Michelle Dorrance and Toshi Reagon talk activism and culture

The two performers discussed performance and activism at an artist talk cosponsored by Hop Outreach and GRID.

by Sophia Siu | 4/7/17 1:00am

For Michelle Dorrance and Toshi Reagon, activism and the homage paid to the cultural history of an art form are both intrinsically ingrained in performance. In an artist talk cosponsored by the Gender Research Institute at Dartmouth and Hop Outreach, the two visiting artists discussed the responsibilities of being “cultural tradition bearers” and the importance of “activating” not only through the medium of art but in all aspects of life.

Nancy O’Brien, program Manager for GRID, explained that Reagon has worked with GRID in the past, and in 2015 she spoke during the GRID event, “The I in We: What It Means to Be in Congregation.”

“It was a wonderful mix of her singing and her talking about how you can get a community together through the use of music,” O’Brien said.

Both acclaimed artists in their respective disciplines, Dorrance and Reagon are collaborating in an innovative celebration of tap dance and the blues in “The Blues Project,” showing at the Hopkins Center for the Arts on Friday and Saturday, April 7 and 8.

“The music here is not just meant as a backdrop for the dance, ” programming director for the Hop Margaret Lawrence said. “They are truly equals here. They just bring on this joyful forceful music and rhythm together, and they literally tear the roof off the house. It’s just amazing.”

Francine A’Ness, assistant dean of undergraduate students and a lecturer in the women, gender and sexuality studies department, moderated the talk and began by asking the two artists to describe how each of them came to their respective art forms.

Dorrance, whose mother was a ballet dancer, was first exposed to tap dance at her mother’s ballet school and fell in love with it immediately. She learned under a teacher who valued bringing his students into the tap dance community and introduced them to as many tap masters as possible. When Dorrance attended college at New York University, she was able to immerse herself in the prominent tap community there.

“I came up during a really incredible time for tap dance,” Dorrance noted.

At NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, Dorrance created her own major in which she studied democracy as an ideology in American thought with a further focus on concepts of race.

According to a Hop press release, Dorrance went on to perform with STOMP, Savion Glover, Manhattan Tap and Jason Samuels Smith, among others. She founded her own dance company, Dorrance Dance, in 2011, which will be dancing in “The Blues Project.” She is a 2015 MacArthur fellow and dances, teaches and choreographs.

“What is unique about Dorrance is that she has really pushed tap dance to a whole set of new creative realms,” Lawrence said. “She’s an innovator. She’s constantly moving the boundaries of tap in all directions.”

Like Dorrance, Reagon also came from a family that was deeply involved in the arts. Her mother, Bernice Johnson Reagon, was the founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an internationally acclaimed African American women’s a cappella ensemble rooted in the empowerment and celebration of African American history and culture.

Reagon described herself as coming from people who “thought it was weird to call [singing] an art form.” Song was omnipresent during her childhood, working itself into the mundane in the shape of prayers, children’s games and work songs.

“To be black in America is to always be challenging a system that tries to destroy you,” Reagon said.

As a response to that system, Reagon said African Americans chose music and song to “activate” the situations they were in.

Reagon started her own career in the music industry with an internship with a music producer and since then, has been a singer-songwriter for nearly 30 years. Her style can be described as a combination of rock, blues, R&B, folk, spirituals and funk. Although Reagon is very much so her own artist, Lawrence credits the singer for having taken the social activist messages of her artistic lineage and introducing it to a new generation.

Sharing a devotion to celebrating the histories of each of their art forms, both artists have been referred to as “cultural tradition bearers” by others in their fields. During the talk, each discussed the meaning the term contained for them, as well as how they manage to simultaneously pay homage to the past while creating new innovative works.

Reagon’s interest in the cultural history of her art sparked when she was exposed to different types of music at music festivals she attended with her mother. According to Reagon, her mom told her: “Ask yourself how long you’ll have to sing to be able to say what you want to say.”

Reagon explained that by vocalizing the truth, one begins to cultivate an understanding of his or her personal history as well as the history and cultural significance of the art form.

“To understand myself, I just wanted to have an understanding of why something existed in the first place,” Reagon said. “For black people, we’re just trying to be human, to survive, so have a place so we can take on what’s happening to us in this country.”

For Dorrance, celebrating the history of tap dance is especially important because historically, tap has not been respected as a dance form academically or institutionally. She describes tap dance as a manifestation of the blending of a variety of cultures inside an art form, but unfortunately, much of the cultural tradition and history of tap was lost.

Dorrance explained that the cultural history of tap dance is one of communication and of survival. She described tap as resistance in its purist form, an expression of spirit, hardship and joy.

One term frequently mentioned throughout the duration of the talk was Reagon’s call “to activate,” which relates to the need for America to reconcile with its history as a country founded on slavery, brutality, racism and the murder of indigenous peoples in order to move forward and address the political problems of the present.

Reagon urged the audience to stop wasting time and to start “activating” — to begin to challenge the current state of the government, specifically the existence of a Donald Trump presidency. She noted that it is the responsibility of the older generations to ensure that the youth who understand that the current sociopolitical system will not work for them and are trying to tear this system down will not have to start their journey under the governance of a “murderer.”

“You must activate from your genius,” Reagon said You must spend all your currency now.”