Yes, I took ballet from kindergarten through high school. Was I passionate? Never. I was always in the back row of cherubs or angels.
I was never nimble or precise, and I was Black. Now, how could that be? We all know Black people can “sing and dance,” so what was wrong with me? I won all the contests for best dancer at the Police Athletic League dances. I could follow a man through intricate turns and boleros till we were as one. Something was amiss.
Eventually, I figured out that when my family laughed and called me “their sweet plump ballerina,” and my dad told my mother that I was dancing too low-down and dirty at a party, I realized they meant that, in some sense, I was becoming a true sexual and sensual creature. No, I was not the firebird, but if Bo Diddley or Machito were being played, I was queen.
In segregated America this meant very little: our music, our dance, and our visual arts were considered natural gifts, not craft or a complicated rethinking of the possibilities of sound and the body, and I fell for it. I was a niggah, and I could do niggah dances. Not much of an accomplishment, you see. It took me years to undo this horrible stereotyped construct.
I’d seen Carmen de Lavallade in Amahl and the Night Visitors, and I knew I would never be capable of doing what she did—I wasn’t white enough. I’d see Katherine Dunham in old black-and-white movies, loved her solos, but I was ashamed of the ensemble pieces that drew from Haitian and Cuban influence. Too colored. Too sensual. Any Black person could shake that butt. So, after many years of this psychic and psychological trauma, the Black Arts Movement, as championed by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal in the anthology Black Fire, gave me a new context; I was re-made.
Not only were our so-called “natchel” talents art, but they were a gift to the world, a craft, and I believe that after realizing that, something was freed in me that has changed my life dramatically. I don’t even have a slave name. Paulette was afraid of her body, it could not fit, move lyrically, or get her knee to her nose in a chorus line. But when I went to the first Black Power Convention in Newark, New Jersey, in 1967, I saw authentic African, jazz, and modern dance in Black bodies of all shapes, colors, and skills, and I said with my whole being, “That’s what I want to do. I want to do that.”
Surprisingly, the dancers invited the audience to join in, and my body knew joy in my heart. Since that time (which is before I started writing), I have searched out, studied, and worked professionally with an amazing collection of African American, African, Cuban, Brazilian, and Haitian groups. I threw myself into the world of jazz, tap, and modern dance as interpreted by Black sensibility. Those experiences, I swear to you, are among the most treasured moments of my life.I wasn’t ready yet for the implications of Black people as interpreters of outer space.
On a glorious Los Angeles day—no tremors, no mudslides or windstorms—a perfect day for an intergalactic odyssey, I had all 6’8″ of Big Phil in my arms, the Great Dane at my feet, and both cats curled by my side. I woke the household with Sun Ra. Albert, the dog, started howling his own melody. Big Phil murmured, “Isn’t that tonight?” I leapt around the house as if I had the Holy Ghost. The cats leapt out the window.
Yes, tonight was the night Sun Ra’s Myth Science Intergalactic Arkestra played in Southern California. He didn’t make frequent trips to the Pacific coast, so I was beside myself. I couldn’t wait to see the dancers and hear John Gilmore and Marshall Allen. I made some coffee—virtually euphoric about what was to occur. Sometimes, it was Sun Ra and his Heliocentric Arkestra, but either way it was a space defined by Black people for the world to experience on our terms.
Big Phil and I played every recording of Sun Ra we had. We were a joyous couple as we decided what to wear to a celebration of the universe. I went through my closets at least ten times. I wanted something I could move in. Big Phil decided on leather and his black velvet flowing cape. I finally chose my A-line cranberry velvet dress that Philip had given me for Christmas. We were ready once I chose a deep-red flowered scarf with gold threads running through it.
I’d seen Sun Ra and his Arkestra before at Slug’s on East Third Street, when I was in school at Barnard. But I wasn’t ready yet for the implications of Black people as interpreters of outer space. Now, after a year with Ed Bereal’s Bodacious Buggerilla Theatre, I’d learned that one can’t improvise with someone unless you respect them. Doing street theater in some of the more intriguing neighborhoods of LA increased the importance of trusting one’s partner.
The crowd that gathered round might be flying their colors. The crowd that gathered round, of all ages and gang affiliations, was demanding. They egged us on, trying to get us to lose our focus, but hours of rehearsal paid off. No one interrupted our work. So I learned to honor my peers for the company, found my nicest vase, and decorated it with multicolored ribbons. Then I went to the open market in Pasadena. I was gonna feed the whole Arkestra, especially the dancers: Wisteria, June, Kenneth, and whoever Sun Ra had picked from the local area.
On one of my many trips to Slug’s I’d met June and Wisteria and other members of the Arkestra because the place was so small that during their breaks they had nowhere to go except mingle with the audience. My friend Cheryl Banks, who had actually begun to dance with Sun Ra, introduced me to Wisteria and June, even though we all felt like we had known each other in spirit. Even some of the guys recognized me from my many trips to Jupiter with the band.
A blending of spirits held us all together and knowing one another. Many years later, when my daughter, Savannah, was about three, I carried her down the back steps of Sweet Basil’s where the Arkestra was playing and had Sun Ra bless her in his fashion. He had his flowing robes and crown on. My child was mesmerized, but Sun Ra had laid hands upon her and all was right with the world. I don’t know if Deadheads have the same kind of community, but there was a community that centered around Sun Ra and we were part of it.
That day Big Phil and I played every recording of Sun Ra we had. Sometimes Big Phil would join me on his alto sax. We were ebullient, Sun Ra aficionados. We loved it when Sunny would do galactic arrangements of Ellington or Basie, wearing a gold crown as befitted the interlocutor of the Universe. The band wore a mixture of contemporary clothing and traditional African garb, always with sparklin’ gold tulle over that. The dancers, who were always highlighted, wore leotards and varied scarves and the gold tulle as well, to be free to improvise.
