In this Faculty Spotlight, Assistant Professor and Director of Dance Lela Aisha Jones reflects on what drives her as an artist, teaching in dance and this year's 360° cluster, as well as her latest projects.
Can you start off by telling us about yourself?
I am a movement performance artist and an interdisciplinary curator, organizer, and arts collaborator. I am also the associate director of Brown Body, which is an all-Black figure skating performance company based in Minnesota.
My specializations are, I tend to say, Black and African diasporic. I see myself as an artistic and cultural nomad – which I do not take lightly. It’s a privilege to be able to travel the world and experience dances across the Black folk community. It's not just a privilege, but for me a birthright and a responsibility to have some integrity in how I engage with other cultures. Even though I was born and raised in Florida as a Black woman in a very strong Black and African American community, every time I enter a community, I have to think about what my socialized location is in terms of gender, class, ability, and race. So, I don’t take it for granted when I say the word, cultural nomad.
How would you describe your journey to Bryn Mawr?
I moved from Florida to New York after graduate school and I was there performing for about four or five years. Then I started looking for a place to settle because New York was just a lot for this Florida girl. The artist community there is so wonderful, but it was always busy. I missed the access to nature; it's just not the same as what I grew up with. I eventually chose Philly because it seemed to have a really vibrant choreographic community, and it was alive in making.
I was asked one day to teach a class at Bryn Mawr for just a semester. Since I had a relationship with the department when I was doing my doctoral work, I stayed in touch, and I started in Bryn Mawr’s dance program as a pre and post-doc fellow in 2017. The two directors of the program who had been here for 40 years were going to retire soon, and they asked me if I wanted to apply for a position. I really wasn’t expecting it because I was a freelance artist for 20 years and I got my Ph.D. more so for artistic research. I didn't expect to be a director, but I’m really grateful. I'm learning about what that means to myself and to the community, and that's a powerful thing. I see myself in a transformative position. When you're in a position like mine, you have the power to transform, and you can choose not to and just go along, but I don't think I’ll ever be that. I’m definitely in the change agent category.
What is it like teaching Bryn Mawr students and directing a dance program at a small liberal arts school?
What I love about Bryn Mawr is the intimacy. Sometimes you have classes and the intimacy just snaps together and you don't have to do much work. It's like the students all knew something about each other before you ever walked in the door.
I really love that I get a chance to actually listen to students and to be peering with them in class to a certain extent, in terms of their ideas and their concepts around theories, embodiment, and artistic inquiry.
The ability to build intimate transformation is what I love, not just about teaching, but about life. When you're an artist you get to watch people transform all the time, and it's almost like watching them revive themselves or reform themselves in a different way. I really appreciate that as a teacher, and that’s one of the most exciting things about being at Bryn Mawr and what continuously calls me to the work here.
Another thing, I know this might seem silly to some people, but I look out my window and I see nature. Being who I am and where I’m from, the ability to look out my window or go outside, and just walk across the field is nourishment for all of me and my teaching.
What has it been like teaching in this year’s 360° cluster, “Paradigms of Revival Black Liberatory Education, Embodiment & the Arts”?
This 360° has been really interesting because we’re going to Cape Verde, a place that none of us have gone to, but it's been on our radar because of its proximity to the continent of Africa and its history. It was one of the locations where Black folks were trained to go into slavery, so it has a very complex and difficult history. But there are still folks there living vibrantly, there are artists, people moving through the world, so all of that just became really interesting to all of us.
My role in the 360°, is teaching my course, “Sacred Activism: Dancing Altars, Radical Moves” which thinks about four areas of dance. What is the scaredness of being with the body? What are some of the dances that are considered to be traditionally spiritual dances? How do we see artistic practice as sacred? And what is the role of adornment in dance, whether it's makeup, earrings, or the garb you wear on your body, and the way that we present in spaces? My goal is to expose the students to the African diaspora and other worldviews through those four lenses.
When they go to Cape Verde for the 360°, they will have a lot of experience with dance, so I wanted them to be very well prepared to have complex and critical conversations around being with the body. One of the artists we're going to meet is Bety Fernandez, and she is going to share a piece with them called “Measuring Fear,” and it's her reaction as a Cape Verdean to what fears have arisen in Cape Verde around Covid, and what social interactions have changed.
How do you like to spend your free time outside of work?
I like to go do the trails in Valley Forge and just all over the city. I love going to see art, and any kind of exhibition. My husband’s family is from Hong Kong, so we celebrated Lunar New Year last month, and we went to the parades and all of the events for our eight-year-old.
A lot of what I do when I’m not here is research and performance. Right now, I'm working with an artist, Nia Love in New York, and the work will premiere at Harlem Stage. It's called Undercurrents and I’m a performer and a bit of a researcher in the work. I also have a feature film called Revival of Blackness that's circulating right now that was a collaboration with two musicians and a filmmaker and it's about all of our relationships to Blackness.
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