Photo: Brad Nathanson

To be rooted, or not to be rooted, with Grey Armstrong

Grey Armstrong is an American dancer, instructor, speaker, and all around artist. Grey and I have been going back and forth digging into what roots mean to us as both human beings and dancers. The following is the results from this conversation. 

 

Greg Austin Hi, how are ya? Could you tell the wider world who you are and how you got into dancing?

Grey Armstrong Hey! My name is Grey Armstrong. I’m a Black American Transman in the US. I love the arts, cooking, and music. I currently live in the southern part of the country with my cat T’challa Panther Lily, teaching dance and writing for my blog, Obsidian Tea.

I got into dance about 8 years ago. After being humiliated for being a poor dancer as a child – basically a crime in Black culture, being unable to dance – I swore I’d never dance again! But, I couldn’t stop dancing. A friend asked me to attend a class, and I, going through a bad breakup, figured I had nothing to lose. I couldn’t feel any worse.

I had a panic attack after class. I was scared and overwhelmed and it felt like I was wrong to try to learn. But every week, even after the friend stopped going, I came back, staying one more song before running away. One day, the instructor asked me to dance, and I was never the same. I became obsessed with dance, chasing the feeling of those dances. Since then I’ve fallen deeper in love with dance, music and my own heritage. I just want to share that with everyone.

Greg Have you been a person who has moved around much in your life? How do you feel when you move to a new place?

Grey Haha, I’ve spent the majority of my life moving. Before age 7, I changed schools once or twice a year. A child of a single parent meant I was often shuffled between homes while my parent was at work. This did settle for a few years once I was older, but at 17 I left home and went to university and have been moving since then. In 2015 I was too sick to afford my place and ended up being taken by some friends on the other side of the country. I stayed with different friends, splitting my time between homes again for a few years. I moved into a room of my own for almost a year before suddenly needing to leave. A little more shuffling and I have finally settled in the Southern US… at least for now.

At this point, moving feels less scary to me than staying in one place. To move so much and feel comfortable you really have to know yourself, what you want, need and a sense of an adventure. I’m mostly excited. I love traveling and new experiences. I love, anxiously, meeting new people and developing/deepening relationships. I think this is in part due to my faceblindness. I struggle to recognize people, even family members, but it means I’m pretty comfortable not knowing people. I never know people! I love experiencing the culture of a region or city and seeing what makes it uniquely beautiful. Early in a move is best because it’s a great time to find yourself again.

I think some people can find it isolating or sad. And sometimes it is hard not having friends in a new place, but assuming the town isn’t so small nothing is happening, it’s good to either go to weird new events or meander through town. Or stay home and spend time on hobbies you’ve been missing out on. Do nice things for people while you are out. Spend time in nature. Meditate and be present. Those feelings will ease.

Greg What has the dance community meant to you in regards to moving to new places?

Grey Ah. Dance communities can make or break a move these days. On one hand it’s a great way to jump start your social network, but, it comes with some potential downfalls. Dancers are great but not every group/scene/community is aligned with who you are or want to be. It can be dangerous to rely on dancers to be your community and support. Here in the US there are a lot of different things that influence my acceptance into a community and my willingness to work at joining. I like to say I’m a minority lottery winner.

The wide range of ways I’m not in the majority is statistically unlikely, and yet, here I am. So, it’s important for me to feel supported in my intersectionality. Not all scenes can accept a person like me. I honestly feel like I’m a little too misunderstood in almost every community. Finding that balance inside the dance community and outside it, and the balancing of local vs. national/international community is key.

That bit of pessimism aside, dance communities can be great for moving around. Dancers, are often warmer than some other groups. They are excited to help you get settled, know their local areas well, and generally are excited to have new people in town. Be that for a week, or for a few years. For me, it’s amazing to know that anywhere I go, there are people in my network I know or my loved ones know. If something were to go sour, there is a knowledge that my community would step up. It frees me to feel stable, to do riskier moves. Like a good counterbalance, I may go farther into unsteady territory because I know I won’t be allowed to fall.

Greg Ok, let’s talk about roots. Whenever I think of roots, I think of a tree metaphor. Is there a metaphor that springs to your mind when you hear the word “roots?”

Grey Hm, I think of relationships, specifically my chosen family over the years. I have a condition that makes it easy for me to dissociate and PTSD. I can be a lot like a hot air balloon, with stress being the fire that sends me away from being on the ground. It’s my relationships that keep me coming back to the ground and in current reality, no matter how far I float away.

Greg Do you think it is possible to feel immediately rooted in a place, even if you’ve only just arrived? Similar to love at first sight?

Grey Since I think of roots as my relationships, yes and… no. If I were moving towards a community I felt deeply attached to and loved by, I think I’d feel rooted quickly. But, visiting loved ones and living near them are often not the same thing. Like passion it can fade quickly and without a sold foundation it’s easy to feel disconnected later. I do find that some cities, “click” better than others tho.

