In reality, these murders were not sudden. They were a part of an endless cycle of trauma, “Justice for _” hashtags, and desperate protests. It is as painful as it is common. So we adapt. The specifics vary from person to person, but maintaining some normalcy in life can help ease the pain. For many, that normalcy is dance. This is how we persevere; this is how we carry on. We find what brings us joy, and we don’t let go.
Nyla Firoz, She/Her/Hers
Nyla Firoz is a 2nd-year Cinema and Media Studies Major. She is a member of Groove Theory Dance Crew and is their Dance Council Liaison. Her favorite style of dance is Popping.
For a minute, I am one with my body. On every beat of a song, I’ll pop my chest or glide my feet. As the lines of lyrics roll into each other, I roll my neck and my arms; I wave my body downwards to my feet and back up again. My crew circles around me, bouncing to the beat and shouting out to encourage me. I feel alive. Laughter fills the room and I’m grateful for the ease and freedom with which I’m allowed to live.
After a moment, I remember what my Black features mean in America. I dance to take control of myself. Day after day I navigate my life in fear that I am taking up too much space. Any chance I get I will advocate for unapologetic Blackness. But moments after, the police will pass by and I’ll flip my hood off, put my head down, and take my hands out my pockets. I am not guilty of any crimes. I do not know those officers. What I do know, however, is that suspicion increases with Blackness. It grows darker with malice in response to skin tone that is darker with melanin. I swell with pride when I see fellow BIPOC stroll down the street, heads held high, skin glowing in the sun. My heart sings with joy and courage when I do the same. Then, flashes of blue and red swing around the corner, and the fear rises up as my head falls back down.
Panic and terror fill my body without warranted reasoning. But I have bore witness to too much trauma to have no response. Countless articles, videos, and statistics regarding the unjust murder of Black people constantly cross my feed. Too many encounters gone wrong have come up in conversations with my loved ones. Living in America as a Black woman has taken control of my body language. I cannot look like a “potential threat;” the risk is my life. I must stay submissive and co-operative around authority figures. My only option some days is to stay down.
So how do I get up again? Well, there are a few fixes – none of which get to the root of the problem – but they bring me joy in short bursts. My favorite fix is freestyle hip-hop dance. It used to terrify me, to be honest. You meet with a group of people, and everyone gets in a circle for a “cypher”. A queue of songs gets played, and when you’re ready, you step forward to put on a show. That’s the sparknotes version of what freestyle dance in a social setting is. On a deeper level, there is a rich history of culture, founded by Black artists, with a range of dance styles such as b-boying, locking, popping, funk, waacking, and so many more. After I got over myself and kicked my nerves to the curb, dance became a solid pillar in my life.
I started dancing seriously when I entered college a year ago. In high school, I learned a few choreographies for fun. It wasn’t until I joined Groove Theory that I educated myself on the fundamentals and history of hip hop dance. I showed up on a whim after seeing their workshop advertised on Facebook. I didn’t know how to dance without an exact blueprint, so cyphers were extremely difficult at first. I felt awkward in my own skin, struggling to think of what to do as everyone watched me. The community was the main reason I kept coming back. I was embarrassed, but I didn’t feel like anyone was judging me. We were all learning together. Week by week, we practiced drills together, and I discovered new techniques. I began doing research on the founders of hip hop dance and practiced on my own time watching countless dance videos. Before I realized it, I looked forward to cyphers. I loved dancing without knowing exactly what move I was going to do next. The infinite options were freeing, and now I can’t imagine life without dance.
Dancing brings me joy because it connects me to my culture, surrounds me with a community, and encourages me to feel free in my own skin. During the minute or so that I’ll spend in the center of a cypher, I’m not thinking of which watered-down version of myself will make me seem like less of a threat. I focus on making my movements bigger, not smaller. I have fun. I make my presence known, and my head is held higher than ever under this kind of attention.
Dance is not always an invincible crutch. During a pandemic, cyphers become quite difficult when the crew you dance with is spread thousands of miles apart because the school you’re at becomes remote. Using your energy to dance becomes a lot less appealing when the slaughter of Black people is broadcasted on every form of media; it becomes impossible when professors start their emails offering brief consolations for our grief and end the emails with important impending deadlines for tests and assignments. No time is left for dance when it’s spent having difficult conversations amongst friend groups that lead to more loss in your circle than change.
