TBA Fest: ‘Move You: Intervention’

A dance form born in majorette lines and adopted by queer dance clubs hits the streets in Portland's Boise neighborhood.

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“How to be a fabulous creature…. 

How to delight in being this magical beast… 

How to delight while also resisting/refuting/ignoring the historical creaturification of this body, my body, this black, male body… 

How to be a flying, spitting, fucking, magic-making creature – a centaur – a fairy – a queer ass fairy… 

How to be a creature, clawed and furry and four-legged, then standing up on two legs in low-rise jean shorts or pastel neo-bellbottoms and a silver dashiki to shake your hand and look into your eyes before I start licking your face before I tenderly claw at the skin on your chest with a watchful gaze because I am not yet sure whether you are friend or foe and I need to pay attention to figure out…

How to be a creature, fully – moving at the glacial pace of nature – moving at the speed of reflexes… 

How to be a creature, or maybe an alien, or android – and how to let you see how well you can know me…” 

–jumatatu poe, transitional artist statement (2016) 

***

The J-Sette performers and audience move through a busy intersection in Portland’s Boise neighborhood. Photo: Beth Whelan

J-Sette dancers jumatatu m. poe and Jermone “Donte” Beacham took to the streets of Portland’s Boise neighborhood alongside five local performers on Friday night, Oct. 1, to share their work Let ‘Im Move You: Intervention as part of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s annual TBA Festival

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Hailing from Philadelphia (jumatatu) and Dallas (Donte), the pair planted the roots of Let ‘Im Move You more than six years ago when they found one another on YouTube. “jumatatu reached out to me on YouTube when YouTube wasn’t even a place for chatting,” Donte said over FaceTime a few days before the Friday night performance. “After a few emails, jumatatu hired me as a consultant for a project, and that’s when it felt like Let ‘Im Move You began.” It’s now a five-part series: jumatatu explained that the Let ‘Im Move You projects are linked by the majorette J-Sette style as well as “a very particular care ethic that has been birthed in this process.” 

In the current moment, that includes the extra level of care needed to tour as a group of Black, queer bodies amidst the intersections of an array of public health pandemics – of state-sanctioned violence, of historic and contemporary displacement and housing insecurity, of persecutions by religious doctrine, and the Covid-19 pandemic. “We’ve been trying to evolve to articulate this particular care ethic within a process that’s extremely rigorous,” jumatatu added in reference to both the nature of J-Sette dance and the intersectionality of the group’s collective existence.

“Let ‘Im Move You: Intervention” co-creator jumatatu m. poe. Photo via On the Boards

You may be asking, “What’s J-Sette?” As a person most likely living in the Pacific Northwest in Portland, America’s whitest big city, that’s not a surprising question. J-Sette is a dance form popularized by the Prancing J-Settes of Jackson State University’s women’s majorette line in the 1970s. The style quickly leapt from majorette lines to queer night clubs in the South and beyond and became more and more popular as queer men befriended J-Settes and regularly attended their practices and auditions to learn. Although the J-Settes’ performances were done as halftime performances in front of thousands of viewers, a simple Google search will still term the queer evolution of the style as underground. “I think the word ‘underground’ is always used in relation to whiteness, and alludes to what those wider white audiences have access to,” jumatatu commented. The duo both agreed, however, that the hidden nature of J-Sette is still very prevalent for some individuals who are concerned about their J-Sette practice conflicting with their everyday life. “I know a lot of queer men who are very skeptical about being recorded and put on social media, because they do have day jobs,” Donte said. 

Through Let ‘Im Move You–which also had a second and final scheduled Portland performance on Saturday evening, Oct. 2–jumatatu and Donte are challenging the notion of queer J-Sette as an underground art form. Bringing the performance to the streets is an intentional choice for the pair. Intervention was created to travel through historically or predominantly Black neighborhoods. It premiered in 2016 in three Philadelphia neighborhoods, just over a week after the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando that left 49 people dead and 53 wounded. When they take the piece on tour, jumatatu and Donte first consider the performance route. jumatatu explained that it’s important to “understand the neighborhood, because Black neighborhoods often get reduced into a monolith. We ask questions like, ‘What does it mean to be a Black person living in or passing through a Black neighborhood?” 

PICA has helped the pair learn about Portland’s Boise neighborhood, jumatatu remarked. “Inevitably we will be dealing with stories of displacement when we are performing in this Black neighborhood. Queerness is also at the forefront of displacement. It’s complicated enough to deal with the intersection of all of these things in the places we live. In a place we are new to, it demands a whole new level of care.” 

Portland’s Boise neighborhood has weathered some of the most devastating and blatant displacement of Black Portlanders in the last 30 years. According to the Multnomah county census, 70 percent of the Boise neighborhood was Black in 1990. By 2010, 71 percent of the neighborhood had flipped to white residents as Black neighbors were priced out or bulldozed out by the Emanuel Hospital expansion of 1970 that demolished 22 predominately Black homes and businesses that served as a hub for Portland’s Black community. What has remained of the community is their gathering place: Dawson Park, which was one of the first stops of the Intervention performance.

