in the right direction? Where do you think Merce Cunningham’s legacy will/can go after this?

The Ever Elusive Lower Back Curve


The lower back curve is one of the movements I was not at all familiar with before I started working with Jennifer and Meg. I had been working on the Graham type “contraction” for years (though I wouldn’t say I had quite mastered it yet – my specialty was the high lift), so I wasn’t sure how to approach the separation of the spine into different sections. Last Wednesday, however, when Meg said to us, as she explained the movement, that we were not to tuck in our pelvises, I suddenly realized, a quarter of a second after attempting to dismiss the correction as not applying to me – that that was what I had been doing all along. I had not really been feeling the stretch in my back. And then Meg added, and demonstrated, that the curve was in the lower back, and suddenly, I saw it. As I attempted to reproduce the swoop in her back in my own, I felt a difference. She also specified that the movement should proceed from the abdominals (much like the Graham contraction), and that proved to be quite instructive as well. I think I had been trying to (quite mechanically) curve my tailbone, but by visualizing a little bit higher, at the lower waist basically,  and using my abs more, I felt something, something that seemed a little more like the ever elusive lower back curve…

The Director’s Wrath


I went to see a performance of 4 Walls and of Doubletoss Interludes, a unique staging of John Cage’s piano solo and of Cunningham’s choreography, merged for the first time together. I was moved by the conviction, the precision and the presence of the dancers, which included our very own and very stunning Jennifer. I was also blown away by their athletic prowess and focused abandon. It was actually a very dark piece, and Jennifer informed me after the performance that Cunningham had choreographed it after Cage’s death. More still palpable than gloom, was the unmistakable aura of genius that marked every movement the dancers executed, every note the pianist, Alexei Lubimov, struck.

I’ve been thinking throughout this amazing experience, how often it is – though not always – that genius is paired with anxiety. I thought of this as well when last December  I saw the Pina Bausch 3D movie, and read between the lines as the dancers recalled (clearly all too rare) touching moments with the brilliant choreographer and dancer. Dancers of course spend long hours, days, years, lending their bodies and their souls to the vision of a choreographer, often shaping it in turn. They yearn, sometimes desperately, for validation, while living in constant fear of reprimand, in constant self doubt (the life of a grad student is not all that different…).

Meg, Jennifer and Neil haven’t made any of us cry and I wonder how that affects the quality of our movement, our memory for choreography, the execution of the lower back curve? They’ve relied instead on positive reinforcement, gentleness, openness and an unwavering faith in our abilities. Their unmistakable genius has expressed itself in the most supportive and unadulterated form of love. I know that I will carry it with me for a long time.

But what is the relationship between art and fear? Is there a necessary one, must greatness be a form of madness? What is lost and what is gained with the addition or the omission of a dictator’s wrath?

The Rite of Spring…


I always explain what Modern dance is in relation to ballet by suggesting, often through movement, that it is a reaction to the rigidity and formality of ballet, especially in the way that ballet is constantly resisting gravity and remaining up, up, up, to the point of being on the tips of one’s toes (simplification, I know). Modern dance is instead rooted in the floor, especially Martha Graham’s technique (which I’m more familiar with). What we see with Cunningham’s work is the exploration of rhythm, off-beats, and triplets with an accent on the down, on the pull of gravity and on suspension.

The step Meg taught us has a great organic feel and a strong connection to the floor through the constant rhythm. I thought it was really beautiful that Meg believed everyone should learn the game. Walking back home I was reminded of a friend who told me nearly ten years ago that dance constituted a religion for me (he was in religious studies at the time), because of it’s communal and ritualistic quality. Modern dance is also concerned with those dimensions of movement, of bodies coming together to share something special, transcendental even. Modern dance has also been interested in the ways in which dance and theater (costumes, roles, scripts, performance) has been used in religious practice across time, whether in Ancient Greece or in America.

Is Cunnigham’s experimentation with chance and with computer programs a rupture with Modern dance’s connection to a cosmic order, is that when it becomes contemporary dance? Or does it instead express another vision of the universe’s logic (or lack thereof) by resisting that which is predictable and “natural” or “organic” and exploring instead infinite variability? If so, how can we, creatures of habit and muscle memory, train our brains to embrace this ordered disorder?