A Conversation with Julie B. Johnson
Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia is building an expanded archive of cultural memory that includes multiple histories, re-place-ing the established with new narratives and understandings. Meta-Notes expand on the project's conceptual frame and ground it in a larger context.
Lauren Bakst sat down to talk with Julie B. Johnson about her research and the ways she will explore embodied histories through a series of movement workshops. These workshops are part of Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia's effort to build Communities-in-Residence around the project.
Lauren Bakst: I would love to start by hearing about your PhD research.
Julie B. Johnson: My overall interest is in relationships between dance and 'community.' With my dissertation research, I’m focusing on a particular West African dance class in West Philadelphia that I have participated in for over two and half years. I'm drawing from the experiences of fellow participants in the class—the dancers, the instructor, and musicians. What are our interpretations and understandings of ‘community'? How might they be individually and collectively embodied?
LB: Coming into Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia with the notion of forming a Community-in-Residence, do you see that as something in relationship to your dissertation research or as being a different engagement?
JJ: I don’t think I ever see anything as being disconnected from anything else. Everything is always connected for me. In the Steering Committee meetings for Re-PLACE-ing Philadelphia, I was interested in the conversations around, What are these Communities-in-Residence and how does this project envision these communities? Are we trying to create community or are we trying to facilitate a connection between existing communities, or the Bride and communities? Because communities exist, clearly, in Philadelphia, and in many different iterations. There are so many amazing things happening in Philly. I think it’s exciting to see how this concept of the Communities-in-Residence continues to get developed and thought through.
LB: A couple of threads that have kept coming up in conversations with the artists or with the Steering Committee are notions of belonging and listening. Somehow I can anchor more in what community is if I think about those words. And I imagine those things might come up in the class you are researching as well.
JJ: When you say belonging and listening, what are you thinking about exactly?
LB: I’m thinking about the affective feeling, the sensation of belonging, which I find is often an ephemeral feeling. Sometimes a dance class can create that feeling of belonging by creating relationships among bodies. Of course, it can also do the opposite, creating a sense of alienation, but I think there’s possibility for belonging inside of dance. I’m also thinking about the relationship between movement and sound, and how there’s this listening between the two.
JJ: In this particular class that I’m focusing on, I experience a reciprocal relationship between what happens in people’s lives and what happens in the class and in the space. I suppose that’s what I think about when I think about listening. It’s not always just a verbal thing. We’re listening through dancing together and having our intersubjective experience together. It requires a kind of opening to what’s happening with the people in the space around you.
LB: Some of the questions that you’re posing as points of departure for the Community-in-Residence have to do with embodied history, and I was wondering how you’re thinking about exploring that.
JJ: I am planning a series of experiential workshops with participants from all walks of life, going through a multi-modal process—movement, observation, writing, maybe even drawing, to explore our own embodied histories—how we can express and share our personal stories with others, and how we can create stories together. Simultaneously, our process will take us from individual exploration, to partnering and small group work, to whole-group collaborations. This is based on a lot of the work that I’ve done as a dance artist over the last fifteen years, which has been inspired and influenced by many amazing artists such as Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Liz Lerman, and many, many others. It never ceases to amaze me that wherever I am, wherever I go, dance seems to provide a space for myself and others to affirm our identities, celebrate our differences, and find connections through, within, and around those differences. I’m thankful to have had so many amazing opportunities to dance in so many different settings.
When I go to a new place, sometimes there’s this feeling of culture shock, but as soon as I’m quiet and moving with other bodies—it’s not that those differences disappear, if anything, moving together illuminates ways in which we might connect. The activities for these workshops are structured yet quite open so that the experience is very participant-driven. The movement material, ideas, questions will come from the participants.
LB: Have you led workshops in the past that have involved people with prior dance training and people who don’t have dance training, but maybe dance in their lives otherwise?
JJ: Yeah absolutely. Regardless of whether or not someone has made a conscious decision to train in dance or engage in some form of dance practice, I am working from the assumption that we all have movement experience. In or outside of a studio, on or off a stage, in a field, street or park, or the daily activities inside our own homes, there’s some knowledge that everyone brings about their own moving bodies. That’s what we’re tapping into and drawing from.
LB: Do you imagine this particular series of classes happening in West Philly or a specific place within Philly?
JJ: This is something I’m still thinking through. I did recently move to West Philadelphia, and with my history of dancing in this class there for the past two and a half years, there’s even more of a pull for me to figure out if this could happen there. Now that it’s my home, I really want to find ways to interact with this new location for me. And not just to say, Hey, Here’s this thing that I do, but also to learn more about what’s happening there.
LB: I was thinking about it because during our meeting yesterday, Lisa was reflecting on the public talk with Marc Bamuthi Joseph that recently took place in West Philly. There was a young woman who was there and remarked to Lisa how grateful she was that the Bride came to her community, rather than her having to go the Bride. I don’t think that means, Oh it has to be in West Philly, but I’m more so thinking about how multiple centers in the city can be activated through—or not activated by the project but how the project can be activated in those places.
JJ: It’s so interesting, and that’s one of things honestly that I’ve loved about this project—sometimes it feels like we’re walking on eggshells around the language that we use. I feel like that’s really important because it speaks to the deeper issues that everyone is thinking about, which is great, and not wanting to dismiss the fact that yeah, these centers are already activated. We’re not activating anything. We’re trying to find connections, so when we trip over these words, it makes me happy, because it’s like we’re really thinking about how we’re doing this in a mindful, respectful, ethical way.
LB: What do you see as the potential of these workshops, or what would be your hope for something that it might do or generate even within itself?
JJ: I think the idea of connection is really exciting to me. Naj is speaking a lot about the concept of the vine, and finding the ways in which we’re already connected so that we can illuminate and utilize those connections. Lisa has spoken about the Bride really wanting to be of service to and a resource for Philadelphians. I hope that these workshops can be an opportunity for people to meet, explore, and learn about each other. What are our stories? What are our relationships to Philadelphia and to each other? How do our histories intersect and depart? Potentially, we can create a moving collage that documents our brief interaction (maybe we can video record it, write about it, even perform together if the participants so choose), and this can contribute to a larger archive of embodied Philadelphia histories.
Julie B. Johnson is a dance artist and doctoral candidate working in intersections of creative practice, community interaction, and social justice. She teaches dance classes, presents choreographic work, and develops and implements artistic programming and residencies locally and internationally. Julie is currently pursuing a PhD in dance at Boyer College of Music and Dance at Temple University.
"Moving Our Stories" will be held October 3rd, 10th, and 17th, from 10:00am to 1:00pm at the Community Education Center, 3500 Lancaster Avenue.