One hot July afternoon, Princess Mhoon, director of the Chicago Black Dance Heritage Project, was sitting in a bustling cafe on the outskirts of the University of Chicago campus in Hyde Park. She was wearing a purple and orange dress that fluttered around her arms and pointed out the window to show me where she went to high school; Kenwood Academy, barely visible from where we live, but less than three miles away.
“I was a theater baby,” she said of the Chicago art world she grew up in. His parents had met at an African dance class, and his father was a drummer in local dance troupes. “I have memories of sitting in the theater during tech rehearsals,” he continued. “We couldn’t eat sugar. There was no junk food in the Black Art Movement. So we had cherry vitamin C; she was my candy.
Describing his early life, 47-year-old Mhoon said who is who in Chicago’s rich Black dance scene. A neighbor taught Katherine Dunham the technique, continuing the legacy of one of the city’s brightest dance stars of the early 20th century. Mhoon studied African dance at the Muntu Dance Theater, near where she grew up on the South End, and learned African-American diaspora techniques from the Najwa Dance Association. Returning home from college, she was taking lessons from Homer Bryant, who has worked since 1990 in her South Loop studio to make ballet training accessible to all students.
Many of these companies are brought together by the Chicago Black Dance Heritage Project, an initiative that seeks to help sustain Black dance producers in the city and offers lasting acknowledgments for their contributions. “The goal,” Mhoon said, “was to give all these companies their flowers while they were still here.”
Founded in 2019 by the Joyce Foundation and the University of Chicago Logan Center for the Arts, all of the companies involved in the project persevered despite significant disparities in funding. A 2019 report titled “Mapping the Dance Scene in Chicagoland” showed that organizations such as Joffrey Ballet and Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in predominantly white parts of the city are the main recipients of grant dollars, even at more than 30%. Most of the dancers and choreographers in Chicago identify as Black.
And while many Black dance producers, including Mhoon, experience the stage as a live network of beloved characters, it’s easy for companies to feel competitive due to the scarcity of financial support.
“We’re such an isolated city,” said Nicole Clarke-Springer, artistic director of modern dance company Deeply Rooted Dance Theatre, in an interview in the courtyard above Bryant’s studios. “We’re all trying to get funding in small areas of Chicago, all of us with our heads down. We know each other, we love each other, and we share dancers, but there has never been a moment when we deliberately went out for air.”
The Chicago Black Dance Heritage Project seeks to change that by working to address both the lack of funding and the associated fragmentation. It brings together both established and new companies, offering money, assistance with archiving projects, and organizational support. This support takes the form of improvement plans developed for each company, including guidance on board management, marketing strategies, and executive coaching.
Participating companies also meet regularly for peer-led knowledge sharing and collaborate at least twice a year for group performances: The group of 10 companies, coming together at the beginning of 2023, will share the stage at the open-air Ravinia on September 7. The pavilion in Highland Park.
Bril Barrett, founder and director of tap company MADD Rhythms, who joined the Legacy Project this year, grew up dancing in community centers on the city’s West End. But as he focused more on tapa, he began touring the city for lessons and eventually performed across the country. Founding MADD Rhythms in 2001 was an opportunity to return to the city and share the wide potential of the cult with young dancers in her hometown. “Tap dancing opened the world to me,” she said in a video interview, “and I wanted to use it to open up the world to my community.”
While Barrett found warm support for his ensemble in some quarters, he often felt ostracized by the wider dance community. “I always had to fight,” he said. “My identity as a Black man in America has never been separated from my identity as a tap dancer struggling to be recognized by the dance world.”
But Barrett describes his experience with Legacy Project’s other companies as a relief and a warm identification. “We were having these landmark moments where we were in a room full of people who understood that,” he said.
While the structural support the project offered was crucial to his company, the community it offered to Barrett was far more valuable. “This is the most important degree of importance,” he said, “the shared knowledge base that comes from sitting at the feet of the people who are doing it.” He recalled a conversation he had with Muntu’s artistic director, Regina Perry-Carr, about the challenges of taking over the leadership of a 50-year-old company. This made Barrett think seriously about the question for his company: “What happens when I turn MADD Rhythms over to another director?”
MADD Rhythms is now in its 22nd year. But even companies much older than Barrett’s see the Legacy Project as a valuable partner in ensuring the continuity of their companies and their heritage. “My mission is a 200-year mission,” said pioneer dance producer Joel Hall, who founded the Joel Hall Dancers & Center in 1974. One of the key ingredients in securing his legacy, according to Hall, is working to support that resolve. the field as a whole. “These are all my children,” Hall said of the other companies. “It is my responsibility to look after the herd whenever possible.”
Concern for longevity prompted Barrett to create more sustainable structures for his company’s operations, but this also encouraged him to take an interest in the group’s archives. When he heard that the Legacy Project was partnering with the Newberry Library, he took the opportunity to store the materials at the research institution. “That’s great,” he recalled thinking, “that gives people access to this history we’ve built.”
Barrett loaded large plastic boxes of papers and ephemera in his car to take to the library. In the Newberry stacks, you can now find rich black-and-white photos of Muntu performances and dazzling headshots of Katherine Dunham, as well as glittering pictures of the young Barrett and custom sneakers with carefully glued Capezio plugs.
Of course, archives aren’t the only way to record the history of these companies. The dancers are already doing the job of preserving and conveying their embodied understanding of movement practices.
“We’re dance historians,” Sheila Walker Wilkins said about her work in Najwa, but the same can be said for the many companies in the Legacy Project. “We preserve dance styles that reflect our heritage and traditions.”
“But in addition,” he continued, “our traditions continue as a group of people.” The Legacy Project offers a vision of black dance that refuses to stand still, bringing together a wide variety of companies that apply different techniques at different stages of their artistic careers.
In addition to incorporating conversation with other genres this year, the Era Footwork Team has incorporated footwork, a fast-paced technique developed in Chicago, into the Legacy Project this year. Like Barrett, members of the Era collective expressed their excitement at the opportunity to work with artists they see as mentors. But they also realize that incorporating footwork into the Legacy Project can push legacy companies in new directions.
Jamal Oliver, co-founder of the Era Footwork Crew using Litebulb, said that each company has its own know-how to offer the group, and this solidarity is part of what makes the Chicago Black Dance Legacy Project effective.
“It’s a spinning circle: we need OGs and OGs need us, and we need youth younger than us to make things work. We all have advantages that we can all give each other; That way, you’re one step ahead of the game.”
c.2023 New York Times Company