Dance with a Purpose: Interview with Naomi Bragin
Issue #59, February 2002
Dance has befuddled me ever since sixth grade, when my parents decided every aspiring young gentleman should know how to ballroom dance and sent me off to cotillion. For them, it was a matter of keeping up with the Joneses at private school, who were sending their children to cotillion. For me, it was a weekly exercise in sheer, adrenalized terror. I showed up formal on disco night and should never have gone back. But I did, week after week, either to tattoo the sweatiest-palmed girl with the heels of my orthopedic shoes — kids were allowed to pick their own partners, and she was always left to me — or to be pulled away by the exasperated teacher, who was far too lovely and vivacious to dance partnered with any pubescent male, but nonetheless would drag me across the floor when I held back the class. That experience involved its own exquisite terrors that decency requires me to refrain from telling. Suffice it to say that at my first junior high dance, when a girl I halfway liked actually asked me to dance, I knew exactly what to do: I ran crying out of the gym, and I haven't gone back to dance since.
So when I sat down not too long ago with dance activist Naomi Bragin, and she started talking about using dance to get young people moving in their own bodies instead of mimicking someone else's, I felt that, just as I felt the work of the youth performance company she directs. Destiny Youth Arts is a performing arts workshop on one of the grimier blocks of Oakland, California. In a space three storefronts wide, about 200 kids take arts classes while developing professional-grade performances that tour on demand. Whether the occasion is the San Francisco Hip-Hop Dance Festival, the greeting of dignitaries from Congresswoman Barbara Lee to Desmond Tutu's daughter, an in-school appearance to promote peaceful conflict resolution, or a benefit for a laundry list of non-profits, the multicultural crew of young performers is ubiquitous in the Bay Area. Their work blends martial arts, dance, theater, and spoken word in performances that cut through the platitudes of leftspeak with the intensity of I-centered experience, told by young people growing into the world around them.
For Naomi, theories of physical movement and social movements intersect; building strength in one helps develop strength in the other. Whether she's using dance to teach non-violence, dancing in the streets with the radical dance collective Emma Said, or taking kids to Los Angeles to dance at protests outside the Democratic National Convention, Naomi's art and politics are always grounded. "You can't just do some hippy dance and expect people to relate!" she laughs. After running into Naomi out and about over the years, I enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with her, delve into her own dance past, and find out how this house head ended up dancing to stop delegates at the WTO.
BS: What's your official title?
Bragin: I am the artistic director of the Destiny Youth Performance Company. I conduct rehearsals twice a week with the youth; I choreograph and direct different pieces that we perform; I also take them to performances in the community. In the spring we do a longer running show, with all the different works that youth themselves [create over the year]. Aside that, I teach a class in my own technique, which I call fusion. The movements are basically a combination of different styles of African diaspora dance, such as jazz, Afro-Brazilian, hip-hop, Latin dance, salsa, etc. I also teach a class in freestyle dance called Freestyle Fridays.
BS: How long have you been at Destiny?
Bragin: I started coming in as a volunteer, at the beginning of 1999. I just kind of stepped my toe into the door; I was sucked in like a vacuum, which is how most people get involved in Destiny. [laughs]
I saw a performance, and was really inspired by the maturity of knowledge and feeling in the works that the kids were producing. The words are their own. We help them find inspiration; we help them develop their ideas, but in the end, they're the ones on stage speaking to an audience, talking about things that are personal. It was really inspiring for me to see their ability to be vulnerable on stage at such a young age, to talk about important and difficult and controversial issues such as being gay, such as being a young person of color, such as being young. [laughs]
And also to express that not just through words, but through dance, through poetry, through song, theater, and music. The variety of [arts] is what really marks us; we don't just do one thing. Spoken word is very popular these days among youth, but we don't just do spoken word. Hip-hop dance is very popular, but we don't just do hip-hop. We have this combination of different young people with all kinds of talents, and we really try to [bring them together] in our community at Destiny. I came in, [started] working with the performance company, teaching them some choreography, and there was definitely a connection. And it grew into this relationship.
BS: How old are the kids you're working with?
Bragin: 13 to 18, and that's interesting, because there's a lot of development between 13 and 18. We have some very mature young people for 13, but our older members can be on a totally different life experience tip, just cuz they have to. They're already considered adults in our society; they're usually facing a lot of things that make it different for them.
There are classes [for ages] 3 to 18 at Destiny; that's separate from the performance company. The performance company you audition for; once you become a member, your commitment is to take classes as well as do rehearsal and performances. Meanwhile, all these other things are going on: we have programs in martial arts, dance, youth leadership; youth leaders go into the community and teach our violence prevention curriculum. We have the teddy bears program for the 3 to 5 year-olds; they're really cute. [laughs] They learn their martial arts self-defense moves, and they learn how to be articulate, how to use their voices, how to stand up for themselves, how to speak. We have youth dance classes for 7 to 11 year-olds, and then we have the teen classes.
