Dance In Conversation
Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin with Luke Williams
“Through dance, not only do you build a better sense of yourself, but you also tap into your roots, you tap into your history—especially if you’re doing dances of the diaspora.”
PhD candidate Aliyah Dunn-Salahuddin speaks with Luke Williams about working at the intersection of dance and history in academia. Dunn-Salahuddin has a long career as a dancer, activist, and community historian. The two discuss overlooked histories of Black creative work; alternative methodologies for scholarship; and the importance of memory and ritual in artistic and academic endeavors.
The following conversation has been edited for clarity.
Luke Williams (Rail): How can we think about dance and history together?
Aliyah-Dunn-Salahuddin: I think a big portion of the history of social change gets overlooked if you don’t include dance because you have all these dancers and performers who were always present. You can look at what Jacquelyn Dowd Hall calls “the long civil rights movement” and find African American performance and dance in every single period. I feel like that is just so overlooked. It is particularly dangerous because it tends to hide the roles of women. There are women who worked with kids in various communities who are still a part of this civil rights legacy: Katherine Dunham, Dr. Alberta Rose, Alicia Rai Pierce, women who helped raise me up who are part of this legacy.
It’s a real question of who is recording history because a dancer’s work is embodied. They’re not always worried about this book, or that journal article. What we love about dance is that you create it, and it’s in the ether, for six months or six minutes, right? And then it’s gone. And that’s the beauty of it. But sometimes it’s literally just gone. So, I’m trying to, through history, find ways to not have to separate myself into a dancer and a historian, but actually see my dance practice as a source of information that enriches the historical work that I do. Historians should look at art and artists as legitimate scholars who have really interesting analytical frameworks that can be extremely useful for us.
Rail: You mentioned invisible labor. It reminds me of the question that Toni Morrison asks, regarding Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “Invisible to whom?” When you, Aliyah, go to a dance performance, you feel that movement, you’re sitting there, and you feel it. You take that with you and you hold on to that. So that question of invisibility of dance, to me, suggests it’s invisible to “capital-H Historians.”
Dunn-Salahuddin: Exactly, and invisible to people in academics, generally, who lack that sensibility. For instance, in academics you have to cite archival material, which often excludes embodied archives. But I’m writing a historical essay about Bayview Hunters Point, so I interviewed [choreographer] Joanna Haigood. Does she have a PhD? No, but it’s as if she’s done her dissertation 12 times over. Her work contains brilliant theory in terms of how we engage as historians. And you know, one of the main differences between her work and conventional scholarship is that because it’s a practice, it’s not just a theory. You have to do it. Literally do it.
Part of what made the Black Panther movement powerful, part of what fueled the civil rights movement—even if we think about the role of song and dance and gathering—was people coming together and building culture, building identity, and really healing from whatever else was going on. And dance is just as much about creating that space; it’s all those things wrapped up because you are gathering to move. It’s a literal interpretation of the “movement.”
I think about significant dance artists like Katherine Dunham, Alvin Ailey, Alonzo King, Debbie Allen, and so on. These are people who haven’t just put down the theory, right? They’re actually doing important work through practice. They’re uplifting hundreds of young people, and millions across the world.
Through dance, not only do you build a better sense of yourself, but you also tap into your roots, you tap into your history—especially if you’re doing dances of the diaspora. You gain confidence. Oh, I’m even sitting up straighter now that I’m thinking about it; it’s transformative. And that’s what you need to happen in order for people to get freedom. You couldn’t just run away from slavery, you had to be mentally ready, had to be physically ready. You had to be psychologically together. And that’s what I think dance does. Without that sense of empowerment, and that culture building, what would the civil rights movement have been?
Rail: You’re talking about the embodied training of performance. Confidence, empowerment—just feeling it in yourself. What’s the embodied training of capital-H Historians?
Dunn-Salahuddin: I think it’s about how you show up in a space physically. There are a lot of historians who don’t even believe you have to show up to your site of study. They believe that you don’t have to talk to anybody connected to the group that you’re studying. The embodied training of a capital-H Historian is very much a certain way of seeing and orienting oneself; it’s a perspective. I often bump up against people in class about that. Like, okay, you’ve got all these data points: the number of people aboard a slave ship or how much they ate or whatever else. But if you don’t consider their embodied experience, you’re essentially reducing people down to data points, in the same way that their slave owners did.
I think that embodied knowledge gives you a particular framework to see things beyond data points. How did people move through the world? How did they present themselves? Because there’s an intention. There is an intentionality and intention with performance whereby people are making decisions about how to present themselves in both secular and non-secular ways. Taken collectively, that performance can inform the way we write histories.
Rail: It sounds like you’re talking about imagination. And that’s something that Saidiya Hartman really utilizes in her historical method of critical fabulation. It’s also something that Caribbean historian CLR James brings up in terms of the Black Radical Imagination. So there is, I think, especially with Black historical work, this commitment to honoring the ways that bodies, especially bodies not often represented in the archive, show up. And that work requires the imagination.
