Samba: Resistance in Motion by Barbara Browning
In the summer of 1984, I was returning to New York after having spent one year on a Fulbright grant in Salvador, Bahia. Though my grant had been to research popular poetry, during my time there I was completely taken by the dance I encountered, and in truth I spent most of that year taking classes in capoeira and “dança afro.” Back in New York, I was staying with a former boyfriend in Alphabet City, which at the time had a vibe of simultaneous risk and festivity not entirely unlike what I’d felt in Pelourinho, the old city center of Salvador. (Both neighborhoods have been pretty radically transformed since then.) But despite the back-beat and creative response to precarity on Avenue A, I was badly missing the particular rhythms, smells and colors of Salvador. And my body was yearning to move to those rhythms.
I called the Brazilian consulate to ask if there were anyone teaching Afro-Brazilian dance in the city and was immediately referred to Loremil, and given the address of the Clark Center. I went there as soon as I could, and as soon as I walked into the studio, I felt like I’d been transported directly back to Salvador. It was clear that I wasn’t the only one seeking to recreate a sense, for the time we were in that space together, of being in that other gritty and gorgeous metropolis. The drummers were a mix of homesick Bahians and non-Brazilians who either yearned, like me, to get back to Brazil, or who still hadn’t been there but found a home in its rhythms. The dancers were beautifully diverse – not just in nationality or ethnicity but also age, gender, sexuality, and “skill,” which in truth was less a question of physical prowess than of being able to find a home in the rhythms that pounded through the space.
I believe that I saw M’bewe Escobar at that first class, and was mesmerized by her samba – though she’d learned it, apparently, in that very room, nearly five thousand miles from its point of origin.
And of course, at the front of the room, creating all of that, holding together our collective desire to be in that magical place, was Loremil. It’s very difficult to communicate the energy he managed to work up, somehow infusing everyone in the space – drummers and dancers alike – with a kind of commitment to the rhythm that was both focused (agile, sharp, precise) and authentically joyous. When he led us across the floor to the Agere rhythm of Oxossi, the orixá of the hunt, his elbow would jerk back with perfect specificity, and his pivot had both grace and exactitude. But his samba de caboclo was a whirl of pure brio. How could anyone in that room not fall in love – with those dances, or with the man who gave them to us with so much generosity and pleasure?
Some time later I began to understand that both Loremil and his fellow Bahian Jelon Vieira had been bringing the moves and rhythms of their home not only to students at the Clark Center, but also sometimes into the public schools of New York City, and I am quite certain that their larger presence in the city inflected many of the ways that dance developed here, including break dance. It’s very difficult to give precise lineages of the ways that dance vocabularies are communicated and travel, but there’s no doubt that Loremil and Jelon profoundly impacted dance history in ways that may never be fully documented or quantified. But for those of us who encountered Loremil in the studios of the Clark Center, the trace and the impact was profound – for many of us, life-changing – and impossible to forget.
Indiana University Press, 1995
Original from the University of Michigan
Digitized Apr 23, 2010
Our Direct Line to Asadata Dafora and Jacob’s Pillow
by Ramona Candy
One day in the mid-seventies, during a Brooklyn rehearsal, Charles Moore introduced to the company, two men who would be our teachers for the next six months. Mickey Newby and Zebedee Collins, original dancers with Asadata Dafora, would be teachers, guides and no-nonsense drill sergeants in the technique of Mr. Dafora. From then, rehearsals for the Charles Moore Dance Theater (then known as Dances and Drums of Africa) turned into hours of learning technique and repeating, repeating, repeating endless isolations – shoulders, elbows, neck, hips. I especially remember the wrists – oh, the wrists! That was long ago and as excited as we were about learning new dances, when we found ourselves repeating all those tiny movements, we might have begun to whine among ourselves. But what did we know? We’d never heard of Asadata Dafora. He was important, but why? What was Kykunkor? Why were we spending so much time on these isolations? All was soon to be answered by our fearless leader Charles. Because he was faithful in and dedicated to his love for authentic African dance, Charles brought in, and taught us work that manifested its authenticity in repertoire, technique, costuming and storytelling — and the work of Asadata Dafora was the most authentic and historical work we’d done up to that point. Learning about this man from Sierra Leone, his life and his work was a once in a lifetime experience. Eventually Charles’ young company understood and came to appreciate the significance. The joy and vitality of “Bell Dance”, the elegant storytelling of “Bundao” (Maiden’s Stick Dance), the strength and power of “Spear Dance”, the magnificence and rippling arms of “Allunde” and many other dances, including “Awassa Astrige” (The Ostrich Dance) as only Charles could perform it, became part of our signature. Thank you to Mickey, Zebedee, and to ancestors Charles and Asadata Dafora. What a legacy! And if I might speak for the dancers whose wrists remember – oh the wrists! — and who performed Asadata Dafora at Jacob’s Pillow in 1978, we are honored to have a place in it.
