The summer of 2023 is my 57th Summer in this lifetime. In the fall I turn 58. An aging athlete, I, the dancer have trained and performed many styles. Now approaching my senior years I have found strength and grace, joy and a fierce sensuality in the dance Old Way Vogue.
I first saw this style in 1988 at MidTown 43, a black gay dance club in Times Square NYC. I was 23 years old fresh from a professional training program at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. A triple threat, I was a dancer/singer/actress who also loved fashion and studied the supermodels, photographers, and magazine layouts (Vogue included) of the day. I built a portfolio and was signed to Grace Del Marco Models and Talent in Manhattan. I did not book many jobs but the pursuit was fascinating!
Around this time I became a principal dancers with Nanette Bearden Contemporary Dance Theater and we rehearsed on 46th Street and 7th Ave deep in the heart of Time Square. After rehearsals we walked a short 3 blocks and partied the night away at MidTown 43. This video is not just a celebration of what my body can do at 57 but a tribute to the black innovation and freedom found in disco and house music and the genius of vogue dancing that came with it. Thank you to the innovators of this style and those who carry the tradition forward. Shot on location at B-Love's Guest House, a Queen Anne Victorian mini mansion in West Oakland, CA that I own and operate. It is a boutique hotel with an art gallery and urban garden. https://www.b-lovesguesthouse.com Video by: Kumari Suraj Hair by: Naturally Bold by Lani Make by: Kumari Suraj Yellow fascinator constructed by me: Traci Bartlow Yellow vintage halter jumpsuit sourced by: Corey Action Danced by: Me!
When I was 14 years old I attended a summer arts program at Everybody's Creative Arts Center downtown Oakland, California. One of the styles of dance I was introduced to was Dunham technique created by the the great Katherine Dunham: black dance pioneer, activist, choreographer, and cultural anthropologist. My Dunham teacher was Halifu Osumare. This summer program was a great learning experience where our young minds were fed music, dance, theater and given our own opportunity to create choreographic expressions.
From Dr. Osumare I learned the importance of ownership of self and the things important to us. The way she took up space in occupying beautiful dance studios and theaters in Oakland that housed generations of african, jazz and hip hop dancers inspires me to this day. It is in these spaces I learned activism and how art can help
Convent Avenue. The base of Sugarhill in Harlem. In 1985 I moved to NYC to study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. My sister Monique secured a sublet for us to rent 2 rooms from an apartment Attallah Shabazz owned in a mansion of a building on the corner of Convent and 140th Street. I arrived a teenager and was in awe of the enormous rooms and windows in this apartment I would call home for 6 months. Also large was the presence of my host who stood with a powerful dignity illuminated by a brilliant light that shined through her light green eyes. She’s Malcolm X’s daughter I learned. Everyone said her father’s name with reverence, and I felt ashamed that I didn’t know more about him. I’d heard his name often but was not able to articulate who he was what he had done. You should read his autobiography I was told.
Liberation Books was another was another awe-inspiring presence in Harlem. A black bookstore with the coolest display of books in the window I had ever seen. So many titles and subjects, I browsed from one window to the next before I went in and asked for a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. “Alex Haley wrote this,’ I almost shouted with amazement, “the guy who wrote Roots”? “Alex Haley co-wrote it with Malcolm X”, the salesperson told me pointing to the words on the cover, “these are Malcolm X’s words”.
I opened the book and began reading as soon as I got back to my room. I made sure it was in my bag with my dance clothes when I went to school. Catching the express A train from the 145th Street station to Times Square wasn’t enough time to read so on my way home I caught the C train and that gave me a little more time to get into this book. I read it in 5 days using every spare moment of my day and, at 19 years old my life was changed. I had a new understanding of my people, our struggle, our power and resiliency, and the beauty of our blackness.
20 years after Malcolm X's autobiography shifted my perspective I found myself a founding member of Eastside Arts Alliance and soon after the development of Eastside Cultural Center. It was here that Malcolm's ideology of Black Self Determination and united front with 3rd World People people of color was put into practice as we served our east Oakland community, the greater Bay Area, and connected with artist and activist world wide.
The love and strength we poured into one another and was reflected in our annual Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival. One of my greatest contributions at this event was developing and curating the Katherine Dunham Dance Stage that centered the dance movement of our cultural heritage as transformative, healing and strengthening, I am grateful for the opportunity to lead with love and service and create joy and reflection for for so many!
Today I consulted with an accountant to get support of my financial systems I have set up for my business. After careful review of my business the accountant said, ‘Ms. Bartlow, you are an impressive woman’. She began to speak with amazement of the life and livelihood I created for myself. I am a single woman, a parent and artist who bought a house, developed and bootstrapped her business from scratch and maintained it for more than 10 years. I dared to dream and execute my vision and now I’m am tightening things up as I push forward to manifest more.
