DejaJoelle was only 4 when she first started dancing, and it was for a drill team called African Perfection in the Rondo neighborhood.
In later years, the St. Paul native trained in West African dance and contemporary styles, eventually creating captivating works as a solo artist and choreographer. In recent years, DejaJoelle has moved away from thinking about dance as a performance but upholds it as an "observance."
DejaJoelle has been a recipient of numerous grants such as the Jerome Hill Fellowship and now works as an African-Centered Healing Artist and Cultural Healing Curator in addition to being a choreographer and director.
As part of her vision to celebrate choreographers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, she has curated "Body Prayers." Using African-based movement in a variety of forms, it is a call for transformation and liberation. It is an edition of Choreographer's Evening, which is normally held in November at the Walker Art Center, and has been transformed into an online series of films.
DejaJoelle spoke recently about "Body Prayers" and how it incorporates joy.
Q: How did having a Black videographer, Adja Gildersleve, and a Black photographer, Awa Mally, shift the process?
A: It's really important because, one, the connection, the essence, the relationship happens before the camera turns on. There's that instant connection, there's representation, there's your reflection. You feel more safe. You feel like this space is more intentional and creative for you, to feel like they can do their art and do their work, especially doing "Body Prayers."
Q: What does "Body Prayers" mean?
A: I believe and have accepted the fact that we have the ability to collapse time with our movement. We have the ability to participate and actively engage in different timelines. With our daily practices, whether it be raising your arm above your head walking down the stairs or doing a full blown choreography, it is a prayer, it is a practice, it is an energy, it is a manifestation. So the question is, what are you asking for? What are you praying for? What are you manifesting with your body?
There's something that I've created called the thought orbit, and it helps me kind of put in perspective — the things that I'm praying for and understanding that my thoughts create the seed. The seed is hosted by my body which gives it a vibration, which makes it a manifestation, which means I'm using my energy as a magnet to pull my best-case scenario closer to me. That vibration is hosted by my body, which informs my practices, which is one of my prayers. That's the actual doing. I went from thought to feeling to doing. And then the next thing is my feedback, the ashay. I'll begin to see those things come to fruition around me.
As a choreographer, oftentimes I have an idea in mind I want to comment on. I want to evoke thought. Who do you think prays for you to bring you to this exact moment? That question is very important for me because I think about what are the prayers that they're putting in the air for others? And what does it feel like to be prayed for?
It's much different once you understand that you're prayed for. Someone is supporting you, someone's loving you and someone is also wanting your best-case scenario to be right in your lap. I want us all to move that way, knowing that we're supported and guided.
Q: How does joy fit in?
A: Oh, it was so much joy. It was before the devices came on. It was before the video, before the camera. It was cackling e-mails. It was Zoom calls with music and us dancing together. We planted some seeds in that very fertile soil in the present moment.
I also believe in citing your sources. So when you have a common experience, your body is taking note of that experience. And when you put that in your prayer, you're able to cite your sources. You're able to say, "I feel that laugh where like, my stomach really hurts. I felt that on the Zoom call with this person. So now I'm going to put this in this prayer, I'm going to evoke that breath, that lack of breath in my belly when I'm doing this like contraction to some of the things I'm going to say."
Q: Do you see the work as creating change?
A: Oh, absolutely. The work that I'm doing is the work of the collective. Everyone has their purpose. And this time everyone's purpose has been brought forth. It seems like a lot of things were in the way. It feels like there was a clearing, which feels great. I feel like the clearing is still happening.
When I think about revolution, I don't only think about revolt, resist and rupture. I think about revolution as in a circle. How do we change the revolution so the next revolution doesn't look the same? We're on a different timeline. We're participating in a different scenario.
Q: Is the work of these artists in conversation with the all-Black lineup of choreographers that Kenna Cottman curated for the "Choreographer's Evening" in 2014?
A: I feel like that was a prayer for this "Choreographer's Evening." I feel like this "Body Prayers" was also a process of praying for that process because we've already been here. So it is definitely in conversation.
Q: Which kind of relates to disrupting the circle.
A: I would be more gentle with myself and gentle with the enemies around me to not say disrupt but say, "What went around doesn't have to come back around." I'm not trying to feel disruption. I'm going to put my energy toward the opposite and allow those actions in those prayers to create change in events.
Streaming: Preshow at 6 p.m. Friday, premiere at 7 p.m. at walkerart.org.
Tickets: $20 suggested donation.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts journalist.