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Kelly McDonnell

Despite financial hardship, Joy of Motion Dance Center marches forward with new board of directors

By Kelly McDonnell 

This article was first published March 2, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Summer 2020 ignited change for the Joy of Motion Dance Center, a DC-based nonprofit. Financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic prompted the closure of two of the center’s studios. The organization’s reckoning with racist experiences faced by staff and dancers of color led to an overhaul of Joy of Motion’s board of directors last fall.

A petition with almost 5,000 signatures called for leadership changes at Joy of Motion. Started in June, the petition cited multiple instances in which leaders had allegedly body-shamed dancers and unfairly discriminated against Black instructors. The previous board of directors stepped down on Oct. 16.

Carol Foster is now chair of Joy of Motion’s board of directors and the first Black woman to hold the position. Foster has also worked on projects with the National Endowment for the Arts and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. She currently serves on the Kennedy Center’s Culture Caucus, which organizes events that mostly take place at the center’s REACH campus.

“People have to trust that there is change afoot at Joy of Motion,” Foster said in an interview with The DC Line. “It’s really critical right now for Joy of Motion, because of the pandemic, because of all of the racial issues that came out, that … you have to be accountable through action.”

Foster said she wasn’t surprised to see the petition or the incidents cited in it, and she doesn’t believe anyone in the Black community at Joy of Motion was surprised by it either. Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests of the killing of Black people by police officers following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade were a catalyst for the petition, Foster said.

“What Black Lives Matter did was give [Black] people a way to be comfortable to say what’s on our mind. People need to be called out,” Foster said.

Krystal Odom, who has worked at Joy of Motion for 15 years, is the organization’s new interim executive director. She is the first Black woman in the position.

Odom said the petition was “necessary” for the organization to improve. Odom has taught ballet and hip-hop with Joy of Motion Dance Center, and she wants to include more instruction in dance history in the group’s classes and programming. After having eliminated two locations, Joy of Motion continues to operate a partner studio at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE, as it has since 2005. Joy of Motion’s virtual programming for youth and adults includes drop-in classes, multi-week courses and on-demand recordings. The organization will be scheduling events such as webinars, film screenings and guest artist classes, and it recently held a busy slate of President’s Day Weekend workshops

“It’s important for students who come into our virtual space, our physical space to relearn where dance styles originate from. … It helps them to be able to look at [other dancers] in ways they didn’t before,” Odom said.

Since taking over, the new leadership at Joy of Motion has done anti-racism professional development training and created procedures for faculty, staff and students to report “concerns regarding equity, discrimination, and safety,” according to a press release from the organization. Concerns will be addressed using a “restorative justice” model, the press release said.

Odom said conversations about anti-racism, discrimination and privilege hadn’t taken place in the past at Joy of Motion. She’s hopeful that these continuing, sometimes uncomfortable, discussions will improve leadership and studio practices.

Coinciding with the leadership shakeup, Joy of Motion also announced the closure of two of its three centers. 

The Friendship Heights studio and theater, which had been open for more than 30 years at 5207 Wisconsin Ave. NW, closed in September after the landlord decided not to renew the organization’s lease, Foster said. Odom added that Joy of Motion had experienced a difficult relationship with its landlord in recent years.

The Bethesda studio space at 7315 Wisconsin Ave. closed at the end of November due to financial constraints.

Odom said that the demise of these studios will unfortunately distance the organization from many of its participants. The Friendship Heights studio served Joy of Motion’s largest adult population, while the Bethesda studio hosted three conservatory-style programs for youth dancers.

With only one open studio and pandemic restrictions on in-person classes still in place, Joy of Motion now serves — virtually for now — about 113 students weekly, compared to over 1,200 students before the pandemic began, according to the nonprofit’s website.

The pandemic has hit small businesses and nonprofits particularly hard, Foster said. Joy of Motion has received financial support from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities as well as a loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. But the racial issues at Joy of Motion and the financial strain of the pandemic have negatively impacted donations, she added.

