‘The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance’: Interactive dance party hits Philly Juneteenth weekend

Choreographer and director Raja Feather Kelly and curator and former Poet Laureate of Philadelphia Yolanda Wisher are collaborating with Intercultural Journeys to create the Pew-funded dance project “The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance,” an interactive dance party. Taking place over Juneteenth weekend in Philadelphia, the event is a celebration of social dance, Philadelphia, history, freedom and joy through the communal Black art form. The event will run June 20-22 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia.

This groundbreaking project features Philadelphian dancers Germaine Ingram, Lela Aisha Jones, Nikki Powerhouse, Vitche-Boul Ra and Mark “Metal” Wong. The dancers represent multiple genres and generations, capturing the long-standing history of social dance as an art form of cultural expression and community. 

The interactive dance party will be held in five “living rooms,” highlighting the project’s goal of celebrating the ways Black Philadelphians have used social dance for community and connection by holding dance parties in their homes, in clubs and in other communal spaces.

Each living room will host one of the project’s five dancers, and the dancers’ performances will combine choreography and movement with testimonials highlighting their experiences with social dance. These performances are intended to be interactive, and audience members are encouraged to reflect upon their own relationship to dance and join in the movement. 

“We wanted to work with Philadelphia,” said Kelly, a queer choreographer whose show “Lempicka” just concluded a Broadway run. “We wanted to work with performers and expand the idea of what people think social dance is.”

“We just want people to remember the history of what it meant to find freedom and solace and community with dance and particularly its relationship to Philadelphia,” Kelly added. 

Both Kelly and Wisher highlighted the importance of Philadelphia’s history and influence and how both were integral to this project.

“[I noticed] that some things started in Philadelphia and then spread,” Kelly said. “Particularly, I’m thinking about the hip-hop scene or the differences between the ballroom scene in New York and what it was in Philadelphia, I was like ‘oh, wow.’”

Wisher also identified the ways that Philadelphia’s history served as the inspiration for the project itself.

Wisher shared that she began this project two years ago when she was applying for a performance grant from the the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and had a specific interest in working with Kelly on a project about Black social dance and popular culture around dance in Philadelphia. During that process, Bill Bissell, the Director of Performance at The Pew Center, introduced Wisher to the book “From Hucklebuck to Hip Hop: Social Dance in the African-American Community in Philadelphia,” a project Pew funded in the 1990s.

Wisher said she and Kelly started delving into the book and thought about the “next step.”

“How could we pick up the thread from where that book left off and also be in conversation with that project as kind of an ancestor?” Wisher said.”

“We’re trying to pick up on that energy, on that cultural zeitgeist, that accompanies something like social dance, and graft it along the histories of Philly that we know and how important Black people have been to the Philadelphia cultural landscape,” Wisher added. “In particular, thinking about stories about emancipation and freedom — that is such a powerful thread in Philly’s cultural history around African Americans, and social dance is a way to talk about that in a way that reaches a lot of people and people can really understand.”

Wisher and Kelly were also both particularly excited about the dancers taking part in the event, as they are a varied, talented and entirely Philadelphia-based ensemble.

Kelly said, “They are a dream…These performers create a unique sypher of individuals. They all work in a different spectrum of dance.”

Likewise, Wisher explained, “We had some goals in terms of what we wanted the ensemble to represent. We wanted it to be intergenerational. We wanted it to really prioritize Black voices, in particular Black women’s voices, and we wanted to have at least one person who didn’t identify as Black who was also invested in Black cultural forms.”

Wisher elaborated, “It felt important to tell the story of Black social dance from lots of different perspectives, both trained and untrained dancers, folks who are in academic spaces and non-academic spaces when it comes to dance, folks who are young and folks who are a little more seasoned. I feel like our group represents that. These folks represent Philadelphia really well.”

Kelly highlighted the presence of queerness in the piece.

“I realized it was my job to create visions of the world the way that I saw them as close as I could so that when someone has an experience, they’re like, ‘Something was particular about this performance. Something was particular about how this was made,’” Kelly said. “And I would attribute that curiousness or that specificity to queerness.”

Kelly also noted the event’s connection with Juneteenth.

“I think people are primed for celebration [around Juneteenth],” Kelly said. “I think people are primed for reflection, and people are primed to have community.”

“This is a perfect time to put our idea in the world and hopefully have some impact,” Kelly added. “It’s just a nice alignment.”

Wisher also shared how Juneteenth has “really become a focal point for Philadelphia,” noting the  “community energy around that celebration.”

Wisher added, “Juneteenth has always been about, not this story of Black people being freed, but Black people freeing themselves and finding ways from the times of emancipation to our present moment to free themselves even further from trauma, from oppression, from low expectations,” Wisher said. “There’s so much that we want to continue to free ourselves from…Not just Black folks, but everybody. We all need to get freer.”

Regarding the title, “Re-Emancipation,” Wisher said, “Emancipation is a continued process; it’s not a one-time thing. We have to be vigilant about our freedom.” 

Kelly and Wisher also shared similar hopes and goals for the event, centered on the feelings those attending would experience during and after the performances.

Kelly explained, “I hope people have a good time. I want people to be like, ‘That was fun.’ Inside of that fun, I want them to feel they learn one new thing, even if that thing is, ‘Oh, I should go out dancing more’ or ‘Oh, I didn’t know that’s what the history of breakdancing meant. Or, if someone’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t think about that aspect as being a part of social dance.’” 

Kelly also hopes audiences leave with “a desire to be a part of community, or to create community, or to recognize the communities that you already have.”

Wisher shared that she wants audiences “to have an embodied experience.” 

“I also want them to be like, ‘Wow, Philadelphia is such a rich, deep place,’” Wisher added. “‘I didn’t even know that these kinds of stories were in the larger story of Philadelphia.’”

The event was specifically designed to elicit such responses, demonstrated through the setting of the living rooms and the intention for the project to be interactive.

Kelly shared, “The performance is really more of a party than it is a sit-down, staged thing. I think we want people to feel a part of it, and the atmosphere is, ‘Come and hang out with us, and see how performance is so much a part of life and so much a part of what we do.’”

“Dancing with strangers is such a powerful human experience, to be able to get free in a room with other people getting free,” Wisher said.

Wisher also highlighted the profound impact Intercultural Journeys has had as the host of this show. Intercultural Journeys, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to inclusion and connection, produces myriad performance events that center diverse cultures, open dialogue and social change. Wisher said that she and Kelly were “super excited” about how the nonprofit embraced the show.

“They’ve been amazing partners to work with and really have supported this show from the very beginning,” Wisher said.

“The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance” also received major support from The Pew Center For Arts & Heritage and additional support from The Leeway Foundation and Red Typewriter Studio.

The event has a corresponding seven-episode podcast, “The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance Podcast,” available on all podcast streaming platforms. Episodes will feature the project’s artists and their experiences with social dance. A documentary about social dance will also be available in June. 

“The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance” will play at 7:30 p.m. June 20-22 at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street Fourth Floor. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit bit.ly/4bP4Xnu.

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