BS: How much performing is Destiny doing?
Bragin: Crazy amounts, and it's really good. We select which events we can do, and each event is really an educational experience for the members of the company. Often we select it based on whether we think it would be good for them to get this experience.
BS: How are the events educational?
Bragin: For instance, two years ago, we performed at a people of color conference in San Francisco. There was about 600-1000 youth of color from alternative high schools all around the nation. They saw us perform, and we had six standing ovations. They were just completely entranced. Everyone wanted us to come travel out to NY, DC, wherever they were. That was very empowering for us as young people of color, to really get beyond the scope of the Bay Area.
Once we did a performance for the Middle East Children's Alliance. These kids from a refugee camp on the Gaza Strip shared the concert with us; they have a youth company like ours. We all performed, and afterwards, we got to go in the dressing room and have a little bootyshake [laughs]. They showed us the dances they do, and we showed them hip-hop. And it was just amazing, to have this happen a couple of years ago, before all of this [9/11] stuff went down. It was a very intense connection, and some of the youth stayed in contact with those young people. Today, I don't know even where they are or how you'd be able to contact them.
Some of these events are about opening their visions of the world, of different cultures, of what youth in different cultures experience, which is all very important to the work that we do. Getting them up in front of people, to have a voice, to know how to speak also really opens them up. Often times, after shows, we'll have a question and answer session with the audience. At first, everyone was shy and it was like pulling hairs to get the youth to talk, and by the end, they're rolling; we had to stop them. Every performance is a learning experience for them to become bolder, to become more articulate, to become more comfortable, to have a public persona in a way, which is what you have to have as a performer.
BS: How has Destiny grown since you've been there?
Bragin: I don't know that it's grown, but it changes. The focus of our work, our purpose, changes depending on the group of young people. We have a completely new group of young people than when I first came. With this year's group, a lot of our focus is: how do we build community?
The older company — the one I stepped into, when I first started working here — was all friends. Most of them knew each other; they were all very educated and very articulate about political issues; they had been in that "I'm-in-a-diverse-community-since-the-day-I was-born; I've known you and you and you and you're Asian and you're Black and you're white and you're Latina," so that wasn't even an issue. That company was much more about wanting to make political statements about different things.
Our company now is all different kinds of kids that come from different areas [for different reasons]. As a director, it's about taking the pulse of the company, seeing what they're asking for, so the show is gonna be like this. We talk with the youth about their issues coming into the company. Dealing with race is a big thing. For instance, some of the youth in the company had never worked with white kids. They were like, yeah, all the people I've ever danced with were black! So being in a company with young people of other racial backgrounds was a big difference for them, and we were attacking it from that level. Like, what does that mean to you? That's a really important thing that we have to address before we can go on to some more "political" issues or whatever.
We were working on very basic issues, like what does it mean to be a community? Who are you as an individual young person? And at this point, we've really developed a family. There was some concerns that maybe we didn't go deep enough into the racial issue — the different issues we were addressing — that we maybe glossed over some stuff. Maybe we sacrificed that in order to really take the young people where they're at; we don't need to necessarily be at a certain standard of our work, when that's not what's gonna really benefit the young people. It's dope to see where the company has gone. There's a whole process that those who just see our performances are never gonna fully know.
BS: When did you first get into dance?
Bragin: I took ballet, as every little girl does, but I didn't really get into dance until I was 19 or 20. I'd always dabbled, took dance rather than take P.E. and run a mile every day, but I never realized it could be a lifelong passion. I wasn't in a space where that was an obvious option.
If I could have had a place like Destiny...That's probably why I stay: because it fulfills some childhood longing. [laughs] I used to choreograph whole ballets in my room, when I was in elementary school. [laughs] I had the whole theater set-up in my head, and [everyone's] entrances, and the solos, and all that.
In my community, there was dance studios, but if there had been a strong sense of community, of young people being empowered, of young people having a voice... That's something a lot of young people need; it's not just, "Oh, I'm going to dance class to be a star." It takes a lot of courage and a lot of vision and a lot of just straight sweat to go and enroll in a dance class as a young person. But to be able to enroll and have a community to work in and develop as an artist, beyond just [having] good technique: that's not something you often see. That's what Destiny offers.
BS: Were you a political kid?
Bragin: I don't think anyone would ever describe me as a political person when I was young. But I had a very strong political awareness, in terms of having a moral sense of right and wrong, and knowing what I thought was right and wrong about this world. I don't think in terms of being educated politically. I actually used to avoid reading newspapers and magazines. Being political is a loaded term, you know.
