Surya Swilley MFA in Dance, Adjunct Professor at Temple University
Crash, boom, rewind! My head was spinning, heart was racing, and I felt my adrenaline rushing at warp speed. Rehearse, rewrite, polish, go back, and repeat!
What is the intention? What did you mean by that? Let’s revise. Repeat.
I experienced a whirlwind of emotions, and wasn’t exactly sure of the extent of the labor that would go into producing an evening length concert.
I remember in the spring semester of this year, (January 2019) I began rehearsals and had no idea what I was doing. I was forcing myself to enter the studio with this idea of using a table as a prop, but had no idea how to be in collaboration with the table to get my point across. I experienced a significant amount of frustration while trying to verbalize to my dancers what my vision was, but the reality is, I wasn’t sure. The only thing I did know was that I needed to get moving towards generating a show. It was arduous.
I was influenced by several vignettes inside of black history and protest in the United States to develop “Between the Intervene”. Not that I interpreted these events as dramatized episodes towards freedom, but I recognized the choreographic protest inside of historical spaces such as lunch counter sit-ins, how black children navigate what can be an anxiety provoking experience while sitting at school desks, and the trauma inflicted onto black consciousness and black body while sitting behind the wheel in a vehicle. All of this, while knowing that one’s hands need to be placed on the dashboard to be visible in the face of police. These are the historical and contemporary notions that influenced the work, but the lens through which I decided to share the choreography was through honesty, and that was rooted in my truth inside of being a queer black woman.
While developing this work, I came out. I reckoned with my truth inside of my gender expression and sexuality, and it freed me to embark on a more truthful journey inside of other things. It is interesting how the development of this work, and my coming out contain a parallel inside of the timing. I was influenced by the freedom of transparency as I deepened inside of the work, and what emerged from this was a very fervent connection to telling my truth and working with my dancers so that they would be empowered to dance from an authentic place. I think adding my personal anecdote/truth inside of the mix not only help to bring the show to a cohesive understanding for me and the audience, but perhaps it allowed people to see that sharing one’s truth as an individual on stage, while working in collaboration with a group of dancers can be done, and can be done without any burden. I hope to showcase freedom on a variety of levels. My intention in everything I do is to liberate and empower.
My goal after graduation is to fly. I am harnessing my wings as a dance entrepreneur, and artist activist. Some tangible ways to see that are through my work as new adjunct professor at Temple University, through my partnership with the Center for Racial Justice and Education, and as I launch my own dance company in the summer of 2020.
It feels good to be done with the thesis concert, even though I know there’s so much more for me to dive into. I am ready for the challenge, and I am excited to see what comes next. What a rewarding experience this work came out to be. It’s my hope that even more reward will come, as I know that the next phase of life and career is filled with nothing but infinite possibilities.
My work at Temple has been important in my self-reflections. I recently premiered, “Project: Assata || Conscious States of Rage”, on October 25-26, 2019, a culminating thesis performance and a gathering of three years of research. I’m realizing that this third iteration, at the Conwell Dance Theater is the catalyst to some of my artistic transformations. This work focuses on Assata Shakur former black panther member. To create various phrase work and gesture phrases I extracted poems from Shakur’s autobiography, “The Autobiography of Assata Shakur” to create a map of small vignettes.
Photo Credit: Shanel Edwards
After the second iteration I sat with the work and I discovered rage. Recognizing that black femme bodies rarely yield rage justly. It is viewed as an inflated response from “angry black” women. I linked rage to Shakur because she was able to navigate with rage beautifully. Her circumstances were very different, but she did not hold back her anger. I admire her ability to express freely, something I sought for myself.
This work challenges who can justly express rage and explores modes of anger. When working collaboratively with my movement artist I discovered that rage goes beyond anger, that it can function in passion, love and belief. I allowed freedom for the work to develop organically often shifting things to suit the collective. Sitting in the audience during show week was both fulfilling and frightening. Giving myself space to reflect makes me feel gracious.
