Editors Note: In the most recent print edition of the Herald, a caption under one of the photos in this article described Professor Kelly Johnson as “showcasing a traditional dance.” The caption has since been changed for the website. The Herald apologizes for this poor word choice in our print edition.
Can you tell me about your background as a dancer and teacher?
“I started dancing in the womb—we’re all dancing then. But I started classes at 4. I danced through high school, jazz and tap primarily, though I didn’t know at the time that those are dances of the African Diaspora. It wasn’t presented to me like that. I found every way I could possibly get involved in dance. I went to Suny Brockport from ’99-03 and I have a BFA in dance performance and technique. So, I studied all of the things they asked, which was ballet and modern, and in my sophomore year I heard drums coming from down the hallway—and I truly heard them before I saw them. I was curious and I walked down the hallway and saw this group of people dancing and drumming. I enrolled, and from there I began studying with the most amazing guests brought in from all over the world for the Sankofa African Dance and Drum Ensemble, which was under the direction of Clyde Morgan and Khalid Saleem. They were my dance fathers for sure.
At the same time, I decided that I needed to study with Chris Walker, who eventually became my mentor. He actually used to teach at HWS and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin Madison. So I took all of his classes and I said to him, I need to go where you learned to dance, and he said go to Jamaica. I went to Jamaica to meet his teachers and work with the members of the National Dance Theater Company of Jamaica. And it was then that I realized that this was going to be the beginning of the rest of my life.
I knew that the movement was so transformative, and the communities were so transformative in terms of acceptance, honoring your history, and honoring your lineage and the legacies of these dances. And I knew that they weren’t my dances, so that made me even more curious about them and about how to understand my role and experience in them, let alone teaching and creating with that information.
After I finished undergrad I moved down to NYC to give that a try, as lots of dancers and young people do. I started dancing with a Haitian company down there with a gentleman named Peniel Guerrier and we had a ball. I was the only English speaker in the company. I learned a lot during those years. A few years later, I went back to Brockport for grad school, knowing that they had such a great reputation with diasporic dance. I really didn’t want to go where I’d already been, but I knew I was different and grad school was different.
Back as a Sankofa dancer, I was asked to choreograph for the company and invited to be the rehearsal director for guest artist residencies. I got to work with some amazing artists and musicians during that time in my life.
When I started teaching here at HWS in 2010, they had me teaching classes like intro dance. But because I’m a diasporic dancer, I would always teach my students dances from a variety of diasporic communities. Now it’s 2023 and I have been studying and performing with Company Atebayilla based out of Rochester NY for the last several years under the direction of Mohamed Diaby. I have had the opportunity to study with him on his porch in Guinea, West Africa, so . . . yeah, continuing always. Actually, the Dance Department has brought Mohamed in for the last several years. It’s awesome to be able to introduce my students to my teachers.
Sankofa is under new direction now. I continue to be invited back to teach and set work on the ensemble. I will always say yes.”
Can you tell me a bit about your teaching pedagogy?
“I’m a reflection of my teachers, what they gave me and what they shared with me. And what they didn’t give or share with me, I had to carve out on my own. That’s my responsibility. I didn’t have a teacher like myself. I didn’t have a white example, so I am trying to be that example, I suppose. I’ve been taught by members of African, Caribbean and Black diasporic communities—they’re my teachers. So, I am going to center their experiences. They’re the ones who taught me of their lived experiences, how they see the world, and how the world sees them. As a student, as someone who sits at their feet, I’ve been a guest to their opinions and views, which continue shape my opinions and views. So there has to be this advocacy and there has to be this embodied activism. Otherwise we’re not doing it right. And my teachers were so confident and unapologetic in sharing what they knew that the ‘activism piece’ was embedded in the simple, yet not so simple, fact that they were teaching content that was historically misunderstood and devalued.
Another part of my pedagogy is to honor the past, and in doing so, to learn to navigate the present and let that affect the future. And that’s an African principle in itself; Sankofa means to go back and fetch it, to look back in order to look forward. My biggest thing is to get students to see dance as a way that people communicate with each other. Also, that what they think they know about dance might not be accurate. And pedagogically, I teach the way I teach not because I’m trying to be African or because I’m trying to be a Black person. That is impossible. I teach the way I teach precisely because I’m a white American woman. And I know where my privilege shows up, and I’m gonna try to work with it in a way that promotes advocacy.”
