Interview: Robin Wilson
Edited by: 
Alicia Samson

Q: How did you begin dancing?

I grew up in the segregated south. The dancing I saw on TV was the era of Carol Burnett and musical theater television shows. I saw the nutcracker live. So, really early on I wanted to be a dancer, like first grade. But I did not have the opportunity to train until I was much older. The first studio I trained at was typical of black studios, they were training you how to be a showgirl. We took tap but no technique class. You learned a routine and went home. No ballet barre or anything. This one woman was the only black teacher in town and little girls would come on Saturday and during the week if she thought we were good. In the 7th grade, I took my first ballet class and I was the only black kid in the entire school. They took me under their wing because I was the only black child. I had looked them up in the newspaper and every fall they held ballet class. My mother and I went to register and miraculously they didn't turn us away.

Q: What has dance taught you that you have applied to your everyday life and how you engage in the world?

Bodies don't lie. I may not be able to interpret, but it is a way to interact with the universe and understand other bodies and other people. And because they don't lie, it makes me in some ways more kind because you can see the person’s past, their hurt, and their joy in the way they move. It has taught me to be stubborn and resilient because it is not easy. It requires grit and so does life. And that corny statement about “if you have lemons, make lemonade,” if dance doesn't teach you that, I don't know what will.

Q: How can dance be a platform for social justice issues?

It is the most nonverbal art. It is what we do in the womb before we have language and can see. Therefore, we will respond to it empathetically subliminally. It has the capacity to speak in ways that words, no matter how eloquent, can not. So, one can imagine making a statement about social justice using dance. The fact that we read the body and the body is not neutral. If I make a dance, the viewer sees a black woman's body moving. It operates on a symbol system that we as humans already have because we read bodies every day. Dance can do this because it is preverbal.

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected you as a performing artist? (community, financially, initial reactions, company shift, online class, emotions, initial cancellation reaction)

I’m afraid to ask how my friends are doing all over the world. I feel guilty because I have a paycheck. As a working artist, it had less direct impact than it has been as a teaching artist. If it weren't for the check I was getting, all the gigs would be gone. As a teacher, I really don't enjoy teaching remotely since teaching the arts is about interaction and I am aware of those who don't have access. For me, I am lucky because I've only had some things cancelled. My teaching is canceled, performances of my new work is canceled. I don't know when it will come back or if the institutions that were supporting smaller works will still be there. Across the state of Michigan I am aware of dance companies being shut down. Storytellers and artists not knowing how they will make work. Also, the tech people and production crews. It makes me think a lot about what we define as essential and nonessential.

Q: What has teaching online class been like for you?

The courses I've been teaching have been cancelled. The one I could sustain is continuing remotely. When we first confronted this possibility, we were told to take the class and run it. I found the interaction was very imp. While I do have materials I put on Zoom, every class starts with a movement session. Sometimes we do a check in first, but every class starts with a movement session. Some movement relates to the class content and some is to just de-stress. It helps the students think better and start moving. Then, I have been using a combination of powerpoints, videos, and really didactic assignments like watching videos while filling out mix and match worksheets. That has been different. I am giving them more work. I had them going to breakout groups to plan their final presentations last class. The last 2 classes they will be presenting to the entire class. The biggest loss is the component of my class will be an hour of practicing in the body and now it is more heady. And not as embodied. The students have missed out on some really fine artists who were scheduled to teach the sessions. That is another income loss for those artists as well.

Q: What social changes and responsibilities have you seen people making during the pandemic? Do you think the pandemic will make us a more socially conscious society?

I have seen numerous people offer free class online, opening up their studios, trying to come up with ideas trying to be encouraging. I got the idea to create a live praise dance class for people in the liturgical dance community. That has been lovely to see and from basic dance, exercise, meditation, and people saying “Okay, on Easter Sunday at 10am we will all go on the front porch and sing.” Or “Everyone call in at 7pm and we will sing this song together, and who cares if we sound crazy.” I am realizing that singing and dancing together really helps reduce the isolation because those are communal things. Dancing alone and singing alone is not like singing or dancing with others. I also hear of solo artists just sharing. People reading poetry, sharing poetry. I see this reach for humanity and when we are feeling like the world is not being humane, I am finding it hopeful that people are re-thinking how they see things and each other. The negative stuff and the fear is there, but most people are rising above whatever they are feeling underneath to be generous and kind. It is this undercurrent.

Transcription courtesy of