Butterfly in the Big Apple
2016 in New York with the Lisa Ullman Scholarship, and connecting my learning to Cuba and Brazil.
I have always loved the Maya Angelou quote ‘ We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty’
This past 9 months has been a most incredible journey of personal growth… From the caterpillar to the butterfly. A lot of things have been tough this year, but they have prompted me to go on an amazing journey, to do some self reflection, and make changes for the better- including an amazing array of hairstyles.
The biggest opportunity has been the opportunity to travel and see the world. I have been to Brazil and Cuba as a Winston Churchill Fellow, and am just back from New York as a recipient of the Lisa Ullman Scholarship, where I trained breaking, Salsa, Rocking and went to the Graham school for a month.
This year has really been about stepping into my own shoes. It has been about shedding doubt, insecurity, submission,and taking control of me. I have had some incredible opportunities to invest time and love on me, on more training, in learning exercises, truly dedicating myself inside out. It has been about learning to trust how much I know instinctively, and about working even harder so I can truly let go and just dance.
What I am most struck by is the global reaches of dance. It was wonderful in New York to confirm that Rocking evolved from Salsa, and see its connections to breaking. I also made connections from Graham and the contraction in almost all areas of dance from Brazil, Cuba… I am struck by the importance of the pelvis, the spine, the earth in all latin dances, and how much this can help and enrich my own technique class and choreography.
In Graham, the base principle, is ‘Contract, Release’, which made my body feel so strong and enabled me to master my movement and gain so much control.
I was helped to train my breaking with ‘progressions’ in order to build the strength and understand specific movements to move to each new step.
In Salsa I was able to use the techniques from Graham to find an immense feeling of freedom and flow in my dance.
I also think that Body MInd Centring- though I don’t know as much as I would like to about it, features in all of these dances- In breaking, where everything moves from centre out, and Salsa and Rumba where the yanvalou is an important focus. I have realised that this is at the core of my movement. As an Embryo the spine forms first, and from here, the legs, the heart- so there is an alive, alertness in everything, and it all comes from the centre, the pelvis, the spine. the contraction.
I am so impressed by the strength working from the centre gives me and in how the intention of the movement comes alive when moving from here. When we dance from this point we are able to expand to a much greater potential. We are able to move from the eyes through to ears, fingertips, back of head. We become goddess like, and take on a bigger presence on stage. This also helped me with my breaking and my salsa to work more efficiently and move effectively with less effort.
I realised in NYC that in England I hold back when I dance, and this is a combination of not wanting to show off-a very English cultural inherited trait, and not truly trusting myself and my knowledge of the movement. In these techniques I let go of this outward focus on what I am doing and getting it right and took it internal both in terms of how I use my focus-looking to be watched, or not wanting to be watched, and in trusting my body to tell me rather than looking at others. Martha Graham is said to have once said to her students, ‘I am arrogant but I know it. A bit of arrogance is ok’. I think I have needed more, and this opportunity allowed me to realise it is ok to be great, to expand, to be proud of my accomplishments, and to stop apologising in my movement. In New York, I learnt to love myself, to let go of my belief that I can’t, or haven’t had enough training, and be in the present in the way I dance. I learnt that only I know where I have come from and how hard I have worked to get here and so learnt to seek only to do my best not the best to win approval from someone else. This has fuelled me to make huge leaps as dancer and choreographer and leader of others.
There was something about training with the bboys & bgirls in NYC which was different. They were competitive but in a very real, raw & supportive way. The level was high but there was less snobbery or arrogance about their level, and more willingness to share.
I experienced some wonderful imagery in Graham class: a soft wave, a dark cave which you retreat into frightened- everything had an image and a story to go with it, and this helped me to grasp the depth of movement and how much more there is than just shapes in space when we build a story behind it. This again filtered into the way I moved as a Salsera, and in inspiring my imagination and performance qualities.
I have created a class which uses my background of Breaking, Graham and Yoga, Latin dance. The opportunity to train in these styles has allowed me to create the class very genuinely, instinctively and authentically. I am also able to talk with more confidence about all the elements within my class.