BS: Why did you get into dance in college?
Bragin: The dance program at Wesleyan was inspiring; it was actually one of the reasons I chose to go there. Their program opened my idea of what dance was. I used to see it as very straight up ballet/jazz [classical training]. Wesleyan was much more about creating your own choreography, creating your own ideas of dance. Dance is just movement, expressing your body as an art form, so it became a natural way for me to express myself. Once I opened my mind to it and was able to expand my definition of what it was, then I had a lot of talent and drive to use my body.
BS: Why'd you get into house music in college?
Bragin: I got into house just by going out, being part of the club scene in L.A. [where I grew up], being part of the club scene in New York. My experience with freestyle dancing comes from being in that scene, and Wesleyan was a totally different community: this academic, "let's go into the studio and choreograph a house piece." Now there are actually classes in house dancing, [but then] it was more of an underground dance form. My interest was to bring house dancing and freestyle dancing to a performance area, like bring it into choreography, bring it to the stage. That was a problem to solve, like how can you bring this form that you see on a dance floor in a club into choreography; how do you put structure on that.
BS: What did you get out of house?
Bragin: You can find a community within underground dance. There's a sense of community that's brought out through the style of dancing: you go out on the dance floor at a club, and really in a way you connect with the people moving on that floor. [Whether] you find that is really up to the dancers themselves. In terms of it being political, I wouldn't say that it necessarily is. That's something you have to come up with as an artist; if you want that to be a political purpose, that's up to you, and that means having a lot of different influences, not just going out and dancing for fun.
BS: You got into hip-hop at Wesleyan, too, right? Was there something particular about that community?
Bragin: I began to realize a strong connection to the hip-hop community when I came to the Bay Area, because the hip-hop community is so strong here, and I relate to it so well in terms of its politics and artistic integrity and the level that hip-hop artists achieve here. All of that together was inspiring to me.
I graduated from Wesleyan in 1995, and I moved out to the Bay Area on a whim. [laughs] At first, I worked with two other women in a small company called Caribbean Music and Dance; we organized trips to Cuba and Brazil to study. Then I started to see a whole nother world of dance, and I found a lot of connections in those forms of dance to the style I had been creating within myself for years. It was very natural for me to step into that, and that's where I started.
And then Destiny was a total chance. I hadn't been thinking about doing anything like that; I hadn't really been thinking about taking dance, but I went to go see this show, and I said, I want to do whatever it means to do that. I didn't come into Destiny thinking I was going to be directing this performance company. And I've learned so much in terms of actual technical skills from being there: how to direct a show; what goes into producing a show... Just being around young people that are growing, it may seem like we're watching them grow, but really, we're growing along with them. They help us to grow, as much as we help them.
BS: Tell me about Freestyle Fridays.
Bragin: Freestyle Fridays is pretty dope, all kindsa kids. We get primarily people of color, primarily working class, all youth and young adults, ages 13 to 30. It's about freestyle dancing, and we don't really have [much] like that in Destiny.
Freestyle Fridays is not like a traditional class: it's about just dancing; you make the class into whatever you want. If you want to sit around and do nothing, then you're gonna learn nothing. And if you want to get on the floor and experiment, then you're gonna learn everything. Everyone that comes to Freestyle Fridays is there, and that's excellent; it's not a place to hang out or party. It's primarily a place to develop your dance skills through [meeting and] watching others. That's why we have our age range, and also a range of experience. We have professional dancers that tour and compete, and then we have young dancers who may be doing this for the first time. What we really want is for youth to see professionally produced stuff by other youth, being involved in the youth community.
BS: What's the significance of having a freestyle dance class versus a traditional dance class?
Bragin: Just the idea of improvisation in your art form. It's not about learning to do this move the way the person teaching me does it. It's more about opening your eyes to what movement is, to be able to watch movement and create movement, to know your body and what your body has the ability to do, and to build from there, using the music, which is all live music, to inspire your movements. It's not about oh, I need to do this choreography or these sequences; those aren't the skills you're teaching them necessarily, although they might gain those.
BS: What's the connection between that and what you were learning at Wesleyan?
Bragin: It's almost [come] full circle for me, because that's what inspired me originally to be a dancer: to realize that I don't need to find that movement. That movement already exists within me. First I need to be able to open up, just be able to dance, to feel my body, to feel comfortable constructing my own movement. That's something people really wanna be able to do, too. It's just like finding your own voice.
BS: You said going to Cuba and Brazil introduced you to a "whole nother world of dance." What was different? Was it the role of dance in those countries?
Bragin: In Latin America and the Caribbean, there's definitely more of an ease, a comfort being within your body, and being open to expressing yourself through movement. You see people of all ages, young and old, just comfortable expressing themselves and wanting to see other people express themselves.
