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mearchivingme: Reflections from Aisha Kacie

NAC member Aisha Kacie reflects on Angela Andrew’s Live Archive: mearchivingme, which took place at SDS on Saturday 18 May 2024 as part of Artist Archive.

In the calm balm of a midsummer afternoon, the air golden and the hour a half past six, people gather outside in the courtyard of Siobhan Davies Studios. A man comes to the front and begins to read from a small book, recollecting nostalgic anecdotes, detailing the genesis of a young dancers becoming. He reads out from what appears to be a personal diary, about “Lyon: the capital of rock and roll, bebop” and the popular dancehalls, telling teenage tales of jiving with a partner for the first time, oh how “It hit different!”. The eager listeners giggle and chuckle. I’m reminded of the stories my grandparents have told me of the ‘good ol’ days’. We are gathered in a similar way, family and friends of the internationally renowned Lindy Hop artist, teacher, blogger, cultural mediator, Angela “Cookie” Andrew, an audience to the telling of a her-story. 

The brother speaking is suited, with a white shirt and navy blue tie. I notice a red heart pinned onto his jacket, where the lapel would be. A woman, who I assume to be his partner, stands elegantly beside him, wearing a silk, periwinkle-blue dress, trimmed with maroon fur, with a simple braided up-do and black dancing shoes. Her dazzling smile beams through the audience, both supporting the speaker and also listening intently, sometimes nodding and humming in agreement and encouragement. They stand self-assured and welcoming, dressed as if conjured from a bygone era, a symbol of black excellence, vintage sophistication and dancerly confidence, fashioning these verbal tapestries of a performer’s remarkable journey. 

Who are they? I wonder. As I scan around the audience, I can feel the collective intrigue. Who are you? Who’s stories are those, who’s diary? Yours? Your ancestor’s? Your teacher’s? I want to know. The brother continues reading, he describes in detail the yearning to “get in on the action” the readiness to move his body. “There are dancers who knew they would be dancers, and dancers who did not.” These dancers did. 

This biographical voice, so generously offers existential thoughts on the body and movement of music, the energy of the dance, specifically the spirit of dancing with people, and I wonder again – are those your memories, your diary entries or someone else’s? Maybe they are ours, shared. The stories have this broadness and ambiguity, or rather – resonance – reminding me that the spirit of dance is utterly timeless. These aren’t my stories yet, they could be. Many of the lived experiences of dance artists 50, or 100 years ago or more, might not be so different from the experiences of dance artists today. Depending on what those particular experiences are, this could be a beautiful familiarity or cause for concern, but regardless, what the diary illuminates to me is that we can all relate to that feeling of the first moment you completely lost yourself on the dance floor, and yet somehow emerged having found your true self. 

Looking down for a moment, amongst the flocks of feet standing in the courtyard, I notice a red heart sculpture on the floor, by the sister in her black dancing shoes. As I’m looking down I hear the brother read the last line of the diary “We dance to share. We dance because it makes us feel good.” From the pages of the diary, the brother with the red heart lapel, the sister stood by the hearty sculpture, and with the people gathered round, we begin Angela Andrew’s mearchivingme. This is a love letter to African American Vernacular Jazz Dance (AAVJD), a documentation of her passion, a testament to her devotion to dance, and a wholehearted appreciation of her predecessors.

Next we are invited to explore the studios and I’m magnetised towards the sounds of a swinging quintet. Bass, sax, trombone, drums, keys. On the floor of the passageway leading upstairs is a golden path drawn out directly through the band, it reminds me of the yellow brick road.  The Wizard of Oz, came out in 1939, during the golden age of swing dance. Or could this also be a nod to The Wiz? A famous blaxploitation film from 1978, which saw black performers and artist as protagonists in classic roles, rather than sidekicks or back up dancers, similarly to the role of Jazz, Swing, Rag-time, Lindyhop and other AAVJD’s, which have historically centred Black and African American leads and narratives. The golden path guides me through the building. The brassy, bassy, big bodied and brave blasts of jazz music on both sides of my body envelop me into another world. A time and place I miss but never lived in, a me I never met. “There must be a word for that?” I ponder to myself. 

I go to the reception room, a swing in my step. I can still hear the band in the near distance, we are all in a different time now, the guests, the dancers, the musicians, the space. Someplace later – closer to the present, further from the past. The two dancers from before, introduced to us now as Stephen Dieyepiri Atemie and Korantema Anyimadu, are footing patterns through the floor and have changed out from their Sunday’s best into a Friday type fit. Korantema in a mint polka-dot two-piece, with white socks and red slippers, another nod to Diana Ross’s ‘ease on down the road’ as Dorothy. Her partner Stephen wears a blue striped sweater shirt and brown slacks. Brimming with a jazzy essence, posters of musical and dance events fill the walls “Stage Big Apple avec Angela Andrew”, “Roots Teatre TR3 Rosenlundsgatan, Stockholm” “Cookie’s Jam Production Presents East Side Stomp” many more, This little get down welcomes us to get together and shake some tail feathers. With a video of Angela rehearsing a LindyHop routine playing at the front of the room, showing us how, there was no holding me back. Suddenly I’m hand in hand with a partner, swinging back and forth, in circles and attempting to do rhythmic steps in what probably were seven sided squares and never ending spirals. I don’t know if we were doing it right, but I know that I felt veritably good doing it.

