Zane Booker: world-renowned dancer, choreographer and activist

Philadelphia is full of gems.

One jewel in our midst is the incomparable Zane Booker. Founder and artistic director of the Smoke, Lilies and Jade Arts Initiative, Booker has been a principal dancer with Philadanco, toured extensively in Europe and has appeared as a guest artist with major ballet companies around the world, including the new National Theater of Tokyo, Les Ballet De Monte Carlo, the Opera of Monte Carlo and Rhythmek. A teacher and choreographer, Booker is currently a master lecturer at University of the Arts and Howard University and an artist-in-residence with Philadanco.

PGN: Tell me a little about yourself. ZB: West Philadelphia born and raised, over near 50th and Haverford. I grew up in the Catholic school system, but simultaneously went to school with the Philadelphia School of Dance Arts with Philadanco.

PGN: And you survived Catholic school? ZB: Oh yes, I had great teachers. They were way ahead of the game, especially in terms of educating black kids in mixed settings. They made sure we knew our culture. I recently went back and connected with my third-grade teacher. As far as family is concerned, we were working class. My mom’s side of the family was from down South. My grandmother was a cook and my grandfather did various jobs; I think his last job was as a gravedigger. My paternal family was from the Caribbean. On that side my grandfather had an amazing life, he was a chauffer for, I think it was the DuPont family, and got to travel the world with them. My dad did a little of everything: He was a jewelry maker, a painter and an intellectual who also drove a cab, worked in a pool hall, you name it. My mother helped me start the company and I have two siblings: my sister who works with me and a brother who is in the health-care industry. And a stepbrother in the hotel business …

PGN: What was little Zane like? ZB: I was the oldest by 10 years, so I grew up like an only child. I always danced, but wasn’t good at sports. I was effeminate so I got teased and had to fight. I was labeled as slow, but what I know now is that it was just the way creative people think. It’s very deliberate and in multiple levels, so there was never an immediate, simple answer to anything. I rolled things around in my head, and it came out as a bit spacey. But I was always an organizer and put on productions for as long as I can remember.

PGN: How did you get into dance? ZB: I could never sit still — still can’t! When I was 7, my mom went to my cousin’s recital at the school of dance, and thought it would be good for me. And she was right. I remember sitting in the door at Philadanco, watching these amazing dancers, some of them who went on to be well known internationally. It opened a whole new world for me.

PGN: What was a favorite toy? ZB: When I was very young, I had a train that you could sit on that I loved. I always had G.I. Joes and, when I was a little older, I was obsessed with building a go-cart. My stepfather helped me and I remember being angry because he finished it when I wasn’t there. For me the whole point was that it was something that we could do together!

PGN: Books? ZB: I was a big reader: I loved the whole Encyclopedia Brown series, Harriet the Spy, that sort of thing. I’m sure I would have loved the Harry Potter series had they been around.

PGN: Coming out? ZB: My first year of college I was kind of one foot in … well, actually I did nothing. I kind of knew, but didn’t want to get into it. People would ask me, “So what’s your deal?” and I would say, “I like cats … ” or some other vague, ridiculous answer. When I joined the dance company here, I came out a bit, but didn’t really come out until I moved to New York and started dancing with Alvin Ailey. I came out to my mother by accident. I was living in Holland and my mother was visiting. I’d “straightened up” the place and put everything away, pictures of lovers, magazines, etc. Except I forgot about my diary — it was one of those big red ones you get in the supermarket for $3.99 — and I’d left it on the shelf. I came home and my mother said, “I read your red book.” At first I didn’t know what she was talking about and then I thought, Oh, no. But she got over it quickly. By the end of the week, I was taking her to clubs in Amsterdam. Once my family knew, I didn’t care. When I came home, I did a dance piece about it called “Hitting the Fan.” That pretty much outed me to everyone.

PGN: And they’re all OK now? ZB: Well, it’s a dichotomy. I still have a lot of Christian homophobic-ish people in the family, but while on one hand they’re homophobic, on the other hand they can be the biggest fag hags. They’ll talk about it being a sin and how much they love Renaldo the hairdresser in the same breath. They’ll be very respectful to me and to any of my partners, but if you let them loose on their own, they can sound like Rotary members from the right wing. It can be interesting.

PGN: I would have thought being a dancer, it would have been easier to come out sooner. There must have been openly gay role models. ZB: It’s funny: I would have probably come out sooner if I hadn’t been immersed in that world. I was only 14 when I joined the company and I had so many men putting pressure on me to come out that it made it less attractive to me. It felt like everyone wanted to tell me what I was going to be. They’d tease me about coming out and it really bothered me. I’d tell them, “Y’all are worse than the folks out in the street!”. I just wanted them to see it and be supportive without any pressure. If it was going to happen, it would occur in its own time.