Photo Credit: Shanel Edwards
Having the space and a budget provided by Temple is a blessing as finding funding outside of the university is difficult. As I look at the process now, I am grateful for the experience. It taught me a lot about myself as a dance maker. Challenged my choreographic structure and perspectives. I was able to locate myself in my work. I will always be in process. Emergent, emerging, emergence. These are the lessons I’ve taken with me and the work feels like a gracious testimony to time, exploration and healing.
Ama Gora MFA in Dance, Photo Credit: Shanel Edwards
When I came to Temple in 2017, I was 25 and knew that it was the right time for me to continue an education that I had started in 2011 at a different university. Temple spoke to me as a program for their value of both the academic side of dance as well as the techniques, opportunities for choreography, and the fact that within one department there are BFA, MA, MFA and PhD students all there to continue their studies and build on their passion of dance. Coming to Temple as a nontraditional student as well as a transfer student was one of the best choices I made. I was able to diversify my knowledge of different techniques, while working with teachers who were prominent in the Philadelphia dance community. The staff at Temple are willing to work with you, provide excellent feedback and help ensure that you are getting what you want out of your dance education.
What I learned at Temple…It is okay to start again, to say “I don’t know” and build yourself up from there. As dancers and artists, it is easy to feel like you need to know everything all of the time to justify and back up the choices you are making and the techniques you study. Not realizing that through study, hours of rehearsals, talking with your peers and teachers, attending guest workshops and performances that all of this will inform your answers and build character. I can say with certainty that I am not the same dancer I was before starting at Temple and I am glad. During my time, my main technical focus was in African Diasporic techniques, most of which I had not heard of nor studied before attending Temple. I started off uncomfortable with being new, with not understanding how to get my body to achieve the actions and spent much of my class time moving slow to figure it out. Through this experience of relearning my body and asking it change and unlearn prior habits I grew, not just physically but mentally. Dance once again became a broad and sweeping term that was more than I had known before.
I had the good fortune of being able to work with the late Dr. Teresa Benzwie before her passing and study Early Childhood Dance Education. My studies with Dr. B further affirmed my passion for education, and through her kindness and compassion she helped nourish the teacher in me. Her guidance and expertise in the field was a priceless gift from my time at Temple.
What I took away from Temple, was that it is important to take every opportunity that comes your way with the awareness that it might not be exactly what was expected or planned for…because there is something for you to learn. The teachers, your peers, the guests, and the administration all want you to succeed but success is not something that is easy or simply built. I hope to pass this information on to my students. There is a lot of value in being a lifelong learner, to take chances, and to make mistakes beautifully.
This fall, I started a new position as the dance teacher for the Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School (CASA) in Harrisburg, PA. CASA was a school that I attended in high school. I am living one of my dreams to teach in this school and continue to build a program that trains intelligent, well rounded dancers, and artistic collaborators. As I move forward, I would like to continue to explore dance by taking classes when possible and enjoying every opportunity I have to dance and do what I love.
Tori Sexsmith BFA in Dance 2019 Alumnus and Dance Teacher for CASA
I grew up asking myself a question that would evolve in different shades throughout my life until now. I asked my mom at the village dance square…what are you doing moving like that? Her response, you will grow up to meet this! Boom! That was my first critical encounter with dance by observing my mother’s body moving to traditional music.
Now the question I asked and the answer that came were not new. On the contrary it has been asked by many curious kids since our first ancestors danced. It is a deep question with an equally deep answer. Unknown to me, I was asking the body I came out from how it came to know itself enough and be confident enough to move like that among a people who did likewise to the same music. I would later come to understand that movement systems, embodied, loved, respected over years of evolution, would be my very IDENTITY!