What are your intentions behind your Intro to Dances of the African Diaspora class? What do you hope that students get out of it?
“I want students to leave with the ability to embody African Diasporic dances. Sure! But that’s actually not the most important thing. I want them to understand themselves better through their bodies. I want them to leave appreciating the bodies and choices of others. I hope they leave feeling in touch with their lineage and the people they haven’t even met yet.
I hope that students feel satisfied and proud of their bodies as a result of studying diasporic forms.
I also hope that students feel unsatisfied and mad enough to do something about it, whatever ‘it’ is. Whether it’s body dysmorphia, racism, or the countless gaps in humanity, maybe they decide to volunteer because this class taught them about community? Yeah, I hope they’re pissed off—well inspired sounds more positive—haha but for real, inspired to dig into their own areas of interest as young dance activists and able to say, ‘this class taught me dance and beyond.’
I hope that the students can see that they can learn from other people, people they might think they have nothing to gain from hanging out with. I hope they feel they can learn not about people but from people.”
Can you tell me about some of the choices you made in designing that course?
“I know that everybody is different. Our bodies and brains and eyes are different. We are all different people and will come to this information differently. So I use a holistic and three dimensional approach to learning. We are gonna physicalize it, read about it, write about it, create the stuff ourselves, and perform it for each other, and I do that because I am hoping that somewhere along the way, something sticks. I think that writing and talking helps us in understanding our thoughts—they are inroads for knowing, not just busywork.
And because this is a diaspora, for everything to come solely from me would be irresponsible. From my body, my mouth, my brain, is irresponsible, especially when you’re trying to represent such diversity of dance. So I like for students to have the opportunity to listen to the voices of other educators and scholars, and that shows up in the things we read or the guests we have. They get to sit with that person’s thoughts for a second and respond to their own thoughts when they write or discuss, just like the call and response from the drums.”
How do you see the distinction between appropriation and appreciation?
“Appreciation and appropriation have to do with education and have to do with consumption. I think about eating a lot when I see what we would call appropriation. I feel like someone ate that culture and consumed it and it feels like theft. It feels like ‘I hope no one knows that this is really not authentic’—and that word is tricky too. I am glad we talk so much about it in class.
To me, appreciation involves education, and it has got to involve acceptance by the particular community that you are working with or representing. If you haven’t gotten that blessing you are really walking a dangerous line. And your education has to keep going—it’s not cool to stop studying because people change and the dances change. And in this particular context there is such a history of devouring and consuming Black culture. I don’t think that most people realize just how much belongs to Black culture, like American culture, for example.”
How does movement build community, in your opinion?
“When you share movement with someone else, it happens and it’s an occurrence. And when people do it together it affirms that this is happening. When people move together, they say I see you here, I validate you, and I’m gonna build with you. And it doesn’t mean that we need to all be the same because chances are, that’s not how it goes, but we DO need to be harmonious.
Collective communal dances mobilize . . . as a means for change to provide solidarity, to grieve, to celebrate, or to pass things on. Diasporic communities create their own language and their own reality through dance. People moving together feels like the present and feels like it might hint at the future. And I think when it comes to class, I know most of the students are sitting at desks all day. And I think being able to open their eyes a little, to actually look around and see that there are more people in here than just you, is humbling.”
How do you see the relationship between dance, social action, and protest?
“Bodies communicate things. I think when it comes to the activism piece, dance and social action are sisters. I will always try to make a political statement with my work, whether the audience gets it or not. The body is an archive of lived experiences and so if we are going to dance, then those things are going to show up.
And I think as far as activism, many people together are intimidating. Protests work because there’s not one person there—many people together can make change happen. When it comes to physicalizing protests, or having a protest in the heart or mind, communities have done that for centuries and they’ve used movement as a thread.”
Can you tell me about how you teach antiracism through Diasporic Dance?
“Again, I think it’s about centering. My teachers did that unapologetically and I think it’s about centering that if you’re going to learn this, you’re going to wear this and I’m going to need you to do it this way. It’s about Afrocentrism—it is literally about putting that information in the middle and up high—not compared to another, but as its own thing of value. And this centering is not optional or elective, it’s modeling what it looks like to dismantle some of the ideas folks might have about what African-based dance is, what it looks like, how it breathes, etc. There are threads of antiracism throughout that entire experience; you are acting as an advocate by embodying something that people around the globe say is not even worth experiencing. It’s about deconstructing, recentering and listening.”