“No matter what, you try to keep your doors open,” Foster said. 

In a Dec. 1 post on the Joy of Motion website, the organization reported that “tuition from enrollment, grants, and individual donations have significantly decreased leaving a monthly shortfall of approximately $100,000.” Joy of Motion received only about $500 in individual contributions in September, October and November. The organization didn’t respond to requests for an update about how fundraising has gone since then, but a mid-December appeal on Joy of Motion’s Facebook page said that despite reduced expenditures “our organization is still in desperate need of an infusion of financial support in order to maintain operations.”

It hasn’t been easy making so many changes under such financially stressed, racially charged and socially distanced circumstances, both Odom and Foster said. But the organization is eager to keep rebuilding while incorporating conscious changes that better the community and ensure that “dance is for everyone,” Foster said.

“We don’t want to dwell on what has happened,” Odom said, “but we don’t want to forget.”

LGBTQ Black History: Black Transgender Activist Elle Hearns

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 25, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Elle Hearns has been an activist ever since she was growing up in Columbus, OH. She credits her inspiration from Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, and Marsha P. Johnson, though she is inspiring all on her own.

Hearns is currently the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, which she founded in 2015 and has quickly become a leading organization fighting for an end to violence against Black transgender people through civil disobedience, direct action, and community organizing.

She was also a co-founding member of the Black Lives Matter Global Network. She also led a GetEQUAL campaign for Tamir Rice, a Black child who was shot and killed by Cleveland police. She advocated for a revised case for Rice and called for the immediate firing of the officers involved.

During the 2020 summer protests for Black Lives Matter, Hearns was vocal about protecting those who intersect with Black and transgender identities, especially after Tony McDade, who was Black and transgender, was killed by police in Tallahassee, FL. In interviews, she called for abolishing the police as the way to abolish anti-Blackness and transphobia.

Under Hearns’ leadership in 2020, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was able to give over 400 Black transgender people in America stipends, totaling over $250,000, for COVID-19 relief.

Hearns has a love for cosmetics and beauty, but she said she struggled to conform to Midwestern beauty standards and protested how her jobs would force her to appeal to customers in a style that wasn’t her own. Hearns still talks about how Black women have power in their beauty alone: “Our beauty is unmatched. Periodt. I remember being a young girl and recognizing the curve in my lip and the curl in my hair and being so fascinated that no one looked like me. It is completely fair to say that we are unapologetic.”

Hearns’ fierce will and political power is active and unshakeable, making her an assured Black History Month figure in the present and future.

DC’s 2020 youth poet laureate finds renewed hope in writing, community, and a new presidency

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 16, 2021 in The DC Line here.

Marjan Naderi, DC’s youth poet laureate in 2020, had long worried that poetry was dying. After years of expressing herself through poems, winning slam poetry contests, and even publishing her own book, Naderi wondered whether her craft was worth the effort anymore.

“We spent the past four years seeing our speech as something disposable, when it’s anything but that,” Naderi said in an interview with The DC Line. “Is this nation even ready for poems? Especially the last few years, I was like, ‘What am I doing?’”

And then she listened as Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, Gorman was chosen as the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in 2017.

“Amanda just really … hit a new wave on the head,” Naderi said. “Welcome poetry! We’re having poetry at the Super Bowl! It really affirmed that the work that I’m doing is worthy.”

Naderi and Gorman are poets who achieved youth laureate recognition through programs created by Urban Word in New York City.

As the District’s youth poet laureate last year, Naderi was scheduled to conduct a performance tour around the city, including speaking engagements at public libraries and multiple Busboys and Poets bookstore cafes. She served on the Kennedy Center’s Youth Advisory Board. 

Chosen annually by the local arts organization Words, Beats & Life Inc., the honoree is a poet, 13 to 19 years of age, who has expressed creativity in language, has served the community through social justice activism and has demonstrated leadership. Amiri Nash, a freshman at Brown University, has been newly named DC’s 2021 youth poet laureate.

