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In Conversation with Angie Pittman by Joe Tolbert Jr.

I saw Leaning at the Dossier Charrette: A Series of Working Dance Essays that was a part of Danspace Project’s 2018 Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches and Downtown Dance curated by choreographer Reggie Wilson. Leaning stages the peculiar position that Black women occupy in the brutal imagination of this country. A society that still tries to keep Black women relegated to the status of the captive body, mere flesh to be acted upon instead of seeing them as human beings who think and feel. Leaning, to depend or rely on for support. Leaning, “safe and secure from all alarm?” Can Black women ever be safe and secure in a world that so routinely exercises many forms of violence against them? On what can Black women depend or rely? Who and/or what gives them rest and support? I sat down with Angie Pittman, dancer and dance maker, to discuss her piece Leaning and the performance of Black womanhood.

 

Joe Tolbert Jr.:  What is your relationship to church and dance in church?

Angie Pittman:  There’s a big correlation. I grew up in church. My mom grew up in Tennessee and she grew up in a Black Baptist church where they would shout every Sunday.

Her sisters and her brothers— there’re like eight of them— would shout basically out of their clothes every Sunday in this very specific way.

So, growing up, she wanted me and my sister to have that same church experience because it was part of her spiritual practice. She took us to church. Though the church that I grew up in is very different from hers in that it was still a Black church, but it was sort of, like a mega church. It’s non-denominational. There was shouting. There was music. There was dancing in this very specific way. I grew up navigating my young relationship to Christianity and figuring out what that meant for me, being afraid of going to hell, constantly. I saw people have such a relationship with joy and happiness that I didn’t feel connected to at that time, and I was reminded that yes, church can be such a place for joy.

 I had a god sister who did the performance recital circuit. She took ballet, tap, and jazz at a studio, and I would always go to her shows and be like, “wow, that’s so wonderful.” I wanted to be a part of that but it was expensive. I wanted to dance, so I would dance at church, which was a free experience, a community-based experience, and it was all Black. This sort of relationship between church and dancing practice was very cool as a child in church. We did liturgical dancing, praise dancing, with, flowing skirts and a ribbon. My church also had a step team, so I was on the step team for a brief moment. We had a hip-hop dance team and would dance to Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary. There were actually a lot of different ways to move your body for dance in church.

JT: You talked about beginning your dance practice in an informal dance space within the church while seeing more formal expressions of dance from your god sister. How have you reconciled your beginnings in the church with the formal training you received later?

AP:  It’s gone through a lot of changes. I think now that I am what and who I am today, there’s always a need for some sort of community component to my dancing that is with Black people in my practice, or something that I can fall back on. There was a moment when I went to college—that’s when I started my formal dance training— and I started taking ballet instead of improvisation and modern. And there was that moment of, racism that sort of trickled in, internalized racism that I had digested as, “OK, these are legitimate practices now,” you know, forget all that other shit that you had. There was a moment in grad school where I had to say, “Whoa. These are all my dance experiences and they can all coalesce in a very specific way and there’s no hierarchy in order of importance.” That’s actually white supremacy functioning. This thing that ballet is more important than my praise dancing experience.

So, there was a moment after I got my formal training where I was had to say, “No, what’s actually really feeding me are  these community-based Black dance practices.” It’s funny because I’m a solo dance artist right now and I primarily make solos, but I always feel like I need a community of Black dancing that I can fall back on. And right now, for me, that is line dancing. I mean, I feel like line dancing is just a matter of, “OK, we’re doing it together.” That’s the definition of it. We’re doing this together, and we’re gonna learn it together.

JT:  The dance Leaning was a part of the Dossier Charrette which was an evening of dance essays where you had to respond to this dossier with historical information. Can you talk about that and the process of responding to this historical information about the East Village, and Downtown Dance, and particularly St. Mark’s Church?

AP:  Reggie Wilson curated me into the project before he even gave me the dossier. Maybe even before it was made, so all of these experiences that I just talked about were already percolating in my mind. I was already building a piece even before the dossier had even entered into my hands.

I was already thinking about my relationship to hymns that I listened to in church, how that affected my body, and what kind of ways my body wants to move in reaction to that. Once I got the dossier, it  was like being handed the history of St. Mark’s Church. It was a lot to reconcile, but that’s the thing that I think dance does really well. You can be in the mess of it and the body is going find a way through it in whatever relationship to logic, or not. My challenge for myself was to not be burdened by this extensive dossier of information. There was a lot of space in the dossier about Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch colony and how the actual land operated through time and when ownership became a part of the conversation. The land that St. Mark’s is sitting on was purchased by Peter Stuyvesant from the Dutch West India Company. With that land came a house, barn, barrack, 120 acres of land, cows and horses, and two enslaved people of African descent. It’s crazy to say, OK, I’m dancing in a church. I come here all the time, and also know that when this actual land was sold, it included Black people.