As I listened to this accountant speak her tone was in awe as if witnessing a miracle.
Her observation and amazement reminded me of the business name and tag line I created at it’s inception, ‘Starchild Enterprise – Work Your Magic’. My belief is the in magic we all possess to manifest our dreams and deepest desires. I believed in and banked on my gifts, talents, and the essence of who I am and through the test of time I am standing strong. There were many times life kicked my ass and I learned lessons in the defeat that helped me grow, evolve, and continue with my vision. The work to maintain and grow my business is TREMENDOUS but so is my drive for my vision to be fully realized.
I’m also reminded of the name I chose, Starchild. The throwback name from my youth and love of Parliament Funkadelic later connected with the African Adinkra symbol Nsoroma; an image of a star whose meaning translates to mean, ‘my illumination is merely a reflection of God’. Yeah, I tapped into my black girl magic long ago and I defined and named myself based on the Goddess code in my DNA.
I'm wondering when I first became aware of Alvin Ailey. I've always loved to dance since I was about 4 years old. The funk and soul dances of the of the 70's and 80's were things I knew as my parents had lots of records and music and dance was just part of my upbringing. I was a cheerleader in middle school and then high school I wanted to be a dancer. Castlemont High School was at that time the performing arts high school of Oakland and I wanted to be in the dance department. I wanted to be a professional dancer. As I'm reminiscing it seems that all of a sudden I knew about Fame and the performing art high school in New York City the movie and TV was based on. I knew different styles of concert dance, modern techniques, jazz, Dunham. Ok, LOL, now I remember. It was my experience in attending Everybody's Creative Arts Center as a teenager that sparked my interest in dance as a profession.
My mother took dance classes at Everybody's to keep in shape after her 6th child. She took me with her to watch my baby brother while she danced. I was about 14 years old. That's were the dance bug bit me and I was forever changed. I soon enrolled in the the summer dance programs and quickly accelerated into my journey as a dancer. That's were I learned about Castlemont Performing Arts High school. Castlemont gave me a pre-professional training and I learned for the first time vernacular jazz, contemporary Jazz, ballet, and the techniques of Lester Horton, Martha Graham, Limon, and Katherine Dunham. While in high school and into my first year at Laney college, I took many extra curricular classes with Ron Guidy of the Oakland Ballet, and Alonzo King at Lines contemporary ballet studio. All of this prepared me for the audition for entry into the dance program and a scholarship to the Alivn Ailey American Dance Center in NYC. At 19 years old I left my hometown to pursue my dreams of being a professional dancer.
I'm writing all of this because I just saw a video of Judith Jamison dancing Cry, a role she originated. Alvin Ailey choreographed this piece as a birthday gift to his mother and stated, Cry, dedicated to "all black women everywhere...especially our mothers."
As a student at the Alvin Ailey school, and a life long support of the company, I have seen this performance danced many times by many different dancers. I've only see photographs of Jamison dancing the role herself. As I watched this limited release, only available on the Ailey Youtube channel between May 7 -May 14, I felt I was watching the piece for the very first time. It was created on Judith Jamison's body and every movement of choreography was nuanced with a sacred genetic code of the divine feminine, the African woman! Watching Jamison's performance I was enraptured with a deep understanding of myself. It was as if I was reintroduced to the complexities of the strength, struggles, triumphs, and pains of my existence on this planet. Not just in my daily walk but in the but also in my experience of studying at the institution Mr. Ailey created. This school was a space for me and other women like me to study and train our body's to be great athletes. Mr. Ailey, your creation of Cry introduced me to my self. 'Ahhhhhhh', was the revelation, 'this is who I am.' And for the deepening of my self knowing I am grateful!
Mother's Day is 2 days away. As we are close to two months of the Shelter in Place during Covid-19, the Ailey organization released multiple videos of performance the public can watch as we are locked down and ordered to stay inside. The 2 videos to honor Mother's Day; Judith Jamison dancing Cry in 1972, and a video of several former Ailey dancers dancing the same role art such a gift to use all! Thank Alvin Ailey organization. Seeing these videos is a balm for my heart in these troubled times.
John Wagers was a long time family friend. In the 70's my mother had a house cleaning service and worked for John cleaning the apartments he owned. Coming from a large family my mom taught my siblings I how to clean and keep our home in order. Occasionally she took us with her to John's buildings and put us to work. This happened through out my childhood and teenage years. Of course we couldn't stand doing this as it was an extension of our dreaded chores. Once I angrily and militantly asked my mother, 'Mama, why are you still working for that white man'? I was disgusted at the idea of my mother, a black woman, still doing domestic work for a white man. These roles were historically abusive, demeaning, and one of the few jobs available to black women. What I didn't know then was my mother's plan to be self sustainable. This was merely a step to get where she was going. One of the stops in her destination of sustainability was opening her own business, the Neighborhood Wash & Dry in east Oakland. Although she no longer worked for him, John would stop by her business and they would "talk shop" about customer trends, property upgrades and what not.