Donald McKayle, A Great Man, by Loris Anthony Beckles
Donald McKayle, one of the giants of the dance world, is documented in books and video, etc. These are my own “memory snapshots” of him.
When I started dancing at 16, I borrowed every book I could lay my hands on. True, I mostly read headlines, chapter headings and captions. But I had encountered Donald McKayle there!
The first work I remember seeing in the theater was Games. Also, there would have been District Storyville and Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (though I can’t recall exactly whether it was before or after).
I remember seeing Games when I was in Syracuse Ballet Theatre (1975-1977). The Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble (AARE) had come to town, and I recognized Clayton Palmer as Sissy Boy in Games. And then, when I was in AARE later, I did that part! It was a wonderful experience learning the dance from Sylvia Waters and Mary Barnett, who had danced in an earlier cast and referred to him as Donny. Among the casts I danced with were Jeffery Ferguson and Diane Maroney as the singers, Renée Robinson, Rodney Nugent, Jasmine Guy, Charles Epps, Paula Brown … Rodney was Jinx, Renee as Big Sis; Charles “Chucky” Epps was Poor Little Johnny; Carl Fields was one of the boys in the race … I remember Jasmine – “go around the corner, and lick. It. Up!!”
One day we were rehearsing for [either Emperor Jones or Vever, I can’t remember exactly which] up in one of the Minskoff Studios (1515 Broadway, NYC) and the costume designer showed up in one dark brown and one dark blue knee-high! Of course, all the dancers noticed and were whispering and snickering among themselves. Donald to the rescue! “ Stia, you’re wearing different colored stockings!” We all laughed, including Stia. Donald effectively defused the situation and channeled our focus into the actual business at hand. That was one of the moments I learned leadership from him.
In 1982, Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones was presented by American Music Theatre Festival. Donald McKayle directed and choreographed it. Cleavon Little made quite an impression visually, though I never learned his lines; it was a line that was said by [another character] as he led Cleavon into the jungle: “Let’s ave a look, Arry me lad”
There was a score by Coleridge Taylor “Perk” Perkinson, the composer and conductor; Miriam Burton and Elaine Beener singing; Warren Smith the drummer, Eli Fountain. The legendary Charles “Charlie” Moore as the Houngan. I do not remember the performances right now, but there was a theater rehearsal at SUNY Purchase. AARE was engaged as dancers in chorus and assorted non-speaking roles. I was the person in jail, reading dice. The only other dancer I remember in that production was Pat Jacobs Macdonald, but of course there were others …!
For some performances, the music was faster than others; one day, a whole repeat was missing! It was always a great, though treacherous, experience working with live music with jazz musicians. Later, after the performances in Philadelphia PA, Donald would extract the dances [from Emperor Jones] and create Vever for AARE, with Desiree Sewer-Vlad as the High Priestess, Michael Joy as the emperor, and myself as The Houngan, (Witch Doctor), the role Charlie had done. One of my costumes was an amazing (and amazingly simple) skirt of ties. Some of us (dancers) were engaged to use their muscle memory to set tempos during the recording of the music at a studio in Manhattan.
1984: Then there was Collage with music by L. Subramaniam and costumes by Lea Vivante, which premiered in Kansas City MO at the same season as my Anjour, which was a solo for Dudley Williams.