BS: Was there anything about the concept of politicizing dance that you saw?
Bragin: All of the African diasporic dance forms have a political element, because they were basically created out of a people that were oppressed, that were brought over as slaves. Every kind of dance there — say, from samba to their religious dancing — has a political element, capoeira very [much so].
I could relate capoeira most easily to breakdancing in the United States. First of all, breakdancing was created from a lot of capoeira moves, but also the culture was looked down upon, or marginalized, by the mainstream community. People that are into hip-hop being stereotyped as thugs, or whatever. The same thing happens with capoeira in Brazil, where it's young people doing it: there was a time in Brazil where if you were a capoeirista, you were pretty much marked as a gangster; capoeira was outlawed. There was a whole squadron of the police in Brazil that was specifically created to combat capoeira [laughs] to infiltrate the capoeira world. It's very similar to the situation with gangs in the United States. There was a big force to keep that art form from developing.
I was attracted to capoeira because it had a very political element, because it came from this culture of a people that tried to rise above their oppression, and were trying to have a voice and empower themselves within a society that really doesn't care about them, that wasn't giving them the tools to empower themselves. So they had to create their own forms of empowerment, and capoeira was one of those; samba is another; the creation of Afro-Brazilian dance was another. But within all those dance forms, they disguised their cultural conditions through movement, through song; they were able to worship in secret by [transmuting] the Catholic saints with the African gods. With capoeira, they disguised martial art, this fighting, this training, as a dance, as a harmless dance, and at this point, you can't say capoeira's just a fight or just a martial art or just a dance. It's got all those elements; that's what makes it so special.
You walk down the street in Brazil; there's capoeira or just hundreds of people dancing on the cobblestones. Every day the samba groups come out into the square and perform live; there will be constant rodas, like little capoeira circles. People get up with certain skills and are accompanied; women will push the men aside and dance...
BS: So did your interest in politicizing dance and doing it outside come straight from there?
Bragin: It definitely influenced me, but it's hard to say exactly. My work with Emma Said Dance Collective got specifically political, because as a collective, we were performing at rallies and marches and protests. I feel like it all happened at once, because I have that desire to both express myself as a dancer and to express my feelings about different social justice issues.
BS: When did you join Emma Said, and start dancing out in public?
Bragin: I must have joined Emma Said in 1999. One of the first performances we did together, when I was there, was at the WTO [meetings in Seattle]. It was in the afternoon on the first day of the protests, when we found out we were able to close down the WTO session for that day. There were hundreds and hundreds of people out in the intersection, and there were riot cops, and there was a lockdown platform with about twenty people on lockdown. Lockdown means they join hands under a metal platform; then they lock their arms together, and put this thing made out of chicken wire and cardboard or something around their arms so that you can't cut through the chain. They asked us to get up on the platform and perform for them, and we got up there, and all of a sudden, these hundreds of people who had been shouting and going crazy [laughs] just went completely quiet. It was amazing; we were all there; we were dressed all in black; it had been raining all day, and we did a very simple and heartfelt piece. Of course, our piece never made the evening news, but it was probably the most powerful thing I've ever experienced in my life, and that's [true] for a lot of the other people there. And people sang for us as we were moving; everyone sang together; there were hundreds of people singing; one of my friends actually started singing "Amazing Grace" and everyone joined her. And we danced to the music of the audience. It was a beautiful moment of unity and peace and community that was created through that dance.
BS: Were there any other memorable experiences at WTO?
Bragin: Well, we were able to kind of counteract some potentially violent situations. Like the night before, we were on a march, and there were people trying to break the windows at Niketown. The whole crowd sort of focused in on the violence aspect of the march. We got up and were able to divert people's attentions with our repertory, and people just stopped. And it was enough to stop them and just calm the violence; people needed that moment just to refocus and be cool again. That actually happened a couple of times. Those were really the moments I hold closest.
BS: Why dance outside?
Bragin: It's political, just in that you're giving access to a whole different community of people. There's a lot of people that aren't going to go pay $10 or $15 to sit in the theater. There's a rawness to being outside, like right where the stuff you're talking about is happening; it definitely makes it a lot more real. You have to confront things head on; it really makes you think, what am I...what is this performance about? There's a realness and a close connection to your community that can't happen anywhere else. You have to really think, what is the community I'm serving, and what are they going to relate to? You can't just go out and do some hippy dance and [expect] people to relate to that! [laughs] You have to be able to truly be a voice of the community.
And you know, at the WTO, we were confronting the actual process, the actual people right there. They were on their way, and they were not going to get there, because we were in their way. There, that right there, that's art for a political purpose. [laughs]