My recent work Ladylike focuses on Rumba and Salsa along with Breaking and Rocking from NYC. The experiences in New York mean I can draw from things I saw first hand and create the work with integrity and utmost respect for the art forms.
In one class, I was told that Leonard Davids (one of the company dancers) was hired when he fell over in class trying so hard-the teacher said Graham recognised his effort and this was why she hired him. She said, we need to go out of our comfort zone-with every bone in your body reaching to feel that. Otherwise we don’t improve. She said ‘Imagine you will have an audience of 3000 in 2yrs tine- they need to see every bone in your body reaching to be the best’. This really helped me to become an intelligent dancer and move tight to my extremities, and has helped me feel so alive when I dance.
The past two years I have turned my focus from touring and performing towards a choreographic and leadership career. If I am to be successful in this highly competitive field, the right mentoring opportunities are crucial- to refresh my choreographic ‘skillset’, develop my creative thinking and this opportunity pushed my capabilities. As a choreographer with a Company, my role as mentor is very important and this experience working with and being mentored by the first and second generation of breakers, rockers & salseras enhanced my knowledge and confidence as a teacher and mentor and also enabled me to become even more of an expert in these areas.
During my Contemporary training, I felt I wanted to bring more of my background into my dance. Having just created Arts Council Funded group piece ‘Ladylike’, I believe I have begun to find this, and that I am at a critical turning point in my career and movement development. This was the perfect time to travel to NYC, because it allowed me to make important connections in the dance styles, and I am really ready to push my companies in the artistic direction I envisaged. I also see that the scene both needs and is ready for it. There is a real currency and relevance in this research to my work as an emerging choreographer and through creating Ladylike I had begun to see how strong the links between the two styles are.
I believe to truly understand a culture, one must experience it first hand. I am passionate about passing the historic knowledge and philosophy from Salsa and Breaking to my dancers. I feel strongly that the development of a technique drawing on diasporic Latin dances with Hip Hop will benefit the practice, understanding and appreciation of Latin & Hip Hop dance in the UK. The Latin scene needs more opportunities and I would love to see the long-term improvement of the level of work produced. I feel I have gained confidence as aleader in this field, and stronger resolve on my long-term goal to bring greater recognition to the Latin dance sector, and building a following for Latin Hip Hop Dance Theatre.
What I am most struck by is the global reaches of dance. The connections of Graham and the contraction in both Cuba and Brazil. Talking to Denilson in Brazil about the contraction, and Martha Graham’s influence on the teaching of the dance, I was struck by the importance of the pelvis, the spine, the earth in these dances and understanding how to use that in my own technique class and choreography. In Cuban Contemporary the base principle, just as in Graham is ‘Contract, Release’, which made my body feel so strong and enabled me to master my movement and gain so much control.
I also feel that Body MInd Centring features in these dances- In Cuban Contemporary where everything moves from centre out, and Orixas in both where the contraction is the central focus. I have realised that this is at the core of my movement. As an Embryo the spine forms first, and from here, the legs, the heart- so there is an alive, alertness in everything, and it all comes from the centre, the pelvis, the spine.
I am very impressed by the strength working from the centre gives me and in how the intention of the movement comes alive when moving from here. The force and intention of each Orisha is so different but all come from this powerful gathering of energy at the centre. When we dance from this point we are able to expand to a much greater potential. We are able to move from the eyes through to ears, fingertips, back of head. We become a goddess like the Orisha, and take on a bigger presence on stage.
I realised in England I hold back when I dance, and this is a combination of not wanting to show off-a very English cultural inherited trait, and not truly trusting myself and my knowledge of the movement. In these techniques I let go of this outward focus on what I am doing and getting it right and took it internal both in terms of how I use my focus-looking to be watched, or not wanting to be watched, and in trusting my body to tell me rather than looking at others. Martha Graham is said to have once said to her students, ‘I am arrogant but I know it. A bit of arrogance is ok’. I think I have needed more, and these opportunities allowed me to realise it is ok to be great, to expand, to be proud of my accomplishments, and to stop apologising in my movement. In Brazil & Cuba I learnt to love myself, to let go of my belief that I can’t, or haven’t had enough training, and be in the present in the way I dance. I learnt that only I know where I have come from and how hard I have worked to get here and so learnt to seek only to do my best not the best to win approval from someone else. This has fuelled me to make huge leaps as dancer and choreographer and leader of others.
