Finding the Voice and Moves to Power

 Nyla ThompsonBy Nyla Thompson                 

The lights snap on and the stage brightens with five black silhouettes standing confidently in a line near the cream-colored backdrop. Their bodies are still until the haunting sounds of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit” begin to play. The dancers walk in unison, pausing to intermittently circle their own axes, emblematic of their everyday spheres.

Like me, they were not born with the knowledge of injustice or the social construct of race in America. I choreographed this beginning to highlight our innocence at birth. My dancers gently sway and kick their feet in unison until the music changes and the dance continues. They explore chaotic feelings created by racial injustice and ignite the need for solidarity. Flashing lights come on as an aggressive hip-hop beat drops interrupting Holliday’s sample, and the dancers erupt with forceful movements.

No one had ever used the Spring Dance Concert as such an active form of social justice. I was determined to make a statement about events triggering the Black Lives Matter movement and also expose my challenges as an African American girl at my predominantly white school. I addressed both by combining my training from Alvin Ailey and the Fieldston Dance Company to choreograph the dance ”Blood On The Leaves. “

I’ve attended Fieldston since first grade and did not notice racial injustice during my early years there. I experienced the school, known for being liberal, much like its reputation of openness. Then in eighth grade, my math teacher, without any justification, attempted to prevent the placement of some students of color into an advanced math class. I felt that all of my hard work throughout the year had little value. This situation introduced me to faculty of color who stood up and helped move me into my rightful place in the advanced class. Little did I know, this support network would help inspire my choreography.

Months prior to my choreography I had a provocative conversation with an African-America friend from another private school.

“My biggest fear is being average,” he told me as we walked through Central park.

His words continued to stir my thoughts long after our walk in the park. As African Americans, we are often not expected to be the best or the brightest due to unspoken stereotypes. I’ve often been judged and seen as a tokenization fulfillment. This places enormous pressure on me to defy expectations when given the opportunity to benefit from privileges from like attending and being in advanced classes at my private school. I was determined to address this “average” mold, and adopted my friend’s fear as my own personal motivation. My dance was the perfect medium to bring my feelings regarding recent racial tensions to the attention of my peers and make my presence known as someone who exceeds these stereotypical expectations at Fieldston.

I wanted to make my dance as powerful as possible. I used movements of hands up in surrender and hands clasped around necks to symbolize choking, as homage to Black Lives Matter. The song “Blood On The Leaves” tackles issues of racial injustice in society. I chose the costumespedestrian style, black hoodies and khaki-colored pantsto emphasize racial injustice occurring on a daily basis, symbolically paying homage to Trayvon Martin. And finally, the lighting helped by allowing the powerful image of my dancers in silhouette with hoods on their heads.

I received the first standing ovation for a dance performed at a school-wide assembly, leading students and faculty to engage in conversations about race for the remainder of the day. My Dean approached me tearfully thanking me for choreographing the piece. I saw my power and potential to help even faculty members speak about race in new and constructive ways. I want to cultivate my evolving voice in college. I will continue to use my identity, talents, and passions as tools to disrupt comfort zones that undermine the value of diversity and promote racial stereotypes.
Nyla Thompson, a freshman at Williams College, is a graduate of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School.