I wanted more than anything, to be included. I wanted to be liked; to be wanted, to be a Mean Girl; a Jock; anything that would put me in the Center of Attention. And in some ways, growing up, that came true. But, it wasn’t in the cafeteria, the locker room, on the field, or even on the stage. It happened in the small spaces that I created for myself, my friends, and the other outsiders that wanted to be despite a world that told us we could not. This place was in the corners of the club, the back of a friend’s friend’s house party, and the outside areas at prom and homecoming. Now, I spend my time devising dance-theatre and writing grants so I can continue this quest for space to just be.

I used to despise the idea of creating a “safe space”. Even today, I cringe at the thought of having to create space when there is so much of it already to go around. And the idea of taking up space, is a whole other thing. Yet, at the same time, there is no greater feeling than creating or taking up space, making it safe, and inviting ‘the others’ of the world to witness, engage, and for a moment, to find freedom. 

The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance is one of my latest projects, co-created by Yolanda Wisher. This production is an invitation to a house party, where five Philadelphia-based, generation-crossing, genre-defying artists will be your hosts. This party blends storytelling with choreography, performance, and multimedia to tell the story of social dance and its impact on people and culture.

On the outset, it’s not labeled a queer event, BUT it’s important to understand that as a queer person, everything I do is ridden with queerness. When I was in high school figuring out my sexuality, I joined the Queer & Questioning club, and to this day, I think about the impact that club has had on me as a person, artist, leader, and lover. The premise of the club was not to out students, to teach us how to be gay, or even covertly act as a meeting space for hook-ups (which was common when I went to school because we didn’t have Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, cell phones). The Queer and Questioning club was more like a philosophy club where we talked about culture, life, the world, and how it made sense to us. The club encouraged us to QUESTION everything; to think, feel, and act with a fierce curiosity. That included, how do I want to dress, what do I want to study, what is a politician, who do I want to date, and for the art-inclined, to think not about what you’re making but how. And to this day,  I cannot separate Queernesses from Questioning.

As a cis, black, man who sleeps with other men, I have lived a life where questioning would often get me into the kind of trouble that would likely get me hurt, expelled, or set my life up for failure and regret. But I learned that there is another kind of questioning that opens doors, experiences, and forges new paths and creates community.

When Yolanda Wisher asked me to collaborate with her on a work about social dance, I felt such a remarkable kinship with it. I know these spaces, I know the power of social dance, and what it has done for me. We began this project after reading an incredible book ‘From Hucklebuck to Hip Hop: Social Dance in the African-American Community in Philadelphia’ by John W. Roberts. The book is based on interviews with African American dancers from Philadelphia and explores the dances, settings, style and significance of social dance, literally from hucklebuck in the 1940s to hip hop in the 1990s. Our Show The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance picks up where this book leaves off.

With the generous help of performing arts organization Intercultural Journeys and funder The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, we have gathered a group of incredible artists from different walks of life: GERMAINE INGRAM, LELA AISHA JONES, NIKKI POWERHOUSE, VITCHE-BOUL RA and, MARK WONG to co-create a one of a kind experience that will illuminate the timely power of these communal, propulsive gatherings as channels for cultural expression, freedom, and ultimately, change.

The work that I continue to do is about inclusion. The work is about carving out space for the young, old, past, present, the in-crowd, and the outsiders. Showing, in many ways, how we all exist together. Whether you see it or not. This is yet another opportunity where I am co-creating spaces of questioning, queerness, and community. I will not, and ask you to not, take for granted that Freedom has been won, that it is easy to grasp or maintain.

Like theatre and like life, all that we have—singing, and dancing at the club, the house party, or a lonely corner wherever you can find it—are moments that remind us to let go, give in, and just be.

- Raja Feather Kelly, May 2024

  • The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. 
  • The Re-Emancipation of Social Dance is being produced by Intercultural Journeys.