It seems like the next time I saw Donald was at the IABD in San Diego CA 2001. Of course, It was great to see him. And his company from University of California at Irvine (UCI) performed one of his newer works.
Later, when Donald was at UCI, I emailed him asking his suggestions on a title of a collection of reviews of Black Dance that I was assembling. His suggestion was Footprints of Erzulie, a much more sage and colorful title than the one I had come up with.
Probably the last time we saw each other was at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual arts in Dallas TX. He was working with the dancers there, and I stopped in to say hello. I hope our paths will cross again. I did get a glimpse of him, via his work, when Southern Methodist University (SMU) presented an evening dedicated to African-American Choreographers. It featured work by Alvin Ailey, Eleo Pomare and Donald McKayle.
I continue to be fond of and respectful of this great man!
Memories of Jimmy Truitte
I remember Jimmy as a tall and elegant man. He wore multiple rings, and a gold chain around his neck. I met him first in Brooklyn — it was about 1963, and I was 14 years old. My dance teacher, Marjorie Mazia, invited Jimmy to her studio in Sheepshead Bay to teach a workshop for her older students. Ms Mazia’s classes were based in Graham Technique. She had danced with the Graham Company and went on to own and direct a very successful studio, where she taught young children and teens with love and care. I must have been in high school when Jimmy arrived at Ms Marjorie’s. I was quickly smitten with this statuesque, well-manicured man who moved with such dignity and grace.
My crush on Jimmy lasted several years. When I learned that he was teaching at the Clark Center, I made the trek to Manhattan and began to take classes with him there. I continued studying with him throughout my college career. I remember sitting close to the door of my Anthropology class at Barnard College, ready to spring at the sound of the bell so that I could make the train that would get me downtown and to Jimmy’s morning technique class on time.
Jimmy was a firm and encouraging teacher, with high expectations and a sense of humor. Several memories spring to mind as I think back to my classes with him.
I recall how he touched my outstretched hand as I performed the Horton lateral stretch series. His two large hands enclosed my own, lengthening my fingers and encouraging me to soften the tension I carried there.
The Horton Technique is a demanding one, requiring flexibility and strength especially of the torso, hamstrings and adductors of the hip. In much of the warm-up the torso is held extended, bending and twisting off of the vertical axis at the hip joint. We learned several studies designed to increase the dancer’s range, including Deep Floor Vocabulary and Dimensional Tonus. I remember a particularly challenging “adductor moment” in Dimensional Tonus in which the dancer is required to descend into a split, to stop abruptly, hovering several inches from the ground, and then continue to a full split on the floor.
I remember the day that Jimmy taught us a section of The Beloved, a duet choreographed by Lester Horton in which Jimmy had performed. He spoke of the dramatic motivation that had inspired the choreography, and I became totally immersed in the story as I danced. When the phrase came to an end, I was surprised to find myself back in the studio, so far away had my imagination taken me.
I remember Jimmy saying longingly, “If I only knew as a young dancer what I know today.” It was only years later that I began to appreciate the irony that, as dancers, we accumulate knowledge at the same time that our bodies succumb to the stresses of our dancing lives. Life would surely be more fair if we understood these subtleties when our bodies were in their prime.
I remember Jimmy’s accompanist, whose name, I regret to say, escapes me. He was a fine pianist who kept a New Yorker on his music stand, which he read as he played for us. Miraculously, he never missed a beat, though sometimes, much to our amusement, he continued to play after the exercise was over, so engrossed was he in his reading material.
I remember the thrill of seeing Judith Jamison in person when one day she appeared in Jimmy’s class. She was a goddess in my eyes, and yet, there she was, taking class with the rest of us, decidedly human by all accounts. Perhaps this was the richness of Clark Center. It was a gathering place – an energetic and vibrant community – where aspiring young dancers had the opportunity to meet and work with a range of professional teachers and artists, and then to see those same artists performing in the major dance venues of New York City. What could be more inspiring?
I left New York in 1970. At about the same time, Jimmy joined the faculty at the University of Cincinnati’s Conservatory of Music. I remember him with fondness and gratitude, and consider him a major influence in my growth and training as a young dancer.