Dunn-Salahuddin: Dancers are experts at moving between academic and creative spaces. They create in these ways that pull meaning and truth from the imagination. That’s our gift as Black people too, because how else did we survive? We had to, I mean, Henry Box Brown, let’s talk freedom. He mailed himself in a crate from Virginia to abolitionists in Philadelphia. In order to get freedom, you have to have imagination.
When I see a show, like Joanna Haigood’s, I get to be a part of that picture. This site-specific and interdisciplinary dance performance used an entire building inside and out, to tell the story of the Bayview Hunters Point community through dance, sound, aerial dance, and video projection. Joanna’s work is about being in conversation with the physical space. As a dramaturg and performing artist for the show, I literally got to see my historical essay on the 1966 San Francisco Uprising [Hunters Point social uprising] come to life through performance, and be part of it at the same time. What an incredible experience. She, we, collected oral histories. I would tell her things about the environment, what the trees were, and she made dances of that, and people in the community were like, this is the best, this is true. This is us. People don’t actually experience things two-dimensionally like in text; they experience things in 3D in real life, in real time moving, and that’s why dance is able to convey their experiences. So my dream, and I think what needs to happen within history, is including that sort of methodology in traditional historical writing. You mentioned some historians who are using their imagination to reinvent that. I think that that’s what inspires me. I’m not going to write the typical American Historical work and win an award, you know, but I want to actually reach people. I feel like, why write this history if we can’t reach the people?
Rail: In past conversations, you mentioned having historical experience impressed in your DNA, which you developed when you were learning Dunham technique. Can you talk to me about that? What does it mean to have that genealogy embodied, and then to continue Historical work?
Dunn-Salahuddin: I was at the City College of San Francisco. And one evening, I heard drums. I followed the sound of drums. That call of the drum is thousands of years old. So I was literally called by a drum to a dance studio. And I saw these people moving inside in black leotards and I was like, “What is going on?” I was outside the little window and stayed to watch the rest of the class. As it was ending, I said to the teacher, “Wow, this looks amazing.” I asked her, “What class is this?” and she said, “This is Dunham technique.”
So I go to class, and we’re learning the Yanvalou, which is a dance from Ayti [Haiti], a dance of reverence using undulation of the spine, and involving the drums and the breath.
And I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually breathed in. So, I had to ask, “Do I breathe in the daytime?”
There was something very instinctive about the rhythms and the movement. Then I taught the Yanvalou at these events when I worked at City College. It was healing through a movement.
It’s not just about doing the movement and feeling good. You’ve got to learn what the function of this was, which helps you embody the movement better. And essentially, when I’m learning the function, I’m learning the history as well. My understanding of the Haitian Revolution was not through African American history class. I first learned it through doing Ibo in Afro-Haitian dance class.
I think that as people of the diaspora, that drum rhythm taps directly into the core of something that we don’t even really know about.
Rail: Hartman, again in Lose Your Mother, describes history as “how we tend to the dead.” Dunham technique also seems to tend to the dead in that way. But dance teaches us that to tend to the dead, you have to tend to yourself, you’ve got to take care of this body that’s going to be the vessel of the history.
Dunn-Salahuddin: The body is the connection to the dead. Literally, you, the cells, my nose, my lips, we are literal physical manifestations of people who fought to survive so that we could be here. We are their embodiment, we mirror them from the spirit world. They look down onto and work through us.
I think that dance and performance have been around since before the historical field was even created. That has been the way we honor the dead. That was the textbook, the ritual was the textbook, right? The carnival, or the funeral procession, was how we remembered and history is what we remember.
Rail: Listening to you tell stories, you always cite: you name people, and you name your teachers. Historians are all about citing, right? But you also honor your forebears in the stories. Is there a relationship between citing and honoring for you?
Dunn-Salahuddin: A lot of the Black freedom movement has been appropriated without giving proper citation. Which is why Katherine Dunham didn’t get a lot of credit, you know; when we think [Lester] Horton, [Martha] Graham, and others, she was part of that school, too. So if we don’t say their names, then in the world of academia and in our society we think they don’t exist.
Haigood is doing all this wonderful work. Katherine Dunham did all this wonderful work. And we’ll just keep going without even remembering them. Theo Jamison, Colette El Wah, Adia Whitaker, I could go on, dance artists who are still doing the work here, and those carrying their legacy on, we need to remember them.
But I think that’s part of what we have to start doing as dancers: think like historians in terms of how we document our work. How do we cite and give reference and pay homage to the people that laid the foundation, who maybe didn’t have the channels and avenues and resources to actually get that credibility? So, if I have the opportunity to give you credibility, then that’s great. Because we don’t dance alone, we dance as collectives. In order to understand me, you have to understand this larger network.
Rail: You move in between communities, dance and historical, and you move between methods, which is perhaps not the right word, but impulses. You have the dancer’s impulse and the historian’s impulse. And you’re bridging between all these different ways of doing the work. It’s such a gift for everyone else to be able to participate in that.
Dunn-Salahuddin: Thank you. Yeah, otherwise, it’s going to tear you apart if you don’t try to find a way to bridge it. They’ll tell you that you need to be separate. And I say, no, I don’t want to be separate.