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Camille A. Brown: How Can We Tap Into Our Creative Expression Through Dance?

May 14, 2021
Originally published on May 25, 2021 7:56 am

Part 1 of TED Radio Hour Episode The Artist's Voice

For Camille A. Brown, choreography unlocked a new way to understand her power as a dancer. She explains how social dance — and its origins — have allowed her to celebrate her creative identity.

About Camille A. Brown

Camille A. Brown is a dancer and choreographer, who has worked on award-winning productions of Once On This Island, Jesus Christ Superstar Live on NBC and A Streetcar Named Desire, among others.

She is also the founder of Camille A. Brown & Dancers (CABD) that tours nationally and internationally. Her team has worked on productions of Mr. TOL E. RAncE and BLACK GIRL: Linguistic Play, as well as community engagement initiatives incorporating social dance.

Brown received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, finding your voice through art.

CAMILLE A BROWN: You know, I'm a person that was teased tremendously for speaking and for my voice and the way it sounds. And everyone's entry point to their power is not always speech, is not always using their voice. So dance was really something that I found where I could be myself, and dance was really a way that I felt that I could best communicate.

ZOMORODI: This is Camille A. Brown. She's a dancer, director and perhaps one of the most sought-after choreographers on Broadway. And her passion for dance started right in her living room as a little girl.

BROWN: I used to watch a lot of Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson videos and try to copy what they were doing and run the routine over and over again.

ZOMORODI: Solid '80s - I love it.

BROWN: You know (laughter), I'm telling my age now. So we know exactly where we're going with the time period.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RHYTHM NATION")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP #1: (Singing) We are a part of the rhythm nation.

BROWN: The other memory I have is going to the library with my mom, and we would take out some videos of musicals because she loved musicals. She introduced me...

ZOMORODI: Oh.

BROWN: ...To musical theater and that world, and I would just memorize them. And I remember having a hat that I would use to go over that last number in "Chorus Line" where they're...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BROWN: ...All in gold and wearing the hat. And I had my hat. And when they did it and got into places, I got into place. So those are the memories that I have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE (REPRISE)")

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP #2: (Singing) One singular sensation...

BROWN: When I was younger, dance was something that I loved. There was just that pure, wonderful joy that I felt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE (REPRISE)")

`UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP #2: (Singing) One smile, and suddenly nobody else will do.

ZOMORODI: Camille loved dancing so much that at age 4, her mom signed her up for ballet and tap classes. And Camille was really good. As she got older, she got more serious about it. But then something started to change.

BROWN: There was something that was introduced to me that I didn't really understand and had to struggle many years to get an understanding of it - was the issue of, what does the ideal dancer's body look like? And I just didn't fit in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So when did that happen? How old were you when you even started becoming aware - or, I should say, other people made you aware - that there even was such a thing as an ideal dancer's body?

BROWN: Yeah. It's sad because I was maybe 11 or 13 or something where I was told, oh, you have to lose weight, or I was put on a diet. I was told to go see the nutritionist. I mean, I was eating salads every day. So to already go into a situation where you're told that you're not good enough and you have to change and it's not right and you're not going to get better unless these things happen and it has everything to do with body and nothing with the true intention of why you're there in the first place - is for the love of dance - that's hard to get through as a kid.

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

BROWN: So it was hard to have that pure joy turn into something that was polluted a little bit with judgment and feeling of unworthiness sometimes, and I felt invisible.

ZOMORODI: Despite all that, Camille forced herself to keep dancing all through high school and into college. And then she discovered choreography through composition classes.

BROWN: And that's where you make up your own dances and really find your own creative identity. And I hadn't understood that because as a dancer, as a student, I was taught the choreographer or the teacher comes in, they show you the material, and you do it. But here, my first composition teacher - she was asking us how we felt about creating, and can we apply certain feelings and emotions that have to do with what we're going through in our life into a step? And I was just like, what? What kind of concept is that?

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

BROWN: You're actually asking me to think about this? OK. And the performance is coming from what you want to do, which is very different.

ZOMORODI: So what changed for you? Like, how did that change the way that you thought about dance?

BROWN: I think that was the first time dance was a form of survival. And finding choreography and really understanding that it was a way for me to share my voice when I didn't have any other way to do that really helped me get through those hard times and continue to find and sustain the love of dance and constantly tap into that little girl that was always trying to make up things to the video. And I feel like with any medium, whether it be singing or acting or dance or writing or whatever you do, I think the closer you get to who you are as a person and finding your own entry point, then the more powerful - in a sense, like, holding your power and your space and understanding who you are as a creative in the world, it just maximizes, and it expands. And I think that's what dance can do. That's what dance did for me.