I analyse my personal dance experience from childhood in such a reflective manner that it helped me conceptualize the transient body in varied social cultural, and political positions among my ethnic group in my beloved home country Ghana. My father was a sub-chief of that rural town and during ascension to his stool/throne, I was required, by virtue of my father’s political and genealogical position what I term as my “transition into a status and validation as a royal, through dance movement”. I recount how the selected dance and its movements transformed and influenced my understanding of the Akan linguistic patterning and its power in affirming individual identity creation. I started receiving my official training as a dancer at the age of 6 and I was taught specific movement patterns which were different in execution from some other movement patterns I had seen outside my father’s palace. In my training process I was instructed to walk as a royal in the dance arena, taught a specific salutation concept and then eventually when to start performing on a specific drum rhythmical cue. Prior to that, my training in other things like sitting, eating, drinking from a cup, posture, gait was similar to my fathers who, from time to time before his enstoolment would join me in dance practice and perform the same movement patterns with me. He would often shout phrases like “a royal does not sweat on the dance floor”, “you are the son of great ancestors”, “wisdom and dancing abilities are in your blood”, “you will dance with me, your father, in glory”, “go on my son, the stool and the music are yours alone to take after I am gone”. These statements in addition to specific hand and feet movement patterns validated my understanding of who I was at the time and it came through dancing.
Reflecting on my childhood learning process and my political affiliation leads me to conclude that I was ‘curated’ and subsequently put on ‘display’ to the outside world through dancing.
Prior to my PhD at Temple dance department, I was exposed to dance studies/scholarship beginning from my undergraduate studies at the school of performing Arts University of Ghana focusing on Dance studies and Theatre arts. As my passion in dance intensified, I proceeded to pursue a masters at the Institute of African studies-University of Ghana with concentration on African dance and music analysis. My thesis was on Dance Aesthetics and Performance Contexts of a royal dance among the Asantes of Ghana known as KETE.
My exposure within African studies re-invigorated my interest to pursue more knowledge in dance scholarship due to the rate at which the proliferation of our dance forms offered research possibilities to ascertain the evolution of dancing as human requirement within contemporary African settings. As such I applied to pursue second masters in Europe which led me to pursuing the Erasmus-Mundus Choreomundus International Masters in Dance Knowledge, practice and heritage degree from a consortium of four universities namely; University of Roehampton-London, Université Blaise Pascal-France, Norwegian University of Science and Technology- Norway, and the University of Szeged, Hungary. The aim was to learn about emerging concepts in safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. My journey to Temple University began when I first met Dr. Sherril Dodds who was a visiting lecture at University Blaise Pascal in France 2017. She encouraged all of us to pursue high education and offered to help if any of us were interested. I was not initially interested as my immediate goal after my 2nd master was to go back home to my Alma mater to support dance research and scholarship. However, the opportunity to study at the prestigious Temple University was too alluring to ignore. Here I am!
After graduating Temple’s Dance Program with a B.F.A. in dance, I was fortunate enough to tour with Kariamu and Company. I will always be grateful for this experience because it is often hard for performers to get gigs straight away out of college, and sometimes dancers end up falling into a job that they do not enjoy. Kariamu and Company kept me grounded in what I wanted my life to be while I had a job that was the total opposite. Being able to tour gave me the chance to receive a glimpse into the life I am starting to journey on. I have terrible fear of heights and airplanes, but touring with Kariamu and Company made me suck it up. As a person of the arts, you will do anything for your craft because you know it is what makes you truly happy. From flights to hotel rooms to rehearsals and actual performances, I had a chance to really connect with other dancers who are in the same position I am or have been there and are now figuring out their next chapters in their dance career. It was great to learn from other dancers and have a genuine connection with other people who are just as hungry for this life as I am. What I also took away from this experience is that I have accomplished one thing outside of my college career that I am proud of. I have toured nationally for a play starring a five time Grammy nominated jazz singer, performed pieces by a choreographer who has developed her own dance technique called Umfundalai, and worked with an award-winning visual artist. I never really had the time to sit down and think about it. Being able to work with such a passionate family who started a story from scratch and turn it into a multifaceted show has been such a blessing. There will be times, as a performer, where you will question if this is the life for you, but always remember you have this beautiful spirit that can’t be confined to a 9-5 so let it flourish and just watch what magnificent things start to appear more and more each day because of it.
To learn more about Kariamu and Company and the Clothesline Muse, click here