I experienced some wonderful imagery in class: a soft wave, a dark cave which you retreat into frightened- everything had an image and each Orixa a story to go with it, and this helped me to grasp the depth of movement and how much more there is than just shapes in space when we build a story behind it.
In both Cuba and Brazil it is almost a sin to be out of time. I have always had a great connection to music and the live music was my freedom. I would get lost on the beat of the drums as if they were speaking to me and the dance being channelled from somewhere I knew long ago and movement that was already instinctive.
The discussions around the Chakra and classical Indian dance and postures were fascinating to me, and I believe there is some truth in this which I hope one day I will have the opportunity to research further.
I have created a class which uses my background of Breaking, Graham and Yoga, with Afro Brazilian and Afro Cuban dance. The opportunity to train in these styles has allowed me to create the class very genuinely, instinctively and authentically. The time I had between the two trips meant I was able to digest the full impact of two very different experiences and create a class which interweaves these styles seamlessly. I am also able to talk with confidence about all the elements within my class.
My recent work Ladylike focuses on Cuban dances of the Orisha and Rumba along with Breaking and Rocking from NYC. The experiences in Cuba mean I can draw from things I saw first hand and create the work with integrity and utmost respect for the art forms.
My work Ajé uses Afro Brazilian movement and Capoeira with Contemporary dance and again I would not have been able to make such unique work without this opportunity.
Leonard Davids one of the company dancers was hired when he fell over in class trying so hired-we need to go out of our comfort zone-every bone in your body reaching to feel it.
Imagine you will have an audience of 3000 in 2yrs tine- they need to see every bone in your body reaching to be the best.
I have finally set up my Limited Company, and we have worked harder than ever to put together a new piece Ladylike, which will preview on the 28th October. I have been very blessed with the opportunity as a fellow of the Bench. This year I have beeen given a very honest account of myself, through mentor opportunities, and that has helped me to woman up, fix up, and charge forwards. I have also had some incredible travel experiences this year. I was awarded two scholarships- which sent me on three incredible trips of growth and expansion… This year is the birth of Ella Borboleta and the death of Ella the uncertain and unconfident of my self worth.
I arrived late night with jet lag. We watched the fireworks (Independance day), drank a beer, and I was out!
I took my first Graham class, then headed to Kwikstep & Rokafella’s training but with major jetlag. But really I knew I was hiding behind the excuse of jetlag ouf of fear. After training we all went to karaoke, which I watched then headed home early to sleep.
Class 2 at the Graham school. It felt good to be in contraction. I love Graham the most out of all the Contemporary techniques.
Tonight at Yamulee I was full of emotions… At wanting to be Dominicana and hanging with this beautiful community and speaking Spanish. Then I felt a super wave of emotion at being in this incredible country, and this incredible opportunity to see all the connections in the dances, and in the trainings coming together. Finally, I watched one of the company members rehearsing a Bachata choreography with an all girl team. It was just beautiful, full of Yanvalous and finesse, and I felt a deep longing to be a part of the company.
On my home I began to get even more emotional realising I want to be here in NYC, and at the thought of my staying, that maybe this is my place… I just feel so alive… It has everything I love-from Latin dance, people, music (live!) to breaking. The communities all really know and care about what they do, and the American personality-however loud and brash, is just so much more nurturing, open to excellence, and a place I feel I can understand, be myself and not have to hold back for fear of being too different or too open.
I did quickly snap out of that though when I heard a guy shout ‘damn that booty’ on my way home, and the best yet once I was nearly home to my palace in the Bronx was ‘Can I give you a ride? I got petrol?’ 🙂 but did make me chuckle.