Following the yellow golden lines upstairs, I find myself approaching the research studio, the band still humming in the distance. I walk into a crowded room and immediately see a giant red heart pinned to the wall. Cotton Clubbers posters are displayed around, as well as a vintage letterman jacket, and many more performance costumes, dazzling ballroom dresses and shoes, two pairs of Cookie’s hot pants in both red and blue stripe, hats, jewellery, feather boas, beaded headdresses and bags, many, if not all designed created, owned and, worked in by Cookie. There is a white dress and matching white head scarf, from the Radical Integration show (Chisenhale Dance Space, 2019). Hundreds of photographic prints of Cookie’s career, from the start to the present day, pamphlets, theatre programmes, ticket clippings and informational books and essays on the history and study of AAVJD on tables in the centre of the room. In the background I can hear Angela’s film, which is being screened for us, the sound of her voice earnestly questioning the objectification of her body as a black female dancer. On a shelf there are more provocations written, asking us: How did I get here, why am I here? Where is here going? What am I doing here? Penned in child-like, felt tip handwriting. In the film, Angela’s Mum has been invited to stand centre screen. There are old videos on the shelf, childhood tapes and memories. The sound of Angela’s longing for the freedom and fairness to embody her movement art with equal regard and respect as her non Black peers permeates through the screen, around the room. A shy guest starts to pluck a guitar atop the shelf marked with an invite “Feel free to play”.

Feel. Free. Play. The quality of this vital chamber of information is exactly that. The heart of Angela’s work, displayed freely, as the film plays and whilst all the guests rummage through these sacred artefacts of her life, I feel the magnitude of Angela “Cookie” Andrew’s influence. I feel educated, grateful and yet overwhelmed and responsible. As people that interact with dance, whether as educators, movers, choreographers, producers or witnesses we all hold a responsibility to uphold principles of equity, respect, freedom, play and gratitude in our practice. Angela shows us, in the Research Studio, that we can do that actively by first: remembering the history of dance, interlaced and inseverable from Black Herstory, and therefore in direct dialogue with a colonial past that subjected Black dancers and artists to racism, misogynoir, objectification, exploitation and oppressed their freedoms. Secondly: we are responsible for investing in dance spaces that uphold self-determination – Black artists should be at the centre of discourse on Black art and play a central role in the curation, preservation and exhibition of Black art, not as tokens, or for one month out of the year, or treated as the consequence of colonialism but as a rich and fundamental culture that predates colonialism, rejecting the notion that colonial institutions can grant Black art legitimacy, for it always has been legitimate. And Thirdly: Angela wants you to know “Swing dance is a general term. It evolved with Jazz music. It is an expression of freedom descendant from Ghana, Congo, Nigeria, to the plantations of enslaved people, to Harlem.” It is social dance, it is Black dance. At best – remixed and borrowed, at worst – stolen, imitated, appropriated. It’s been time to give Black women their flowers!

We follow the golden path up to the Roof Studio, for the final installation of mearchivingme. Standing in the centre of a circle of chairs and plants, Angela Andrew welcomes us in with a confident smile and noble gaze. She wears a Wòb Dwiyét, the national dress of Dominica, adorned with golden jewellery, and addresses her guests directly, most of whom she knows and has worked with personally and professionally. Firstly, giving thanks to her mentors Norma Miller and Othella Dallas, to name a few and then to her mentees, Stephen and Korantema, and others watching proudly from the audience. One of the people who has shown up to support Angela today is Marion, who is dressed in Angela’s costume for her role ‘Tears of a Clown’, this is a clear symbol of Angela’s legacy and mentorship, a torch she is actively passing onto the next generation of dance artists. Another testament to Angela’s legacy is her consistent writing on her blog ‘Cookie’s Jam’, which has been the reference and inspiration to many modern thesis’. She shows us the costumes of her greatest memories in her career, and describes the stories of each in detail.

A favourite and most treasured item being a “LOVE WHAT YOU DO” top signed “Love you Angela” by Mabel Lee, American Jazz singer, Tap dancer and entertainer and film star, well known as “Queen of the Soundies”, which I illustrate here.

We are all shown pictures of Angela’s Dad and clips of Angela’s first swing at the local dancehall. It is explained that at the time tensions between racialised groups were high, and the threat of discrimination was felt during every step approaching the venue, but Angela’s Dad was always there to protect and assure her. He planted the seed of integrity and tenacity in her and nurtured her education, she tells us.

Amidst the joy of remembrance, celebration and sentimentality Angela calls on the audience not to forget the history of Black erasure that she has been harmed by, and the systemic racism within the dance community. Black dancers are extracted from and objectified as a means of commerce rather than treated as people, artists and masters of their craft, autonomous over their body, image and legacy in their own right. I am left questioning: who gets the privilege of being supported by institutions? What deserved one the title of Athlete, Academics, Artisan, Icon, Auteur? Can these merits really be earned or simply gifted, and if so, who gets to earn them and who gets to gift them? Does dance divide us or unite us? Does it have the potential to rally us in our intersections or partition us in times of growing discord and distrust between marginalised communities and institutions? Can non-Black people ever earnestly understand or make high value, non-extractive or appropriative contributions to Black dance?

Without reparative and decolonising practices, I’m not so sure. Events such as mearchivingme shows me and the wider community that people like Angela have been contributing to dance generously, relentlessly and unapologetically since the origin of dance. What archival exhibitions do, that traditional generative practices, such as creating new work, or researching new ideas, often do not do, is challenge the ritual systems of extraction and production that so often exploit artists and reduce them to commodities. Not only is Angela’s work and experience extensive, influential and abundant, but Angela herself is rich, vivacious and expert. The support of Siobhan Davies Studios, helps to platform and display Angela’s achievements, but the crowd of people dancing and laughing around her, sharing patties and fruitcake, excitedly waiting to embrace her affirm Angela “Cookie” Andrew’s imprint is existent, moving and breathing through the body of her community. 

Writing, pictures and illustration by Aisha Katie. Commissioned by Siobhan Davies Studios.
Find AK on Instagram @aishakacie.