INTERVIEW: JUMATATU M. POE + JERMONE "DONTE" BEACHAM + BETELHEM MAKONNEN
jumatatu m. poe and Jermone “Donte” Beacham have spent the past ten years working on a series of dance projects called Let ‘im Move You, the third performance of which, Let ‘im Move You: Intervention, will be presented at Fusebox Festival, in collaboration with The Carver Museum, in April 2020. Based between Philadelphia and New York, poe is a choreographer, performer, and educator based, and Donte is a Dallas-based choreographer and dancer whose practice is steeped in the J-sette form. In November jumatatu and Donte visited Austin to conduct a site-visit for their upcoming Fusebox performances, and during this time, spoke with Austin-based artist and Fusebox curator Betelhem Makonnen, about how they each met J-Sette, their decade-long collaboration, and the tension between resistance and surrender in their work.
Photo Credit: Tayarisha Poe
jumatatu m. poe: We’re both choreographers who have been working on this series of projects called Let ‘im Move You for almost a decade now. Let 'im Move You deals with our experimentation with and research into J-Sette, which is the pop culture name for Majorette or Bucking, which refers to a collection of styles of Majorette dancing coming out of historically Black colleges and universities in the South.
The name J-Sette is specifically from Jackson State University’s Majorette line, the prancing J-Settes, who became known at the beginning of the 70s for putting down their batons and doing much louder, more ostentatious choreographies in the stadium seating set to Black popular music of the time and dancing in ways that reflected Black popular culture traditions. It was also an active resistance to the stronger ties to movement that was more balletic, movement that was more reflective of Western classicism, which I imagine was designed to take these black students from HBCUs and cleanse the image with these white forms. And then parallel to the Majorette history, there were squads of Black queer femme men that would meet in intimate domestic spaces, living rooms, bedrooms, closets, and kitchens...
Jermone Donte Beacham: —apartments, garages…
jmp: Moving all the furniture out of the way and collecting fifteen people and trying to spread out arms-length and doing this full-body choreography. And then that history of performance happened through the gay clubs and at Black pride events and now we have TV shows, music video choreography, and the recent When the Beat Drops (2018) movie by Jamal Sims, and I imagine that we will continue to make various forays into other popular culture.
A lot of people ask if it's like Voguing and I think that the particular history of J-Sette coming out of the South is one particular distinction and one of the major reasons why, unlike Voguing coming out of New York, it's not at that kind of popular culture, “mainstream” level. I also think that coming out of the Black middle class, this particularly kind of upwardly mobile culture in the U.S., makes J-Sette different than Voguing which came out of a very different socio-economic setting. And then also, Voguing is so improvisational and J-Sette is not improvisational that way at all. It’s very regimented and hierarchical, which I guess Voguing has those different hierarchies too, but they’re enacted in all the different elements of J-Sette.
JDB: J-Setting does have some improvisation, as far as the way that the choreographies are cobbled together, because it's not a specific order. You practice the choreography but it can come at any time.
Betelhem Makonnen: But it has a root in marching band structure, almost like a military structure?
JDB: Yes, for sure.
jmp: So, those rules are super important, but I also think that, like with a lot of Black cultural traditions, improvisation is already embedded within it. Even though the movement is so intricately choreographed, and that kind of adherence and obedience to the choreography is super important, if you’re not doing it in the way that you’re getting your essence through, then you’re not really doing the style. And that has everything to do with how you find your way inside of this really regimented structure, how you come through.
BM: I'm curious about you, Donte. What is your relationship to J-Sette? What was your initial introduction to this choreographic language?
JDB: When I first came into Majorette, it was through my cousin who is female. She was on the Majorette team at our high school and they needed somebody to hold their capes because they would march into the football games with capes on. And I was like “Yeah OK, I don’t mind. I can do that.”
And when I started to watch them perform, I started to feel like “I want to do that,” but then looking at the team and seeing only females, I was like “Well I can’t do that, so that’s just something I’ll keep internally.” Then one of my male cousins danced on a team, and he invited me over, and he wanted me to meet his captain. He was like “We want you on the team,” and I was like “Yeah, OK, I’ll join.”
That was actually a lie.
And so, I ended up moving and I still had never been to a gay club so I hadn't really seen the J-Sette community in that scene.