University of Colorado/Boulder
Department of Theatre and Dance
Brooklyn Wasn’t Enough, but Clark Center Was
It was Marty Tanzer. And Alvin Ailey. Both of them are responsible. Otherwise, I might still be an elementary school teacher in Brooklyn.
Marty and I lived in the same Park Slope brownstone, and there we were at this party — every night was a party in 1966 – with Tanzer freestyle dancing in front of where I was sitting. I myself, the son of a fine social dancer and noted drugstore cowboy who occasionally would take a shot at teaching me a simple box step, did not dance. Whatever it was that made it so, I just didn’t. Except of course for high school and the “fish,” a slow naughty number never seen on American Bandstand that allowed me to stand in one place pressed up against a young woman, swaying a bit to pretend I was actually dancing and not doing something more perverse.
Nothing convinced me that dancing was something that I could enjoy in manifestations other than appeasing my youthful hormones. Until Marty Tanzer, that is. So there he was noodling around to music, and there I was, slightly stoned I’m sure – and came the epiphany. The heavens opened, the major deity who lived there pointed a finger at me, and said, “you can do that!”
And I did. For several months each day after teaching school I would put on music and dance for hours. I began to know things about me and my body that heretofore had been a mystery to us both. My public debut as a performer was at a party at Terry Babbs’ house. She and I danced together, but not really, as in those days “together” meant in general proximity to each other with me every now and then acknowledging her presence with a slight move in her direction, a nod here, a shake there, but otherwise alone in my reverie. Anyway, when the music stopped the floor had cleared except for the two of us, just like in the movies, and people applauded. Applauded!!! I was hooked.
Jeannie Lieberman, a college friend who studied dance told me I might like to take some ballet to be more serious about the terpsichorean art. She suggested the adult classes at the Joffrey School on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Eagerly I enrolled and was assigned to buy a pair of tights, ballet slippers and a leotard. Oh yeah, and a dance belt.
Could there ever be a more alien experience for a boy from Brooklyn than to first don a dance belt. It was, for those never privileged to experience one, a device that Torquemada, he of the Spanish Inquisition, would have been proud to inflict on the private parts of any male non-believer. Ask any former ballet dancer over the age of sixty and he’ll fill you in.
And what was with the little pieces of elastic that came in the Capezio box with the ballet slippers? For years I just threw them away and tied those little strings on the top of the shoes as tight as possible, and for just as long the back of the slippers invariably slid off my feet. It wasn’t until I was at Mia Slavenska’s barre in Los Angeles and happened to glance at the slippers on Muffy Schwab’s feet, the least glorious part of her anatomy, that I had another epiphany. Oh, THAT was what those little pieces of elastic were for!
Anyway, the Joffrey School was too much an extra-terrestrial experience for me, and someone said why not try some modern dance classes at the New Dance Group. It was there I fell deeply, madly, totally in love. I even remember the exact moment in time when I realized why I had been placed on this earth. Yet another epiphany!
I began to attend as many dance performances as possible, and fortunately the Brooklyn Academy of Music, under the revitalizing leadership of Harvey Lichtenstein, had become the center for dance performance in the city, with several major American dance companies doing their seasons at “BAM.” I saw Paul Taylor, the debut of Eliot Feld’s American Ballet Company, Ballet Theater, Martha Graham (with the Goddess herself in one of her last stage performances), and the real knockout, the one that floored me, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
So enamored was I with that first sight of the Ailey company, that immediately afterwards I ran backstage to see The Man himself. In these days of TSA and a secure America, this would not likely be possible, but in another time I quickly found Mr. Ailey in a tiny costume room standing behind an ironing board, if memory serves.
It was the first of a number of encounters and chats we would have over the coming months, but the result of this first meeting was that Alvin, whose company had found a home at BAM, was starting a dance school for young people at the nearby Hansen Place Methodist Church, and would I, a teacher, like to help him out. Would I like to help him out? Would I like to help him out?? Was there ever a dog who leaped faster towards a juicy bone, than I for that luscious offer Alvin Ailey proposed that long ago night in Brooklyn?