This morning I set an intention… To become a World Class Dance Company… And I felt the difference of that intention in class. I was more focused, more confident and more present… Because in letting go of the how, and in letting go of the worries I had chosen to focus on before-like I am bad, unflexible, not as good as everyone else, I could focus on getting good.
Today I put myself in the middle row more to the middle. And I gave the teacher permission to see me. There are so many complex layers to becoming the best dancer we can-performance and being seen being one of them. When we were made to go into two groups I felt so exposed at first-there is this want to be invisible, and then I remembered that if I am to be a performer I need to get used to being looked at too.
It is funny the difference that intention has given me-in noticing and enjoying life a whole lot more already in one day… Because the focus is outwards not inwards.
Today we danced two of my new favourite moves-the tilt-which since a slightly traumatic experience with Sharon Watson I have been focused on. Today we did versions of the tilt seated-which I would like to use in the EMC rep, a version with four kicks which turn into a rolling flour contraction-which I would also like to use, and a cartwheel holding tilt. And the butterfly- a fun and slightly ridiculous jump with Alvin Ailley arms which I am determined to master!
Tomorrow ,y goal is Focus based… I still have a bad habit of daydreaming, which means I miss important instructions. Tomorrow I challenge myself to let go of that!
Breaking class with Kwik. I was pretty nervous-because if I’m not 100% I feel shy and ashamed. It was great. A great class. He made me get over it because we threw down everything no forgiveness. Then we trained on the trampoline. I know I have so much potential to unleash this month!
Today I trained my toprock with Rokafella. I have been dancing shy… Showing my inner caterpillar instead of flexing my superhero wings… It feels really different. And now I’m fixing that I realise next I need to drill all my get downs because they are messy and half assed… So I have a long journey bit by bit. Tonight I am going to drill the freezes from Kwik, tops, my get downs and footwork, the swipes and swipe footwork, belly mills, and air freezes. Maybe that is enough for today…
Rok is a true leader. Incredible.
Tonight at training I sweated out my weight… I started with belly mills (Rok taught me), then a progression with footwork, then a whole combo. By the end I was already dripping. Then we worked on Swipes… Mine really need alot of work. I will try to work on them a little tomorrow. Then finally some footwork and recapping Kwik’s techs… It is really making a difference out here- proof that if I apply myself I can do it…
Today I want to think about why I won’t let myself belong… I like not getting to too involved in things. I have hid behind that for years. Avoiding closeness.
I took class… It was good… I am working on my focus, and on performing in class, and in being independant in knowing the choreo. At the end of class a said she liked my style, ‘Ive been watching you’. Im not sure if she meant my dancing or my clothing, but I decided to take it as dancing.
After that I went to a Rumba class. It was magical… I love Rumba and there were so many helpful moves in there for my Rumba piece. And a guy asked me to be in his piece and he is Haitian. So many interesting connections!
After that I went to watch the battle of some people from Full Circle who I am training with. They did great (First and second place).
Breaking day… I am still asking those questions about what is holding me back… I love breaking so much… So what is that little inner voice?
I trained everything I have so far, plus fixed my toprock some more. I also started trying to figure out how to get my invert handstand in, and the same my head to handstand. I am getting there… I am training the right way now… I am starting to understand and my heart explodes with love.
Graham class with an incredible woman in her 70s. Some of the best things she said; ‘be on beat’. ‘Leonard Davids one of the company dancers was hired when he fell over in class trying so hired-we need to go out of our comfort zone-every bone in your body reaching to feel it’.
‘Imagine you will have an audience of 3000 in 2yrs tine- they need to see every bone in your body reaching to be the best’.
‘The sound effects of the contraction’.
Yamulee class was cancelled which was frustrating, so I went to Salsa at Taj with live music… I was a bit nervous/rusty at first but I quickly began to fly.
I got some admin done then raced to class making it in the nick of time. Pleadings: today I realised how atrocious my contraction is. And in the 4th position on the floor I realised how much further I can go.
