Don’t expect something like Disney on Ice or the Ice Capades, or competitive Olympic-type figure skating in Brownbody’s upcoming show, “Tracing Sacred Steps.” In fact, although brought to us by the Yard, the performance itself will be in the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena rather than their Chilmark stage.
Brownbody is a unique company. Grounded in the African diaspora perspective, its mission is to build artistic experiences that disrupt biases and prompt audiences to engage as active participants in the journey. Deneane Richburg, artistic executive director, artistic conceptualist, and choreographer, says, “The artistic work we do is telling honest and nuanced stories deeply rooted in United States–based Black communities’ experiences, and bringing these narratives and truths to the ice.” They do so through a mixture of modern dance, theater, figure skating, and embodied racial consciousness. The latter is a process they use, she says, “to identify our humanity in the contemporary spaces that continue to be rooted in narratives that reduce and minimize Blackness.” This type of work includes story circles, journaling, breathwork, and movement. Richburg explains, “Understanding our humanity is key because when we are performing, all elements of our humanity are visible.”
The cast includes four Black movement skating artists who train in modern dance, West African movement, and, of course, figure skating, along with an actor/vocalist. “Tracing Sacred Steps” is an evening-length piece in which they bring the sacred African American tradition of Ring Shout onto the ice. Richburg explains, “Ring Shout came to be as a result of the collision between many spiritual West African traditions and the version of Christianity that was practiced during the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s in Southern states in the U.S. Some of the Western South African traditions included ancestral connection through moving in a counterclockwise direction along a ring or circle. It included the idea of spiritual possession in the center of that circle that would bring one closer to their ancestors.”
Richburg continues about Ring Shout’s importance: “During slavery, masters would strip their enslaved human beings of their humanity and force them to perceive themselves as nothing more than chattel or property. Ring Shout is where each person could come to the circle and celebrate their humanity and reclaim their emotional, physical, and spiritual beings. Being able to do this in community was really important, and continues to be important to this day.”
In this vein, it was the Brownbody community that came up with the description for “Tracing Sacred Steps.” They say, “Locating the performance on ice is deliberate, adding critical representation for an underrepresented community in a space that has historically excluded Blackness. It affirms the truth that Blackness belongs everywhere, and dispels mainstream myths that Blackness must be relegated only to specific, disenfranchised spaces and trajectories. This artistic approach expands the bounds of skating by emphasizing the fully communicative potential of this genre — no longer is the ice solely for jumps, spins, and racialized, Disney on Ice-like characterizations; instead, it can be a medium through which integrous cultural practices and communities are honored and affirmed. By framing the historical research through an artistic dance form, we not only bring to life past traumas and experiences from Black perspectives, we also celebrate the creativity and resilience of these communities.”
Richburg adds that “From my perspective, it’s really about transformation, getting to this place as performers where we are rising above our earthly bodies in each moment and connecting to a more spiritual space.”
Richburg only begrudgingly refers to herself as the choreographer, explaining, “My work is best when each skating artist brings their full selves to the work. I feel like I’m just opening up portals. Asking people to bring their idiosyncratic ways of moving into those portals that I am shaping based on whatever the artistic work is about.”
Community is key to Richburg not just in terms of how the dancers work together but the entire team, which includes associate artistic director, Lela Aisha Jones, who does a lot of facilitation, and Sandra Richardson, who facilitates the embodied racial consciousness work. Richburg likewise gives tremendous credit as well to the composer, and lighting and sound designers. “It definitely takes a village to make the work, and they are part of the village as well,” she says. “That’s another important part of the work, continuing to push back against the narrative of one person creating this one thing. It really was a village of really wonderful folks who all gave so beautifully of themselves to make this work come to fruition. That’s really who Brownbody is.”
“Tracing Sacred Steps” will be performed at the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena on August 12 at 7 pm. Tickets available at dancetheyard.org/brownbody.