A Sun Devil leads the way for change by helping to create an anti-racist dance world
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the fall 2020 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.
For many people, dance is a form of escape. The sweat-soaked physicality of the art offers the freedom to temporarily forget. For dancer, choreographer and activist J. Bouey, ’14 BFA in dance, dance is healing. It’s doing the uncomfortable work to confront trauma head on.
For Bouey, dance is the vessel for breakthroughs. It’s a way of dealing with the constant pain of being a Black person in America.
Healing is a recurring theme for Bouey, who is a member of the world-renowned, New York-based dance troupe Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company.
Bouey’s latest choreographic work, “Chiron in Leo” — originally set to premiere before the pandemic struck — centers on mental health, generational trauma and healing the inner child.
Bouey, who prefers they/them pronouns, is also the founder and co-host with Melanie Greene of The Dance Union Podcast and platform, a community hyperfocused on healing within the dance world itself. Since launching over two years ago, the platform has convened a steadily growing audience of creatives of color, all eager to create a more equitable and just landscape for all dancers.
A love for dance
Bouey’s passion for abolishing oppression in all forms began at a young age.
Their mother was involved in a nurse’s union at the Los Angeles County Hospital and their father was a community organizer. Growing up in South Central L.A. and later Phoenix and Chandler, Bouey found an early love for dance, performing with step and hip-hop teams. At 15, they decided it was possible to make a career out of it.
A full ride to ASU led them to the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Bouey originally studied dance education, but when Ashleigh Leite, a postmodern contemporary dance professor, told them they could make it as a performer, they switched majors.
After graduating in 2014, Bouey left for New York — the epicenter of concert dance — determined to build a career as a performer.
Life as a professional dancer
Making a lasting career in dance has become ever more challenging for aspiring dancers and even seasoned choreographers. As governments, from federal to local, continue to cut arts funding, long-standing dance companies have dwindled and audiences continue to shrink. The traditional model — landing a full-time spot with a company — is not viable for most.
Many turn to freelancing, which means dancing, teaching, choreographing and building a social media presence, all while working other nondance jobs to afford New York’s cost of living.
“It’s a field that makes it really hard for anybody who’s Black and does not have financial support from mom and dad,” Bouey said.
Freelancers must also fund their own training to keep their bodies in top-notch shape. Many don’t have health insurance. In some dance companies, a lack of diversity and hostile environment for Black and other performers of color can make it even harder to succeed.
“I started to find community in the struggle, the struggle of being a freelance dance artist, which was to essentially be like an indie music artist or any kind of artist without real management support,” Bouey said.
Despite the hardships, they persevered, quickly building a name. From 2015 to 2017, they performed as an apprentice under Artistic Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher with modern company Elisa Monte Dance — launched nearly 40 years ago by a former principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. Before landing a spot with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, they also danced with groups including the project-based AntonioBrownDance and MBDance, a company centering the experiences of queer people of color.
They won residencies and fellowships that provided funding, space and time to develop work, and showed their original choreography about healing in well-known performance spaces, including New York Live Arts and Gibney Dance.
Bouey also worked to make dance more accessible to Black and brown communities by teaching at Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx and other schools. But still, they wanted to do more.
The Dance Union
Having learned the business side from other dancers and through trial and error, Bouey wanted to share what they learned. This sparked the idea for a grassroots education system — a free podcast called The Dance Union — focused on ensuring that dancers of all ages have the necessary tools to make it.
The podcast also tackles topics that were floating around among other dancers who are Black, Indigenous and non-Black people of color — tokenism, hostile environments, toxic masculinity, the need for a union and what reparations would look like in dance.
It became “a hub and a space to amplify the voices of folks who already have a megaphone and are making really radical and bold choices and change,” said Greene.
In addition to the podcast, when the brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd forced a reckoning over systemic racism in institutions, ranging from academia to the arts, Bouey moved quickly. They planned a virtual space to process, grieve and express anger centering the perspectives of Black dancers. The town halls offered a platform for artists to speak both about failings and about ways to build a more inclusive future. With more than 10,000 views, others have been learning as well, and The New York Times wrote about the work.
Creating space for tough subjects is one of Bouey’s strengths, Greene said. “It’s been a blessing to actually have someone in my life that is modeling a type of vulnerability and courage and growth, creating a very hospitable environment for that loving and learning to actually happen.”
A topic that has come up often since the podcast started in 2018 and now in the town halls is white supremacy in dance. It shows up through implicit racism in dance education — the idea that Eurocentric ballet is the foundation of all dance technique, Bouey said. The hyperfocus on ballet often means the contributions of dancemakers of color throughout history are sidelined.
On the podcast, Bouey, Greene and others in the community could dream up a more inclusive education that gave the same reverence to dance styles from the Black diaspora and other ethnic groups.
Bouey points out other ways that white supremacy shows up in dance: “not allowing trans and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folks to live in their full expression in dance … not letting children who are of trans experience, nonbinary or nonconforming experience really be fully supported within the studios and education process.”
The conversations on The Dance Union Podcast, in the town halls and on social media platforms were about shifting the dance community from being “not racist,” which is a passive state of being, to anti-racist — acknowledging complicity in white supremacy and actively fighting against racism.
Many people were unaware of these topics and conversations. But in recent months, racism and white supremacy in dance have burst into light.
Raising money for dancers
In recent months, the Dance Union team has been working overtime in response to back-to-back societal crises, from seeing the continued violence perpetrated on people of color, to seeing the way COVID-19 has disproportionately killed people of color, to the additional crisis that the shutdown of live entertainment has had on dancers and other artists.
When it was clear COVID-19 would be devastating for dancers, wiping out gigs and performance opportunities, Bouey sprang into action, helping to organize a relief fund which raised over $23,000, going to more than 130 dancers so far.
As long-standing institutions including American Ballet Theatre and Gibney Dance have recently posted messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and made promises to rectify damage done to dancers of color, it’s easy to question if true lasting change is possible.
The question then becomes: What’s next? There’s no comfortable answer, Bouey said.
They want institutions to practice radical transparency and admit they ignored the long-lingering trauma Black people have faced in America and its consequences.
“Because only from then can we actually do the work of dismantling things and building better structures,” Bouey said.
It takes inner work in hearts and minds, and actions, to uproot oppression and create an inclusive and equitable future in dance and everywhere else. Bouey is doing that work by working on their own healing, helping others to heal, providing a platform for healing and listening, envisioning a better future and helping to hold those with power accountable.
They summed up their vision during the second town hall in June. “The Dance Union is intentionally a space for dance artists to share their ideas, voice their concerns, demand change, resist and unite.”
Written by Makeda Easter, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times who covers the arts. When not writing, she can be found in a dance studio taking a class or in rehearsal for an upcoming show. She was previously a science writer for a supercomputing center at the University of Texas.
Photos by Brad Ogbonna