PGN: Tell me about Mikhail Baryshnikov. ZB: That was cool. Probably one of the coolest experiences in my life. I first met him when I was studying at the American School of Ballet. He came by and watched one of our rehearsals. He nodded to me as if to say “good work,” and I was completely thrilled. He then invited me to study with American Ballet Theatre school, where he was the artistic director. Fast forward: I used to cross paths with him in Europe when our companies would be touring in the same city. On one occasion, he asked me to send him a tape of what I was doing. I did so and he invited me to join his White Oak Dance Project, a small, elite body of dancers and choreographers devoted to performing new and contemporary works. It was a great experience, a great experience — just the idea of being recognized by someone as huge as Misha and then the normalization of becoming a colleague to him. He was very adamant about that and it was a big lesson for me. To him, it wasn’t about hierarchy or ego, being fabulous or being starstruck, it was about working together. It was about the piece. It was beautiful. And he worked hard, always. You learned a lot just being in his presence.

PGN: You’ve traveled a lot. What’s important about experience abroad? ZB: I think it’s important to see the world from a different perspective. It shows you that there are options, cultural options, different ways to relate to people. As a black person, I learned that we have a different and sometimes more respected place in the international world. We are respected as creators, as artists, and we have iconic figures like Josephine Baker and James Baldwin who are revered in ways that you don’t see here. As an ex-pat, you get a new perspective on your own life and ways of being black. I took my racial dynamics and trigger points with me and it took me a while to realize that things were not the same in other parts of the world. The things that might be perceived as threats here were not the same there.

PGN: How did you start SLJ? ZB: There were several factors. I was closing in on 40 and I’d always wanted to do something to give back to the community. I also wanted a little more autonomy and to find my own voice as a choreographer, and I also wanted to do something to commemorate the men of Philadanco who’d died of HIV/AIDS. It started as a tribute show, which was amazing, much bigger than I imagined; it ran about three hours. [Laughs.] We choreographers don’t like to edit! The black community really rallied around it, which was special because HIV/AIDS can be a touchy subject. And we had a cast of 25, which was like, really, how many? That wasn’t sustainable, but we pared it down and have been going ever since. Our premise is that dance and dialogue can be used to unite diverse communities and introduce important topics that are not often tackled in mainstream media. An example is the whole topic of black men on the “down low.” I think it’s very easy to vilify people, but trying to come out in the African-American community is a much more complex emotional journey than people realize. Especially those who are middle class or deeply rooted in that male or religious environment. So we did a piece on it that shed light on different sides of the story without judgment. We do these workshops at school and community groups and then lead a discussion group afterward. We also do documentaries and spoken-word workshops, a lot of things. One of my favorite ones was with Tyrone Smith, where we invited a range of gay men, from ages 30-70, and recorded their stories.

PGN: Since your company is somewhat political, what question would you want to ask Americans in an opinion poll? ZB: It would have to be about religion. The way people use religion as an excuse for bigotry. If we could start a conversation about it, I’d really be interested. How can you be evil to people and blame it on God or Jesus? PGN: True, like the American missionaries exporting antigay hatred to Uganda. ZB: There should be a law, no missionaries allowed. Or these people who want to blame the downfall of family life on us. Really? My life and who I love ruined your family? Explain that.

PGN: Whom would you trade places with for a month? ZB: Bill Gates. I’d establish a few foundations, fix the leak in my house, pay my dancers more. Just that kind of thing, because everything else in my life I’m happy with. I have great friends and a supportive family.

PGN: Do you collect anything? ZB: I have a collection of maps and guidebooks from when I was traveling. I didn’t want to take pictures but I wanted a record of all the places I’ve been. I figured everything I would have taken a picture of would be in there anyway! Other than that, music and vintage cameras.

PGN: So you collect cameras but don’t take pictures? ZB: [Laughs.] I like old things!

PGN: Clark Kent or Superman? ZB: Clark Kent. I like nerds.

PGN: What was your best dance as a teenager? ZB: Le Freak! Then later it was the Hustle, when disco was big, and the Jerk, you know [demonstrates], uh, uh, dun, duh. Those were the days with the basement parties. By the time hip-hop came along, I was more into classical dance.

PGN: Star that you’d like to dance with? ZB: Ricky Martin. He could really throw down on the dance floor. I think he should be my husband.

PGN: What Olympic event would you want to compete in? ZB: Oh, I wish I could skate. It would be neat to do all those tricks.

PGN: Which sin are you more likely to be guilty of? ZB: Lust … romping, frolicking, weekendy lust. [Laughs.] I try not to let my Catholic guilt get in the way, but as long as I’m responsible, I enjoy being a free man with a healthy, lustful life.

PGN: I understand you’re getting your own tribute in April. Does it feel odd to be memorialized when you’re only 43? ZB: No, it doesn’t feel weird at all. Frankly, I might not be here tomorrow. None of us are promised anything. Just today, which also happens to be my birthday, we were supposed to go to Bucknell University and the lady who was going to take us out there died! So yeah, let’s get it in before I go. I might not make it to 44! I have a large body of work behind me, so I think there’s a lot to pull from. And part of recognizing me is recognizing what SLJ has done so it’s great for the company. I’m proud of the fact that we’re really part of the community. It’s going to be a fun event.

Smoke, Lilies and Jade and Philadelphia Black Gay Pride will host a Valentine’s Day party from 6-9 p.m. Feb. 14 at Haru, 241-243 Chestnut St. For more information on Smoke, Lilies and Jade Arts Initiative, visit www.liliesandjade.org.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portrait,” write to [email protected].