Sun Ra was a committed Egyptologist of the kingdom of Kush. Miraculously his Arkestra was able to blend the ancient leitmotif with the most contemporary new music. Blending a panoply of African drums and electric instruments, as well as French horns, flutes, percussion instruments from the African world, and his organ, Sun Ra’s sound was unmistakable.
In our “1960-something,” as Baraka would say, Big Phil and I approached Dorsey High School in the heart of South Central LA. There were lots of other cars so we weren’t the only ones willing to lose our breath at Sun Ra’s spectacle. Musicians, sculptors, weavers, dancers, poets, professional Black Nationalists, Sunny inspired us all—made us wanna take chances.
The lights went down and suddenly the Arkestra came down the aisle singin’. I thought I was in church. The drummers made me wanna take off my clothes and celebrate the world. Finally, from out of nowhere, Sun Ra appeared at his organ downstage, sportin’ his crown and a regal robe. June sang in that clear vibrant voice of hers. The drums and the organ pushed the dancers to evermore lean and defined movement.
I swear, sometimes they look like Egyptian hieroglyphs caught afire. Then a film of the whole group in front of the pyramids, by the Nile in a market in Cairo, placed the group in a dialectic, from the timeless to the unknown. Then all at once the lights went out. Only drums and horns could be heard, but Sun Ra’s organ, the electric guitars, and synthesizers were silent. Sun Ra had blown the circuits as well as our minds.
The women kept singin’ though. Technicians couldn’t fix it. It was pitch black in Dorsey High. Not that we weren’t pitch Black in spirit, but no light came except for undulating voices. This night changed my life. I believed the blackout was a sign from God that I was s’posed to dance. I believe that to this day.
Somehow, we all got organized and some members of the band were to stay with us, others in different parts of the city. There were no more gigs in Los Angeles, and the Arkestra had nowhere to go. It was the worst of all times for me to have company. I was finishing my independent studies for the spring semester, but I was barely started. Cultural duty was cultural duty. Naw, I couldn’t. Off we went to Highland Park to our ramshackle flat, now home to nine people.
I left it up to Philip to arrange who would sleep where and headed for the kitchen. I had to cook for 11 folks, then head for my study to work. But before that, I took Wisteria aside and asked her, “Where do I learn how to dance like you?” She said, “Go everywhere, learn everything,” and went on her way. But I was in graduate school with another year to go.
I stayed up all night writing about Black visual artists in Southern California instead. The next day I pulled myself together somehow and headed to the university. I was looking for my primary advisor, Dr. Lloyd Brown. There was something I had to do. When I found Dr. Brown, I explained I was leaving the University of Southern California.
With his usual aplomb (I’d been threatening to leave from the first day I got there), he looked at me and chuckled. “But you’ve only six months left to go.”
“I know, but something came up that must be attended to.” “Like what?” he asked.
“Well, I want to dance with Sun Ra,” I replied.
Trying not to laugh, he thought for a minute before he spoke. Then, quite energetically, he said, “I’ve got an idea.”
“So do I,” I said, a bit annoyed.
“You can finish in six months if you take both summer terms. Surely Sun Ra will still be around. You’ll have your degree and still be ready to run off. Surely six months isn’t too long?”It was quite the thing in Black Nationalists’ circles to take on an African name to split the connection to slavery, to be free.
I thought for a long time; maybe Dr. Brown was trying to run a game on me. But I knew Sun Ra would be around forever. So, I confidently said, “OK. That’s fair. Thank you.”
I knew I had to do all that work that Wisteria had told me about. From that moment I made it my business to study with every Black dancer or choreographer I could find. “Study everywhere. Learn everything.”
But nothing happened. I stayed a graduate student who haunted the stacks, surrounded by piles of Crisis magazines. I huddled over my journal, writing and signing “Paulette Williams” at the end of each entry or poem. I had her memories and self-conscious feelings about my body that wouldn’t let me learn to fly as I’d promised. I actually had fantasies that I’d grow a tail and long ears and be a haint of the library if I continued to live the way I was living.
One day I went home and beneath the underwear on the floor I picked up a passel of papers headed by the words “Ntozake Shange.” I trembled when I held the letter in my hand. I always did when I looked at a gift Ndikko and Nomusa Zaba had given me. Well, I had asked for it. I’d gone to San Francisco to visit some friends and this South African couple was explaining how one’s fate was built into a name. So, all these Black people in the United States’ lives were running amok because our names could not guide us.
Plus it was quite the thing in Black Nationalists’ circles to take on an African name to split the connection to slavery, to be free. I had another reason as well. I was a feminist as well as a nationalist and wanted to be rid of “Paulette,” which was a diminutive of Paul, my father’s name. So I asked Ndikko to name me. He said he’d have to observe me for months, maybe even a year, before he’d know what my name was to be.
It was about seven months before Ndikko said to me as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge that he had my name: “Ntozake Shange,” “she who comes with her own things/who walks like a lion.” So I put the papers with all the various nuances of my new name away and went to play with the dog.
Still I longed to dance and sun in peculiar patterns, and racing up the street gave me an outlet once in a while. In one of my jaunts, I promised that if I ever left Los Angeles, I’d just introduce myself as Ntozake, as if that was in fact who I was. Then I could be or do anything I wanted because I had nothing to hold me back, and that’s what I did. I signed my name Ntozake Shange at the Black Artist Collective roster in Boston.
Now. I could be a dancer. I could be anything.
Excerpted from Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance by Ntozake Shange (Beacon Press, 2020). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.