In Richmond, Black Dance Claims a Space Near Robert E. Lee

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RICHMOND, Va. — Janine Bell lived in Richmond for 35 years before visiting Monument Avenue. But that changed in July, when Ms. Bell threw a gathering honoring Emmett Till under the shadow of a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Standing at the base of the three-story pedestal supporting the Confederate general’s likeness, Ms. Bell, the artistic director Elegba Folklore Society, welcomed a small sea of drummers, dancers and bystanders banging on plastic buckets to an event she called the Reclamation Drum Circle.

“We are not playing today,” she said, and invited all present to move and sway to the music. And so began an extended jam session at a park long considered a whites-only space. The drum circle, held on what would have been Emmett Till’s 79th birthday, was the latest in a series of dance happenings — some spontaneous, some thoughtfully choreographed — drawing Black dancers to the Lee statue.

“My grandfather never could have imagined this,” a sweaty Lito Raymondo said after performing a solo in the circle’s center. “This is a revelation.”

The gathering united a disparate group of dancers: community organizers who take African dance classes, modern dancers and self-taught dancers like Mr. Raymondo, whose style fuses African, hip-hop and the martial arts. He said he regularly comes out to “do his part” with the Folklore Society, a group that promotes African culture in a city with a robust Black dance community.

The festivities have been going on since early June, when Richmond’s mayor and Virginia’s governor vowed to take down the huge statues of Civil War leaders erected along Monument Avenue. Four of those statues are now being stored at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. But multiple lawsuits and court injunctions have prevented the bronze Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveler from joining them.

While the judges deliberate, Black artists and residents have been invigorating the space. “Whether it’s Black people playing basketball or musicians or dancers, life is happening,” Ms. Bell said. “And when life happens, there is optimism for the future.”

Some dancers go to make political statements; some want memorable photos. Maggie Small, a longtime star of Richmond Ballet, said dancers were drawn to the general’s shadow because they are living in a time when “articulating your thoughts with words” could be overwhelming. So they are using the vocabulary they have, because “dance is a universal form of communication, of expression and of catharsis.”

It was a dance moment that went viral: Photos of two young dancers, Ava Holloway and Kennedy George, both 14, turned out and on their toes, each raising a fist against the backdrop of the statue’s graffiti-covered pedestal. Among those who reposted on Instagram: Beyoncé’s mother. “This is art,” the Black activist and author Shaun King said in an Instagram post, accompanied by a fire emoji.

Ms. Holloway and Ms. George, who study at the Central Virginia Dance Academy, had run into each other while posing at the monument for family photos. At the request of Marcus Ingram, a photographer in Richmond, they returned to the statue the next day, on June 5, for a more formal shoot, which was also captured by a freelance photojournalist.

The girls became famous beyond the James River, accepting appearance requests from, among others, the “Today” Show and a John Legend music video. Both said they remain crushed that they had to miss out on their eighth grade graduations, final dance competitions and spring recitals. Instead they got horrible blisters from running barefoot on asphalt while “Today” show cameras rolled. (“I thought I’d never dance again,” Ms. George said, pulling out her phone to display a photo of a giant purple welt on her foot.)

They said they understood why pictures of them balancing on point became symbols of the Black Lives Matter movement, and why other dancers want to be photographed at the site. The words scrawled on the monument reflect a world “that is tough and hard and scary,” Ms. George said. “But it’s reality, and people have to deal with it.”

Among the copycats who have won their approval: Morgan Bullock, a 20-year-old Richmonder who does Irish dance, and who last year became one of the first Black dancers to finish in the top 50 at the World Irish Dance Championships. The Guardian photographed Ms. Bullock jumping off the Lee statue’s pedestal, arms at her side and hair flying, her white blouse and billowy leggings in sharp contrast to the colorful expletives graffitied on the plinth behind her.

“She is the very definition of an angel,” Ms. George said. Ms. Holloway added, “It’s like she’s floating.”

When Ira Lunetter White, a dancer in Richmond Ballet, visited the statue, he wore a white T-shirt and black pants, similar to the classic uniform of a male dancer in a “black-and-white” ballet by George Balanchine, the founding choreographer of New York City Ballet. Mr. White, who has performed several of those works in Richmond, traversed the statue platform adopting signature Balanchine positions. He and the photographer Meghan McSweeney called their series “Ode to Arthur Mitchell,” in honor of City Ballet’s first Black principal dancer.

In one of Ms. McSweeney’s favorite images, the words “Uplift Black Voices” appear beneath Mr. White’s feet. “That is literally what Ira has been trying to do his entire life,” she said. Mr. White, 27, was introduced to dance through Minds in Motion, a program that sends Richmond Ballet ambassadors into fourth-grade classrooms. He’s now in his sixth season with the senior company, one of five dancers of color out of 17. He’s always been fortunate, he said, to have Black mentors and colleagues, but recognizes that in ballet beyond Richmond that’s not always the case.

“Now is when we need more voices, more faces being seen and being heard,” he said.

Chief among local role models is Ms. Small, a biracial dancer who became Richmond Ballet’s first Black Clara in “The Nutcracker” 23 years ago, and went on to have a long career with the company.

Ms. Small retired from Richmond Ballet last year, at 34, and now serves as the company’s grant writer. Last fall she sent out an email offering to visit Virginia dance studios as a master class teacher, and was shocked when every single school said yes. “So much for finally having weekends off,” she said, with a laugh.

A critically lauded dancer who landed on the cover of Dance Magazine, Ms. Small never made race her calling card. “There is not a single narrative to capture what it is to be a Black dancer,” she said. “I was homegrown; that was my narrative.”

It’s wrong, Ms. Small said, to assume that the Black dancers at regional companies remain there because they aren’t good enough for bigger companies in New York or Europe. Over summers Ms. Small made it a point to seek out-of-town opportunities, including at the National Choreographer’s Initiative in California and with Jessica Lang Dance in New York, but always came out thinking, “Richmond was the place that fed my soul,” she said. “I felt comfortable to be the dancer I wanted to be.”

And it’s not lost on her that in this particular moment of history, dancers from her hometown have become symbols of a national movement. Ms. George and Ms. Holloway, both honors students, aren’t sure yet if they’ll pursue professional careers in dance. But they are proud to train at a supportive, diverse studio in a city that elevates Black dancers.

“Richmond,” Ms. Holloway said, shaking her head. “If Richmond can do it, in our city of Confederates statues, than any other city can, too.”

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