(TW: Death or dying, Racism) As the voice of the Black community is allowed volume, the silence of those around me is alarming. Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed on February 23, 2020. A video of his murder was uploaded on May 5th, 2020. His murderers were charged on May 7th, 2020, following public outrage. George Floyd was suffocated to death on May 25, 2020. Following days of protest, his killers were charged and held on bond; they have since each been bailed out. Their trials are set for 2021. Breonna Taylor was killed on March 13th, 2020. It was revealed on May 15, 2020, that she was killed by Louisville police officers, who’d previously denied involvement. The officers responsible for her death were charged for the bullets they missed. They have not been charged for her murder.
Stories such as these happen all the time in America. They are still happening today. Months of protests are required to gain justice when Black people are murdered; oftentimes, that is still not enough. It is a very traumatizing experience for the Black community to constantly feel like a free target, ready to be shot down without consequence. It is terrifying to know the same applies to your Black loved ones.
The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others were the nation’s wake up call to a reality Black Americans have persevered against for centuries. There was a divide in the country: everyone was either in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, or they weren’t. Neutrality was not an option, and those who believed it was were aligning themselves in the category of not being in support. This category held an alarming number of people I loved, grew up with, and surrounded myself with for years. It was a taxing time, and I admittedly did not do much dancing. Others in my community did, as they have been despite years of injustice striking down on them time and time again. In reality, these murders were not sudden. They were a part of an endless cycle of trauma, “Justice for _” hashtags, and desperate protests. It is as painful as it is common. So we adapt. The specifics vary from person to person, but maintaining some normalcy in life can help ease the pain. For many, that normalcy is dance. This is how we persevere; this is how we carry on. We find what brings us joy, and we don’t let go.
In June, I rewatched a video I first stumbled upon in April. The title is “TURF FEINZ RIP RichD Dancing in the Rain Oakland Street | YAK FILMS.” It was uploaded 10 years ago and has 8.2M views at the time of writing. The video captures Dreal, No Noize, Man, and BJ as they freestyle dance on the street in memory of Rich D., Dreal’s brother. As members of the TURF FEINZ dance crew located in Chicago, they had a strong bond with each other. Rich D. was killed by a drunk driver the night before on the very street they filmed at. Their chemistry rang clear as they mourned together through their common method of expression: freestyle dance. Seeing the video at the time struck a chord with me, and I reached out to YAKfilms, run by Yoram Savion, to convey what I was feeling at the time. YAKfilms produces films internationally, documenting street-based dance and its influence around the world. I shared some poetry I had written, asked some questions, and reflected on the video in the context of what I’d been experiencing in June. He responded and we came into contact — connected by our grief, love for the hip hop dance community, and value found within hearing others and being heard during that time. I was invited to collaborate with him on a follow-up video, thus leading me to record my email and my poetry, which he posted in a video titled “Letter to the creators of RIP Rich D.” It very quickly became a source of comfort. After feeling isolated for so long, the time was prime to regain new connections. Strangers commented words of kindness and offered their support. It was the first change that was good in a while.
Dance was the fix bringing my head up once more, and I wasn’t even the one dancing. It’s not just about the physical movement. It’s about the feeling, community, history, and opportunity that comes with dance. It is the toolset to persevere and to feel grateful for the life I maintain despite the threats that surround me. It pushes me to grow both in technical skillset and expression. It connects me to people for whom it does the same. Regardless of how scary the world becomes, I can use dance as a safe space. Through myself, through those around me, it is a consistent presence that brings positive energy into my life.
So no, dance will not cure the systemic racism that plagues America or the microaggressions that pool its streets. It will not create a barrier between myself and an officer that translates my tense body into guilt. I am not going to pretend a creative outlet can uproot this problem, or resolve the long list of changes that need to happen around the world. Dance will not be with me for 80 percent of the time I walk through life as a Black woman. That is a battle I must fight on my own; this is an experience I must push against, shoulder to shoulder with others in the Black community.
Dance will, however, create a space in which I can embody the unapologetic Blackness I so often preach. It is how I will pass the time alone in my room fighting the urge to check my locks for the third time that night after nightmares of Breonna Taylor. It is my bridge to confidence and comfortable attention towards my existence as I am surrounded by the people I love practicing the art that we love. For now, that will be enough. For now, it has to be.