CELEBRATING BLACK HISTORY MONTH AT SADLER’S WELLS

October is Black History Month, and at Sadler’s Wells we marked it by inviting Black colleagues to share their personal experiences and inspirations in dance.  

In the spirit of Black History Month, in this post we are profiling some of our Black colleagues as they shout out the contributions and achievements of Black people across the arts.  

We hear from five of our colleagues – Natasha Anderson, Shakira Holder, Adanna Lawrence, Bo Makhokolo and Shama Rowland – as they give us an insight into their personal views on dance, arts and Black culture.  

HOW ARE DANCE AND THE ARTS IMPORTANT TO YOU? 

Bo: Dance has always been a big part of my life, for as long as I can remember. It’s the cliché of watching a Missy Elliott music video and learning all the moves, dreaming to be part of something so iconic! I found myself through dance – there’s a freedom about expressing myself through dance that I can’t quite explain. 

Adanna: Dance was the first language that taught me how to be vast in my body, mind and soul. Dance has taught me how to be disciplined in my routines of life, set boundaries in my personal space and energies, as well as trusting the process. 

Shakira: Dance and the arts is an integral part of my existence! Growing up, my mother took me and my sister to every art gallery, every theatre, every participatory workshop she could find. Sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it. But I can hand on heart say that being surrounded by so much dance and art from a young age, educated me and played a big part in why I work in learning and engagement roles in the arts today. 

HOW DO YOU THINK BLACK CULTURE AND DANCE HAS INSPIRED DANCE TODAY? 

Bo: The influence Black culture has had on dance and the arts in undeniable. It’s evident in everything. There’s such a rich history and so many Black people that are truly innovators. In Black culture and dance, I think of Aakomon Jones, who choreographed Aaliyah’s More Than A Woman music video. 20 years later, watching it still feels timeless. There are artists all over the world that takes inspiration from such work, and this is just one example from the styling / fashion, the hair – it’s all part of the performance. 

Natasha: There has been a long history of Black culture shaping world culture. This is especially true when we look at street culture and dance styles through the same lens. It’s often the case that trend setters will spend their time in Black communities and on their dance floors to see what people are doing. From jazz to funk, hip hop to dancehall and west African dance to contemporary, I understand how Black dance styles have influenced choreographers around the world. For example, choreographers like Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, who is a Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist, working with Beyonce and Jay-Z. I think it’s very interesting how contemporary dance is influencing hip hop culture, as it constantly evolves. 

Shakira: I think Black culture highlights enjoyment and community. For example, Notting Hill Carnival. Carnival is a place of pure vibes, fun, movement, grooving and smiling. I find so much joy in dancing through the streets and celebrating my Caribbean roots. I feel that sometimes Black culture has been sexualised in dance and is seen more in commercial and music video settings. I find that we tend to find Black culture in these environments more and rarely find it in theatres and on stages, which I’d love to see more of.  

Colville Ward Councillors, Carnival Village Trust and Mural Republic’s Inaugural Black History Month Mural. © Notting Hill Carnival.

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE DANCE STYLE AND WHY? 

Shama: My favourite dance style is new style hip hop. It has the essence of original hip hop dance, but ‘new style’ allows dancers and choreographers to put their own vibe and personalised style on it. For example, Beyonce and Les Twins – my favourite high-profile dancers. Beyonce’s creativity in her dance performances are indisputable. Beyonce can DANCE and it’s her own style that she has created and owned. And then Les Twins, are another level of dance creatives who have shown the world that they’re unique and are here to leave a stamp in Black culture. They have created moves that I have never seen before. Because new style hip hop incorporates so many genres of dance and music, it will always evolve and bring something new to the table. 

Les Twins Breakin’ Convention Hip Hop Dance Festival Showcase 2015 OFFICIAL Footage. © Breakin’ Convention BCTV on YouTube. 

Bo: My favourite dance style is commercial hip hop because you have the space to make it your own. I find that ten people could be doing the same choreography but perform and interpret it differently. Commercial hip hop feels very personal. 

Adanna: I started in musical theatre and trained in contemporary and ballet but have always loved freestyle. Freestyle allows the body to do exactly what it feels and there’s something about putting on a track and letting your body sit in the pocket of the music and being able to move and explore.  

Shakira: Contemporary fusion is my favourite. It is such an umbrella term, and when different styles are merged, for example, ballet, hip hop and dancehall, these styles together can create something incredible. It reminds me of how I like to dance. I started ballet at the age of two but found my love for hip hop at around 12-years-old and discovered how incorporating various dance styles has influenced my movement catalogue.  

WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE DANCE / ARTS PIECE YOU’VE SEEN PERFORMED?  

