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Body Politics: Beyoncé, Teyana Taylor, and the Liberation of Black Women Through Dance

For Black women, dance is transitioning into a place where barriers can be broken.

by Sharine Taylor
Nov 8 2016, 4:13pm

It was only last summer that in the 75-year history of the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland became the company's first Black principal ballerina. Said Copeland during her interview with TIME, "It's important for me to set an example of what a healthy image is, what a ballerina can be. That she doesn't have to be a white woman that's real thin; that she can look like the world." Black women and girls aren't afforded many opportunities to see themselves represented on a large scale in styles of dance outside of the ones pre-prescribed to them like African dance, hip-hop or dancehall. For example during an earlier season of reality show Dance Moms when then 10-year old dancer Nia Frazier was boxed into performing an "ethnic dance" because, according to her dance instructor Abby Lee Miller, those are the "kinds of roles for which she'll be auditioning".

Copeland's accolade is more than a simple step in her career. Her gains ripple into our community and are instrumental in shaping how Black women and girls see their position in the world of dance. Her achievement was telling and preluded various Black women in media that have used dance to reclaim their space and reconceptualize their sexuality.

Through A Seat at the Table , we see carefree Black girl personified through the choreography present in the album's two visually arresting videos, 'Cranes in the Sky' and 'Don't Touch My Hair.' Solange's unrestrictive, water-like movement assists the self-acquired liberation laden in the lyrical content of the records proving that dance is not simply a pastime or form of entertainment, but can also function as a visual, metaphoric extension of our own desires. "Dance has given me my voice", says choreographer and multidisciplinary artist Esie Mensah , who has done work for Janelle Monáe, Flo Rida and most recently held a role in the made-for-tv musical The Rocky Horror Picture Show . "Dance has given me my voice in a very beautiful and divine way for me to be able to find out who I am and what my purpose is on this earth." Both literally and figuratively, dance has been freeing for these Black women, and for Mensah, has even been a catalyst for self-discovery. After performing a solo that required her to remove her bra with her back facing the audience, she shares, "I didn't realize how liberating it was going to be to shed the very thing that I was so shy about, that I was so insecure about. Then making, developing and performing it… I was very shocked in terms of the response that I got; how moved people were by my performance… I started to find my 'womanness,' started to develop who I was as a woman and I started to understand who I was, what my body said [and] what I love to do".

Similarly, another project became a vehicle that provided insight into the role women play in dancehall spaces. This year during TIFF, Nick Cannon's film King of the Dancehall rid the stereotypes of women's passive role in the dance hall. The film showed both the sensuality of the Black woman's body while also displaying the importance of not only men's dance crews, but women's dance crews. The film's female lead Kimberly Patterson , who played Tarzan's (Cannon) love interest Maya, shares over email how the film challenged even more notions of dancehall saying, "As seen in the movie, the stigmas attached are that [dancehall dancing is] only geared towards leading to intercourse which is not true. Jamaicans see it as a way to express themselves, to stand out and to have fun. Once the party is over, that is it, all is left on the dancefloor...[Another] negative connotation attached is that it's too raunchy and vulgar. However, women in the dancehall spaces love that they have that channel to explore the amount of freedom of expression that they get. Creativity at its best can be found in dancehall."

She also addresses the types of women that are often left out of the dancehall narrative sharing, "My role [as Maya] shows that even the most modest person can partake in dancehall without it having to be focused on sex in any way. It also shows that there are various forms of dancing in the dancehall setting from the sultry movements between a man and a woman to the more hardcore movements shown in the battle scene with the dance crews."

For Black women, dance is transitioning into a form of liberation and expression as much as it is also becoming a site where barriers can be broken. "It would be great to see darker-skinned dancers highlighted as lead dancers more in major shows, roles, etc. as there is a lack of this," mentions choreographer, actress, and host of So You Think You Can Dance (Canada) Tré Armstrong. As a Black woman, Armstrong defines dance as meaning "freedom of thought through movement without speech. It's a way to illustrate our interpretation of ALL forms of dance from a unique cultural perspective. For example, many people do not know that jazz dance actually originated in Africa before the time of slavery and was redefined once it hit conventional North America." Perhaps we'll see more visuals that mirror Armstrong's statement, much like Kanye's recent video 'Fade'. The visual features Teyana Taylor , a dark-skinned Black woman, and thanks to the creative direction of Toronto-born dancehall choreographer Jae Blaze, Derek "Fonzworth Bentley" Watkins and Guapo, the choreography incorporated those same elements of jazz as well as dancehall and new and old school hip hop to create the hypnotizing visuals that garnered Taylor much attention this summer.

Another attention-garnering project belongs to that of Mrs. Knowles-Carter who released her visual album, Lemonade , earlier this year. Amongst many of the themes present in the project, healing is one that is central to assisting her in overcoming her partner's transgressions. In various sections of the album's short film, the artist draws upon the diaspora's Yoruba lineage to show the power and strength she harnesses from the women before her and this is depicted through dance. "Taking it back to the days of our ancestors it was a means of entertainment, communication, and spiritual connection," says Patterson. The choreography redefines dance for Black women as being an all encompassing experience and transformative in getting to one's true self. "Growing up I've been such a shy person and with dance, I don't even realize what's going on around me… I'm just me," says Tearrah Beals , the assistant cheer captain for the Toronto Argonauts.

There is no doubt that Black women and their participation in dance can simply be scripted as a hobby. With its ability to both free the body and center the soul, it becomes a means of identity, a means to reinvent. But, more importantly, it becomes a means of survival.

Sharine Taylor is a writer who lives in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.

Illustration by Xack Leard. Find more of his work on his website.