fb-pixel Skip to main content

Finding freedom in the rhythm of dance

Black choreographers and dancers use movement to move us forward.

Ebony Williams's Beautiful Resistance: Dance is Queen
When Dorchester native Ebony Williams is crafting moves, be it for a movie scene or pop star, she’s telling stories. (Created and produced by Jeneé Osterheldt/Globe Staff, Directed and edited by Chaney Carlson-Bullock, First Assistant Director Mikayla Litevich, Supervising Producer Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Photo by Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe, Illustrations by Paula Champagne)

Even when I try, I can’t recall my first steps. But dance seems to have always been a sway in my shoulders, an omnipresent song in my stride.

For as far back as my memory can take me, I can feel the bounce of my hips as my spine relaxes into a deep body roll when anything gives me joy.

At family cookouts, my cousins and I would always hide away somewhere listening to Salt-N-Pepa, Chuck Brown, and New Edition, rehearsing dance moves. Smelling like Palmer’s cocoa butter and pink oil, our hair in curls and braids, we’d try our best to get in sync so we could put on a show.

Advertisement



Even when I couldn’t get my body to bend to the beat, I leaned into wherever the music would take me, be it a swaggy head nod or a party of facial gestures. And when I was with my cousins or my friends and we were together in melody? Little Black girls felt free.

Powerful. Connected. Here.

On a lonely New Year’s Eve a few years ago, I sought out a cardio dance class. I knew there I would feel love. I would feel strong. I would feel new. Because dance.

Dancer Meli Valdez is cofounder of TrillFit and an in-arena host for the Boston Celtics.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Our teacher, Meli Valdez, was so rooted in dance her voice moved the room and filled all the empty spaces for a small holiday evening class.

With just three of us, her choreography conjured a crowd in our spirits. We were a synchronized sisterhood with her by our side.

“Dancing is such an expression of yourself, and when you are moving you are connecting with the drums, thinking about our ancestors,” says Valdez, co-founder of the TrillFit fitness studio and an in-arena host for Boston Celtics games.

Growing up Dominican in Boston, dance was always a big part of family gatherings.

Advertisement



“I learned how to dance by blood, by family, by culture. When I am moving in my body, I am not feeling judged. It’s like this intergalactic moment and it gives me freedom and it’s a beautiful thing,” Valdez says.

When she created the framework for cardio dance at TrillFit, she wanted to pass on that confidence.

“I stay true to where I come from with a fusion of hip-hop, of Boston, of the Dominican Republic. My intention is that everyone can pick up the moves and feel proud and a certain type of joy being comfortable in your own skin and being able to have freedom in your own body,” she adds.

That New Year’s Eve, with Beyoncé banging over the speakers, we became friends, a girl group connected by dance and self-liberation.

If we weren’t carrying Queen Bey with us, then we were giving our best Ebony Williams to the beat.

Williams is one of the iconic “Single Ladies” backup dancers and the genius who helped choreograph Beyoncé's “My Power,” as well as moves for Doja Cat, Alicia Keys, and “In the Heights.”

Choreographer Ebony Williams posed for a portrait outside of the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

The Dorchester native is dance. It’s in her art, her acting, her creative directing.

Even her fingers seem to stretch and play to a rhythm as she talks. The Boston Conservatory at Berklee alumna regularly returns to the city to teach at her former school.

“I feel like dance decided it was going to be mine before I did,” she tells me on a class break earlier this year. “Nothing else makes me feel the way dance feels, you know, there’s nothing that makes me feel like my true self.”

Advertisement



When she was a student at the conservatory, she was the only Black girl in her class. At Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York City, she became the company’s first Black female dancer in 2005. So now, when she sees the lone Black girl in one of her classes, she sees herself. She wants those students to know they belong.

“She doesn’t have to apologize for being there,” Williams says of femme dance students of color. “The biggest thing for me when I’m walking in the room and I see another young girl, I just want her to feel like she is valuable and that she’s meant to be there when she holds and takes space.”

When Williams is crafting moves, be it for a movie scene or pop star, she’s telling stories. And a signature to her style is the stories she carries with her from Dorchester.

“Going outside and just remembering the sounds of the kids playing, flipping off of swings, being out in the street making up dances with my friends outside to the point where we would create an audience,” she says. “Those are the roots of the culture that continue to live in me.”

When she’s not dancing professionally, there’s also an aspect of dance Williams counts on for catharsis.

“Growing up, you’re told to be quiet or you’re too loud and angry. In my body, I get to express myself any way that I want. No one can say that’s coming from anger,” she says.

Advertisement



“Sometimes it’s from the most joyous place. ... Sometimes when I’m dancing I feel like I have a riot in my body that I’ve got to let out, it feels like a huge protest... so the feelings change, but every time I feel lighter.”

Ellice Patterson, founder of Abilities Dance Boston and executive director of BalletRox, rehearses a dance she choreographed over Zoom with dancers from Abilities Dance Boston.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

For Ellice Patterson, it’s about healing, freedom, and representation.

As a toddler, she took tap dance classes. But it’s her bond with her grandmother that sustains the dance in her spirit. The family legacy, the diaspora, the song of Black folk.

“I grew up being very close with my grandmother, whose grandmother was born a slave,” she says. “She would tell me these stories of her experience and how she used artistry as a way to find herself through joy and healing and connection.”

Patterson continues the tradition of using creativity to make room for community and empowerment.

She founded Abilities Dance Boston to promote intersectional disability rights, and, as executive director of BalletRox she helps uplifts Boston students through dance, education, and equity.

“Representation is really important. I was not seeing stories that reflected my identity. I wasn’t seeing Black stories, cultural stories, things that really reflect the cultural intersections of my identities,” Patterson says.

“Disability work can be really white and racist to those who identify as BIPOC and disabled and equity work can be ableist. The goal is to create work that transforms mind-sets and advocate for real systemic change,” she says.

Advertisement



Earlier this year, she debuted her reimagined multicultural and inclusive version of the classic ballet, “Firebird.” On stage, there were all kinds of folk of color with different ranges of mobility. There was ASL narration. It was fully inclusive as dance is for all of us.

“Dance can be liberating, especially with the weight of the various forms of discrimination we might face,” Patterson says. “Dance is a way to move that out of our systems and find joy again and find peace and healing within our identity.”

Movement is more than the wind of our bodies to the beat. Movement is in our soul. Movement is our now, our then, and what’s next, too. Dance is a story of us we sing in a myriad of spiritual keys.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee and on Instagram @abeautifulresistance.