Naderi — a six-time Poetry Grand Slam champion and author of the poetry collection Bloodline — was one of six national artists depicted in outdoor video portraits as part of Strathmore Center’s exhibit Monuments: Creative Forces, designed by artist Craig Walsh. Naderi, a 19-year-old University of Virginia student, was excited to be DC’s laureate because it was the culmination of such hard work. Naderi was born in Northern Virginia, so she grew up close to the city. As she started writing in eighth grade, the city and those who live within it became her muse.

Patrick Washington, Words, Beats & Life Inc.’s director of poetry, became acquainted with Naderi while working with her at workshops and seminars for four or five years before she became the organization’s laureate.

“She was lively, she never backed down from a disagreement. She stood her own with adults. I knew she was something special early on,” Washington said. When Words, Beats & Life Inc. looks for a poet laureate, it’s not just looking for a good poet, “but an outstanding human,” he added.

“She was uniquely formed by her experiences as a child of refugees,” Washington said. “That informs the type of person she is, and we like that — we like people who absorb and watch and then respond.”

Naderi was able to participate in some Youth Poet Laureate events early in 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic creeped in, but then venues closed and performances were canceled.

“A majority of my poems are blossomed from being out, seeing human beings carry themselves with nuance and joy and stories,” Naderi said. “I love writing portrait poems, going into various spaces and seeing life happen in its rawest form.”

Without the opportunities to observe people and find inspiration, Naderi said her mental health and creative writing both suffered. She also struggled to create poetry spaces online, but Naderi knew she had to keep expressing her feelings.

“I still kept [up with] my writing because I know that is the only thing that gets me through so much of being alive, so much of every day, where every moment can be a boost of joy or absolute agony or suffering,” Naderi said.

The pandemic limited her access to in-person community service, which she had frequently done in the past. Naderi has focused on education, particularly of Afghan children both in the DMV and in Afghanistan.

When the Black Lives Matter protests began, Naderi felt compelled to help. She organized a social media fundraiser that raised thousands of dollars. She used that money to buy food and health supplies for activists who protested for weeks in the city.

During that time, she said, she saw how contradictory DC is. In some gentrified neighborhoods, houses would be blocked off, with roads closed and people reluctant to join the protesting crowds, Naderi said. She added how disappointed she was to see her community splintered.

But Naderi said she also saw great rejoicing and organizing in the Black Lives Matter protests and during Juneteenth events.

“I saw what community meant at its rawest core, to be a tribe and to ever expand that tribe for love, to be human, becoming human at its forefront,” Naderi said. “I saw DC evolve over a span of a few weeks.”

Sensing such a powerful community both at Black Lives Matter protests and during Gorman’s inauguration performance felt like a new wave of hope, Naderi said.

“It was great to see that she was still flying the flag for spoken word, for poetry and expression,” Washington said of her work during the Black Lives Matter protests.

During the 2016 presidential campaign and Donald Trump’s time in the White House, Naderi said, she and her mother — along with many others in her Afghan community — experienced hate crimes. Naderi recalled a day in 2016 when her headscarf was yanked off her head “by a bigot.”

“As a Muslim, as an advocate, as a writer, as a woman, you lose sense of yourself and how this country holds you. Do they even respect you?” Naderi said.

Gorman’s performance and the ensuing excitement and conversation left Naderi feeling proud again to be involved in the poetry community. She said she was encouraged that Biden chose a poet to usher in a new era of “healing.”

“The poems we write will change nations, so long as we are given the platform,” Naderi said. “These youth poets are the future. We are writing history. We are writing and creating and moving a part of the force. We are the force itself. We come and we bless.”

LGBTQ Black History: Activist and Actress Josephine Baker

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 3, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Actress and activist Josephine Baker found the stage when she was barely a teenager, struggling with homelessness and poverty in St. Louis, but her enchanting presence on stages across the world would make her a memorable queer and Black icon.

In 1922, Baker performed in Shuffle Along, one of the first popular American Broadway musicals written and composed and performed by Black artists and Black actors. After this debut, she quickly became a star on stages both in the theatrical and political worlds.

