I'm wondering when I first became aware of Alvin Ailey. I've always loved to dance since I was about 4 years old. The funk and soul dances of the of the 70's and 80's were things I knew as my parents had lots of records and music and dance was just part of my upbringing. I was a cheerleader in middle school and then high school I wanted to be a dancer. Castlemont High School was at that time the performing arts high school of Oakland and I wanted to be in the dance department. I wanted to be a professional dancer. As I'm reminiscing it seems that all of a sudden I knew about Fame and the performing art high school in New York City the movie and TV was based on. I knew different styles of concert dance, modern techniques, jazz, Dunham. Ok, LOL, now I remember. It was my experience in attending Everybody's Creative Arts Center as a teenager that sparked my interest in dance as a profession.
My mother took dance classes at Everybody's to keep in shape after her 6th child. She took me with her to watch my baby brother while she danced. I was about 14 years old. That's were the dance bug bit me and I was forever changed. I soon enrolled in the the summer dance programs and quickly accelerated into my journey as a dancer. That's were I learned about Castlemont Performing Arts High school. Castlemont gave me a pre-professional training and I learned for the first time vernacular jazz, contemporary Jazz, ballet, and the techniques of Lester Horton, Martha Graham, Limon, and Katherine Dunham. While in high school and into my first year at Laney college, I took many extra curricular classes with Ron Guidy of the Oakland Ballet, and Alonzo King at Lines contemporary ballet studio. All of this prepared me for the audition for entry into the dance program and a scholarship to the Alivn Ailey American Dance Center in NYC. At 19 years old I left my hometown to pursue my dreams of being a professional dancer.
I'm writing all of this because I just saw a video of Judith Jamison dancing Cry, a role she originated. Alvin Ailey choreographed this piece as a birthday gift to his mother and stated, Cry, dedicated to "all black women everywhere...especially our mothers."
As a student at the Alvin Ailey school, and a life long support of the company, I have seen this performance danced many times by many different dancers. I've only see photographs of Jamison dancing the role herself. As I watched this limited release, only available on the Ailey Youtube channel between May 7 -May 14, I felt I was watching the piece for the very first time. It was created on Judith Jamison's body and every movement of choreography was nuanced with a sacred genetic code of the divine feminine, the African woman! Watching Jamison's performance I was enraptured with a deep understanding of myself. It was as if I was reintroduced to the complexities of the strength, struggles, triumphs, and pains of my existence on this planet. Not just in my daily walk but in the but also in my experience of studying at the institution Mr. Ailey created. This school was a space for me and other women like me to study and train our body's to be great athletes. Mr. Ailey, your creation of Cry introduced me to my self. 'Ahhhhhhh', was the revelation, 'this is who I am.' And for the deepening of my self knowing I am grateful!
Mother's Day is 2 days away. As we are close to two months of the Shelter in Place during Covid-19, the Ailey organization released multiple videos of performance the public can watch as we are locked down and ordered to stay inside. The 2 videos to honor Mother's Day; Judith Jamison dancing Cry in 1972, and a video of several former Ailey dancers dancing the same role art such a gift to use all! Thank Alvin Ailey organization. Seeing these videos is a balm for my heart in these troubled times.
John Wagers was a long time family friend. In the 70's my mother had a house cleaning service and worked for John cleaning the apartments he owned. Coming from a large family my mom taught my siblings I how to clean and keep our home in order. Occasionally she took us with her to John's buildings and put us to work. This happened through out my childhood and teenage years. Of course we couldn't stand doing this as it was an extension of our dreaded chores. Once I angrily and militantly asked my mother, 'Mama, why are you still working for that white man'? I was disgusted at the idea of my mother, a black woman, still doing domestic work for a white man. These roles were historically abusive, demeaning, and one of the few jobs available to black women. What I didn't know then was my mother's plan to be self sustainable. This was merely a step to get where she was going. One of the stops in her destination of sustainability was opening her own business, the Neighborhood Wash & Dry in east Oakland. Although she no longer worked for him, John would stop by her business and they would "talk shop" about customer trends, property upgrades and what not.
I later realized that my mom and John shared a lot of the same interest in the need to care for our planet. Gardening, composting, recycling cans, bottles, newspapers, not wasting water and electricity were practices that I learned as a child and find great value in today. Not only did I experience this in my home but it was mirrored when we occasionally visited John. When I think of today's popular 99 cent only and grocery outlet stores I think of back to the 80's when my mom and John would have an outing and she would bring home these odd grocery items. She explained to the family of how grocery stores waste a great deal of food by throwing items away when they were not "saleable" but these items were ok to consume. I remember how passionate she was about this wasteful behavior and seemed happy to do her part to help alleviate the problem. Now, I see chain stores all over the country doing big business in what my mom and John saw as something that needed attention decades ago. John and my mother were ahead of their time in many ways.
When I was 19 years old John came to my going away party. With a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York City I was leaving my home town of Oakland, California to pursue my dreams of being a professional dancer. In the above photo John is looking at photographs with my friend Muziki as I, (in the blue & pink jump suit), and mentor Brenda Payton talk at the dining room table.