I tried to be a good volunteer, but star-struck as I was I would too often sneak into company rehearsals, talk to the dancers, and otherwise hang out rather than helping out. I began to also sniff around the newly resurgent Brooklyn Academy of Music, cadging comps to performances, and otherwise making a persistent and inquisitive pest of myself.
Soon, however, I got to know two wonderful people, Ivy Clark, the executive director, and Wade Williams, her associate, who ran the administrative aspect of the Ailey company. I began to assist them in their BAM offices, and it was Ivy, I believe, who told me that a place called Clark Center for the Performing Arts was looking for an assistant to the director. I hadn’t a clue what this place was, but if Ivy said to apply, and that Alvin had some sort of history with it, then who was I to question her generosity.
I had been raised as a second generation Jewish-American in a family where two or three different languages were spoken, but my broader non-Jewish world extended only as far the many Italian kids, and fewer Irish, who attended school with me, or lived in the several neighborhoods of my youth.
I had no contact with people of color until I began to teach school. My colleagues were overwhelmingly white, but the students were a blend of African-Americans, most first and second generation kids from various Caribbean islands, a few of Puerto Rican heritage, and a smattering of Caucasians, the remainder of a community that had been the majority in Crown Heights until fleeing en masse in “White flight” several years earlier to other parts of the borough, Queens and Long Island.
It was at Clark Center that my experience with cultures other than my own was more deeply nurtured. Kathy Grant, the director, hired me for reasons that remain unfathomable to this day although I suspect a good word from Ivy may have done the trick. She was a former dancer who had the distinction of also being in the direct line of practitioners trained by Joseph Pilates, only deceased for a few years when I got the job.
Clark Center had on its faculty two others from that lineage, Lolita San Miguel, and the ballet teacher Romana Kryzanowska. At the time I had no grasp of who Pilates was other than an old guy in a photo with a puffed out chest standing in front of some funny wooden contraptions. The internecine battles over who owned the rights to his machines and exercises were decades in the future.
Kathy had been known as “Red” when she was younger, an African-American woman with big glasses whose hair and freckles bespoke that nickname. I liked her generosity and fairness in dealing with her staff and teachers, and her honesty in dealing with me. I also learned from our occasional conversations about the difficulties of being a person, more specifically a dancer, of color in a too unwelcoming world. With a somewhat distracted air, administration did not seem always to be the best fit for Kathy. I was therefore surprised when after several months she left to take a job running the business end of the new Dance Theater of Harlem.
Clark Center was a wonderland for me, a veritable candy store, a smorgasbord at which each day I could choose my favorite dish. There were classes of all kinds, rehearsals for Broadway shows, dance companies in residence, showcase concerts for young choreographers, and fabulous visitors – “Oh, you just missed Geoffrey (Holder) and Carmen (De Lavallade). They stopped by to say hello.”
Best of all, was the congenial atmosphere created by a group of African American pioneers of dance who taught or rehearsed at the center. They and others had come together several years earlier in this one place to pool their skills and experiences under the supportive umbrella of the mid-town YWCA on Eight Avenue in which Clark Center was housed.
Of the many regrets I have acquired passing through life, there are two that relate to this time: not to have taken more classes from the wonderful instructors who taught there; and not writing down or making other efforts to document the rich personal histories that abounded in its halls and studios.
The years have dimmed my memory of exactly what it was I did as assistant director (or assistant to the director, I cannot remember which), so I’m not sure my work had any value in return for the wonderful dance history education I received. I was particularly fond of two gentlemen, James Truitte, who taught Horton technique, and Charles Moore, who offered that of Katherine Dunham.
Truitte was a tall, elegant man, who had danced with Lester Horton’s company in Los Angeles, and was one of the stalwarts of Alvin Ailey’s first troupe. When you see the photos of the now iconic opening sequence, “I’ve Been ‘Buked,” from the masterwork “Revelations,” the extraordinary sequence of arms opening and closing, it is Truitte’s that spread widest and highest like a protective canopy over the other dancers.
Jimmy could be genial and chatty, but also acerbic and dark. It was clear that he still was stung by what he saw as his dismissal from the Ailey company several years earlier. I have no idea what the internal politics were, but Jimmy seemed to feel that he was released because he had gotten too old.
