By: Katie Van Note
Dance Iquail’s Black Swan, performed at Goucher College on February 24th, served more than just entertainment purposes; it was a representation of the experience, identity, and oppression of black women and dancers in America.
The show featured five African American female dancers, one white female dancer, and one African American male dancer. With these dancers,Black Swan communicated the racist themes embedded in our culture and history.
Choreographer Iquail Shaheed is an African American dancer, activist, dance historian, and faculty member at Goucher College. His company was founded on the purpose of using “art and dance as a conduit for combating issues of social injustice primarily experienced by the disadvantaged.” Shaheed seeks to provide a demand and platform for African American dancers as well as to positively influence inner city youth through dance.
Shaheed’s work, Black Swan, addresses the multifaceted issue of race in ballet. The idea for this work was sparked by a 2007 New York Times article t “Where Are All The Black Swans?” The first page of the program reads: “Dance Iquail presents Black Swan in response to those who would claim we live in a post-racial world.”
The show incorporated performances from a racially diverse youth dance group in Orange, New Jersey, four of Goucher’s own dance majors and Dance Iquail,
Many of the dance pieces in Black Swan paired dance with music and interview recordings of Nina Simone, as well as visually projected words and video clips.
A summation of some of the most impactful pieces illuminates just how complex the racial themes were in Black Swan.
In the second piece, set to Nina Simone’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a black woman danced furiously in the spotlight in front of a screen projecting racist words – “Nappy Headed,” “Angry Black Woman,” “Coon,” and “Bumper Lips.”
The fourth piece was set to an interview recording of Nina Simone titled “By Any Means Necessary.” In the recording, Simone spoke about the need to compel African Americans to express and discover themselves. She said, “We have a culture that is surpassed… we don’t know anything about it.”
An African American dancer stood on stage in the fifth piece performing spoken word, while another African American dancer knelt on the floor, vigorously rubbing white powder on her chest and arms. The spoken word was aimed at the oppressors and included such lines as, “Get your foot off our back.”
One extremely powerful piece was the tenth. Following the performance of an altered version of “The Four Little Swans” from Swan Lake, the black dancers took off their black tutus and wore them as wigs, symbolizing afros. The scene and music changed from one of light-hearted dancing to themes of oppression and a literal slave trade as the dancers walked with their heads down and arms crossed behind their backs, off-stage.
One piece, inspired by Shaheed’s grandmother, portrayed the African American dancers yearning to dance, yet could not, as they were crippled by the weight of oppression. They walked slowly, one hand on their heart, the other extended backwards – as Shaheed put it, they were “coming out with the weight of the world,” while the white woman danced freely on stage.
Nina Simone was featured yet again in the penultimate piece, as recordings of an interview played. In the recording she explained to a white interviewer why activism through art is so important: “Artists’ beauty is to reflect the times. You don’t have a choice as an artist. My beauty is to reflect the times in which I find myself… my music is addressed to my people.”
During the Q&A after the performance many people commended Shaheed for bringing to light such a deeply rooted system of racism in American society and dance. For black audience members, the material in the performance such as the afro tutus was a saddening, yet a validating depiction of their hardships. One black woman held back tears as she responded to the performance. “It is important for you to continue to remind us that we matter,” she said. A black man commented, “I want to commend you. We can no longer take for granted that those [African American] voices need to be elevated.”
In response to a question on preparing his dancers to embody such heavy roles, Shaheed gave them the following message: “You may not have lived this experience but your are embodying someone else’s’, you are a vessel to tell that story. Your skin tone becomes a message to communicate those stories, you are not just doing a plié or tendu.”