For more profiles of prominent African-American artists in Philly, see our cover story.
A large dance studio in West Philadelphia slowly begins to fill with women and men of all shapes, sizes, skin tones and ethnicities. Positioned in front of her class, dance instructor Cachet Ivey takes the floor and leads her students through a series of energetic dance steps.
“I want you to really feel this,” Ivey announces while moving in pace with the rapid rhythm of a drumbeat from Guinea, Africa called Sosoner. “Don’t let your body get too stiff.”
As the chorus of drummers begins to play, her students mimic her movements. Hips sway and legs meet the air as the dancers fall under the influence of a syncopated beat.
Ivey has been doing this for what feels like forever. The 28-year-old Philadelphia native began dancing with local dance troupes as a child. By the time she was 16, she was helping Jeannine Osayande, director of Dunya Performing Arts Company and adjunct associate in Performance at Swarthmore College set choreography.
Something about the energy of African rhythms spoke to her and Ivey began to deepen her study with teachers like Youssouf Koumbassa, a former member of Ballet Djoliba, the National Ballet of Guinea. Eventually she applied these skills and began choreographing pieces for several local dance companies including the Philadelpia-based Kulu Mele.
The dances that Ivey teaches originated in the Western region of Africa, an area that lost millions of it inhabitants as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. From jubilant dance sequences used to celebrate rites-of-passage to mournful, heavy movements performed during times of sorrow, African dance is traditionally used to connect to the human spirit by allows the performer to dance from the inside out. As an art form it is very accepting. Although it has standards and can be very rigorous, it doesn’t impose artificial parameters of body shape and ethnicity. It allows dancers to dance from the heart.
It’s not ballet, and until recently when the Broadway performance FELA! made it popular, it wasn’t the type of dance that you would see outside of community centers. But things are changing. Ivey’s classes have become a microcosm of the community-at-large and her student base runs the gamut. Grandmothers dance beside teens, fathers dance with young men, most of students who attend her Monday evening classes have trained with her for years.
Each person has a different reason for attending class, but whether they followed their calling to dance with the hopes of connecting to their ancestry like Joslyn Duncan, or attend in an attempt to liberate themselves from sexist standards of beauty, like Valerie Frossard, they all have one thing in common: They are here to find emotional healing within the therapeutic sway of West African rhythms.
Best-selling author Karen E. Quinones Miller switched her career focus to literary consulting because people would not leave her alone.
“Even when I was writing full-time and trying to concentrate on my own writing, I was spending an inordinate amount of time online and on the telephone with people who wanted advice,” she says.
Eventually, every Tuesday night at 7:30, Miller would fix herself a pina colada, log onto AOL, and answer instant messages until 2 am pro bono. “It became known for five years—Karen is on AOL on Tuesday nights,” she said. “Everyone knew that if it had to do with publishing or getting published, I knew it. Because I had originally self-published Satin Doll.”
Satin Doll, Miller’s semi-autobiographical tale of a Harlem wild child-turned writer, was Karen’s breakthrough work as a novelist. The protagonist was a reflection of Miller, who herself had dropped out of school at age 13, joined the navy, and moved to Philadelphia as a single mother. She took a job as an administrative assistant at the Daily News, and after being belittled by a higher up, enrolled at Temple and pursued a career in journalism, with stints with the Inquirer and People magazine.
Despite her colorful life story, Miller was unable to find a major house to publish the manuscript, so she, her daughter and her brother banded together to sell it out of Miller’s living room. She sold 28,000 copies and made the Essence Bestseller’s list for two months, kept only from the top spot by Sista Souljah’s urban classic The Coldest Winter Ever.
Soon after her self-made success came Simon & Schuster, the creation of her own company Oshun Publishing, and, of course, people dying to know how she did it, and how they could do it, too.
“I decided to start my Publishing Boot Camp because there were too many people for me to crowd into a day,” she says.
Miller keeps her workshops affordable—a five-hour class runs $85—because she remembers the pains of being starting out. “Self-publishing can be such an expensive endeavor,” she said. “Printing costs can be a stopper, typesetting can be a stopper. So I didn’t want this to be a stopper, too.”
Sonia Sanchez is one of Philadelphia’s greatest treasures. Currently a professor of English and Women’s Studies at Temple University, she’s writer who is as profound as she is prolific. Sanchez has unlocked minds and ignited revolutions.
On the following pages, you’ll find five profiles of local black artists changing the way Philly folks experience art. Each one is trying to impact local arts in a different way. The future of black arts in Philly starts here.
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