Ailey himself played an important role in the early years of Clark Center, and though I am not clear on what that history was, he seemed to have been among, or near to the original group, and his earliest company was said to be in-residence. A decade later the Ailey originals still included several people like Truitte, the always upbeat and charming Thelma Hill, and the lovely dancer Loretta Abbott.
Charles Moore, who with his wife Ella Thompson had been an early Ailey company member, was a man with a quick laugh, extraordinarily friendly and generous. He had been a dancer with Katherine Dunham and other noted contemporary choreographers, and also had a great interest in West African dances. He was later to start a well-known company that explored the latter. I especially liked him because he, as I, lived in Brooklyn.
There was a wonderful cast of characters at Clark Center that made it such a lively place. Dance was its specialty, with figures such as Pepsi Bethel, a dapper and diminutive man who specialized in African American vernacular dance, and the young modern dancer and choreographer, Fred Benjamin. However, there was also a small drama program run, I think, by actor/director Norman Shelley, and an opera workshop conducted by Naomi Ornest. Among others of my favorites were the excellent drummers who played for classes including Danny Barajanos and Montego Joe. Shaking their hands was like grasping a rock, they were so powerful and callused.
Broadway shows also rented studio space during the daytime for rehearsals prior to their opening. The one I remember most distinctly was “Minnie’s Boys” a musical about the young Marx Brothers, which was a flop. Their movies had enjoyed recent revivals, and of course, as the five of them were Jewish boys from New York, I was fascinated by what the show would be like. Although I saw none of Shelly Winters, the show’s star who played the Marxian matriach, I did have some nice conversations with Lewis J. Stadlen, who was to get his career break with his celebrated portrayal of the irreverent Groucho.
After Kathy Grant left, Louise Roberts was hired as the new director. I did not know anything of her previous work other than that she ran the June Taylor Dance School. Taylor had been the choreographer for the Jackie Gleason show, and I remember her work as a sort of a slimmed-down version of the Rockettes. Louise had a no-nonsense, get things done style, quite different from Kathy’s. One of the first things she did was a cut-rate renovation of the rather tired Clark Center lobby, replete with a new hand-lettered sign, slightly off kilter. She also had a little white dog who I liked having around.
Although she could be stern, there was also a nurturing side to Louise who cared passionately about dance and theater. I only stayed in my job for a short period of time after she arrived, but I kept in touch with her over the following years. After Clark Center was bounced out of its home at the Y (and the building later torn down), Louise found studio space farther north on Eighth Avenue and kept the operation going in its new digs for several more years, only giving up the ghost after a planned new space on 42nd Street’s Theater Row was denied her by the city.
Clark Center allowed me ample opportunity to look beyond my own background and to see the worlds of others, something I continued to strive for the rest of my career in both choreography and as an educator and producer. It was not only what I saw at Clark Center, but who I met. One was a young dancer named Barbara Roan, who would be there to rehearse as a member of the Rod Rodgers Dance Company.
Rod was a powerfully built, outspoken man who had previously danced in the company of Erick Hawkins. Although he championed the cause of civil rights for African Americans, he also as strongly defended his own right to make dances as he wished and not in lock step with the politics of the day. His was an integrated dance company. I had honest, open, not always comfortable discussions with Rod about art and race, not bound by the rigidity of dogma. He was a mensch.
Unlike me, Barbara had come from an arts oriented family, her dad had been a university visual arts professor, and she knew that she wanted to be a dancer from an early age. She was an original and unique spirit, a lovely dancer, and it was through her that I was introduced to a much larger art world, on the cutting edge of performance.
I left my Brooklyn apartment in Park Slope and moved in to hers in a tenement walk-up on W. 16th St. filled with “found” art from the streets and the bathtub in the kitchen. I began to see less and less of my old friends from my Brooklyn youth. At that point in my career I wanted and needed to expand my aesthetic parameters, and working at Clark Center no longer fit in that picture. So I moved on. A year or so later I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a choreographer.