I fall in love slowly, with people and places. At the same time I think it’s important to follow that feeling of the “click”. If you follow that and stay open minded, I find getting rooted to feel easy, exciting and natural, just like love with people. I think the key to love and feeling rooted is actively choosing to fall in love with the good, the bad, and the ugly. To be open to being changed, to being wrong, to having your life flipped upside down forever, but also open to all the good that can come with that.

Partly I think this comes back to my face blindness. I always vaguely feel surrounded by strangers but I also get to see my loved ones like the first time, over and over again. I don’t think I know how to love with out that need to continually see and re-see what I found so magical in that first moment.

Greg How does learning more about your heritage both help and hinder your ability to find roots in a new place?

Tough question. It depends what heritage I look at. My recent personal heritage makes me feel even more alone. I know so little about my family on both sides and some relationships are more strained than others. Some… haven’t even been addressed yet. I’ve always felt the weight of not knowing for as long as I can remember and I thought learning more would help, but mostly it makes me sad. I sometimes feel like I can’t get close to people because of this. Also, the more I learn about my Black heritage in general I feel more ill at ease with White American. The more foreign I feel outside of Black culture, and yet, the more I feel, alien there too. I struggle to know where to connect with others in new places.

On the other hand, diving into my Black heritage has caused me to have a deep self love and have found solace in music and arts as a way to make myself feel rooted no matter what is happening. I feel connected with older traditions of my culture and that makes me feel bigger than myself, and comforts me. I think, the deeper I go, the more I see that Blues is just a good fit for me. It roots me to the culture and gives me foundation to explore from. The Blues tradition is one of movement, expression, perseverance and story telling. As long as I stay rooted in the tradition, I can’t be lost in a new place.

Greg Earlier you said that you think the key to love and feeling rooted is actively choosing to fall in love with the good, the bad, and the ugly. Can you choose which part of your heritage that you want to love? To be rooted with?

Grey Yes and no. I believe you can choose to focus on certain aspects but you have to know the full story too. In art, we say you have to know the rules to break them, and I think heritage is the same way. If you really love a thing, I think it’s important to understand the full depth of it. To not do so, feels disrespectful to me.

Greg If someone doesn’t have a certain heritage, but loves what the heritage embodies, can they choose to join the tradition? For example, if someone “clicks” with a tradition such as Blues, can they choose to root themselves in it?

Grey That, is an incredibly complex question. I think part of it reflects the question of “choosing” parts of a heritage. As a visitor or guest, even more than those born to a heritage should work at understanding the depth and rules of what you aim to join. Choosing parts and/or not learning the depth of the heritage is what the appropriation conversation in America streams from.

If you think the tradition “clicks” with you, I’d hope you are excited to learn all about it. To accept that parts that might not be pretty, to accept the parts you will never “get” and celebrate and lift up those voices who do.

I also don’t think it’s you who gets to choose if you are rooted or not in it. It is when the tradition accepts you as one of theirs that you can even begin to see yourself as a part of that tradition. To join the tradition means to join the fullness of that experience. The joys, the fights and the grief. If you can not do that, willingly, and follow those born into the tradition, then to me, you remain a guest. There is nothing wrong with being a guest either

I think it’s important to know where you stand though. If you aren’t sure, assume you are a guest and act accordingly. Learning, growing, and appreciating respectfully.

Greg And finally, if you can choose something to root yourself with, at what point does it become a part of your own, personal heritage? When does it change from a new thing in your life, to something that is a foundational part of who you are… something that you will pass on to future generations?

Grey I think that moment is when you are so involved in the tradition that you can’t remove it from yourself without deeply changing. An example. It’s one thing to be a dancer in your 20’s and maybe your 30’s, but when you have children or move, and dance gets dropped except for the times you go out to see old friends and reminisce, you are still a guest. If you still go and support dance communities as you age, and find ways besides dance to participate in the heritage and bring your loved ones and children along, and it changes them too, it can become personal heritage.

Essentially you have to be giving and not just taking from the heritage and helping to leave a legacy bigger than yourself. That’s when you know you are a part of the heritage. The moment that stops, you become a guest again.

Greg Great, so many thanks for sharing this all with us. Anything you’d like to close with? How can people keep up with what you are doing in the dance world?

Grey My life advice would be to stay curious and keep learning. To not be afraid to let go of what isn’t working just because it’s familiar. Sometimes plants need to be moved for more growth. Finally, love your loved ones openly.

If people want to keep up with me they can check out my blog, obsidiantea.com, my dancer Facebook page at Grey Armstrong Dance, and I hope to meet you all one day at a party.

Thank you Greg for the interview, and your patience with me.

Photo: Kasia Goździewska

A Balfolk Introduction

One of the delightful gems that I have discovered since moving to Europe is the dance known as Balfolk. I find that most people have never heard of it, so I’m shining a little light on this vibrant and growing dance community. I spoke with Agnieszka Dworzańska, Kraków’s resident expert on Balfolk. Let’s listen in…

Greg Austin We are here in Kraków, I am sitting with Agnieszka Dworzańska. How are you today?

Agnieszka Dworzańska Sleepy. Really sleepy.

Greg Sleepy? Why is that?

