On Sunday night, Barnard College’s Shange Magic Project, along with Beacon Press and the Shange Literary Trust, honored the late poet and playwright Ntozake Shange (BC ‘70) and her posthumously published book Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance.

Not only does October 18th mark the release of Ntozake Shange’s Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance, it also is Shange’s birthday. The Zoom attendees were made up of fans, friends, and family, all gathering to celebrate the magic of Ntzoke Shange. Ntozake Shange was a poet and playwright. She was perhaps best known for her Tony Award-nominated play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf, but her other plays include Spell No. 7, and Love’s Fire.

Despite the Zoom constraints, the energy was radiant. You could feel how every panelist, speaker, and attendee was in awe of Shange and so excited to celebrate Dance We Do.

In Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance, Shange explores her own history with Black dance, as well as shares the stories from many iconic names in the Black dance world, three of whom were speakers that night. 

The event was kicked off by words from Paul T. Williams Jr., Shange’s brother and the Management Trustee of the Ntozake Shange Trust; Alexis Pauline Gumbs (Barnard ‘04), a scholar and author who wrote the forward of Dance We Do; and Renee L. Charlow, a performer and educator at Shepherd University who was also Shange’s personal assistant from 2014-2018. 

Charlow also shared memories from working alongside Shange when she was writing the book. She recalls loving being a part of Shange’s interviews with the dancers and choreographers featured in the book. She finished her time by sharing a picture from the last birthday dinner they shared together.

Watson then introduced the moderator and panelists for the main portion of the event: Gabri Christa, Dyane Harvey, Dianne McIntyre, and Halifu Osumare. Christa is a dancer and filmmaker, who teaches in the dance department at Barnard, Harvey is a professor at Princeton University and Hofstra University and has performed off and on Broadway, and McIntyre is a dancer, choreographer, and director whose work has appeared on Broadway, in concert, and on television, which earned her a Primetime Emmy Nomination for Best Choreography for Miss Evers’ Boys

Watching this event was like being a fly on the wall at the most glorious of reunions. Stories were told, some for the first time, laughs were shared, and with that, there was an overwhelming feeling of love and appreciation for Ntozake Shange. 

For Dance We Do, Shange interviewed Black dancers and choreographers she worked and studied with, but it was clear they also learned so much from her. 

“What I learned from Zake and what she inspired me to be way more open and vulnerable as an individual… as a Black woman. Because that’s what she was doing,” Osumare shared, “it took me to another level of my artistry.” Harvey echoed this, saying Shange taught her the art of improvisation and how to listen and respond honestly. “It was the gift that Zake gave me.”

McIntyre also shared what Shange taught her, which was, “So what if no one’s done this type of art before- you do it.” McIntyre once again expressed what “a joy [it was] to work with Zake,” saying no matter how big or small the production was, she put in the work regardless. 

The three panelists also reflected on what Shange would think of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Osumare reflected and said she would surely have a lot of poems about it. She was “always commenting on the political world,” according to Osumare. McIntyre and Harvey both relayed how inspired Shange would be by young activists. 

Harvey, McIntyre, and Osumare then shared their hopes for the book. Shange believed in interdisciplinary connections in art, and the three panelists hoped her book would reflect that. They shared all the departments Dance We Do should be taught in, including dance, theatre women’s studies, Black studies, literature, and more. The three panelists called for more artists across disciplines creating together and celebrating the work they all do, just like Shange did her whole career. Osumare also wished more people would know about the dancers and choreographers Shange profiled in the book. “Zake wanted people to know who these artists were.”

Earlier in the night, a clip was shown of Shange speaking at Barnard. In September 2018, Shange gave a lecture in the Africana Studies department, and video from this lecture was shown. In the short clip, Shange talked about the power of dance, and particularly Black dance. She read text that would become the basis for Dance We Do, and also shared the working title of the book, which at that time was The Implications of Black Dance. Finally, she told the audience of eager students why she loved dance and devoted so much of her career to it: “To realize one has a body and to feel that body in motion… is to know freedom.”

Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance is now available, as well as “STUFF,” an installation in the Milstein Center from the Barnard Library and Africana Studies department honoring Ntozake Shange, which can be seen virtually through August 2021. 

Image via Bwog Archives