Camille A. Brown: Exploring the Black Girl Spectrum
Zita Allen | 7/14/2016, midnight
Choreographer Camille A. Brown stands in front of a group of Black women and girls who are hanging on her every word and movement. The group has assembled on a sunny Saturday in June in the large auditorium of Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre in the heart of Harlem. Brown is leading a symposium titled, “Social Dance for Social Change,” as part of a community engagement initiative that she calls the “Black Girl Spectrum.”
“Growing up in Queens, I had a small voice,” Brown says, alluding to what some have called her Betty Boop voice. “I still do. I was very insecure about talking and speaking in public, but dance gave me a positive platform to express myself.” It also instilled confidence, she says, unlocking her “sense of place and power in this racially and socio-economically charged world.”
Brown wants to do the same for the group of 60 or so she proceeds to lead in a movement call-and-response exercise. This exercise is the beginning of Black Girl Spectrum, a day spent tapping into the history and power of movement “to instill and encourage a sense of pride and power within ourselves and our own communities … to build a world where Black girls and women can live as creative citizens.”
The group is divided into three concurrent workshops lead by Paloma McGregor, the founder of “Dancing While Black”; Francine E. Ott, a former Brown dancer who uses her M.A. in mental health to employ movement to empower women; and Audrey Hailes, a BGS facilitator who “invites folks to build movement mantras based on daily rituals and ancestral gestures.”
Although BGS has been in existence for three years, Brown says this is the first time she has brought such a group of women together. “This desire to help give Black women’s voices more power in the art world and all areas,” she says, grew out of the recognition that “this world is so male dominated.”
Brown explains, “It’s really important for me to show that we exist and we’re working and we help each other. You see, just as people paved the way for me, I want to pave the way for others. You know you plant seeds in a lot of places and you hope that they all grow. “
Speaking of planting seeds and reaping the reward of watching them grow, June 18, Brown will receive the 10th annual Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award in recognition “of her vision and outstanding contributions to the dance field.” Jacobs Pillow Director Pamela Tatge praises Brown for “regularly garnering acclaim” for her “vividness and versatility” (Alastair Macaulay, The New York Times), also pointing to her receipt of a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie), three Princess Grace awards and a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. With this latest accolade, Brown joins the legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham and MacArthur fellows Michelle Dorrance and Kyle Abraham.
Humbled and “extremely thankful,” for the recognition the Jacobs Pillow Award gives her “vividly theatrical” work, which “translates African-American social dances and other influences into a dance vocabulary all her own, captivating us with dynamic intensity, joy and abandon,” Brown says one of the most significant things she wants to share with the BGS attendees is the importance of being true to yourself.