Sometimes Dancin' (part 1)
What - or rather, *how* - is Talent Agency?
Hello, and happy new year! I’m excited to share the Talent Agency Newsletter with you. New issues go out on the first Friday of every month. To kick things off, I’ll offer some background on Talent Agency and what it’s up to. If you’d like to learn more, or if you feel moved to book a session with me, click here. Feel free to share this work with whoever you think might find it interesting. And of course, I appreciate any donation you may feel moved to make.
Something changes once you’re holding others’ attention. You’re asked to move carefully, with grace, as you guide them through an experience. My favorite thing about performing is the moment where I am becoming visible, the moment when I feel myself opening, like a soft yet sturdy net. My presence says, welcome! You who are witnessing, and you who will speak through me, you are all welcome here. This is when I’m reminded that sharing is an act of ministry. I become vividly alive to my power, my responsibility, and my connectedness.
This feeling is with me now, as I write this first of (hopefully) several newsletters. I treasure this feeling because it’s one of dance’s many gifts to me. I’m alive because of those gifts. I’m doing this work, as Talent Agency, because of those gifts. These gifts have taught me—as the Brownstone song so wonderfully puts it—that dance is a life force. Movement mobilizes the past, shapes the present, and makes way for the future. It creates and enables relation. Sometimes dancin’ can make you fall in love! Because it does all this, I think of dance as an information technology. That just means it facilitates the “acquisition, storage, manipulation, management, […] transmission, or reception of” knowledge. We’ll get into that shortly. For now, just know that dance is one of many tools I use to make sense of the world.
Another of those tools is tarot. Tarot and dance overlap majorly in my mind. Both practices are hard for me to explain to others; I sometimes struggle to describe why they really, truly matter to me. That puzzle is the main theme of this writing. Tarot and dance are both central to my work, and yet I don’t call myself a tarot reader—or, increasingly, a dancer! I’m less worried about these things as identities, and am more interested in how I use them. Tarot, in particular, excels at telling stories about life. More than predictions or instructions, its characters and scenarios dramatize the situations we face.
(“Information technology”… “how I use them”… “telling stories”: are you sensing a pattern?)
In this piece, our cast of characters includes four court cards: a page, a knight, a queen, and a king. These figures, which appear in all four suits of the tarot, can represent different levels of experience in a specific area of life. I’ll pay special attention to the court cards from the suit of Pentacles, or Coins. You’ll notice that all of the figures hold a star-stamped coin. Not for nothing, this symbolism inspired the hand-drawn insignia I use to represent Talent Agency.
If you know anything about tarot, it may feel weird to associate the Pentacles with information. Pentacles often represent ‘material’ concerns like money, necessities, and physical well-being. Information may seem more at home with the Swords; that’s the suit related to things we know, say, hear, or see. This is certainly a key part of what information is. But as the term’s root word, the Latin informare, makes clear, “to train, instruct, educate…shape, [and] give form to” is to build the capacity to see, hear, or say something. In other words, information isn’t just meant to be held in a brain, a book, or a hard drive. You’ve got to do something with it!
When I tell people I dance, most of them ask me something like, “How do you learn and remember all those moves?” It’s a simple question, but an important one. In fact, it’s one reason I associate pentacles with ‘how,’ and why I often think of them as footsteps or footprints (as on a dance diagram). Whether I am dancing, teaching, or making a performance, I’m truly in my bag when I’m helping someone make a new experience part of their body, part of their life.
And for me, the questions go beyond dance: How do people make culture? How do you know what you know? How do we relate to each other? These prompts invite us to open, like a soft yet sturdy net. When they reach us, we are being called to become something or someone else. How do we fix ourselves to do that, and to do it well? How do I do it as Talent Agency?
Well, let’s see if I can remember how I learned all those moves.
The learning habit started before my own life did. My mom (a teacher) and my dad (then in the Air Force) gifted me the respect for knowledge they’d inherited from their families. A few of my relatives devoted lots of energy to making music, painting, cooking, and homemaking. Some of them were preachers and/or teachers. School and church mattered greatly to my families, and they became core parts of my childhood too.
I swam in information. Among my earliest memories are my first ballet class and the whir of the family computer. Our CD-ROM copies of Infopedia, Multipedia, and Compton’s Encyclopedia wound up covered in a film of fine scratches. I was dazzled by all those pictures and videos and sound files, when I wasn’t reading a book or playing a video game or visiting the library, the zoo, or some museum.
As I get older, I’m realizing how hard my parents worked to guard my young learning self. I now appreciate my mom’s sense that public school would try to crush a bright black child. It would also offend a Christian child (and his family). That’s why, after I finished kindergarten, my mom decided to homeschool me. Information became the matter of my world. It still is. More is being added every day.
Even as my love of learning deepened, my reasons for learning shifted wildly. That process started when I returned to public school in the fifth grade. It only intensified when, two years later, my family left Alaska to settle in South Carolina. I was shocked into a new kind of awareness: there were fashion trends to track! Movies and TV shows to catch up on! Secular music to listen to (gasp)! The real surprise lay in how surely people valued these things. Never mind that new clothes, new movies, and new songs replaced the old ones so fast, before you could really learn the old stuff. How were people so willing to invest in these realities? How were they so sure of them?
