Dance

Urban Bush Women Dance Ensemble Remembers, Heals, and Restores

Urban Bush Women brings the site-specific and "site-responsive" dance and theater work "Haint Blu" to Miami's Historic Hampton House.
Urban Bush Women brings the site-specific and "site-responsive" dance and theater work "Haint Blu" to Miami's Historic Hampton House. Photo by Woosler Delisfort
When Miami's doors were not open to all, the Hampton House in the city's Brownsville neighborhood was a place of refuge.

Though racist Jim Crow laws allowed Black Americans to play music, give rousing speeches, and perform athletic feats for crowds in the thousands, they could not rest their heads at virtually any Miami or Miami Beach hotels. Instead, people like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Berry Gordy took their repose in the Hampton House's rooms and enjoyed refreshing dips in its swimming pool. The stories of these American icons — as well as those of the many other Black people who found the hotel a home away from home – remain in the Hampton House, then called the Social Center for the South, and today a museum and cultural center.

One Black-women-led dance company aims to pay homage to the history of the Hampton House through a site-specific dance and theater performance that employs movement and stillness to spark a dialogue with audiences about healing, restoration, and remembrance. In partnership with Live Arts Miami, Urban Bush Women premieres "Haint Blu" at the Historic Hampton House on March 9-12.

"The Hampton House's history as a place of refuge, restoration, leisure, and community for Black people is very connected to the things we have been investigating as a dance company," says Urban Bush Women associate artistic director Courtney Cook.

Urban Bush Women, a New York City-based nonprofit dance company founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and headed today by Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra "Samantha" Speis, utilizes live performance as a means of healing for not only performers and audiences, but for those who came before.

"We're looking at dance, movement, and song traditions that come from the African diaspora and African cosmology, these ways of being both present in the body and present with spirit," Cook says. "Continuing in the Yoruba and Orisha spiritual traditions, we're using movement to catalyze change and cultural transformation. We're recalling oral traditions, folklore, and song — ancient, tried-and-true methods used by our ancestors who left recipes for us to follow. We're looking back, collecting them, and using them for our healing."
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Urban Bush Women and local Miami performers will activate various spaces within the Historic Hampton House.
Photo by Woosler Delisfort
Audiences of each unique performance of "Haint Blu" will learn more about those who stayed as guests at the Hampton House and those who fought to preserve the landmark from demolition, and the under-told histories of Miami's Black communities. This education is achieved through movement accompanied by immersive sound design, live and recorded music, and live and recorded text. The Hampton House closed in 1976 and faced demolition, but Miami preservationists like Dr. Enid Pinkney worked until it was declared a protected historical site in 2002. After receiving a $6 million renovation from Miami-Dade County, the Historic Hampton House reopened its doors to visitors in 2015.

"What's special about being at the Hampton House is how this particular site has been restored at the hands of Black women, as well as its legacy of serving the community," Cook says. "What's special about being in Miami for us is Miami's connection to water, water's healing properties, its role in the Middle Passage and the Underground Railroad, and its use as a means of liberation. These are all important themes in 'Haint Blu.' To prepare this work, we heard stories from locals about how the land was built out and legitimized by Black folks. You can feel the vibrations of those stories in the land and the air today. We realized the connection of those stories to our own."

The Hampton House itself plays a leading role in "Haint Blu." Urban Bush Women and their partners performing dance, music, and spoken word — many local to Miami, including students of Miami Dade College dance faculty member Michelle Grant-Murray — will activate various locations within the cultural center without altering the space, save for the addition of lighting. Cook says the Hampton House's history will also be palpably present within each dancer's movement a dancer makes.

"The audience will be encouraged to walk through the environment, remain curious, and make choices inside of the performance to curate their own experiences. We took in the Hampton House's history and processed that information in our bodies. That imprint will support and alter how we are inside of our movement," Cook says. "A value [of the Urban Bush Women] is that the body archives experiences in ways that prove it has its own complex intelligence. We lean on the intelligence of the body and use movement as a form of research to investigate."

Last month, Urban Bush Women performed their "site-responsive" work — whose title is a reference to the particular blue made from an indigo dye that Gullah Geechee and other people living in the Lowcountry region of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas would paint their porches to ward off unwanted spirits — at the Andre Cailloux Center in New Orleans. After Miami, the company will venture on to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art before performing at sites in Harlem and Martha's Vineyard. Cook says no matter what location her dance company works in conversation with, she and her fellow performers aim to empower local audiences with the agency to "dig up and archive their own body of truths and to continue the healing work around whatever they unearth."
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"Haint Blu" encourages audiences to embark on journeys of "remembering, reclaiming, releasing and restoring."
Photo by Woosler Delisfort
"We're not here to tell Miami's history or tell the story of people who are in the community here. We can't; it's not our right. We're building our work in conversation with the stories that already exist and creating space for those stories to be told by the community," she says. "I personally hope folks are reminded of the stories they hold and the rich history of the beautiful land they're on. I hope they walk away with more sensitivity and awareness of the abundance that surrounds them. When I say abundance, I mean of stories. I mean of being supported by nature, which provides so much vitality and shows and teaches us."

An immersive experience for visitors, "Haint Blu" performances will be paired with local food and beverage vendors and guided tours of the restored hotel. The result of a multiyear partnership with Miami Dade College's longstanding performance art series Live Arts Miami, the theater and dance production serves as a warm, welcoming introduction to the Hampton House for Miamians who have never visited, says Kathryn Garcia, executive director at Live Arts Miami.

"This is a unique way to have your first encounter with the Hampton House. You travel throughout a lot of spaces on the property, which are activated in ways you'd otherwise never experience," Garcia says. "Because the show doesn't tell you literal history, we're looking at other ways to facilitate that with archival video and the Hampton House staff providing the audience with some history. The hope is people are so taken with the Hampton House they want to come back and do more there. It's a truly magical space."

Garcia says she and her colleagues at Live Arts Miami aim to leave their audiences inspired and more aware, and "Haint Blu" may inspire its audiences to dig deeper into themselves and the under-told histories of Miami's Black and brown communities.

"Our tagline is 'your stage for creating change.' That process begins with having an experience you can connect with on an emotional level that leaves your perspective shifted," she says. "I hope people have that moment of personal connection with this piece that lets them explore what this place was historically, what's happening now in this neighborhood, and what opportunities there are for growth within themselves."

Cook hopes "Haint Blu" welcomes audiences of all ages, identities, and backgrounds to engage in dialogue and introspection around healing practices like "remembering, reclaiming, releasing, and restoring."

"Dance practices are cultural tools used as a means of healing, transmuting energy, and telling stories. It's really important for us to be in a collective dialogue around healing and restoration. These things are for all of us," she says. "We're casting that net and hoping the folks who are open and ready to be on this journey with us are the ones who answer the call and come out."

"Haint Blu" by Urban Bush Women. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 9, through Saturday, March 11, and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, March 12, at the Historic Hampton House, 4240 NW 27th Ave., Miami; liveartsmiami.com. Tickets cost $30.
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Tyler Francischine is a writer, event planner, and audiophile with dual passions for creating community engagement and telling stories that sing in a reader’s mind. Her work has been featured in American Way, Melted Magazine, and the Huffington Post.

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