I love all the imagery the teacher gives: a wave, a cave which you retreat into frightened-everything has an image and a story to go with it! She talked about the life of a dancer, and asked why we werent dancing, she talks about risk and being off your axis. For me she is truly a great teacher… Today I felt like a beginner again… Wow!
After I went for a rehearsal in Central park with two Salseros and a Passista, before heading to breaking training… I worked hard today… My toprock is transformed- it feels so much better. I managed to get my spin down freeze in, plus worked on my belly mills and swipes. I’m gonna watch the video and practise today, plus tonight I wanna work more on the same, plus add something new of mine and windmill training to my pallate.
I know I can bridge all of these worlds. In my heart I am more salsera but I have the ability to be all… I am constantly evolving and growing and no two days are the same.
An amazing class… I actually cried at something to do with Pelvis connection.
The pitches are so hard but feel wonderful and the travelling combos. It is such a deep deep practise. In the evening I went to a training spot called Beast and there drilled things on the trampoline, then coin drops, then windmills.
I was so hungry after that and we went to eat, before heading to Brooklyn park… There I felt the cramps of exercise number 3 of the day and felt like giving up, but I remembered my goal and decided to push through. I just did a few belly mills, then my swipes-realising my weight is in the wrong place, then backspin to baby (really hard for me) and finally just kick from seated to baby… In many ways a disheartening night… Around me everyone was nailing their stuff and being mad creative… But I know I just gotta focus sometimes and this was one of them. I pulled my groin a little, cricked my neck, upper back, knee… But this was the moment of realising-I just have to break through… i have to get this stuff this summer… And it is time to give everything to breaking. And I met a rocker! Who I recognised from one of the videos I have been watching! And I am gonna train with him on Monday. I went home aching but happy…
I had a bit of a mad morning. I woke up super early with some brain waves about my piece… Then even though I had been up since 6am, I missed my train to Manhattan, and the next one was delayed by 40 minutes making me so late for class I decided to just watch… Which was great! Firstly because my body feels horrendous today, and secondly because I got to watch, make notes, and understand alot from watching.
I didnt feel like talking to anyone so I left in a hurry to Yamulee for class. I cried watching the teenagers dance… I guess I am in love with NYC, and Salsa. It is incredible. The shine section of class (I still hate this word) was really good, and then I learnt as a lead for the partner work, which was great for my brain to stay awake! I want to do that all month-it feels really good to lead. Now I am headed to watch Rokafella and Kwikstep perform. I am glad for the rest today.
Graham this morning was hard… My body is tired and achy. But I am getting it more… The complexity of the contraction, the depth I can work my body to. Some of my favourite things she said today:
‘The monkey king-reach to the mountains’.
‘Putting a story on to everything’
‘Leeches in the contractions’
‘Never stop-the movement ALWAYS continues’.
We went over the exercise I find hardest-I must practise it! And she corrected my heel. Sometimes I feel there is so much to learn I just want to give up. It is funny how that Yamulee teacher who must be maximum 16 is just so confident. Youth can do that to us!
The American openess and honesty to talk about things like that suits me alot. I feel I dont really suit the UK way. I did a show for Inno artists somewhere outside of NYC.
I spent an awesome day with Rokafella today… I performed at St Mary;s Park in the Bronx. And having someone believing in me, it happened… I danced, plus I threw down twice. I still have so much to learn but I loved it! Just awesome & so much soul!
Today I woke up buzzing! We went to watch Ladies of HipHop tech, and then to practise-I finally got headstand to baby!!! I was so whack at the uptown style I started to over think, but luckily moved to breaking. Then home and food and some crazy meetings and some salsa.
Today I went to learn Rocking! It was amazing!!! Then now Salsa… But I am sick… Quite sick…
I had an amazing sleep after salsa, and got up early to go the Stomp audition. Then I headed to New Jersey for an interview with ‘Rockin’ with you’ Radio. Next I headed to Macaren park to train some breaking with Brie-an important figure in the breaking scene. Finally, I went to a rehearsal for the show at Lincoln Centre. It was another incredible day. At night as I sat on the rooftop drinking beer, listening to the whir of a million air cons, I was blown away by how much of a consumer city it is. And again by everything that has happened in 16 days here. It is also a magic city.
