Last updated on April 23, 2020
It is the break between second and third periods. I am swinging around the monkey bars, working on a straddle cut re-grasp. My legs start at 12 o’clock and circle wide away from each other to meet at 6:30. An eighth-grader with more muscle and swag than God normally allows at this stage of puberty leads his posse toward me.
“How you so flexible?” he says.
“Gymnastics,” I say.
They laugh, satisfied with their higher station even as I hang six feet above them. I carry on. I have only a few more tries at this before the bell rings. And at age 12, with physical abilities that exceed theirs, I am immune to the epithet. They are not my first time.
But despite that, I have figured out nothing. I have a girlfriend. It is clear to me that these boys believe they are justified. They are upholding a social standard that congratulates them for being butch and denigrates those of us who stretch our legs. Or are not ballers. Or those who wear mesh-crop-tanks and shorts that don’t cover the dark meat as they teach dance steps on television.
When the video of the sinewy, ripped black man happily teaching dance cardio on British television in the ’80s made it to my DM two weeks back, I had no idea who Tony Britts was. I was devastated to find out that my illusions of Britts having better adolescent experiences than the one I describe above are most likely just that: illusions. Though Tony Britts was a prominent black body on the popular BBC Breakfast programme, he had until now disappeared into obscurity with the same quickness as his black male counterparts on our side of the pond, and likely for the same reasons.
Initially, I wanted to blame his “unmarked grave” on media treatment of the AIDS epidemic, which pulverized gay communities and added a third layer of stigma if you were also black. But other than physical aplomb, what Tony Britts has in common with Louis Johnson, Albert Evans, and Jeremiah Tatum – black American dancers of varying generations – is that their largely unknown names were discarded because of the same cultural masculinity dictates that took my bully from straddle to fag.
He was afraid, of course, my bully.
The notion of this brand of fear is not new. It grows up with us and becomes very familiar: Black bodies sculpted by elite discipline are sexualized to the nth. Add a penis and now we have “shoot-first/ask-later” levels of intimidation. Level up with a discipline that sits outside of accepted masculinity standards – now we’re at outright horror.
All of this muck comes before we make it to actual homosexuality, or our presumptions about it based on a trite and tired practice of envisioning “gay” through heteronormative goggles. Sure, a lot of us under the rainbow acronym own these goggles too. But most of us lack the agency to decide where to put these names like Britts’, if to include them in history at all.
Coronavirus media domination notwithstanding, Tony-nominated Louis Johnson received a paltry send-off when he passed at 90 earlier this month. Superstars Michael Jackson and Diana Ross dancing his choreography in The Wiz did not make him a household name, nor did it generate interest in his prolific body of work. Instead, he is less famous than most serial killers.
After Dance Theatre of Harlem founder Arthur Mitchell, Albert Evans was only the second black male principal in the history of New York City Ballet. Despite this, and much critical acclaim, Evans garnered a very scant televised obituary.
Jeremiah Tatum, who played by no normative rules of social engagement and featured his bisexuality, bold hair color and eye shadow choices, black man swagger and soft sensibilities (sometimes all at once), succumbed to a blood clot at the age of 31. His stunning, uber capable physique earned him an extensive resume. Yet he exists in history only on the tongues of his surviving loved ones, in videos of his dancing, and alumni status with the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and the musical The Lion King. There was no CNN national mention.
This will be the fate of most black boys in the world of dance, especially if we are not like Albert Evans, legitimized by prominent white institutions or a substantial net worth from sales (think Sean T, who was a career dancer first and doesn’t get to wear a crop top on camera). Yet, like Tony Britts, we show up on television often, sometimes on awards shows with celebrities, on talk shows, and in promos for Broadway runs like Motown and Ain’t Too Proud, or dancing in SNL sketches.
Even the legacy of a superlative dance star such as Danny Tidwell, known in more households than the rest of us, thanks to his work on So You Think You Can Dance, is hardly guaranteed coverage during his death beyond the brief media cycle.
Can the black community help?
It would take several articles to cover the full evil of how colonialism has distorted the values of spiritual and physical “strength” across the Black diaspora. But the punchline is that the vast majority of black folks buy into traditional American “Fear the Walking Gay” panic. They double down with an axe-heavy Bible, which only leads to an unchecked disappearance of our legacies and further into the cornfield we go. Even my supportive, liberal, bedside Baptist mother, opted for “is-what-it-is” surrender over protest while lobbying instead for me to hurry with the muscle development out of concern the bullies might one day win.
And sure, awareness of the real fear of black male bodies—no matter who services them in bed—was mainstreamed in the #blacklivesmatter movement. Progress. But the effects of this fear in dance, especially, is still largely unaddressed in our community. We have yet to process the idea that keeping black boys out of ballet, for example, leaves us running to the theatre to see Misty Copeland and her sistren being rescued, possessed, handled and cherished on stage by mostly white men. Stagnation.
I hope the unearthing of the Tony Britts’ workout videos will open the conversation about black male sexuality and gender norms in all their layers. Perhaps it will keep those of us like him out of that cornfield. Every deceased black American man listed above flew to heaven in the last five years. How many of them do you know?
In the meantime, thirty years later, and having figured a few things out, I try to stay six feet above, to carry on, to continue to find new bars to swing around. We all should.
- You may also like Ephraim Lewis: The Brief Life and Tragic Death of a Soul Singer