The summer of 2016 will be remembered by many for the racial turmoil surrounding the deaths of several unarmed black men by police and the subsequent targeting of police officers. It’s also been a reminder that there is still much work to be done to heal the wounds from generations of inadequate treatment toward African Americans in this country.
A new dance company in Dallas added their two cents to the ongoing conversation about race over the weekend. The Terrance M. Johnson Dance Project premiered a ballet titled “Lynched” at the South Dallas Cultural Center. This powerful collection of choreographed works took audiences through the past, present and a potential future for black people in America. It reflects upon the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle African Americans face while trying to recover during turbulent times.
The first act, focused on the past and present, features gospel music recorded by artists like Beyoncé, Lauren Hill and Mahalia Jackson. A black man lay on the “street” of the stage for approximately 15 minutes while sound of news reports describe the death of Michael Brown.
The image of the dancer on the ground as a woman cries over him touches a chord for audience member Marion Marshall of South Dallas.
“Seeing him on the floor and hearing the commentary which said, ‘A man has been shot. He had his hands up.’ It was like seeing this happening on rewind. This happens all the time,” says Marshall.
The second act of the ballet comes from a lighter place. It looks toward the future and challenges African Americans not to give up, but rather to fight for the future they hope to see. It features music by Nina Simone and closes with Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright.” You may remember that “Alright” became a sort of anthem for the Black Lives Matter Movement during 2015 and that sentiment was shared at the performance as people from all generations swayed and sang the chorus.
**Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” may have language and imagery that is inappropriate for children. Viewer’s discretion is advised.**
Terrance Johnson, 32, founded the new dance project that bears his name and wrote and choreographed “Lynched”. Johnson is originally from Alexandria, Louisiana, but Dallas has been his home since 2007. That’s when dance became an integral part of Johnson’s life, too.
“I had never really taken dance before,” says Johnson, “I was a cheerleader in school, so I had some exposure to the different dance teams on campus. But, it wasn’t until I moved to Dallas and started taking adult classes at the Dallas Black Dance Academy that my career began.”
Johnson says an artistic director of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre saw something in him and invited him to begin training with the second company. That invitation became an opening for Johnson to pursue a new dream, a dream filled with dance.
Then in 2010, he made the trip up to Chicago to train with the city’s Deeply Rooted Dance Theater in their pre-professional summer program. When he returned, he quit his day job and began taking dance more seriously. Johnson now has an MFA in dance from Texas Woman’s University and he recently received a grant from Dallas’ Office of Cultural Affairs to teach summer dance classes.
“We partnered with the Latino Cultural Center to put on a two-week dance program for Latinas and African American girls and we did a three-day summer enrichment workshop at the South Dallas Cultural Center,” says Johnson. “It’s our intention to focus on the youth, because if we can get to them early we can pass down lessons.”
Before he became a dancer, Johnson had always wanted to be a successful business owner. He worked for both IBM and Bank of America.
“When I moved to Dallas, I had the dream of being the youngest CEO,” says Johnson, “I was planning on being a CEO by 30 years old. I never knew I was going to be the CEO of my own company.”
Now that Johnson is in charge of his own non-profit, he wants to make a mark on his community.
“What I want to do with my company is be an activist,” says Johnson.
An activist through the arts. Johnson wants to speak for communities that don’t have the resources to speak for themselves. The mission of the Dance Project is to support underserved communities through art and culture programs rooted in principles of humanity.
Tackling difficult topics, like police brutality and inequity, through art and starting a dialogue is one way to do that.
“I think that activism is service,” says Johnson, “You are actively serving people who don’t have the means, the resources or the education to serve themselves.”
In a Q&A after the performance, Johnson questioned why the media presented Cliven Bundy in Oregon an “armed militia,” and black activists in the citie are seen as looters or criminals. Art activism can be a softer way to start uncomfortable discussions and chance perceptions, he says. “It softens the idea that a person of color as an activist is the same thing as terrorism. It softens the idea of violence that some people have [about black protesters].”
Johnson says he wants people to change their minds about what it means to be an activist. And he’s learning too. He now believes that the title “Lynched” and the noose depicted on the show’s flier might have kept some from attending the show. But Johnson hopes that those who did see the piece can help change perceptions of what it means to have difficult conversations.