To the Graham school! I think today will be hard because I have been away two days… But possible… I will channel naturally.
Rocking- it is hard… It is so complex. It is such a shame that I am burning myself out because I was on such a high… I really do need to get well… Am trying to think how to do that…
After Rocking I realised how tired I was. Then I hit up the back to the groove party which was great but again I was run down.
A wonderful class today so many break throughs and discoveries! I really feel I only just started using my pelvis for the first time today… I actually cried during the floor exercises at the overwhelming immense-ness of what I am doing, and the sense of achievement that I am finally doing it, at the amount of passion found when using your pelvis like that, and just the beauty… Then again later… Just a wonderful class… At the end I asked about my feet & realised I am putting my weight distribution wrong. After I went to meet a wonderful man called Assaf to talk abnout Contact dance, before going to watch Rokafella’s show. Again I am overtired and run down… I need a night of sleeep!!!
Today’s class was a challenge. I felt that my body is being dragged forwards but my mind is too fuzzy to join it. But I was determined and finally the jumping floorwork travel section brought me back to life. I had so much to think about in the foot exercises-so much I am not doing… At the end I asked about my memory and lack of confidence in knowing the exercises… I know my body has the facility but my mind is not able to tell it to do everything. I asked my teacher about how to remember. He said trust. Love yourself. Don’t hold onto the past. And only you know where you came from so seek only to do your best not the best for approval from someone else. Wow again I am reminded how great it is to be in my body!
Now to Rocking. After rocking which was awesome. I sweated so much… I feel I have not sweated… I have not worked hard… Really dedicated myself… I have had my foot half in… Now it is time to become the thing. It is happening.
After that, at practise the mood was tense. But I trained hard. I learnt about the real level of breaking too watching the break-boys train… So cool to see them. Im going to use standby space every day (3 days a week) in August.
A true tired day. I headed to Haitian dance class… And as expected I learnt the links, I got low, I worked hard. Haiti is kind of a hub of Caribbean… So many slaves passed through there first. Then I went to watch Fuerza Bruta, a show I have always wanted t see, before a disappointing night of noisy neighbours and still no rest.
Lincoln Centre show! And Salsa on the roof!
Today in class I had my contraction corrected. I was asked what my spirit animal is (I chose the spider), and we talked about sensuality and sexuality in dance. She said ‘let your legs connect to heart’ And I felt alive in everything and every body part.
At rocking some serious endorphins were released! I felt so hype after! Its starting to make sense now.
Finally I headed for a Salsa partyyy! At Taj… It was wonderful to implement everything in my salsa!
At Graham today I focused on release-I think it goes upppp and thats how you stay connected. I am improving in memory, and realising I have a great facility now Im nailing my basics. The pressing down of back heel in 4th-wow! I think I want to implement this in my company class.
I headed to the park to train-it was really special to chill and chat and vibe with people too.
This Graham teacher is immense. She focuses not on the best but on everyone. And those who want to learn.
I need to study:
Fours around the back
Exercise on 6 (the one on all fours).
As well as practise my contractions-a real contraction including ribs & no shoulders, releases-engaging my sitz bones, use of the back foot and heel, moving everything always from contraction, moving arms because of the back, focusing my spirit animal and a story for each exercise and intention… There is so much!
I took a salsa lesson with Yamulee today. It was awesome. Hardcore, special… And so natural to me (even though I have a lot to train!)
Oh my god! I feel like today I danced for the first time ever… Now I understand the drug of Modern dance… You are like a goddess floating in space when you dance to your full expanse your full potential… The vibrations are so much stronger and I felt alive in my eyes through to my ears, fingertips, back of head.
I have so much learning to do… But I am beginning the journey.
My questions had been about my neck-I felt I was crunching, and my pelvis when I travel-I feel I am squeezing too hard… She is right we can teach ourselves n the boy knows. But also the teacher helps. She also told me to stop looking in the mirror n I realised it is true I hold back! I look at everyone else, I never trust me!
