Ntozake Shange on Why She Had to Dance

Kara Brooks, Arts Editor

Every seat was filled in the Science Center’s West Lecture Hall at noon on Wednesday, Feb. 8, which was surprising for the time of day. After a brief delay due to wheelchair inaccessibility, Ntozake Shange finally made her way to the stage.

The room hushed to hear the acclaimed playwright and poet speak, and Associate Professor of African American Studies Caroline Jackson Smith chimed in, “It’s my experience that a conversation between two artists can be even richer than just one artist.” Choreographer Dianne McIntyre joined Shange, taking the seat angled next to her, both of them smiling.

The experience was indeed rich as the two artists read and discussed passages from Shange’s new collection of writing, lost in language & sound: or how I found my way to the arts. The deeply personal book reflects, as the title suggests, on language, music and dance, Shange’s three greatest influences. She discusses what it means to be an artist and a woman — and more specifically, a woman of color — through essay, memoir and poetry, such as “Why I Had to Dance.” That piece laid the groundwork for her choreopoem of the same title, for which she collaborated with McIntyre.

Choreopoem, a term first coined by Shange in 1975 to describe her work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, is a form of dramatic expression that combines dance and poetry, resulting in an emotional whirlwind unmatched by either medium on their own.

Beginning with her childhood, Shange recounted memories of her parents returning from trips to Cuba and Haiti and showing her dances they had learned while abroad. Feeling as though she could claim these as her own, Shange was able to find a haven from the racism of her time. Later, she herself branched out through travel, using dance as a means to create, she explained, her own pre-Facebook, multicultural “social network” because she proved she “could move the way the people do.”

The conversation segued from McIntyre’s and Shange’s early experiences with race into a discussion of contemporary politics surrounding the topic. It was here that Shange especially demonstrated her wit and charm. She gave the audience a confident smile after making frank statements about hatred in the U.S., as when she explained how some of her experiences growing up were overwhelming and scary.

“We need to face up to those forces because they will say they do not exist.” Even in the midst of words of such conviction, Shange had to laugh at the absurdity of how harmfully ignorant certain people could be.

Shange’s story picked up more political momentum in a passage McIntyre read that addressed the Chuck Davis dancers, the dance company responsible for DanceAfrica, a company who celebrates heritage and community through dance forms of the African Diaspora. With the emergence of African-American cultural awareness in the 1940s and ’50s, these dancers from New York City assisted in the movement toward a “black consciousness,” Shange explained. They had their own unique “Northern style,” unlike the dances her parents had shown her, and it was then, in the ’60s, that Shange fully engaged in a political conversation.

Though writing is the focus of her work, music and dance truly grounded Shange in her culture. It is now Oberlin’s honor to host the premiere of “Why I Had To Dance,” the choreopoem written by Ntozake Shange and choreographed and directed by Dianne McIntyre. The performance is said to hurl the audience into the poet’s world, like her book lost in language and sound, but this time through dance and visual beauty.

During the talk, McIntyre expressed how taken aback she was on initially reading the poem “Why I Had To Dance.” She said she felt almost intimidated to approach the work, which she described as bursting with cultural and historical reference and splendor. Oberlin has one further honor to be participating in the performance with the addition of “Unexpected Journeys”, a piece directed by Smith and choreographed by McIntyre with Oberlin student collaborators.

“Why I Had to Dance” and “Unexpected Journeys” will be presented by Oberlin College and PlayhouseSquare as part of its Launch artist residency program at 8 p.m. in Hall Auditorium, Feb. 9–11.