Dunham in the Air: A Reflection on Radical Choreographies and Programming Social Justice – The Feminist Wire

Dunham in the Air: A Reflection on Radical Choreographies and Programming Social Justice

By Aimee Meredith Cox, Ph.D.



I was on my way to Santa Fe last summer marveling at the technology that allowed me to be online in flight. I slept through the first leg from JFK to Minneapolis, struggling with how to finish the piece I was writing on the esteemed anthropologist, choreographer, and bad-ass Black woman, Katherine Dunham. Dunham was in my dreams. I woke up as the plane touched down with greater clarity than I had yet to have over the past few weeks while grappling with the central questions of the piece: what it means to work at the intersection of  anthropology, performance, and social justice with young black women.

I was part of a group of very lucky scholars/artists who were participating in a week-long seminar at the School for Advanced Research investigating the intellectual, theoretical, artistic, and social justice (just to keep the list manageable) impact of Dunham’s legacy. In the chapter I was working through, I wrote along the seams of anthropological theory, ethnographic practice, youth cultural studies, and dance. Continually challenged by and irritated with my own and others ill-defined, overused, and implicit interchangeable usage of the terms “social justice education” and “arts activism,” I was writing (and dancing) towards what I craved: clearer, more productive definitions, along with greater specificity in the application of the pedagogical and creatively transformative work these terms are meant to represent. Throughout, Dunham served as frame of reference and guide.


Up Tempo

Sometimes, “We support you,” can be the most intimidating words to hear, regardless of how long you have waited to hear them. I entered a faculty position at Fordham University this fall, a move made precisely because I believe these words to be true. The support offered from my colleagues and the administration extends not just to me but to the communities of young black women from Detroit to Newark whose lives have been intertwined with my own since the late 1990s. The nature of these relationships has most concretely taken shape through our creative work together in The BlackLight Project.

The BlackLight Project emerged while I was completing my dissertation on a homeless shelter for young women in Detroit and concurrently working as the interim director of the shelter. This was a period in my life where I attempted to shed my identity as a dancer as I just recently left Ailey II in the hopes that the “life of the mind” might be more holistically gratifying and materially sustaining than the life of a dancer. It was here in the space of this shelter  and predominantly African American, that I first witnessed the speedy disruption of the illogically drawn oppositional categories I used to make sense out of and order my life: artist/scholar, university/community, researcher/researched – binaries Katherine Dunham ignored with glamour and finesse for most of her life.

The tighter I held onto the false distinctions I believed would validate my work as a budding anthropologist, the more intriguing became the unspoken counter-testimony from the residents through the way they lived their lives and responded to the multiple factors that often made this living incredibly challenging, if not untenable. Their partial reply to the competing obstacles in their young lives took the form of dancing and writing their individual and collective stories. More than just a creative expression program, these reciprocal self-crafted performances were social statements with political relevance. Within a few weeks, I was dancing and writing with the residents; and within a few months, the idea of young homeless women dancing and writing as social commentary was intriguing enough to acquire grant-supported funding. Although funding was truly a gift – allowing the residents to receive paid training so that they could lead creative workshops and discussion groups within and outside of the shelter – it also came with a fair amount of constraints.

Ultimately, the young women perceived the grant-supported programmatic aspects of their creative political work as much less important and influential (in their own lives and in their own communities) than the unfunded and “unprogrammable” street theater events they staged at bus stops, sidewalks, and in public housing courtyards. For, it was in these contexts, where their dancing bodies and reverberating voices met the tangible physical parameters of the urban landscape and the insightfully frustrated grumblings of other Detroiters, that the non-profit model of a youth program or traditionally organized performing arts project lost it meaning. You cannot, as these young women showed, program social justice or bullet-point the fundable objectives towards grassroots social transformation.

Nonetheless, upon leaving Detroit for Newark, New Jersey, I wanted to find a way to at least see how young black women in Newark, regardless of their life circumstances, viewed their creative efficacy, and what that might mean for supporting their transformative artistic work in their own communities.  The overriding question for me was, and still is, how to do this without acting as the all-knowing researcher whose institutional authority should suffice for true experience and real relationships. How, in other words,  could The BlackLight Project be programmed in Newark without merely staging a replication of the work of the young women in Detroit? And, perhaps, even more importantly, how might I know if it should even be done in the first place? BlackLight, although called a project, is really a movement. This is work that is inspired and literally moved and propelled forward by the motivations, values and passions of young black women. I at least knew enough to know that these powerful forces are not the same for all young black women across time and space and circumstance. The multiplicity and complexity of what race, gender, sexuality, class, and youth categories mean in Detroit or Newark or the five boroughs of New York is the uncategorizable solidarity that grounds BlackLight.