Clark Center for the Performing Arts was unique in time and place. It was a confluence of talent and energy that we will not see again. The breadth of educational offerings, the home for African American performance, and the sustenance offered to young artists made it invaluable to the performing arts community. I am delighted to write this reminiscence as a small contribution to the long-needed recognition and historical documentation of an extraordinary institution and the marvelous people who made it so.
Spider Kedelsky, Seattle, Washington. (copyright 2013)
Ntozake Shange – On Clark Center
I’ll never forget a seemingly ordinary day, when my new found friend, Bernadine Jennings, suggested I come with her to dance class at Clark Center. And I said, “Well, I don’t know. You know I haven’t danced in a year and so I’m not sure I need to go to a new place”. And she said, “This is not a new place. This is a place that will prepare you for all of the places you’ll ever be.” And I said, “Well, how can that be?” And she said, ‘Oh, you have to come with me.”
So she took me on the train to the 8th Avenue train and we got off at 50th Street and we went up into this building. and low and behold, there were all of these sweating women. I had never seen so many dance-sweating women in my life. And I looked through a door and saw a whole class of people in exact unison, doing these marvelous turning jumps and I said to Bernadine, “Oh, I can’t do that”, and she said “Maybe you can’t do it now but you will be able to do it.” And I said, “Well, I can’t take this class, it’s too hard.” And she said, “There are beginning classes”. I said, “Okay, I’ll take a beginners class. So I went with her the next day to take Thelma Hill’s class. Little did I know that it was Thelma Hill’s class for beginners. Well, what did I find out? That I was before the beginners. I was the person who was antediluvian, compared to the dancers in the beginning class plus, I couldn’t find my balance in the Horton technique so I kept thinking that I was going to fall on my face and break my front teeth. But little did I know that I’d find Thelma Hill to be one of my most revered characters in my life of teachers and I found out that I too, could lean forward with my leg stretched out in attitude and not fall and have a good line between my head and my knee.
Shortly after my first experience at Clark Center, I moved to California and immediately decided to reinvigorate my new found discipline and joy in dance with Raymond Sawyer, Samarie, Sandy Peterson and Ed Mock. I danced with these remarkable choreographers in California for my remaining four years in California.
When I returned to Clark Center in 1974, I discovered, that low and behold, I still had no technique!
I was a good performer but I had no technique. I discovered this by taking Pepsi Bethel’s class in Jazz and beginning again, as always behind. Then, I started again with Thelma Hill I still couldn’t get my knee any higher than I had before, but I was doubly determined this time because I knew that it could be faked or it could be done.
[New York] had changed since going to California as had Clark Center moved to a new building and discovered Pepsi Bethel, Titos Sompa, Loremil Machado and Fred Benjamin. So many different styles of dance, and all so very exciting, all so challenging to different parts of my body yearning to make my body elastic and steel at the same time. But oh, the classes were so different. So different were the rituals of each teacher.
Besides the quiet murmuring of a class about to begin, there was the flapping of the shades in the window and the bright sunlight racing across the floor as we would race later in the hour.
People chose their spaces seemingly according to skill, so that beginners ended up in the back and those more studied in the front, as you were lucky to know later on. As we quietly inched about our spaces we had coveted, we learned who we all were by looking across the room with curious or confident glances. So that I knew that the brown-haired girl was three steps away from me and the blond was three steps in front, or maybe four. If she moved herself another foot she’d be out of my way. And then, as if from nowhere, the class would start. The teacher had not been announced, there had been no gong, there was not a chiming of bell, but class had begun. And the teacher had begun without a word. The steps would just be followed. That’s when I learned that many teachers at Clark Center began their classes with a movement series that everybody already knew except the beginners. So that, we’d be behind from the beginning hoping to catch up and our limbs weren’t even warm yet. We didn’t realize this was the warm-up and we were hardly ready to begin to walk.
And Pepsi Bethel was no exception. His sliding feet led us down many a tried and true vaudevillian combination and quickly moved to modern jazz where our feet could not travel as fast as his limbs could and we were left falling over ourselves as Pepsi gently and blithely swiveled himself from one end of the room to the other. Oh lord, how to catch up; how to keep up and yet he was at least 75 years older than anyone else in the room (which is not true) but was true of a man whose body was that of a 19 year-old and whose mind had digested so many different forms of dance that he was an encyclopedia by himself.