Baker was celebrated during the Harlem Renaissance in New York City, a time of artistic and personal growth that championed Black identity and creativity in America. She eventually moved to Paris and performed on iconic stages and became one of the first popular Black silver screen stars in 1930.

During World War II, she assisted French operations to resist Nazi’s occupation of France. She reported Nazi secrets she overheard when performing for French rebels.

Baker returned to the United States in 1951, as the Civil Rights Movement began taking hold of politics and society. In 1963, she was one of the only women who spoke during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. She toured with the NAACP and raised funds for France’s International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism.

Baker was forthright about her sensuality and beauty as a Black woman. She did many photoshoots dressed in revealing clothing as well as in men’s tuxedos. Baker had four marriages throughout her lifetime and intimate relationships with women like Maude Russell, Clara Smith and Colette.

Baker died in 1975 in Paris, a few days after her final, sold-out performance.

When she spoke at the March on Washington, she expressed her power and resilience as a Black woman: “When I get mad, you know that I open my big mouth. And then look out, ’cause when Josephine opens her mouth, they hear it all over the world.”

PBS Spotlights Local Black Artists in New Documentary, Kindred Spirits

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published February 4, 2021 in The DC Line here.

When documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib was showcasing two films at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.’s 2014 conference on local history, she spotted an intriguing painting of the corner of Rhode Island Avenue and 3rd Street NW while perusing a small brochure. The modernist, geometric red hues of homes lining the LeDroit Park street and a gleaming, leafless tree bisecting the frame compelled Cabib to explore the work of the artist, Hilda Wilkinson Brown.

Years of research culminated in a new documentary produced and directed by Cabib called Kindred Spirits: Artists Hilda Wilkinson Brown and Lilian Thomas Burwell. The short film is being broadcast locally by PBS stations WHUT and MPT on Feb. 4 and by WETA’s World Channel on Feb. 10. PBS stations around the country have scheduled airings of the film for Black History Month programming.

The film rediscovers Brown, a mid-20th-century artist who painted DC’s neighborhoods and scenery; was a professor at Miner Teachers College in DC at a time when schools were segregated; and influenced her niece, Lilian Thomas Burwell, to become an artist as well.

Hilda Wilkinson Brown’s “Third and Rhode Island,” oil on canvas, is in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as a gift of Lilian Thomas Burwell. (Image courtesy of Lilian Thomas Burwell)

In the film, Burwell, now 93 years old, recalls the life and artistry of her aunt and talks about growing up in DC — struggling against segregation and discrimination as she pursued her own abstract expressionist art career.

Cabib said her goal with this film was to bring both women’s art into public view. Brown has pieces in collections of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Her piece Third and Rhode Island, which initially caught Cabib’s eye, is part of a traveling exhibit by the Smithsonian. Burwell is opening a new exhibit of her abstract pieces in the Berry Campbell Gallery in New York City in April.

Cabib believes both women deserve more credit, especially during Black History Month.

“I hope [the film] makes people think about other Black artists,” Cabib said. “Who else has been unrecognized? Who else is out there?”

The influence that Brown and Burwell had in nurturing Black artists still resonates in DC’s artistic space. As an educator, Brown encouraged many Black women to pursue careers despite discriminatory and segregationist barriers. Burwell also taught art for years, building on the legacy of her aunt. Alongside its exploration of these women’s histories, Cabib’s film also details the stories of the historic Black institutions and neighborhoods that shaped their artwork.

The documentary shows that Brown’s work was celebrated in the Barnett Aden Gallery, the nation’s first Black, privately owned gallery. It opened in LeDroit Park as an integrated art space and after World War II became primarily an exhibitor for Black artists who were rejected from white-owned galleries. Cabib said she wanted to feature the history of the LeDroit Park neighborhood, which was bursting with Black creatives like Brown, scientists, civil rights activists and more.

