As if the late summer heat wasn’t enough, Reggie Wilson (Executive and Artistic Director, Choreographer, Performer) surely warmed up the crowd with an exuberantly expressive performance. Fist and Heel Performance Group dug deep into their framework of mission-driven objectives to produce “rigor, structure, and craft in a post-modern dance vernacular.” Fist and Heel dancer bios may be read here.

With unyielding roots thriving since its 1989 establishment in Brooklyn, NY, Fist and Heel Performance Group has cultivated a reputation for “drawing from cultures of Africans in the Americas and combined them with postmodern elements, … to create “post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dances.'” 

Wilson and his group have worked nationally and internationally in venues such as VSA NM (New Mexico), Linkfest and Festival e’Nkundleni (Zimbabwe), and Dance Umbrella (Austin, TX), to name a few. Wilson has explored the Mississippi Delta, to discover the “secular and religious aspects of life there,” Trinidad and Tobago to investigate the “Spiritual Baptists and Shangoists,” and across South, Central, West, and East Africa to study the work of “performance groups and diverse religious communities.” From receiving the Minnesota Dance Alliance’s McKnight National Fellowship in (2000-2001) to his newest work, POWER (2019), Wilson has made quite the impact within the community. 

Starting the show, Yeman Brown of Tallahassee, FL proceeded with equal grace and discretion. Brown offered the essence of cohesion in the body with a work curated in 2016 entitled CITIZEN. Brown permeated the space, sculpting his body in a way that absorbed the negative space of the stage, distilling enigma. The power in this construct was how vulnerable he became when creating this abyss of flexibility and pursuit throughout the body.

With a resounding fist of pride, and a powerful stride into the ethereal consciousness of the audience, Brown used the story of CITIZEN to provide the audience with insight on what it means to honor the Black body. Entering causally and well seasoned, Wilson does not shy away from the crowd. How ingenious? A masterful composition of improv and a solo monologue embodied in the essence of an informal yet engaging introduction of himself. Hence the title of this piece, INTRODUCTION. Wilson introduced himself and explained his family origin to the depths of his understanding. He noted how he began his work in choreography as a middle-schooler, taking the role of assistant choreographer for his small-town school productions. After becoming closely associated with the satisfaction of “telling people what to do,” he took flight from there. Aspiring to increase dance art and performance proficiency, he translated his studies to NYU, where he studied choreography and toured with Ohan Naharin before forming Fist and Heel.

Wilson continued in his monologue, providing the audience with insight into his initial desires for curating this framework of Fist and Heel Performance Group.

Adding that his primary research focus was learning, “what parts of Africa, if any, had been passed on from slavery through Jim Crow and into the life of (himself), Reggie Wilson,” these persisting questions directed Wilson to his hometown church in Milwaukee. It was there that he inquired about the “moaning and groaning” of the members of his church. Breaking out into a hymn-ic song with the lyrics that the ‘deacon’ of his church often used to begin the church service, Wilson harmonically belts, “I love the Lord, He heard my cry. I heard the Lord. He heard my cry… (inaudible).” Expressing his general curiosity about the reasons for the inaudible moaning and groaning while murmuring these powerful phrases, he shared what he felt was his first justifiable answer, provided by his aunt. She reveals, “We moan so that the devil couldn’t understand what you were saying.” BOOM! Like finding the missing piece to the puzzle, this was the response that catalyzed the initiation of what Wilson calls, “post-African Neo-HooDoo modern dance.” 

What began as a casual walking-stomp in the feet turned into a percussive instrument, stationery  in movement. While traveling to Trinidad and Tobago, Wilson included his learnings of aspirated-rhythmic breathing, performed among members of the spiritual Baptist community. In essence, a spiritual Baptist “only performed in a living body of water – any body of water where a river meets an ocean is considered the purest form of water.” Using the breath and percussion of the feet to create a visceral fusion of heritage and postmodernism, Wilson appealed directly to the audience members who were more encouraged by audio sensibility. 

Traveling into a dim light, outcame dancers Brown and Paul Hamilton to express a piece entitled the duet. Hamilton, poised with training from the Alvin Ailey School, followed by Brown, blissful and precise, created harmony in the space. I couldn’t resist the inviting sequences of intersectionality between the two. 

Living in the dynamic of split focus*, the two moved about the space in the coexistence of one another. Building on the architecture of the phrase, the artists offered synchronicity and relished in their movement, as one body mirrored the evolution of the other, breathing life into the negative space. Exercising strength and fluidity, the movers articulated this jaw-dropping communication of togetherness and unity through each movement. Almost to say, “I have your back, front, and both sides.” Both Brown and Hamilton played well to the elements of cohesion and created a foundation for this adamant concern of support within the African American community.

If a moving story that expresses the fusion of spiritual background through primordial values, or, an intimate insight on how modern exposure has sculpted or distorted the Black body was your ideal performance preference, Reggie Wilson’s Fist and Heel Performance Group offered starting points for many open-ended questions. American Dance Festival made a great choice by including this impactful piece in their 2021″Together We Dance” series.

Until next time! 

Aneesah Abdur-Razzaq — Breathe, Believe, Be FREE.  

*split focus – when two different phrases of movement are being danced/performed at the same time by two individuals or groups.