Searching for Philadelphia’s Black Female Choreographers: A Conversation with Lela Aisha Jones

Photo Credit: David Barrow Wiley

Photo Credit: David Barrow Wiley

by Chrysta Brown for The Dance Journal

Lela Aisha Jones has been dancing up and down the east coast since her first dance class in Tallahassee, Florida.   Her dance journey has taken her through some of the nation’s top university dance programs, including Florida State University’s MFA dance program, and Texas Woman’s University’s PhD program in Dance Theory and Practice.   She has worked with companies such as  Urban Bush Women, Blacksmith’s Daughter, and Christal Brown’s Inspirit, just to name a few.  But when it came time for Jones to settle down she had needs that New York City didn’t meet.  “Being a Florida girl I really wanted to get away from the winter,” she joked.   She made it as far south as Philadelphia.  Even though Philadelphia got its fair share of snow this year, Jones says the city has been an excellent place to develop as a choreographic artist.   While Philadelphia has been good for Jones,  it cannot be denied that our local community has benefited from her work and presence here.  Her dance contributions include several youth performing arts residencies and workshops, as well FlyGround,  her own choreographic project,  and The Requisite Movers, which she co-founded with Deneane Richburg.

As a Philadelphia resident, Jones regularly attends senior performances and MFA thesis concerts.  She’s noticed a discrepancy between the number of Black women trained in Philadelphia university dance programs versus the number of Black women who were choreographing for Philadelphia’s stages.  “It isn’t that there aren’t any women Black choreographers in Philadelphia,” Jones is careful to say.  “It is simply that they are less visible.” This reality forced her to question and wonder where these women went after they graduated.  Furthermore, what could the Philadelphia dance community do to keep, support, and develop the choreographic voices of Black women, and in doing so, diversify our own artistic reputation?

“It always comes back to resources,” Jones suggested.  The two major resources that may drive up and coming artists to other cities are funding and visibility.  Jones noted that conversations regarding funding fail to consider the practical details of life as a professional dance artist.  Many financial awards barely cover productions costs and often do not include money to pay dancers enough for their basic living expenses.  In order to receive financial awards, most funders require that artists reveal proof of valuable contributions to the dance community.  Such proof requires monetary resources that new artists may not have.  This limits access to financial assistance and as a result limits the art Philadelphia  produces.   These demands force artists to either relocate to other dance communities, or get jobs outside of dance that restrict the amount of time spent actually creating work. Black women have a very particular view of life in Philadelphia, and life in general, that is not blatantly visible in the Philadelphia dance community.  While Philadelphia is home to several world renowned Black female choreographers, Jones believes that there are many women in our community who are deciding to take their choreographic talents to other meccas such as New York, Florida, or California.

This reality motivated  Jones and Deneane Richburg to create The Requisite Movers, a twofold organization that includes a production focus and a mentoring branch called The Wellspring Program.  The program chooses four Philadelphia-based, Black female choreographers for the opportunity to create new work.  Their creation process is guided and mentored by other established Black female choreographers.  “They have work,” Jones says of these new artists.  “It needs to be seen.”

While The Requisite Movers is a wonderful opportunity for its founders and participants, Jones freely admits that there are difficulties.  “It’s a lot of pressure!” she says.  She went on to confess that many of her contacts are primarily creating work through TRM productions. The Requisite Movers is currently on a hiatus while Jones prepares for the birth of her first child.  However, even on break, Jones still has her mind on community and creativity, though not exactly in the same ways as before.  “Motherhood makes you think about life differently,” she says.  It is possible that the thought of building her personal community has deepened her focus and goal to further develop her dance community.  “I feel it is important to create,” she says with the hope that The Requisite Movers, and more opportunities like it, will be operating again soon.

Creativity is a collective responsibility.  It requires the effort of everyone, from individual artists, to established companies, to audience members.   Jones encourages all dancers, especially Black women, to create the work they are genuinely passionate about even though challenges are inevitable.   “You have to take a chance on the community.  You’ve got to take a chance on yourself and on them,” Jones advises.   “We all have stories that need to be expressed.”  Maybe that’s the answer,  telling and listening to stories.  Maybe by strengthening and encouraging relationships within our dance community, Philadelphia’s stages can better provide a forum for the wide variety of stories that all of our choreographers have to tell.

For more information about Lela Aisha Jones and FlyGround visit: http://www.flygroundera.com.  For more information about The Requisite Movers visit: https://www.facebook.com/TheRequisiteMovers.

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