“People are like the ocean, you cannot know them by their surface.”
Simone Stevens is a small framed professional dancer with a giggly laugh and the most joyful personality. She is interested in anthropology and cultural backgrounds, and Simone herself has ancestors from Spain, France, and the Cherokee Native American tribe. She has been dancing since she was three years old and now studies dance ethnography. She chose this field to meld her passions for learning about other cultures and dance, and she is a firm believer that people always have more to them that can be seen on the outside.
After listening to her heart for an hour, and watching her dance in the Atlanta forest for our photoshoot, I felt her identity shine forth. She is a ground-breaker in her field, and a fearless includer. I can’t help but feel that she will be impacting this generation in a very profound way.
Her dancing has so many layers of depth and strength. It is a display of her drive to succeed, her need to express herself, a story of her passions, and a story of her hurts.
I hope you are as inspired by her words and her dancing as I was.
C: What has dance taught you about yourself?
S: In the beginning, I was just learning the steps and moves that were taught to me. When I hit College I began to learn how to truly express myself through dance. I learned my specific style and movements. It became way to learn about myself and less of simply following choreography. I’ve always felt that dance is so much more than just a series of movements. They reveal people’s backgrounds, cultures, and heart. This is what led me to pursue dance ethnography.
C: You’ve been in dance classes since you were little. What was it like being the only African American in your dance classes growing up?
S: I felt it more in my elementary school than dance classes. Most of my classmates were white, because it was around Tucker, GA. So it was something I knew, but not something someone else was always pointing out.
I remember one time when my friend Caroline and I were in the library and we were reading something, and I remember the librarian came over and said “if this was back in the 1950’s you and Caroline couldn’t be friends because you are black and she is white.” And that stuck with me forever. No one had ever said it to me that straightforwardly. I just remember Caroline and I looked at each other and thought, “I guess you aren’t the same as me…” That was the only time it was slapped in my face.
Earlier on in dance, when we did performances, I was just made more aware of it, because they would tell me that I had to buy different things. I didn’t know that they made leotards in my skin color. I thought that “nude” was just the same color for everyone.
In high school when we did the big performances, there was one time I felt like I was being called out, and I was really embarrassed. They made a big announcement in front of everyone, and I thought “why didn’t you just tell me privately”. They said “No, Simone what you’re wearing isn’t acceptable, it doesn’t match your skin tone.” I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to fix that.
For another spring show we were wearing ballet shoes and we weren’t wearing tights. Two hours before the show started, one of the teachers said, “You have to go and put foundation on your shoes so they match your legs,” and I was like, “why didn’t anyone tell me this before?!”
C: That’s so hurtful. Did you just internalize all this? How did you cope?
S: I remember one time I went home in the car with my mom, and I wasn’t saying anything. My mom knew I was upset. I just started crying and said “ I don’t want to dance anymore because there’s nothing out there like me,” I was around 16. I think that was the biggest break down I had.
To overcome it I had to look at it from a different perspective. Around the same time I started realizing how people looked at me when I danced. So later in high school, after all my breakdowns, I was really aware of how people responded to my dancing, because I was the only African American. I had to hold myself to a higher standard. I’ve always just looked confident and not been fazed by anyone who might say “oh you are different.”
I actually have to talk to myself a lot. I have my “therapist Simone” and just talk it out with myself. haha
C: Can you tell me a little more about that? How do you give yourself therapy in order to cope?
S: Well just knowing who you are is so important. At times when I felt down, I just let myself feel all of my feelings and then reminded myself of the truth. I’ll remind myself that if you are here at this time, there is a reason for it. You can’t allow other things to come in and impose on the good that is supposed to be there. I tell myself the bigger picture, and I don’t let the little things keep me from performing to the best of my ability.
I also try not to just assume things about people. When certain people told me hurtful things, I wouldn’t assume that they were trying to be malicious. I try to think about what they were trying to say, why it came across the way it did, and why it was difficult for them to say it.