Jermone Donte Beacham, in the studio. Photo: Chris Cameron

As a crowd of about 70 followed the seven dancers from the Matt Dishman Community Center up North Williams Avenue and into Dawson Park, the J-sette choreography was paired only with the sounds of Portland’s 6 p.m. traffic rush on a Friday night. The tone in the air as the group began was lighthearted. At the start of the performance, the 70 spectators only knew that the route would be about 1.2 miles and that it wasn’t a loop back to the community center. Folks laughed and let out a few cheers as the performers picked up the pace and the spectators awkwardly ran along, getting to know the nature of this call-and-response performance-viewing style. 

J-Sette is marked by a prancing motion, knees high as you step from one foot to another, arms rhythmically swapping diagonals alongside the pace of stepping. Wearing hot pink knee socks to unify them, the group proudly strutted into Dawson Park. Tension immediately filled the air as a handful of men in the park met the performers with a slew of homophobic slurs and quickly moved on to scream at the crowd, making it very clear that Dawson Park was a Black community hub, and that the group of mainly white spectators was not welcome. As the performers continued to move and dance on the east side of the park, the intersectionality of what was happening was quickly aggravated as I recalled what jumatatu had mentioned just a few days earlier on FaceTime: “Inevitably we will be dealing with stories of displacement when we are performing in this Black neighborhood. Queerness is also at the forefront of displacement. It’s complicated enough to deal with the intersection of all of these things in the places we live. In a place we are new to, it demands a whole new level of care.” 

The narratives playing out were twofold. On one hand, you had a group of locals saying horrible homophobic slurs to the performers, while simultaneously a group of mainly white spectators were completely inundating one of the only parks the Black community of Portland has to gather, feel safe, and celebrate their culture. The responses from all sides (not including the Let ‘Im Move You performers) were chaotic. While the dancers slowed down and moved into close, comfortable embraces with one another, white spectators yelled back at Black park goers, defending the performance while the Black park goers shot back references to their Blackness amidst one of Portland’s most gentrified neighborhoods. 

Let ‘Im Move You into the Light: A performance of “Intervention” in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy @calartsredcat

The performers kept their calm, although with their faces masked, it was hard to gather their reaction as the tension escalated. Eventually, the entire group followed the performers out of the park as the pain roused in the short four or five minutes we were all there settled in the air. The intersectionality of what it’s like to exist as a queer, Black body in America was on display, and while the grief of that reality weighed down the evening, the performers continued on nonetheless. The tone remained rather slow and quiet as we passed by the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church and the dancers’ movement slowed to a moment of rest, lying on the sidewalk and across the steps of the church. 

The public response as we continued on was varied, with more ups and downs as we passed through the garden-lined streets of the Boise neighborhood and eventually made our way up Mississippi. One girl dribbling a basketball called to her mother exclaiming, “Mom! Look! They are twerking!” A man sitting by his food truck remarked on the crowd, saying, “See no color but the color of clothes.” A car drove by and honked as the driver gushed, “Oh my gosh, it’s a flash mob!” Amidst the spectators, I heard reflections on what had unfolded at the park: “Not going through the park was an option, but it would compromise what this is all about.” 

As the performers collected around the front of the Red House on Mississippi, they moved together into a paced swaying motion, arms waving about their heads in tandem with the “LAND BACK” flags flying outside the Red House. As a landmark of the resistance to displacement in Portland, The Red House made sense to be the final stopping point for Intervention. Yet, despite it all, here we all were, watching a group of seven proud and fearless humans move as the world moved around them. 

After reading several other reviews of previous Intervention performances, I’d asked jumatatu and Donte what Black Joy meant to them, having seen it referenced in relation to Intervention so often in the press. “I don’t use the term Black Joy,” said jumatatu. “I lost my connection to it when a whole lot of people started using that term. I use the term ‘delight’. Delight, for me, feels like this amassment of all these smaller things. It feels so relevant to our work because there’s a sense of multitasking, because we pay so much attention to all of the small things happening around us as we dance. Something about the revelation of experiencing all of these things at once feels like a delight that helps bring vibrancy into a performance.” 

I recall jumatatu’s transitional artist statement, shared at the beginning of this article … 

How to delight in being this magical beast… 

How to delight while also resisting/refuting/ignoring the historical creaturification of this body, my body, this black, male body… 

The sun dropped behind the West Hills across the river as the members of the group took their final bow. Intimacy encircled them, as did the dusk, while they hugged and embraced. Watching from across the street, I caught glimpses of their tender closing moments as cars, bicycles and pedestrians zipped past on the street. The amassment of all of the smaller things. The delight of this magical beast. 

About the author

Elizabeth Whelan is a movement-based artist based in Portland. As a freelance dancer and choreographer, she has presented work through the Regional Arts and Culture Council’s Night Lights, Downright Productions’ Amorphous, Polaris Dance Theater’s Galaxy Festival, Performance Works Northwest and FLOOR Center for Dance. Beth has been awarded the White Bird Barney Commissioning Prize alongside Trevor Wilde and Shaun Keylock, and will be creating new work for the White Bird Uncaged Series of 2021. She currently dances with Tongue Dance Project, based in St. Johns. Prior to Portland, Beth completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance at George Mason University and freelanced in Washington, DC and Philadelphia. Her writing on dance is published in Philadelphia’s The Dance Journal and Oregon ArtsWatch. In her beloved free time, Elizabeth enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music, and drinking a good cup of coffee with her cat. Visit bethwhelan.org and bethwhelandesign.com.

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