Documentary filmmaker Cintia Cabib interviews Lilian Thomas Burwell at her home in Highland Beach, Maryland. (Photo by John Z. Wetmore courtesy of Cintia Cabib)

Brown’s artwork was featured during her lifetime in The Crisis, the official NAACP publication founded by W.E.B. Du Bois, and The Brownies’ Book, the first magazine for Black children.

“It’s important to recognize the opportunities Black people made for themselves and each other after they’d been denied,” Cabib said.

The documentary was an official selection of the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival and has been shown locally at events like the DC Black Film Festival and Alexandria Film Festival

Cabib was able to host one in-person screening of Kindred Spirits at the Avalon Theatre in March 2020, just before DC declared a public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The film was shown to high school students, and Cabib said she was encouraged by the attendees’ questions and engagements with the film and history. At subsequent virtual screenings, Cabib said Lilian was able to join discussions and share more of her story with audiences. 

Cabib’s story came full circle in November when she showcased her film virtually at the 2020 DC History Conference, bringing Brown’s and Burwell’s stories into focus — not just in a brochure, but on screen.

Breaking Gender Norms: Mainstream Invisibility of Black LGBTQ Fashion

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published January 28, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

When Harry Styles graced Vogue’s pages in a floor-length, faded blue gown in early November, social media and pop culture discourse erupted. Most fans were elated and praised Styles for his consistent disregard for gendered, masculinized fashion. In the interview, Styles says, “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never thought too much about what it means.”

On the other side were people like Candace Owens, a politically conservative author, who ridiculed the end of “manly men” in a tweet that targeted Styles’ cover. Owens later went on to say during an Instagram livestream that she loved the dress, but that Harry didn’t look feminine, but just “stupid.”

Does breaking gender fashion norms contribute to a liberation of gender identities? When we ask questions like these, we seem to be focusing on white, cis-gendered celebrities, bestowing them praise and recognition for their one-night-only red carpet designs that bend fashion rules. It’s just enough to capture attention, but not enough to make anyone uncomfortable.

During the 2019 Golden Globes, actor Timothee Chalamet wore a glittering harness and received much love for embracing a feminine silhouette. At the same event, Julia Roberts wore pants (with a golden train skirt) and was met with equal attention for going after a masculine-type style.

Someone who consistently raises eyebrows for gender-breaking fashion is actor Billy Porter. He’s graced red carpets in dresses, skirts, feathers, sequins, and glitter. His outfits mix fabrics, colors, and shapes, and people always commend his style. However, the same praise for breaking norms isn’t always applied. No Twitter trends are amplified or debates started over his fashion, like what happened with Harry Styles.

Do we only give praise to straight celebrities who break from the binary of fashion when it’s unexpected? What about those who make it their mission to disregard gender when it comes to fashion?

We expect queer people to dress exuberantly, flamboyantly, outrageously, because the identities of LGBTQ people are also often viewed as “other.” When straight people adopt the fashion standards LGBTQ people created, they receive praise while Black, queer people are overlooked. They are not seen as the revolutionary icons that they truly are.

Paris Is Burning, the amazing documentary that glimpses briefly into the lives of many Black drag queens and queer men in the 1970s New York ballroom scene, showcases that gender bending fashion is not the product or brainchild of influential white celebrities but of less fortunate yet imaginatively creative and resourceful young Black people competing for recognition and self-identification.

One notable figure in Black queer history and in fashion was Dorian Corey who stars in Paris Is Burning.

When talking about fashion in the film, Corey says, “Black people have a hard time getting anywhere, and those that do are usually straight. In a ballroom, you can be anything you want. You’re not really an executive, but you’re looking like an executive. You’re showing the straight world that, ‘I can be an executive if I had the opportunity because I can look like one,’ and that is like a fulfillment.”

Over decades, Black women have been the ones altering fashion trends. Starting in the 1930s, Josephine Baker embraced feminine glamour while also trending towards clothes that emphasized her boyish facial features. In the 1940s, blues icon Gladys Bentley, who openly shared her queer identity, dressed often in pantsuits and top hats for performances, though she rarely received the red carpet credit for breaking the rules that white celebrities constantly get today. Androgynous style is still empowered by Black stars like Janet Jackson and Rihanna.