Fast forward about 30 years, I bought a Victorian house in West Oakland. John was the type of family friend that would talk to me about important issues in being a property owner. I invited him and of course he came to my house warming party to celebrate being a first time home buyer. One of my goals in home ownership was to have rental property. There is a lower unit on the street level of my property to serve that purpose. I was surprised when this cool 5 bedroom unit was difficult to rent out. I quickly shifted the plan and staged the the unit and began renting out rooms to the international community of artist and activist I garnered being a community organizer and, performance and visual artist. John was impressed with this. Anything he saw in the news about Airbnb he would call and share this with me me and asked how my new business venture B-Love's Guest House was doing. 'Your doing a great thing Traci', he would always say.
John was a great friend an ally. He was long time advocate of the prohibition of marijuana, again, a man ahead of his time. He and I had many conversations about politics, policy, culture, and secular humanism vs spirituality. When my brother went to prison John voiced his criticism of America's Industrial Prison complex and always wanted to know how my brother was doing. Sharing similar political views John called me one day telling me, 'you should get Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow. The prison system in this country is corrupt and a huge waste of tax payers money'. 'Yes, John', I told him, 'I already have a copy of the book'. Many of our views were in alignment. Once, my boyfriend and I accompanied John to an annual meeting for the ACLU. He was a liberal thinker that supported many causes for social change.
I also found John to be a hilarious individual. He often amused and made me laugh even in tough times. He once accompanied me to visit my brother in Santa Rita jail. We decided to take BART and a Lyft to avoid the traffic. As we sat on a bench on the platform, across from us on the other side of the tracks were a group of turf dancers warming up to do one of their shows on the train. As a community organizer and youth advocate I knew of few of the dancers and we waved at each other. 'O.G.', one of the young dancers shouted across the train tracks giving me my props as an elder in the community. I stood up and danced a little bit. John got excited and said, 'you should battle them'. HILARIOUS! I laughed and danced a little more but my purse with long strap draped across my shoulder was getting in the way. 'I'll hold your purse', John said. Again, hilarious of him to say that! So I handed him my purse and exchanged a few moves with the dancer until John and I's train came. The picture of John holding my purse and smiling with joy as he watched us dance is just unforgettable.
I'm grateful to have known this man for so long. He was a friend and mentor I have great respect for. This is a man that lived a long and impactful life and I'm sure there are many stories from many people about the positive ways he contributed to the world. My condolence to the family, friends, and supporters of John Wagers. Rest in peace my friend! Thank you for all your contributions.
On this day when I watch the video below I weep with so much emotion it's hard to dissect all that I'm feeling. The Katherine Dunham Dance Stage at Oakland's Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival! Just wow!
I cry watching each frame of this video and with almost every word I write. I cry for something incredible we had. I cry for the uncertainty of the future for what we had was ESSENTIAL!!! And now, I just don't know how to get back what once was.
Here's the deal, a global pandemic has stricken us all. Countries and cities world wide are on lock-down. There are orders to stay at home, wear mask and gloves, avoid contact with large crowds. Most businesses are closed, and all schools have online classes. All this amidst 250,000 deaths around the world in the last 4 months. So, #1 The deadly virus Covid-19 brings me to tears as things are seeming to collapse around us.
#2. My deep love for community and bringing people together knowing the power and healing this brings makes me cry tears of gratitude and pride. We have such a beautiful strength! When we share our joys and pains on stage it touches our hearts and makes us strong. It is transformative.
I have seen and experienced the devastation that poverty, drugs, racism, PTSD, police brutality, and many other ills society has placed on black and brown people. I believe in the victory of freedom fighters and as brother Malcolm X states, 'Culture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle'. MY DANCE IS A WEAPON I HAVE WIELDED FOR MY SURVIVAL. It is though the healing and transformative modality of dance that I curated the Katherine Dunham Dance Stage at Oakland's annual Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival for more that 10 years. I put so much love, care, belief, attention, support, in the careful selection of each company that was brought to the stage. To honor and represent two of the most powerful freedom fighters Katherine Dunham, and Malcolm X, who have had a profound impact on our lives was no light weight task. As one of of the biggest festival in the city of Oakland, well, the Bay Area for that matter, many artist wanted to get on this stage. Each year my choices held the intention of bring dancers and dance companies to the stage that held and demonstrated the power of healing and upliftment, and that were in alignment with and modeled the teachings of these esteemed ancestors.
Please take a moment to watch this mini concert video of some on the highlights of this wonderful event I was a part of. Again, I cry seeing a time when social distancing was not heard of and with such freedom we came together.
#3, being a conduit that all this power has moved through and blessed so many people makes me cry HELLA hard! I am grateful. I had the vision and I pushed it through. I had the support of a powerful team of artist and activist at Eastside Arts Alliance that believed in me and helped to make it happen and it was just one element in a truly incredible annual festival.