Then my contraction-actually using the ribs too, not crunching in the neck, keeping it when I fold forwards. Then there is my arms- one is always dead… Keeping it on my back and listening to my back. I like that Martha says. I am arrogant but I know it. A bit of arrogance is ok. I need more. I am really not sure where I was hiding. I was not present-not seeing life fully… It is strange…
Exercise 1: contract release 8,4,2,1 then contract forwards high release contract high release, then up abd over 8 counts to legs crossed rises on 2s, 4s, then the pleading rite of spring flat back, around to sit with cross legs, release to rise contract back, reach back switch back flat back, rite of spring pleading to other side, flat back, release over to contract high rise
Exercise 2- feet together, hands on ankles- contract over, flat back return, to l, to r, change to 2nd, feet together, then legs crossed to do twists on 2s, 4s with high rise, the contraction one? Or arms open to switch?
Exercise 3- in 2nd contract then arms in diamond then v reaches sides, forwards, high rise.
Exercise 4- turns on the back
Exercise 5- things in 4th (practise n fix hands)
Exercise 6-Into pleading down, on 2s, 3s, 6 with twist up to knee, back down 9. 3 up to other side
At rocking we worked on freestyle, then coming forward to jerks with burns-adding own ones, turn switch round down.
Today I learnt to take notes les, and commit my thoughts more and practice more. I need to open my arms forward more, work on my full contraction, and the weight distribution as I drag my back foot in. Graham was emotional. I felt a bit moody… And quite assertive and empowered about what I don’t want to put up with. I like being all sides not just nice. The teacher is just so empowering. And helped me to take control of my dance.
After I went to practise… We started with tops… I know mine is looking good now! And then we did some free styling full, then I started my swipes n Kwikstep showed me bronkos: it was so hard! I was dripping! Then after those we did CC’s with the leg hitting high, then I started my head to baby, kick to baby…, it is there-like a real strong glimmer… I will have it soon… And I am bgirl. There are things not in my personality too… But I can make up for that with great technique, charisma and studying the music and culture a little a day.
After, at Salsa I used everything-graham, bboying, me, samba, afro cuban to dance the best. I think I was one of if not the best female dancer there. Not
Eversince forever people have been confused about my identity. And so have I.
It wasn’t until I was about 7 that I thought to ask how it was that my Mum, who was evidently black or mixed race, had two white parents, and all white siblings.
It must have been so tough. The only black person in an all white family, the only black person in an all white estate in Leeds, the only black person in school, on the bus, on the athletics team, at church… The list goes on. My Mum was also the only person in her family to get into grammar school, and to go to university- where she promptly rid herself of her Leeds accent and never looked back.
At around 8, I became aware that I looked a little too light skinned to really be my Mums daughter, and experienced my first depression about identity. Thereafter, I was confused when, growing up in a small down in Southern England, my friends would colour me in with the brown pencil, or a boy in my class called me nigger. I definitely didn’t identify myself as white, because I knew I was different, and my Mum had explained that I would be called a quadroon back in the days of slavery and still would be a slave… I also knew my skin colour really was not black… Or brown… Or coffee… It was just about blue in the winter… My sister on the other hand was much darker skinned than me, a beautiful cinnamon by winter and her tan was just perfect. I was jealous of this-because she knew 100% that she belonged, she was a bit of both our parents. And she was beautiful!
So what was I? We grew up thinking it was Dominican ancestry… That our Mum’s Dad was from Dominica. But we didn’t know more than that. When people asked, I would tell them that. My Mum had never been taught anything about her roots and so she made sure that we would learn very broadly about everything she had missed out on. We had Anansie the spider man, we had black dolls to play with, we had yams, sweet potatoes, plantain (all took some time to get the cooking just right). Aged 12 we took our first flight to the Caribbean, to Barbados, where we had braids, and hung out with family friends. It was a really positive experience and I never once thought about race whilst I was there.