Then I had some coworkers, and they were like “We want to take you out to the gay club.” We went out and that was the first time I actually saw groups of men performing the J-Sette style. My coworkers were like, “That’s what you do, you should go out there and dance against them.” And I was like, “No, I’m not ready…”
Well, I ended up going out, and the guys ended up coming to me afterwards and they were like, “Hey, we really like the way you dance. You should lead us, like, we should get together and rehearse, and form a team.” And I’m like “Yeah, let’s do it.”
So then I went to Atlanta’s gay pride and that was the first time that I saw guys in uniform, in full costume. When I went out in Florida, it was just one team dancing but when I went out in Atlanta it was like six teams, so that was actually my first time seeing that many teams compete. And after that I crunk it up, I turnt it up, and that’s what I’ve been doing since. And then jumatatu and I started working together.
BM: I'm curious because for you, you had the experience of seeing it through your cousin in its traditional form. And then your other cousin introduces you to this whole other hybrid, new embodiment of it, right? What happens when it comes out of the stands of the football stadium and enters a queer space, and actually an obscured queer space, like you said?
jmp: I think it's important to note that in the club culture of it, in the queer culture of J-Sette, the kind of “dance battle” culture has a lot to do with hip hop, that kind of confrontation. I think the word “battle,” feels like a code word that encapsulates various types of confrontation that aren’t necessarily combative all the time. And J-Sette, when it’s happening in the club it definitely is all about that, because that’s one way that the heirarchy that’s present in the HBCUs among the Majorettes can translate into queer culture, with the different squads, with each squad kind of battling for these bragging rights. Sometimes, I guess which came later, the competitions are actually for money, which is never a lot.
JDB: Sometimes it's just for a certificate.
jmp: Exactly. But also for those bragging rights and also to be able to say—
JDB: “—We won.”
jmp: Whereas in Majorette culture, and this is from research from the outside, I think there is a status thing that happens through the kind of Black heteronormative structure that is so important in the HBCUs, where being a J-Sette, or being a Majorette, comes with all these other kinds of social adornings: being pretty, being sexy but not too sexy, still being a good girl, that type of status. And then also there’s that vying for the position of Captain.
In the Majorette world, the space of the choreography is centered around being in the stands, being in the stadium seating, and also being on the field. That kind of performing for the people who are on the other side of the stadium.
In the club, that kind of bigness is there, but it's all directed right in front of you or a couple of feet away. There’s also different kinds of spatial configurations that are possible in a club floor. Most of what we were exploring choreographically is stand choreography and a little bit of like, march parade choreography.
Donte made me this kind of dancer. I was so drawn to Donte’s videos because in them, there was a particular type accountability for where his body was in space.
Photo Credit: Maria Baranova
JDB: That stemmed from me, at the time when I first started, living with my grandfather. I didn’t want him to know that I was doing that style of dance and so I would just go in my room. After going to the club and seeing the choreographies that they were doing, it was like, I have to dance in a small space but my dancing needs to be just as explosive as theirs, and so I would be performing in this really small space but doing this really big move.
BM: And there’s something amazing about an ability to operate in a confined space and expand it ; how to have agency and maneuvering ability. The first time I experienced this project, it was this sense of a collapsing of distance that really affected me.
When I think about your work, I think about how resistance and surrender are in a continuous conversation as well as, like you said, structure and improvising. So maybe you could touch on that a little bit?
jmp: Sure, and I’m thinking about the process of building trust that has been crucial in this entire process. Thinking about this form, that still operates very much in an underground way, as it becomes more “mainstream,” or more seen by people outside the Black queer South and the HBCU South, that building of trust is really essential, because there are still so many practitioners, like we encountered in Dallas, so many very proficient practitioners who are quite skeptical about doing something like this, in relation to art institutions or something, for various reasons.
But yeah, resistance and surrender. I like this word, surrender, which feels like it has everything to do with trust. When we first started, it took us a really long time to …
JDB: ...figure out what we were doing.
jmp: What we were doing and where it might happen. The performance world that I was used to was in deep connection with theater spaces, gallery spaces, museum spaces. That’s the context I was coming out of. I had always practiced and come through various Black forms, but I didn't trust that I had enough articulation around what we wanted together to risk taking this into a space like a theatre or a museum where I felt that kind of carnivorous energy for these underground Black queer forms. I didn’t want to do that to the form. I didn't feel like I was savvy enough yet to be able to protect it or to be able to advocate for it.
