By Salamishah Tillet
2 September 2020
Camille A. Brown can’t remember the first time she danced the Electric Slide. She only remembers doing it. “It just was,” she said in a recent Zoom interview. “It’s the same thing with the Running Man or double Dutch. I don’t remember the first time I had a rope in my hand, but I remember the freedom.”
Ms. Brown, 40, a renowned dancer and one of the most sought-after choreographers of her generation, didn’t learn those social dances in school. She picked them up from family and friends — along with a host of other moves with roots in West Africa that African-Americans have passed down, from one generation to another, traded at family reunions and house parties or brought to pop culture and music videos.
Whether the Juba or stepping, social dance has always been a big component of Ms. Brown’s choreography. Her high energy, historically sweeping works are a powerful blend of modern, ballet, hip-hop, West African and African-American vernacular forms.
In recent years, Ms. Brown has expanded beyond the dance world. She was nominated for a Tony Award for her work on “Choir Boy” in 2019, and choreographed “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera. This year would have brought other new challenges: She was slated to make her debut as a theater director with “Ain’t Misbehavin” at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., in August; and was tapped to direct the Broadway revival of Ntozake Shange’s theater piece, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which would have opened this fall. (It is aiming for a 2021 premiere.)
When the pandemic hit, Ms. Brown was on a career high, but like everyone in the performing arts she had to pivot. And like many other dancers and choreographers, she turned to Instagram, where she has created a virtual version of a school she never attended, one in which social dance is the foundation from which everything else flows.
“When everything stopped and shut down,” Ms. Brown said, “it gave me an opportunity to process everything that I had been doing, particularly in the last two years.”
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