I later realized that my mom and John shared a lot of the same interest in the need to care for our planet. Gardening, composting, recycling cans, bottles, newspapers, not wasting water and electricity were practices that I learned as a child and find great value in today. Not only did I experience this in my home but it was mirrored when we occasionally visited John. When I think of today's popular 99 cent only and grocery outlet stores I think of back to the 80's when my mom and John would have an outing and she would bring home these odd grocery items. She explained to the family of how grocery stores waste a great deal of food by throwing items away when they were not "saleable" but these items were ok to consume. I remember how passionate she was about this wasteful behavior and seemed happy to do her part to help alleviate the problem. Now, I see chain stores all over the country doing big business in what my mom and John saw as something that needed attention decades ago. John and my mother were ahead of their time in many ways.
When I was 19 years old John came to my going away party. With a scholarship to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in New York City I was leaving my home town of Oakland, California to pursue my dreams of being a professional dancer. In the above photo John is looking at photographs with my friend Muziki as I, (in the blue & pink jump suit), and mentor Brenda Payton talk at the dining room table.
Fast forward about 30 years, I bought a Victorian house in West Oakland. John was the type of family friend that would talk to me about important issues in being a property owner. I invited him and of course he came to my house warming party to celebrate being a first time home buyer. One of my goals in home ownership was to have rental property. There is a lower unit on the street level of my property to serve that purpose. I was surprised when this cool 5 bedroom unit was difficult to rent out. I quickly shifted the plan and staged the the unit and began renting out rooms to the international community of artist and activist I garnered being a community organizer and, performance and visual artist. John was impressed with this. Anything he saw in the news about Airbnb he would call and share this with me me and asked how my new business venture B-Love's Guest House was doing. 'Your doing a great thing Traci', he would always say.
John was a great friend an ally. He was long time advocate of the prohibition of marijuana, again, a man ahead of his time. He and I had many conversations about politics, policy, culture, and secular humanism vs spirituality. When my brother went to prison John voiced his criticism of America's Industrial Prison complex and always wanted to know how my brother was doing. Sharing similar political views John called me one day telling me, 'you should get Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow. The prison system in this country is corrupt and a huge waste of tax payers money'. 'Yes, John', I told him, 'I already have a copy of the book'. Many of our views were in alignment. Once, my boyfriend and I accompanied John to an annual meeting for the ACLU. He was a liberal thinker that supported many causes for social change.
I also found John to be a hilarious individual. He often amused and made me laugh even in tough times. He once accompanied me to visit my brother in Santa Rita jail. We decided to take BART and a Lyft to avoid the traffic. As we sat on a bench on the platform, across from us on the other side of the tracks were a group of turf dancers warming up to do one of their shows on the train. As a community organizer and youth advocate I knew of few of the dancers and we waved at each other. 'O.G.', one of the young dancers shouted across the train tracks giving me my props as an elder in the community. I stood up and danced a little bit. John got excited and said, 'you should battle them'. HILARIOUS! I laughed and danced a little more but my purse with long strap draped across my shoulder was getting in the way. 'I'll hold your purse', John said. Again, hilarious of him to say that! So I handed him my purse and exchanged a few moves with the dancer until John and I's train came. The picture of John holding my purse and smiling with joy as he watched us dance is just unforgettable.
I'm grateful to have known this man for so long. He was a friend and mentor I have great respect for. This is a man that lived a long and impactful life and I'm sure there are many stories from many people about the positive ways he contributed to the world. My condolence to the family, friends, and supporters of John Wagers. Rest in peace my friend! Thank you for all your contributions.
On this day when I watch the video below I weep with so much emotion it's hard to dissect all that I'm feeling. The Katherine Dunham Dance Stage at Oakland's Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival! Just wow!
I cry watching each frame of this video and with almost every word I write. I cry for something incredible we had. I cry for the uncertainty of the future for what we had was ESSENTIAL!!! And now, I just don't know how to get back what once was.
Here's the deal, a global pandemic has stricken us all. Countries and cities world wide are on lock-down. There are orders to stay at home, wear mask and gloves, avoid contact with large crowds. Most businesses are closed, and all schools have online classes. All this amidst 250,000 deaths around the world in the last 4 months. So, #1 The deadly virus Covid-19 brings me to tears as things are seeming to collapse around us.