JT:  One thing that I was struck by was the way that your dance spoke to, in addition to everything you just said, Black women’s church experience.

AP:  It has to be a part of it. Subconsciously, I think it was present because I was specifically thinking about my experience, especially as a young person. I was a young Black woman in the church and all sorts of archetypal characters were part of that experience. I mean, there was a moment in the dance where I simultaneously try to channel a church usher and a church auntie. 

JT:  I loved it.

AP: You know what I mean? I think a lot of the work of the piece is me thinking about these characters that I somewhat identify with. Black womanhood in church is huge. My costume was all white. It was a tailored pant. I was thinking about ushers and how clinical and nurse-ish their costume is. That felt like a really good entry point into the costuming for me. It didn’t feel like angelic to me at all. I always felt like I was putting on the costume to do the work because ushers in church come to hear the sermon, but they’re constantly working. They don’t sit down. They have to wear those comfy shoes.

JT:  And I know I’m not a woman, but a lot of the people who mean the most to me are Black women. Those who have nurtured me in all kinds of ways have been Black women, so this notion of always working, inside the church and outside of the church, is the first thing that came into my mind. When I saw the dance for the second time, you started out with the lights fading in on you as you leaned in the doorway. That image communicated so much to me with regard to the idea of Black women working, particularly in the church.

AP:  That was so good to hear you say that. Leaning, to me—the word leaning, not the dance— is this halfway in between, you’re not fully resting ever. And yet, I feel like it’s an action that happens out of necessity, because of constant working. Leaning as this middle ground between, “OK. I’m not fully reclined.” and “I’m still in the space doing stuff but I need to take this moment to not fully support myself on the ground with my two feet. I feel that tension a lot, as a Black woman. Very seldom can you just fully recline. And in thinking about the hymn, I asked myself what “leaning on the everlasting arms” means. What can I use in order to help me to continue this journey, this work? I sort of fell into this hymn as this idea of God and my relationship to God as something that can power me through this work, you know?

Whether that’s true or not, this idea of something that’s bigger than me, that’s bigger than this church that we’re in, this space that we’re in, that I can actually lean on, whether it’s there or not, you know, is super important I think, in my particular struggle in history. So, the action of leaning, I feel like it’s always been in conversation with Black liberation and resistance.

Leaning at La Mama Moves Festival 2018. Photo: Carlos Cardona

JT:  You sing in the piece, and I found it interesting that as you were doing this choreography of leaning, you hummed some words and said others. I wondered what was the intention behind this artistic move?

AP:  I’m not performing for the audience at St. Mark’s Church, at Danspace Project, you know. The witness is important, but I’m not putting on a show for them.

I think that intention is important in this relationship to words that are being said and not being said, because in some way, there’s a legibility in being able to say, “Oh, I hear safe and secure.” The audience can digest that. But, I was interested in dancing in the space where I want to be. I’m trying to listen to these ancestral connections, known or unknown, and humming as a way to be a little bit different in my body or get out of my own body and like actually making sounds in the space.

I’m humming as a way of being internal but also when I  actually get louder, or, actually say a word, I feel like I’m doing it in order to bring this idea of safety and security into the space. When I was saying safe and secure, I think it was a question, a desire. A desire for safety and security. I was calling a prayer out into the space. I thought that humming was important to do in this work, ’cause I think humming is very much connected to the interior self.

You hum when you’re working. It’s very much for yourself. I think in an audience of predominantly white people, seeing a black performer being somewhat interior, or indicating a vast inner life or interior impulses, is really important,even if it’s a Danspace Project audience. I think Black people’s real humanity is being threatened right now. So it’s not even like, “Oh, this person exists. Yeah, you’re human.” That’s base level. Past that, this human has kids, has a mom, has an auntie. Talks to his daughter all the time. Or, you know, even daydreams. That is a level of empathy that I think is hard for people to access, specifically white people. So, as a Black performer in a predominantly white space I choose interiority. This is making you meet me in my world.

JT:  Right.

AP:  It’s like a subtle, subtle shift, but…

JT:  Well, because dominant culture doesn’t allow that, right?

AP:  Mm-hmm.