The combinations in Fred Benjamin’s class were so much more intricate; every step had different dynamics only learned by repeated executions, which meant that I had to come to class more regularly. The front line in Fred’s class always looked as if they had just come to do a show. And perform they did. The rest of us may have been in class, but Fred’s front line was in a spectacle. My body, in Fred’s class, came uncharted territory for sexual impetus and reflection that I had never experienced.
I always knew when it was time for Tito Sompa’s class because the drummers would start filing in. All different sorts of drums, different kinds of drums, conga drums, djemba drums, bongo drums, bells, cow bells, bells, every percussion instrument that I could recall from the African Diaspora would start to pile up in the rehearsal hall and then, Titos would stand in front of the drummers, walk towards the class that had assembled in great anticipation and begin some kind of jumping combination to start off with. Maybe not high, just a foot over an ankle but, nonetheless, a jump. And, in time, we’d be leaping at least half way up the walls with our hips swiveling, our bosoms jingling. Titos was a great believer in jumps, leaps and hips and breasts. Going across the floor, we would be leaping and clapping and singing.
Before the end of class, we were sure we were not only Congolese, but were the best Congolese drummers in the village. Titos’ jumps were complicated because they not only required leaps to height but complicated footwork. So, a leap would come in the middle of a sashay or in the middle of a turn instead of just a flat out leap. At the end of class, Titos would draw us from across the floor towards the drummers and we would pay homage to them.
Where else to be on New Year’s Eve? In a lover’s arms, you say. Or, maybe at a fabulous champagne New Year’s Eve party. No, the place for me was Loremil Machado’s class for the end of the year. It was as important as midnight mass. The class was full to the corners and we were all ready for our athletic, jumping, twirling, kicking, giving much quick knees and feet- Loremil Machado and his panape of drummers. In this Brazilian class, we learned what suave and coquette meant. At the same time that we learned what our bodies were physically capable of in terms of gymnastics and time-challenging footwork.
Across the floor, Loremil challenged us to be more women than we knew we were and to be as precise in movement as we could be. Toward the end of the class he led us again, in front of the drummers, where we paid homage by slapping the floor three times behind Loremil and letting out a huge Ashay. Happy New Year.
Ntozake Shange June 22, 2012 © 2012
“I’m holding back my tears just seeing everyone! You (all) have done an incredible job maintaining the history, folklore and FEEL of Clark Center. What a gift to the world of Dance!”
Nafisa Shariff, NYC (12/4/2013)
“OMG!! This is absolutely wonderful and so informative. I started going to CC when they were on 8th Avenue so I never knew anything about its early beginnings (especially the fact that it was started by Alvin). The committee did a fabulous job with the compilation of this wealth of information. I got goose pimples just reading through the history, timeline and a few of the faculty sections so far. We all have pictures, old programs and our memories but for me this reading brought to life all the beautiful souls that have touch my life and helped make me who I am today. Thank you for all the hard work involved with this website launch and thanks for including that picture allowing me to be a part of CC history. God if only I could be that skinny again!!! “
Rita Littrean, Brooklyn, NY (12/4/2013)
“I remember rushing from work to make a 6 o’clock class with Charles Moore. When you got to the 8th Avenue building, bolted up the stairs to the second floor, you found person upon person, in the hallways waiting for class to begin, in the office negotiating a new card with Joanie, Roger or Louise herself and the dressing rooms were full, and messy with clothes but what a good feeling to be there!!! I am so happy to see this page and look forward to keeping up with Clark Center NYC”
RC, Brooklyn, NY
“Charles Moore’s class was the best African dance class in town and I loved taking it. There were times the class was crowded but everyone had a good time and he had some great drummers. I also took Jill Williams’ modern class and remember how kind and patient she was with her students. It’s no surprise she’s gotten us all back together through the facebook page and now this site and other upcoming programs.”
C. Gooden, NYC
“I miss Clark Center and the days spent with wonderful dancers, teachers and ordinary people taking dance classes.”
A. Jones, Poughkeepsie, NY