Pas de deux: The Pairing of Social Justice Education and Arts Activism

Over the past year and half that I have been living in Newark, New Jersey, I have been sustained by the work with young black and brown females who fearlessly dance, write, and perform new pathways for realizing community transformation. In the words and movements of these incredible young women of BlackLight, I’ve seen the most elevated aspects of who we are as a global community. And yet, as buoyed as I am by their passionate and fearless belief in themselves, and a city that some would have us believe only a Cory Booker could love, I have to remind myself to not operate by way of a deficit non-profit industrial complex mindset. I am always anxious about sustainability, even after a successful series of events that culminated with a powerful performance in May and the possibility of expansion and new collaborations with other grassroots organizations. I still ask myself: Will the kids stay? How will we go on with little to no funding? How do I continue to honor this work and get tenure? Are we really having an impact? Does it matter? Even though I know that these questions should not apply to BlackLight’s implicit mission to be something different from and, perhaps, more than a non-profit program, it is not easy work for me to completely step outside of a mindset that believes that adults have to “program” and “project” social justice for young people.  Furthermore, a mindset that suggests that the only way to stay relevant is through the financial support of the very foundations and corporations that necessitate our need to organize and develop radical interventions in the first place.

I have learned so much from the fierce black and brown girls who have participated in BlackLight in both Detroit and Newark. Most of what I have learned has come from really listening to their brilliance and paying better attention to the ways in which they move through the world outside of the context of our program. One of the first young women to join BlackLight in Newark, Rita, is a member of one of the close to a hundred youth-led street teams in Newark. On the surface it looks as if these groups of 40+ young women and men ranging in age from 14-25 are just throwing large-scale public parties for other young people for fun and personal profit. If you take a closer look, you will see one of the most progressive models of cooperative economics, community building, and social networking in our society. The online presence and marketing capacities of the street teams encourage hundreds of young people to come together in peace – dancing, making music, and nurturing the type of careful solidarity that leads to (or already is) mobilization – the very thing that BlackLight aspires to in our work. The ways in which Rita and other young people on her team navigate city politics and establish relationships with diverse contingencies of adults and young people throughout the greater NJ/NYC area provides them with a realistic understanding of how systems based on social, political and cultural capital work, while enhancing their capacity to affect change in and beyond their communities—this is the real social and political mobility adult administrators leading progressive minded youth programs often just talk about. The philosophy of BlackLight has always already been a part of how young people see and exercise their roles in community—a fact that will remain so with or without the structure of a bonafide program or budget, regardless of the support offered or denied in any new institutional space or geographic location. The challenge now, however, is to figure out how to ask for real support rooted in shared visions and courageous acts of community solidarity. This minimally means figuring out how impressive titles, institutions, and material resources are used to open access to young people in the ways they define as essential, rather than using them as tools to implement control or take credit for young people’s courageous creative labor.


Radical Choreographies

The Sexy Walk, The Patty Cake and the other dances that creatively emerge nearly every month out of a collaborative improvisation of street team DJs and the club dancers who bring the DJs playlist to life, are a visible and visceral roadmap of black-folks-embodied-cultural-history in the United States. I love the fact that, as Rita told me, a new dance usually “hits” when someone who is trying to master one of the current popular dances fails and comes up with their own physical riff on the original. That, to me, is the essence of who we are as black and brown women, young and old, with access to capital and without—continually making something newer, flyer, bolder, hotter than what came before….and for good reason. The money that the street teams raise from the parties goes back into the organization and often supports the community in charitable ways. The lifted energy they create is the fuel, the vapor in the air of cities like Newark and Detroit, that keeps us all alive–whether we realize it or not.

In an interview conducted in East St. Louis in 1977, Katherine Dunham talks about being “inculcated with the idea of eliminating social injustice.” We feel you, Katherine. We feel you on our streets. We feel you in our black and brown female bodies. BlackLight feels you as we keep making plans and making art and remaking life—fearlessly. I feel you as I continue to confront my own tendency to rely on the false comfort of the partitioned off spaces, disciplinary distinctions, and discretely defined ways of being that unimaginatively undermine all of our movements.

To read more about the BlackLight Project: http://www.theblacklightproject.org and


Aimee Meredith Cox is an assistant professor of Performance and African and African American Studies at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. Dr. Cox’s research and teaching interests include expressive culture and performance; urban youth culture; public anthropology; Black girlhood and Black feminist theory. She is currently completing a book entitled, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship in Post-Industrial Detroit. Shapeshifters is an ethnographic exploration of the performative strategies young black women in low-income urban communities use to access various forms of self-defined economic and social mobility.  She is also the artistic director of the young women of color-led BlackLight Project, and is completing her book, Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship.

Follow Aimee Meredith Cox at or contact her at [email protected].