At the time when I was told last minute before a show that I needed to put foundation on my legs, maybe she didn’t know how to express that to me before. Maybe she was in a moment of panic. Maybe she had been thinking about it for weeks and months but just didn’t know how to verbalize it.
C: That’s incredible empathy. How has it been at your university?
S: The pieces I was in my freshman year, I was the only African American. Finally, two years ago there were two or three others who came and performed more often. And since then it’s grown. It’s been cool and fun, but it’s also been heavy for me as well.
Since I was the only one, other African American dancers who came after me would say to me “Omg you are my role model!” and I was thinking ” why, please no”. I know they did this because I was the only one who looked like them, so it’s cool but stressful. It’s a responsibility that I feel. Knowing that weight, but also knowing how many more African American dancers are coming in is satisfying at the same time. In this upcoming class there are like 6 or 7.
C: What would you like to see change in the dance world?
S: I know there’s a big push to see more African Americans in dance. I would like to just see more variety in general. In the companies that I’ve seen, if there is an African American, she sticks out more. That can be a positive or negative thing. But I feel like it would just be nice to include different people. There are more than two races. There’s a dance company called Complexions that does this, and I love them.
Also, some of the biggest founders of modern dance are female, but the majority of people who own the companies or create the choreography are males. I remember there was an article that came out a week or two ago talking about a modern dance festival in NY or Chicago. And the article mentioned 15 choreographers. They were all male. That really struck me. Dance is a female dominated art. In contemporary and ballet it’s mostly females. So…where do they go? Where do all these men come from? It’s interesting.
C: I’ve read studies discussing that for example, in the teaching world, although it is mainly female dominated, a male has a higher chance of being promoted to a managerial position faster than a female. So it would make sense to me if the same sort of thing is occurring in the dance world. It would be something interesting to study.
S: In relation to that, it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine when people tell me when I cannot do certain things. I guess I’m a little rebellious. There are specific steps or movements that females aren’t supposed to do. There is a weird separation of genders in dance. I’m not sure I could lift a male above my head, but I definitely have the capability of pairing and dancing “male” parts. Sometimes two females partner or vice versa. But even when females partner for example, its not as strong as it could be. They are settling for simpler things rather than pushing the limits.
C: What is your greatest fear?
S: Failure. In general. It’s something that I won’t really allow myself to do. I’m not a fan of settling for anything or accepting the comfortable and easy things. If something seems out of reach, I figure out a way to get there.
Failure to me, is not trying. Not reaching for it. So if I try something, and don’t make it, I feel okay, because at least I tried. For example, my dream company is in Chicago, it’s called Hubbard Street and I love it so much. For a while, it was just a dream and I wasn’t going to touch it. But that wasn’t okay. I knew I would be upset with myself if I didn’t try. So I auditioned for their summer intensive and for their professional division in February and heard positive things back. I’m not going to go, but I needed to know. Even if they said no, then that was still something I could work towards. I want to go back of course, but if I had missed the first gutsy move to go and do it, I would be less inclined to do it later on.
C: It’s amazing that you react to fear of failure by making sure you take a shot at every one of your dreams.
S: I just have to know what happens when I try. It is really scary. But I think it pays off. Because even if someone rejects me, at least I was in the room with them and I have an idea of what they are looking for. So then I can try to get to that level.
C: Is there any last piece of advice you’d like to give our readers?
S: You can’t know a person by just looking at them. Take the time to get to know people. Part of the reason I want to do dance ethnography is that I feel like everyone has certain needs: to be loved, or a need for safety, and varying degrees of those needs.
I have a higher need to be understood; for people to understand where I am coming from, and for me to understand where they are coming from. I need that to function comfortably. In dance ethnography you’re looking at the way people dance, and why they do it. You’re understanding so much about a person.
There’s a quote that I really like that says “people are oceans, you cannot know them by their surface.”
Its so easy to pass a quick judgment on who a person is. You assume things about them by how they are dressed or where they are geographically, etc. but there’s so much more under the surface.
“She was unstoppable. not because she did not have failures or doubts. but because she continued on despite them.”
― Beau Taplin