So what did this make me? What was I? Growing up in Kent, all my friends were white… I knew not to talk about race with them. My first friend at secondary school was the only other non white person in my class, an Indian girl called Leyla. I think my family did a great job to ensure me and my sister weren’t racist, despite living in such a small town place.
Moving to Bristol, I was surprised by the different friendship groups-the chavs (including the black people), the Middle class white people, the Asian people, the geeks… On my first week a girl asked who I thought was hot and I pointed out Jayed an Indian boy, to which she suggested I should look in a different group of boys because they were ‘sad’. Later I watched a girl be so badly bullied because she was wearing doc Martin boots (I loved Doc Martin boots)! I think this was the next time I really experienced a feeling of depression in my life. I had come from such an innocent small town place and I had avoided all sorts of social stereotypes (or so I thought). But here, it felt like any expression of individuality, any difference was a reason to become an outcast. I never mentioned my family background to anyone, though it was evident in my frizzy hair which I had not yet learnt to manage, but my tanned body was spotted by a girl called Gemma as I got ready for a PE class, and she started screaming ‘she’s quarter cast’ to everyone. I had never heard that word before but to me it sounded ominous.
School as it turned out was a pretty depressing experience of bitchy girls and trying to blend in. It was so wonderful for me though when I discovered Latin music. This all started because a school friend Alice’s dad met a brazilian woman and brought her to live in the UK. Alice gave me a cd of axe music which I loved so much more than Radiohead, and I would secretly listen to it on repeat. Then she took me to my first Latin night. I didn’t understand why anyone would want to wear the tiny samba costume a dancer performed in, but I loved the night, and the salsa class, and I began to look for salsa tracks too to add to my Axe collection. I was even given a salsa class along with a friend to teach younger students at my school.
I decided to study Spanish for GCSE even though I hadn’t learnt it before, and for A Level we began to learn about Mexico and human rights in South America, and go to talks about Chile and I began to discover a world which fascinated me, and so I travelled to SA on my gap year. So privileged and so young, I think this really only scratched the surface of my Spanish capacity, my learning about this magnificent continent… But it definitely sparked something. And my first time in Brazil, I remember saying to my boyfriend at the time ‘I have a feeling I would really like it here if I stayed longer.’
So why is this linked to my latest trip to Brazil? I suppose Brazil links to my perception of self. For me, at least in the beginning, Brazil was all about that. The next time I came to Brazil it was like a coming alive, a burst of energy, the birth of a butterfly. Somehow this country so full of energy just swept me up and made me feel more at home than I ever had in the UK. What was that? Perhaps the ease of self expression? Perhaps the difference I felt in myself speaking another language? I put it down to my feeling I fitted here. I saw so many reflections of myself everyday for the first time, and that was such a positive experience. Brazil is everything everyone is mixed and everyone looks like me and I like everyone else.
It’s not that before that I hadn’t felt comfortable in the skin that I’m in, but I had always felt somehow other, and somehow that didn’t feel positive. I had discovered by now the Latin dance scene, having moved from Bristol to Leeds university where the Latin a dance scene was vibrant. That was where I was beginning to make my home, but there in Brazil, it was like I blossomed somehow to the real me… Which was why it was so wonderful to latecreate my company name (Ella Mesma Company) (the real me) based on my Brazilian appelido.
But my fear is In when and where the line blurs… When do I become an outsider here in Brazil? Or There at home?
I fit here but I’m not from here. I fit there but I’m not from there…this feeling of not fitting anywhere perhaps will follow me forever if I allow it… Do I really understand? Is this all through rose tinted glasses, my ‘privilege’ of being western? Do I idealise this country so that it’s no longer a reality? Do I have a right to even be here? To consider myself mixed if I’m only a quadroon and am so light skinned? To consider myself anything other than an English girl? To want different things? To learn these dances? To love this country?
After that trip, I took my first paid Samba gig… I had spent the previous summer training with Militsa-a beautiful Serbian girl based in Bristol who danced Samba. She was so delighted when I came back from Brazil with a fierce samba, my new costume, confidence and tan. And I was so happy to be dancing this dance that I loved.