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Embodying Black Feminist Theory in Dance

Black feminist theory is a powerful framework that examines the intersecting experiences of race, gender and class, with a focus on the unique challenges faced by Black women. In the realm of dance and the arts, embodying Black feminist theory becomes a transformative practice, enabling artists to challenge societal norms, deconstruct stereotypes, and celebrate Black womanhood. This article explores the ways in which Black feminist theory is expressed through movement, visual arts, performance art and choreography, highlighting the impact it has on both individual artists and the broader community.

The Roots of Black Feminist Theory

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To understand the significance of embodying Black feminist theory in dance and the arts, it is essential to explore its historical roots. Emerging in the late 20th century, Black feminist theory was shaped by the activism and scholarship of influential figures such as Audre Lorde, Gloria Jean Watkins AKA bell hooks, and Patricia Hill Collins. These trailblazing thinkers analyzed the intersecting oppressions faced by Black women, challenging the dominant narratives of feminism that often excluded or marginalized their experiences. Their work paved the way for a more inclusive and intersectional understanding of feminism.

“Black feminism is an umbrella term that describes a range of social, political practices and theories that are historically rooted in and extrapolated from the experiences of Black women.”Chelsea Mikael Frazier, Ph.D., Black feminist ecocritic and founder of Ask an Amazon

Embodying Black Feminist Theory in Dance

Dance Department "Meet Me on the Porch"Embodying Black feminist theory through dance involves a multifaceted approach that empowers artists to reclaim their bodies and narratives. Intersectionality plays a crucial role, as Black women dancers often navigate the intersections of race, gender and class. By centering their experiences, they challenge Eurocentric beauty standards and celebrate the diversity of Black womanhood through their movements. This embodiment serves as a powerful act of resistance—disrupting these dominant, eurocentric narratives and reclaiming agency.

As a part of Spelman’s Department of Dance Performance and Choreography, students study the works of foundational Black feminist activists such as Lorde and hooks. These works are then dissected, analyzed and interpreted through movement:

“We emphasize Black feminist theory because we want our students to be well informed about their identities and have an anchor about who they are as women of the African Diaspora. It is our hope our students craft works that offer different perspectives and express the multiplicity of their stories.”T. Lang, M.F.A., Spelman, Associate Professor, Dance Performance and Choreography Department

Choreographers who embrace Black feminist theory infuse their work with African diasporic movement aesthetics, exploring themes of identity, sexuality and spirituality. They reject narrow definitions of dance and expand the boundaries of movement, creating choreographies that are rooted in their lived experiences. Collaboration and community-building are also central to their practices, as they seek to create inclusive spaces that celebrate the diversity of bodies and experiences.

One such example of Black feminist theory infused in dance was a project led by Julie B. Johnson, Ph.D., Chair of Dance & Performance Choreography and Assistant Professor. Her project, “Idle Crimes & Heavy Work,” a collaborative dance-based multimedia initiative exploring Black women's experiences of racial and gendered violence, resistance and restoration, within the history of incarceration and convict labor in Georgia, explores these themes. The video installation entitled “Visitation” – as a part of this project – was staged as a prison visitation in Grant Park, Atlanta and contemplates embodied memory, place and the impact of Black women’s incarcerated labor on the lives of all Georgia residents.

The roots of Black feminist theory in dance run deep at Spelman. The Dance Theatre’s spring 2023 concert was centered around the theme: “What is your Black?” The concert curated works that uplifted the resiliency of Blackness and the many forms in which it presents. The concert was a celebration of Blackness, and the diversity of each community that resides within such as Black women, Black queerness, Black art and Black legacy.

 

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Dance Performance & Choreography Department
350 Spelman Lane, Box 1499
Atlanta, Georgia 30314-4399
404-270-5471
Mhawkin2@spelman.edu

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