Adanna: I attended a beautiful photography exhibition run alongside an all-Black cast performance of Black Victorians, which was part of the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. One of my friends was performing and it was so incredible to see them perform, and I felt truly honoured to witness her move. To see a performance like this, during the year we’ve had, was needed and I can only say we need more of it.  

Black Victorians Dance by Artistic Director and Choreographer Jeanefer Jean-Charles. © Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. 

Shama: For as long as I can remember, I have attended the Sadler’s Wells Breakin’ Convention (BC) Hip Hop Dance Festival, every year. Attending BC festival every May bank holiday weekend is a family tradition and is a major highlight of the year for us. The artists and choreographers that have graced Sadler’s Wells’ stage over the years are so unique and passionate about what they do, and it shows in their moves and storytelling. BC festival has taught me a lot about hip hop culture. Every year there is always a new artist that is a game changer in hip hop dance.  

Shama and her family at Breakin’ Convention in 2019. © Shama Rowland.

Natasha: That’s a hard one and it’s between the beautiful storytelling of paired down hip hop in Blak, Whyte, Gray by Boy Blue or the graceful storytelling of Alvin Ailey. As I can only choose one, I would say Blak, Whyte, Gray as I have a soft spot for hip hop. It was the first piece of hip hop dance that brought me to tears and as a genre, hip hop theatre has evolved massively during my working career, from commercial films and music videos to filling out theatres. However, I think what makes a real difference is the multicultural audience that it attracts and how the energy and enthusiasm for the dancers makes the whole experience electric for everyone attending.  

Boy Blue Whyte (excerpt) from Blak Whyte Gray. © Sadler’s Wells & BBC Arts present Dancing Nation.

Shakira: iTMOi by Sadler’s Wells Associate Artist Akram Khan, in 2013. This piece lives rent free in my mind, forever! It was dynamic, emotive and powerful, but beautiful at the same time. The movement was strong, and the dancers made it look effortless. The use of contemporary and classical Indian dance had me stunned – I’d never seen anything like it! I would also say Speak Volumes; by National Youth Dance Company (NYDC) and Alesandra Seutin, who are hosted by Sadler’s Wells, as another favourite!    

iTMOi / Akram Khan Company – Final Trailer. © Akram Khan Company on YouTube. 

CAN YOU NOMINATE SOMEONE THAT INSPIRES YOU AND WHY?  

Adanna: I’d have to say my grandmothers. They were both top nurses in their prime, and so much more. They are my inspirations for fashion and black female artistry, in a way that fuels my creativity.  

Bo: Sean Bankhead. My favourite choreographer of all time! Everything he touches turns to gold. The thing that inspires me most about him is he hears everything. His musicality is out of this world, and then his movement on top – greatest of all time. He is so authentic and genuine and when you see something with his name on it, he never compromises his art. 

Missy Elliott – I’m Better Music Video Choreography. © Sean Bankhead on YouTube.

Natasha: Again, I have more than one, but someone who I admire greatly is Debbie Allen. I was too young to watch Fame (where she played the principal of a performing arts school), but it was a must see in my household. Not only is Debbie an American actress, dancer, choreographer, singer-songwriter, director and producer, she has been nominated and has won many awards. On top of this, she finds time to run the Debbie Allen Dance Academy. The academy stages the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker to showcase the talents of the next generation of dancers, who most of them due to their background and lack of opportunity, are there on scholarship. You can watch them yourself in Dance Dreams on Netflix. Bring your tissues! 

Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker Official Trailer. © Netflix on YouTube. 

Shama: My nominee is not related to dance but is a Black figure who has been an advocate for a huge amount of change over the years, especially regarding racial equality. My nominee is Lewis Hamilton. Lewis is a 7-time world champion in Formula 1 and the only Black F1 driver, ever! On top of Lewis’ wins and championships, he has created a platform where he openly speaks about how society can open doors for young Black and People of Colour to be whatever they want to be, with no boundaries. Something that really inspired me from him recently is his purchase of a table at this year’s Met Gala. He invited three very talented young Black designers, to give them a platform to showcase their passion. The change and awareness Lewis Hamilton is showing to the youth, and even adults, is undeniable and is truly an inspiration to so many.  

Shakira: The Alleyne twins and TJ Lowe. They were in iTMOi by Akram Khan, and they resonated with me. They have played a massive part in my physical dance journey, ever since I saw them perform for the first time. I have worked with them all on several occasions and I look forward to working with them again. They are very well known and have so much knowledge but always find the time to talk to me, and that is special. 

The Alleyne Twins. Photo credit: Irven Lewis. © Alleyne Dance.

We support and recognise the importance of Black History and this October, and every month in between, we celebrate! 

A very huge thank you to our colleagues who participated in this post.