Moving Characters from Stages to Stories to Real Life


By Mark Anthony Graham

Mark Anthony stent Graham

I don’t remember my first time dancing; my friends say you can’t truly love something unless you can identify your first time engaging in the passion. I firmly disagree. I don’t remember the first time I ate pizza, and trust me, I love pizza. I don’t remember the first time I met my parents, but I love them dearly. Like pizza and my parents, dance is so integral to my life that I feel as if I’ve been moving rhythmically forever.

Before I could walk, I watched my mother and sister in African dance classes at the Harlem School of the Arts. I listened as the beat of the drums surrounded me and influenced movement.

However, it was not until I fell in love with writing in ninth grade that I understood dance as a form of storytelling. My passion for sharing stories discovered two outlets for powerful narratives that influence my life in so many ways.

Have you ever read a story so immersing that you didn’t want it to end? I write stories that I don’t want to finish. I never want to end the moments when I am locked in the creations of my characters. The only way to free myself and end the story is to start another one.

I don’t always know where my stories are going when I sit at my computer while my fingers follow my mind. My adventures on the keyboard lead me into lives so different from my own. One character, Mateo, is set on an adventure bigger than himself. He believes he saw a ghost from his past, but unknowingly pursues a quest created by a mythical goddess who wants Mateo–and Mateo alone–to save her life.

I now see that the characters I create possess value far beyond storytelling. I made this discovery this year, when I became an ethics teacher for the sixth graders in my school’s Student to Student program. In STS we explore identities, communication, conflict resolution, and other issues that haunt adolescence. As a Cisgender Man, I was intimidated by the thought of creating lesson plans on gender relations. How could I create exercises that limited my inherent male bias and would be impactful for the girls in the class? As I struggled with this question, I remembered Brenda and Rachel. I created those characters for my story, “The Right Choice,” spending hours trying to write from a girl’s perspective while developing the story.

The mindset that guided me to create Brenda and Rachel in a very natural way helped me create a lesson plan in which I would facilitate but not dominate the conversation. I gave my sixth graders the information to help them unpack the social stigmas around gender on their own.

Teaching middle schoolers and creating characters in my stories have forced me to look at life from the perspective of others. Most recently, however, dance expanded my sense of narrative by compelling me to look deeply at myself as a character. My whole perspective on telling stories changed last year through “Blood on the Leaves.”  This piece, choreographed by a classmate was an artistic expression of the Black Lives Matter movement.  This dance embodied the passion, pain, and sense of solidarity associated with the movement. Unlike Mateo, Brenda, or Rachel, the characters and story of the dance were not from my imagination, but were representations of my own life. The dance changed my sense of storytelling because I was sharing the weight that I carry around with me every day through the fluidity of dance. The sensations and emotions of the piece came naturally to me.

Narratives are eternal in my life and support my natural empathy. They force my natural inclinations to watch, listening, and observe the lives around me as my own story unfolds–whether these stories move on stage, sit in a computer screen, or inform the way I teach others.

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Mark Anthony Graham, a 2016 Graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, is now a freshman at Villanova.

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