Black Dance Stories with Cynthia Oliver and Marjani Forté-Saunders

Black Dance Stories is exactly what it sounds like and precisely what we need right now. It’s a distillation of insightful moments in post-performance talkbacks spliced with casual conversations you once shared over drinks, plus powerful sentiments you’re overhearing now at BLM protests. It’s a vital convocation: Black dance makers sharing anecdotes, shouting out ancestors, unpacking histories, and, of course, talking about their artistic processes. The series, aired live on Youtube every Thursday and archived on the Black Dance Stories channel, features vital conversations on dancing/making/teaching while Black.

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Kimani Fowlin, Nick Hall, and Charmaine Warren were at it again this past Thursday.

[Charmaine: This is our team… I wanna cry!!!]

[Kimani and Charmaine: We bow DOWN to Nick!]

Reminding us that they, and we, are engaged in the action of showing up. In this case, showing up by tuning in on Youtube Live, if you missed that last time. In this particular episode, Black Dance Stories welcomed Cynthia Oliver and Marjani Forté Saunders. 

[All: YAY!]


Cynthia (she/her, Bronx born and Saint Croix Virgin Islands raised) arrived with her head full of wisdom, from her home in Champaign, IL. Her birthday is on Sunday – she’s a Cancer. Cynthia and Charmaine share Caribbean roots. They go waaaaay back.

[Cynthia: I call Charmaine Little Bit…Little Bit bringing the big shit!]

Cynthia had transformation and advocacy on the brain. She invoked the necessity of intersectional, inclusive participation in change-making, and described her choreographic practice as an offering, a means for reflecting the unnoticed layers within Black life. Cynthia’s back is strong and getting stronger as she builds structures of support and representation for her community. She extends a thank you to Laurie Carlos for mentorship.

[Nia Love: ​My back strong and bent on the intent that we step-in always on the coals and bearing weight and the heat!]

[Eva Yaa Asantewaa​: Cynthia Oliver, Marjani Forté-Saunders, Bebe Miller… Just for starters. See how blessed we are?]

Cynthia questioned the meaning of dance during the current parallel pandemics (COVID-19 and anti-Black racism) while noticing dance is present in transformational moments. From her positions as Dance Department Professor and Associate Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation at Urbana Champaign, she reflected on academia’s advantages: a de-emphasis on artistic competition and a platform from which to influence folks towards positive change. 

Dance, for Cynthia, is a locus of uncertainty and hope.

[Cynthia: I don’t know what I wanna do with it right now… But I trust it.]  

And with that, another wise soul was summoned to the screen: Marjani Forté-Saunders! 

[Cynthia and Charmaine: MARJANI! MARJANI! MARJANI! *clap* *clap* *clap*]

Cynthia and Marjani came together over a shared interest in Black masculinity and a mutual love of Nia Love – thanks, Nia, for putting the pieces together since 2009.

[Nia Love: !!!!]

Two mothers talked about their sons: what is it to raise Black boys in America, 

 [Nia Love:​ Giving birth to a Black male child IS the radical act, practice]

And to navigate that process through choreography? Cynthia and Marjani asked, do we have the right to make work about Black masculinity as female-identified artists and mothers? Marjani’s piece, Memoirs of A… Unicorn, reckons with these questions. 

[Marjani: It’s not just about LIVING, it’s about our futurity. IT’S COMIN UP! *bursts into movement*]

Cynthia bowed out to give space to Marjani’s perspective. 

[Charmaine: Before you go though, Cynthia, let’s welcome Marjani! Marjani, take it away sis!]

[M: *raises glass* I’m drinking all of this already, i’m nervous as HELL! What am I gonna talk about after Cynthia?!]

Marjani Forté-Saunders (Urban Bush Women), was radiant in her backyard. She lives in Pasadena, CA, on the stolen land of the Hahamonga tribe, a truth she explained the other day to her son Nkosi. Marjani sees indigeneity and history as informing the future. She and her partner, Everett, are working on a project out of their home called 7NMS, which reckons with artistic quests and pays homage to a rich legacy of Black creators.

[Marjani: It’s a good time to start PAYING US to DO THAT.]

[A. K. Jones: ​YEAH!!! PAY US.]

[Charmaine: How is your dance friend treating you? Your friend that is dance.]

Marjani described a complex relationship with her body’s potentials and limitations. She blew out her ACL, had surgery, took a break from Urban Bush Women, developed her own choreographic process, and birthed a child – then premiered Unicorn with Nkosi by her side. Now, she’s considering the Black relationship to innovation within and beyond academia.

[Marjani: The web of white supremacy there felt like…too much! There it goes again! 

*dances* …I’m done]

[Charmaine: No, you’re not.]

[Marjani: *laughs*]

Marjani’s current mission: making her home into an artistic vessel. The new project will describe the unfinished journeys of the emcee and the dancer – the inexorable, mystic quests and pilgrimages pursued by the likes of sufis and samurai.

Marjani also invoked the community that holds creative projects, putting words to the presences in the room that make the axé, the amen, the magic of the Black dance space. These folks, she said, resonate with the risk taker and tell them when they’re on point.


[Charmaine: Responding…from the gut!]

Thank you Laurie Carlos, again, for necessary fierceness. Thank you Rhonda Haynes. 

[Lucy Sexton: ​I’m here!! so glad to be here]

[Paz Tanjuaquio​: It’s a party!]

[Charmaine: I have to cheers again.]

[Cynthia: Cheers, baby.]

Shoutout to Eva Yaa Asantewaa for recognizing the independent aesthetic of Black dance and artists of color through her reviews. Reviews make space where once there was none.

[Charmaine: We bow DOWN to Eva Yaa Asantewaa. We bow DOWN.]

Talking about young folks educating their teachers and the fluid continuum of historical and current forces –

[Marjani: No new, only now!]

[Kamari Smalls: ​Yessss!!! This newness is wild! Thinking a lot about ancestry and the ways in which the ways we move are remembrances.]

And teaching Black boys to negotiate and claim their space while becoming the best humans they can be, with a visit from Nkosi himself –

[Charmaine: KOSI!!!! HI!!!]

Cynthia and Marjani shared about connecting their kids to mentors and kinfolk in their communities. They mentioned their own familial rituals of cultural affirmation. They recited a litany combining the domestic and the creative: cooking, cleaning, homeschooling, making art. 

[Cynthia: His name is Elias, he’s 16…I have a routine…I check in with him.]

[Nia Love: ​The family shrine in the home!]

[A. K. Jones: ​I love how dance, motherhood, boyhood, Blackness, spirituality, ancestors are all intersecting right now. #MOVED!!]

[Kimani: We’re sorry we didn’t get to all the amazing questions. We don’t have five hours.]

Next week, J. Bouey and Rennie Harris. Start filling your glasses now.

[Charmaine: LIFT YOUR GLASSES UP! ALL THE WAY, ALL THE WAY!… You better hold that glass, Cynthia!]

As Kimani says, it takes a village to craft such quality content. Please donate here if you are able, and shoutout to IABD for sponsoring Black Dance Stories.

Cynthia Oliver:
Instagram: @olicynt

Marjani Forté-Saunders:
Instagram: @marjaniforte_works

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