ZOMORODI: Humans have always used dance, music, theater, painting and poetry to express ourselves and entertain each other. And some become skilled enough to make art that not only delights but makes us rethink our history and the world around us. And so on the show today, The Artist's Voice - ideas from artists about finding their purpose and using their unique perspective to create works that shift beliefs, change cultures and help us understand each other.

Camille A. Brown is finding new joy in dance and choreography. She spent the last few years exploring the origins of social dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCIA GRIFFITHS SONG, "ELECTRIC BOOGIE")

BROWN: If you've ever been to a party and everyone is doing the electric slide, that is a form of a type of social dance, when you see everyone doing one step. But if you look at everyone doing it, individually, they all have their own very specific way of doing it. And that's their creative identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELECTRIC BOOGIE")

MARCIA GRIFFITHS: (Singing) It's electric.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BROWN: A social dance isn't choreographed by any one person. It can't be traced to any one moment.

ZOMORODI: Camille A. Brown continues in her TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

BROWN: Because of that, social dances bubble up, they change and they spread like wildfire. In African American social dances, we see over 200 years of how African and African American traditions influenced our history. The present always contains the past, and the past shapes who we are and who we will be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: Hey, hey, hey, hey.

ZOMORODI: So when you are thinking about incorporating different dance moves, maybe ones that have been passed down through the ages, do you talk about the history or legacy of some of these dances with your dancers? How do you go about incorporating them into your work?

BROWN: Yeah, I mean, I do it my way, you know? It's hard to describe because we're not literally cutting and pasting things, you know? I'm more so riffing off of these dances.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (Singing, as characters) We dance to the earth. We dance to the water.

BROWN: So for instance, when I did "Once On This Island," it was inspired by several Caribbean islands, which gave me an opportunity to tap into Afro Haitian, Afro Cuban, West African dance. So I reached out to Maxine Montilus, and I asked her if she could consult me in some Afro Haitian dances. And when I spoke to her, I said, OK, now, when you come to see the show, don't necessarily expect to see the dances because it's not about you teaching me the dance and then I go and teach it to somebody else. Like, that's not what this is about. This is about me understanding the origins for myself. So then I can use my choreographic voice and riff on that. And then when it comes out, it's something that is Camille and not someone else's.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA WILL PROVIDE")

ALEX NEWELL: (Singing, as Asaka) Walk with me, little girl, don't you be afraid.

ZOMORODI: So during the pandemic, you have actually continued with this idea of celebrating the origins and community, people coming together with social dance by starting an online school.

BROWN: Yeah. So I think my friend named it that I was doing a school. I actually didn't think of it in that way. I just thought, you know, we're doing these live classes. And then, also, I wanted there to be an additional understanding that this is all intellectual as well. So I connected with a lot of people who are my friends and scholars and basically gave over my platform during COVID to them and to my dancers to teach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CATHERINE FOSTER: Five, six, seven, step. One, two, three.

ZOMORODI: If I were to come to one of these Zoom classes, who would I meet? What would I learn? Can you give me some examples?

BROWN: Yeah, you would meet Catherine Foster, who really has a beautiful sense of the West African dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FOSTER: Yeah, so let's do that much with music. Let's walk through it. How we feeling?

BROWN: You'd see Dexter Jones, who is a legend in terms of jazz dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEXTER JONES: And we can't discuss swing dance without first acknowledging the music that went with it and its roots.

BROWN: And then you'd also meet musicians - Martha Redbone, who is a fantastic musician and composer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTHA REDBONE: (Singing in non-English language).

BROWN: And she focuses on the Indigenous dances. So you'll meet a collective of people. And I think the beautiful thing about it is we all understand that this is about African American social dance and the diaspora, but everybody has their own creative liberty to go about teaching that the way they want to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REDBONE: (Singing in non-English language).

ZOMORODI: So I'm wondering, like - this idea of education, is it in some way activism? Is it about expression of identity? Like, what do you see that dance brings to communities that have lived with these dances and to communities who are maybe being introduced to them for the very first time?

BROWN: I mean, dance - it brings all of it. You know, I think we would be putting it into a box to just say dance is activism. It's like, yeah, but dance is also healing. Dance is celebration. Dance is used in a time of mourning. You know, there's so much. And we're all different people, so we're going to see different things.

I say all the time that if I want change, I have to look inward first. And so how does the love of social dance, understanding a love of a people, understanding a love of who you are and as Black people where we come from and the dances that came out of celebration, out of pain, out of exhaustion, out of love, out of perseverance - how do we change the world with that? Change each other, change the world.

ZOMORODI: That's choreographer Camille A. Brown. You can see her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, The Artist's Voice. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.