For me, it didn't feel like the club was really the right place because it already had a place in the club and the experiments we wanted to try together—we didn’t know how to try them without trampling over people who were there for a specific reason, and we wanted to respect that too.
JDB: I am still curious about what a conversation would be like if we took some of the experiments and placed it in that setting.
jmp: In the club?
JDB: Yeah, and actually I do feel a little hesitation about it because I’m so used to what that structure is. In the J-Sette, in that queer community, they're always looking for the next big thing. And I really feel like that would start a trend.
There’s a team, well used to be, called Memphis Elite, from Memphis, Tennessee, and they are really known in our J-Sette community for being that team that has always been fire, and they’ve always brought change to our community. But the captain retired, and so the team tried to bring in a more hip hop style of J-Sette, and actually, surprisingly being who the team was, it didn’t work. And a lot of people in the community were like “You’re in the wrong circle, you need to be dancing over there.” So, I have that kind of guard up about it too. If we did go in the club with these experiments, and tried to be in that usual circle, would they accept it? We have done the experiments in the club, but we’ve never been in an actual battle circle trying those things out.
BM: I think a lot about language choices, word choices, so in the title of this work, Let ‘im Move You, to me, that “Let” is so important. It invites surrender. It's an invitation, not a command. Somehow, the way that you've worded it leaves a space and I'm curious, who is “‘im,” or what is “‘im?”
jmp: There were various kinds of intersections that I was interested in, between this style and these Black club styles and religion, specifically Christianity. There is that saying “Let Him move you,” where the “Him” has a capital “H,” and it’s God. I think that there is a reference to that in this title and the kind of transformation that happens on the club dance floor, this ascension, this rise that happens. So there’s that kind of surrender, I wouldn't say to God but I feel like—
BM: —The Spirit?
jmp: Surrender to the Spirit, and the presence of the Spirit in what we’re doing is crucial.
I also feel like there's a kind of clipping off of the lowercase “h” inside “Let him move you,” which seems like there's maybe the possibility of other space around gender because the “him” that made that word so definite is missing. And it’s inferred, maybe, but it feels like there’s a little more space in there.
But once we started performing in relationship to art institutions, we had been collaborating with and planning to collaborate with cis men who were queer in relationship to gender and sexual orientation. While being within the club scene, that is a major form of resistance and has been historically, but in relationship to art institutions, it is a kind of backhanded privilege that queer cis men occupy. For us to try to perpetuate that through the casting of our collaborators, it felt like a big insult. And it also felt like we were missing an opportunity to think about the relationship between the queer world of J-Sette and the Majorette world.
It feels like the title is still spacious enough, but this wanting to be welcoming for folks of all genders who are relating to what we’re doing, does feel like its missing somehow. We’re trying to find other ways to rectify that, through the collection of our collaborators, through this interview, but thinking about the missing uppercase and lowercase “H” is important.
BM: You are interested in your work helping us discover joy in flesh and community, which to me resonates so strongly. So, just speaking specifically to you coming here in April for Fusebox 2020, maybe we could talk about what you envision will be realized here, or a potential that you would love to see here.
JDB: I'm just excited that it's happening here because it needs to happen here. Especially in places in the South.
jmp: I agree with that. It does feel really important to be able to have this conversation in the South. I'm excited about anywhere we go, being able to a offer some new possibilities for the future, especially for Black queer folks. And I’m excited for us to be really rigorous about the kind of responsibility that we’re taking on.
I think this project in general is a dangerous proposal. I think there's a potential for it to turn us into these enlightened Black queers who are coming into these Black neighborhoods and feeding this enlightenment to the poor masses for an audience of white folks. I'm excited for us to be up to the rigor of resisting that because I think that there’s a magic about what we’re doing.
BM: Again, doing the work and being in the tension space between resistance and surrender.
jmp: I love this. “Resistance and surrender,” I love that.
Photo Credit: Maria Baranova
Betelhem Makonnen is an artist researching questions on perception, presence, and place within a trans-temporal and trans-locative topology that operates on the relational dynamics of diasporic consciousness. In addition to her artistic practice, she is on the curatorial team of Fusebox Festival and co-editor of the online arts periodical Written & Spoken. She is also a member of the Austin-based contemporary arts collaborative Black Mountain Project.