When Rihanna began her own fashion lingerie company, Fenty, she became the first Black woman in charge of a major luxury fashion house. In an interview with the New York Times, she catalogued her simplistic view of fashion: “It’s sweatpants with pearls, or a masculine denim jacket with a corset. I feel like we live in a world where people are embracing every bit of who they are.”

That idea, of embracing yourself, despite racial discrimination or gender boundaries, is why so many Black LGBTQ people use fashion to rebuke gender binary ideologies in culture. It’s not about being reviewed on a red carpet look but about finding an authentic self.

Black gay designer Willi Smith is constantly overlooked for his Philadelphia-based fashion that introduced the concept of streetwear in the late 70s. His styles embraced varied body types, average fabrics, and mixed patterns to encourage the everyday lay person to break gender binaries in fashion.

Today, a Los Angeles brand named No Sesso, which translates from Italian to “No Sex,” embraces agender fashion styles. Designed by Pierre Davis, who is a Black trans woman, these styles upcycle fabric that can fit any body, as long as it makes them happy.

Black LGBTQ designers have been and continue to be critical in expanding the fashion industry into one that allows white men like Harry Styles to wear dresses and receive praise. It’s encouraging that celebrities across race or gender identities are expanding their closets and bending gender norms, but the constant recognition of their images rather than the hard work and legacies of LGBTQ individuals, primarily Black people, jeopardizes any actuality of allowing fashion to be truly non-binary or racially conscious.

Children’s Book Under Our Roof uplifts LGBTQ families

By Kelly McDonnell

This article was first published January 8, 2021 in Tagg Magazine here.

Indiana-based author Rebecca Stanton wants children to know that love is love.

Stanton self-published her first illustrated children’s poetry book, Under Our Roof, in September 2019. She said she’d always wanted to write a children’s book, but she never thought that it would be so personal.

When Stanton’s oldest daughter was planning her birthday party and a sleepover, another parent refused to let their child sleep over because of Stanton’s same-sex marriage. Stanton saw her daughter endure hurt and confusion, and she said she had to “step up as a parent” to do something to heal that pain and counter that discrimination.

Colorful, two-dimensional illustrations by Kristy Gaunt, a Florida elementary school art teacher, depict happy moments between two mothers and their two children. The family flies a kite, plays a board game, catches fireflies and holds each other when they cry.

“Everything you see in this book, you see any other family doing,” Stanton says.

Stanton said the images were inspired by her own favorite memories with her three children and wife. When Gaunt would share sketches with Stanton, she always showed them to her children for their approval. When writing, Stanton asked her kids to help her come up with rhymes for the book.

“I wanted them to see themselves in this book,” Stanton says. That’s the reason she decided to self-publish, even though it was difficult and expensive. Self-publishing kept her writing and editing process “personal” and “authentic.”

Without a publisher, Stanton has been primarily promoting her book through social media and in freelance articles with Gay Parent Magazine, but she’s struggled making a profit on her book.

Despite this, she’s been reminded how important books like these are for representation of the LGBTQ community. Stanton said she was worried how her local community would react to her book, since she tends to lead a private life. She said she also knows that some people believe that children are too young to talk about LGBTQ topics.

In her small town, she doesn’t know many other LGBTQ people. While her two-year-old daughter is comfortably expressive about having two moms, teachers and other adults don’t know how to address same-sex families.

“They kind of stumble,” explains Stanton. “I struggle finding words for it, but they just need to know it’s okay to talk about it. … [The book is] not about sex, it’s just about family.”

One powerful quote in the book is, “Love is what you do and not what you say.” It accompanies an illustration of the family huddled inside having a picnic on a rainy day.

“We teach the kids, no matter what we do, we make sure we’re here, present,” Stanton says. “They know we mean it. Instead of saying it, just show it.”