JT:  Because we’re bound by those social scripts that are tied to history. The things in the dossier that you were responding to, things in their imagination that they subject us to without ever considering that we speak, we think we feel, all of those things. And once again, we can tie this back to womanhood, female embodiment and the function of patriarchy. To deny that interiority and the right to be expansive and take up space in the way that individuals feel like they need. I’m thinking about this notion of agency and the claiming of an interior life and the claiming of an exterior life for Black cis women and Black trans women and how it is also very much threatened.

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Angie:  Come on!

JT: I think this point is also important because you said that your work interrogates liberation. What is the connection between liberation, interiority, the right to interiority, and its expression through agency?

 

Leaning at La Mama Moves Festival 2018. Photo: Carlos Cardona

AP:  I think about resilience a lot in survival. For me, interrogating these practices, either performative or social practices, that I have observed growing up or that have been with us through time, in my dance work is really important in this conversation about liberation. Because if these cultural practices are allowing us to continue to be here, doing them will continue to allow us to be here in some way. And I think that’s where spirituality comes in as a practice of self-care. Self-care is a very trendy word right now.

JT:  Yes.

AP: Actually taking care of yourself and thinking about your body as a body— not this weird Cartesian dualism of mind and body separation, thinking of your body as a thing that needs stuff. You need to tend to it, whether it be eating, sleeping, meditating or sniffing essential oils. Treating your body as a body is very important. Right now, in my work I feel called to think about my body as the starting point. There can be movements happening, and that’s super important, but those movements happen from your own microcosmic movement inside of yourself. That’s where I feel like I’m interested in this work. What is my relationship to this in my dance practice? And what can that evoke when people watch it?

JT:  I am also thinking about ecstasy—the ecstatic particularly in Black church worship. When I saw the piece as a work-in-progress, you chose a different song to end the piece, but when I saw the dance as a part of Dancing  Platform, you used “Maggot Brain” by Funkadelic. I’m thinking about that moment, when as the music shifted, so did your movement. It made me think of those moments of ecstasy and how they function in Black womanhood, particularly in the context of a church. When you feel the Holy Ghost and you dance, and you shout, and you may cry, and that gives a cathartic release so that you can have that moment of truly resting. So, I’m wondering how ecstasy and catharsis play into this dance?

AP:  I do think about ecstasy a lot. I’ve thought about it a lot in past projects. I mean, it’s obviously there in this project but it didn’t really come up to the surface for me. But that last section, I’m doing a lot of spins and doing circles and moving my body through space with a lot of volume to my body movement. That track was crazy and I knew I needed to dance to it. I think about this also in praise and worship music; it can really take you somewhere. In a lot of ways, that’s the way that song was functioning for me. It gave me something to swim in, in order to get to catharsis. Then I could rest. I think that section of the dance is about reconciling, wanting to be in the space and not wanting to be in the space.

Wanting to do this piece for this platform and being asked to think about these very specific, historical violences and the specific land that you’re standing on…it is like I don’t want to put my body in this space to feel, depressed by this, but I asked myself “OK then, how can I make a section of material that works with this?”

And that’s what came out and for me, that answer was like to constantly keep moving, that’s a tactic that we do in life where like, shit is heavy and you’re just like, “All right, we just gotta keep shifting stuff around.” And for me, I was trying to reorient myself to the space in some way.

This funk music allows me to keep goingI could say, “OK. I’m done now.” And now, I’m gonna lay down and slip into the side of this altar imagining that I was like slipping down into a crevice instead of just like sitting on a step you know?

JT:   Where do you see those moments of ecstasy or joy being created in other places, besides the church?

AP:  So on my birthday this year, my friend and I were doing this video shoot, and I was like, “You know what? I wanna spend my birthday with her and like a couple of other friends. And I only wanna hang out with my Black friends.” It was like six of us around the table. There was a particular type of joy. I mean, Tommy DeFrantz talks about it a lot. It’s like Black joy can’t realize itself in community with white audiences. I think that is true.

And there was a particular amount of joy around that table while we were drinking and eating and, remembering common histories, talking about grandmothers but also talking about music, talking about nostalgia, talking about death. There was just a range. It was just like a depth of seeing each other that I felt is so specific and important. So, yeah, being in community with Black people solely. I feel like joy can be seen in that. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe Tolbert is the Director of Community Engagement for the Carpetbag Theatre, Inc, scholar, and Cultural Organizer. He received his B.S. in Communication from the University of Tennessee and an M.Div. in Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He is also a writer who has contributed articles to Alternate Roots, Quiet Lunch, among others. He started a podcast Art at the Intersections to archive the work of artists who work at the intersections of art, culture, and social justice in an effort to build the knowledge of the field. As a consultant, he is a sought-after facilitator and cultural strategist that works with communities to help them harness the power of art and culture through the building, implementation, and evaluation of cultural strategies.

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