A slow slide away from ‘the norm’ may have been on-target for a suburban teenager. Recognizing I was queer definitely helped. By the time I got to college, I lost faith in church (apart from church, I wondered then, what else could faith attach to?), though I kept going. I also eventually realized and accepted I was not going to be a ballet dancer. However much sense this doubt makes now, it felt like a hindrance at a school where students were encouraged to see themselves as unshakably talented, smart, good—sure.
Was I the only one who no longer knew what God was, what dance was, what I was? If not, where were the others? How was I to live now? Sometimes I think I have answers to these questions now. Often, I’m reminded I don’t.
Eventually, I left church for Tumblr, Twitter, and Wikipedia. They thoroughly transformed the speed, direction, shape, and force of my thinking, my making, and my sense of self. I shimmied out onto far-flung branches of music and art and dance and literature. In the process, I learned my conviction was real. It didn’t suit my contexts, but (I soon realized) that was not a personal failure.
Ironically, the more I learned to trust my own wisdom, the more I noticed battles raging between disparate sets of ideas and groups of people. I entered grad school witnessing the ebb and flow of social movements like Occupy, the Arab Spring, and Black Lives Matter. These movements lived online and offline at the same time—like I wanted to. I could no longer pretend there was a gap between the two realms (as my peers and I had so often done). Convergence increasingly felt like a rule of life.
That’s why, as a grad student, the rules of ‘good’ scholarly practice frustrated me. I resented these very specific ways of thinking, writing, and working. In time, I even grew annoyed with dance. I’d go to a show expecting to see something that tackled intense topics, only to leave feeling duped and cheated. What caused the gap between urgent words and tepid dancing? Why did the stakes of institutional culture-making feel so high and so low at the same time?
These issues came clear as I began diving into somatics, learning critical theory, and (in time) stumbling into conversations about things called “the sensemaking crisis,” “the noosphere,” and “cultural somatics.” What I now know—because of my work in dance, because of my experience with black studies, queer studies, critical race theory and cultural/performance studies, and because of the knowledge I’ve inherited as a black-diasporic being—is that the earth is suffering because many people have been trained against living well with it. The dominant ‘hows’ of personhood are destroying this planet and its beings.
I value these discourses because they describe the what of this moment so well. They have helped me understand how we ‘do’ our bodies; they have also helped me understand that those ‘hows’ are subject to change. What I know is that the key to this change is recognizing and working with our patterns of being, the very same way a person might learn a dance.
The sensemaking discourses bear witness to the havoc that ‘modernity’ has wreaked on ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’ beings. In my experience, though, very few people are willing to confront the stakes of this issue. For starters, it implicates the very individuals who dominate this conversation. Most centers of the sensemaking discussion tend to be very, very W.E.I.R.D. Further, few involved parties have acknowledged the overwhelming whiteness, maleness, cisgenderedness, middle- and upper-classedness, etc. of their networks. When they do, they tend do downplay the relevance of ‘identity’ to the topics at hand. By and large, they believe identity foments division—the very thing to be gotten over.
What I know is that we miss the point of something called ‘modernity’ if we don’t contend with its origin stories. Dealing with those stories means dealing with race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality…: all the things “the meta-conversation” is often trying to overcome. Who and what do ‘we,’ as humans, claim to be? Do ‘we’ even know? Why does it matter? Can we even answer these questions? And how did any of this lead me to where I am now, writing to you?
Casual concerns, no doubt. They are a threshold onto the smaller origin story nestled in the bigger one. They are part of the reason I’ve struggled, for over a year, to enter this dialogue fully and boldly. They have been fierce companions in the slow process of learning-how: how to listen, how to be audacious, how to trust my artistic, academic, and everyday knowledge in addressing a profound oversight in a profound conversation.
Next month, I’ll break down some of the terms and issues I’ve mentioned here, so you can understand why the above questions are central to my work. For now we leave off, thanking the first three members of the court for their turns onstage. The King, meanwhile, awaits his entrance…
THIS IS INTERESTING: Each month, I’ll share a handful of links to things that have recently informed, entertained, provoked, or inspired me.
“In response to our bodies we say ‘ok, let me ask my employer first.’” This Twitter thread by Dayna Lynn Nuckolls links the current astrology to developing attitudes in the States about Omicron. Dayna’s work centers what she calls “divination for liberation”; it’s intended to keep us mindful of the life-or-death stakes of living in this version of the world. She leaves the fluffy shit at home! If you aren’t following her—and even if you don’t keep up with or ‘believe in’ astrology—CHANGE THAT NOW. (She’s also on Instagram under the same handle.)
The frisson of watching a makeup brush pick up powder. John Maclean is the immortal make-up YouTuber you’ve been waiting for. He is an unflinching devotee of craft, which makes his work really exciting for me. (You hear it in the way he enunciates the serial numbers of his products.) As someone who aims to make videos that are “interesting, useful, helpful, or beneficial,” he usually delivers on all counts. I’m glad he’s back from his long hiatus!
“A nation proud / And jealous of the blessing.” In this piece for Aeon, Padraic Scanlan evaluates antislavery’s role in preserving and extending colonial power. Granting enslaved people ‘freedom,’ Scanlan argues, exposed them to the cruelties of a free-market socioeconomic system. This is one major issue underlying dominant understandings of ‘humanity,’ which I’ll address in next month’s newsletter. (This essay resonates with much of Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, which rocked my world and deeply influences this work.)
That’s all for now! I hope you’re find rest, good company, and ample support where you can. Until next time 💛⭐