Agnieszka Because of our wonderful autumn sleepy weather outside. Typical for Kraków.

Greg It definitely is autumn, isn’t it? Nothing like an autumn day interview with coffee in hand. As we begin, if you could tell us a little bit about who you are, and why do you dance?

Photo: Ben Hejkal

Going back to Clarksdale. Where the Blues was born.

In an earlier interview, I spoke with Krystal Wilkerson about how a legacy is passed down from generation to generation in a dance community. In this interview, I speak with her husband, Adam Wilkerson about returning to the roots of where Blues music was born.

Greg Austin So even though we’re here in Zürich, Switzerland, Adam Wilkenson and I are going to talk about a really fantastic research project that he’s working on back America, in the Mississippi Delta specifically. Tell us about it.

Adam Wilkerson Sure thing.

In the Delta of Mississippi, there’s this town called Clarksdale, which is where the Blues was supposedly born. There’s legends around the place. It’s really cool. I’m originally from Tupelo, which is about 2 hours east of there. I’m very proud of the fact that Blues comes from my home state of Mississippi, and I decided to use the fact that I’m from Mississippi to be able to dive into Clarksdale and talk with the people there. Definitely ends up being advantageous when I talk to folks, that I go there and I have a bit of a Mississippi accent and I can chat with the people there about, you know, local stuff that’s happened.

So Clarksdale, being the heart of where Blues was born, people go there to make music, and they’re a lot of locals at juke joints there that will actually dance to music.

I should explain a little about our dance scene. Our dance scene was born in the 2000’s, kind of a subset of the Lindy Hop scene, maybe at the beginning, but the point is that for a long time there were debates in our scene as to what is or is not “Blues” music? What is and what is not “Blues” dancing? And as we have uncovered more historical references to what Blues dancing is, and as we have come to a better understanding of what Blues music is, we feel that we’re trying to do a better job of honoring the Blues at this point, even if we still have a ways to go.

What Dancing Does to a Band

Christine & The Blue Drags is a band that was formed out of the Blues dancing community in Warsaw. In addition to playing for “listeners” at normal gigs, they love playing for “dancers,” and the creativity that comes with having a dance floor full of muses to be inspired by. They are self-producing their first album this summer and I very much enjoyed talking with them about it.  


Greg Austin
So to introduce everyone I wanted to ask a question. It is a trope in Jazz music that a song will have the lyrics talking about food, but it’s really about sex. My question for each of y’all is what Polish food would you love to write a song about and why?

Christine the Singer What Polish food I would like to write a song about?

Greg … that’s really about sex.

Christine Oh shit, Polish food. Ugh, actually I’m a vegetarian so I have a small area to choose, but maybe… yeah, apples. Because I like them very much.

Witek the Pianist Are you talking about apples or sex?

Christine Apples! They are colorful and tasty. And very juicy.

Witek I’d probably go sausage and mashed potatoes. I don’t think I need to explain.

Janek the Drummer I am also vegetarian and I would say carrots. They’re similar to something… wink, wink.

Sławek the Harmonicist Stuffed cabbage. In Polish, gołąbki. It sounds sexy, and you can remove the cabbage to get to the meat.

Laughs all around.

 

Greg So that was the fun question. Now I want talk about how playing for the dancing community has affected your development as musicians. Has it done so?

Photo: From Top Left: Kelsey Stone, Damon Stone, Mike Legenthal, Dan Legenthal, Adam Wilkerson, Krystal Wilkerson, Dominic Hanna - Photo by Ben Hejkal

A Blues Family Lineage, with Krystal Wilkerson

I first met Krystal at the Blues Experiment in America, way back in 2014. My first impression was that she had the biggest smile in the world. Just a couple of weeks ago, I managed to catch up with her at a dance weekend in Zürich. Since we first met, she and her husband Adam have dove deep into organizing, teaching, and sharing their passion for the Blues. In this conversation, she takes us through the people who have impacted her Blues life… her “Blues Family.” And yes, she still has a huge smile.

Greg Austin Hello!

Krystal Wilkerson Hello!

Greg I always like to start with the origin story, like how you came into the dancing world. So what were you doing before you were a dancer?

Krystal Ok, so like in terms of my hobbies before dancing? Or where I was in my life before I started dancing?

Greg If someone is a non-dancer reading this, often times they want to know, “What do you do in life?” So for non-dancers I think it is interesting for them to hear how you came to dancing.

Krystal So before I started partner dancing, I was in grad school. Under-grad, grad school, that was pretty much my life. Laughs. In terms of things I did for fun, in grad school, I used to be really big into Metal and Rock, going to Metal and Rock concerts.

At some point, I decided to go to a Ballroom dance class, at Mississippi State University. From there, I started doing Ballroom partner dancing, and I had a friend from South Korea that was into Lindy Hop. He started showing me how to do Lindy Hop. From Lindy Hop I got into Blues. And now we Blues dance and we rock climb, and we hike, and we have greyhounds.

Greg Let’s talk about who this “we” is. You just posted a great picture that you referred to as your “Blues family.” Take us through all the faces in that picture.