#2. My deep love for community and bringing people together knowing the power and healing this brings makes me cry tears of gratitude and pride. We have such a beautiful strength! When we share our joys and pains on stage it touches our hearts and makes us strong. It is transformative.
I have seen and experienced the devastation that poverty, drugs, racism, PTSD, police brutality, and many other ills society has placed on black and brown people. I believe in the victory of freedom fighters and as brother Malcolm X states, 'Culture is an indispensable weapon in the freedom struggle'. MY DANCE IS A WEAPON I HAVE WIELDED FOR MY SURVIVAL. It is though the healing and transformative modality of dance that I curated the Katherine Dunham Dance Stage at Oakland's annual Malcolm X Jazz Arts Festival for more that 10 years. I put so much love, care, belief, attention, support, in the careful selection of each company that was brought to the stage. To honor and represent two of the most powerful freedom fighters Katherine Dunham, and Malcolm X, who have had a profound impact on our lives was no light weight task. As one of of the biggest festival in the city of Oakland, well, the Bay Area for that matter, many artist wanted to get on this stage. Each year my choices held the intention of bring dancers and dance companies to the stage that held and demonstrated the power of healing and upliftment, and that were in alignment with and modeled the teachings of these esteemed ancestors.
Please take a moment to watch this mini concert video of some on the highlights of this wonderful event I was a part of. Again, I cry seeing a time when social distancing was not heard of and with such freedom we came together.
#3, being a conduit that all this power has moved through and blessed so many people makes me cry HELLA hard! I am grateful. I had the vision and I pushed it through. I had the support of a powerful team of artist and activist at Eastside Arts Alliance that believed in me and helped to make it happen and it was just one element in a truly incredible annual festival.
My first memory of enjoying the sun on my bare chest included shame and confusion. It was a Saturday afternoon when my father was washing his car. My brother was 8 and I was 6 years old and playing in the yard while he worked. My father worked up a sweat and took his shirt off. He looked at his muscles rubbed his skin feeling the the sun on it and flexed his biceps for my brother and me. My brother took his shirt off and I followed right after him. Feeling the sun on my skin energized me and I immediately started to dance around in a happy play. This moment of joy was cut short by my father sharply telling me, 'put your shirt back on!'. My brother laughed at me and said, 'girls cant' take their shirt off outside'. It was a sad and confusing moment that brought my 6 year old self to tears. 'But why' I asked over and over. 'Girls don't do that', was the only answer I was given and it was never enough. Something inside of me knew this was pleasurable and wanted more.
In 2020, I am opening my home on Valentine's Day for the premiere of my photography exhibition, Oakland Picture Lady: Tale's of a 90's Girl. This is an exhibit of photographs, collages, and short stories of my days as a Hip Hop photojournalist for 1992 - 1999. As I sorted through dozens of boxes of my photography work, I found images from my modeling career. In building this portfolio I included nudes and worked with many photographs to get these shots. I have photographs from Victor Hall, Keba Konte, Saddi Khali, Jim Dennis, George Pitts, Refa One, Bryon Malik, Alien Ness, and Jamey Stilling. This is part of my photo collection I had not anticipated. What to do with 30 years of amazing nude photos of myself? Well, for one night only they will be viewed at my home and gallery in West Oakland! I will be sharing stories of these experiences and what it means to be naked, vulnerable, free, and empowered in our own skin. I hope to see you there!
Ujamaa! That's the news for the day. The principal of
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My heritage is of the black farmer. My great grandparents owned 99 acres of land in central Texas. This property was passed on to my grandfather and it was the land where my mother was born. On this land my grandfather had fruit and nut trees, produce, livestock, a pond where they fished as well as a gravel pit whose contents helped pave the roads in McClendon county Texas. It was a thriving business until a power company, Texas Power and Light forced my grandparents to sell their land a livelihood for meager sum. So they packed up and moved to central California, San Luis Obispo where my grandpa's sister lived and owned a small restaurant. My grandfather continued to be a business owner and self determined man and soon opened a grocery store called Tiny Mart on the corner of High Street and Carmel. Below is a photo shot in 1970 of my grandfather Frank Bell inside Tiny Mart handing my sister a piece of candy. Next to the picture is what the building looks like today.
My grandfather owned Tiny Mart for close to two decades. My mother followed in her fathers footsteps as a gardener and entrepreneur who owner Neighborhood Wash & Dry in East Oakland. I continued the legacy of my self determined ancestors by being a property owner, business owner of B-Love's Guest House, and having a thriving garden in the sacred space I created for myself and loved ones. The principal of Kujichaglia is one of the core values I apply in my life and has helped me to live the life I have envisioned and defined for myself, family, and community.