In 2004, award-winning choreographer LaTasha Barnes was hit by a car while in a crosswalk. At the time, Barnes, an Army sergeant first class, had just been assigned to the White House Communications Agency and was years away from accolades in the performing arts. The accident broke her hip, back and wrist. Dance —and in particular, popping — was recommended as part of her physical rehabilitation.
“Not to be cliché, but it was a happy accident. Because the universe, absolutely, was trying to tell me that I was not in alignment,” said Barnes, who is an assistant professor of dance at Arizona State University. “But I kept trying to do, as we say now, the Black elitist thing, to figure out the route that I needed to take to be stable and have financial security. I was doing high level work, I was utilizing my talents, but I was not spiritually in alignment with what I’m supposed to be doing for my life, until dance reentered the picture.”
Popping led Barnes to study other Black social dance forms. She not only healed her body with movement, but won international competitions in Lindy Hop and house dancing. She wanted to understand how these dances from different eras were linked, especially because forms that were developed by Black dancers, such as the Lindy Hop and jazz dance, no longer had many Black practitioners.
All those connections can be seen in Barnes’ hyperarticulate body and the party that is The Jazz Continuum. Coming to the Kennedy Center in Washington on Friday and Saturday — it has received a 2023 Bessie Award — it features musical direction by Christopher McBride, emcee Melanie George, and a cast of musicians and dancers weaving an expansive tapestry of Black dance to live music.
Barnes describes the production as an “offering” rather than a show, an offering that sublimates her scholarly research into a raucous celebration. In that vein, The Jazz Continuum varies from performance to performance, with the artists responding to the environment and each other. In Washington, it will include local DJs and dancers, many of whom were mentors and colleagues of Barnes, and a section choreographed by jazz dance legend Mickey Davidson that refers to major influencers, such as Norma Miller, the “Queen of Swing,” and Frankie Manning. This iteration will also emphasize specific influences in music and dance in the area, including go-go (a style of funk that originated in Washington in the 1970s), D.C. hand dancing (a form of swing dance), Beat Ya Feet (a dance from the 1990s defined by rapid footwork), New Jack Swing-style hip-hop, and several line dance traditions from the area.
“There’s Inception levels of unfolding in the work,” said Barnes. “It is an offering back to all those people that made us who we are.”
Andscape caught up with Barnes by phone to discuss what led her to this moment and the need to honor the vast canon of Black dance and culture.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Dancing and being in the military are both traditions in your family. How were those passions passed on and shared with you?
I guess I’d have to blame my dad. I got to the military in middle school. I was a junior Marine Corps, Junior ROTC, and was always hanging out with my father who was AGR [Active Guard Reserves], which is not a designation that they have anymore. I went with him all the time to the base. Seeing the practice of preparation, the discipline, the commitment to being prepared, that was what I grew up witnessing.
There was this tradition of initiative that existed within my family, literally bringing the family together, whether coming together to support, coming together to celebrate, to discuss, to plan. I think that was always a kind of impetus. It came clearly from my dad’s military planning and my mom’s existence growing up as an Army brat, having to plan moves or mitigate whatever would happen.
And whenever the family got together, there was the expectation that there would be dancing and that there would be this bit of competitive exchange about who has the best moves or who is listening to the best music or who had won the most recent recreation center contests or who’d gotten a contract. And it wasn’t in an unhealthy way, just we’re out here living and doing and celebrating ourselves.
When you joined the military, you brought your dancing spirit with you. Is it true that when you were stationed in Belgium, you were out causing a scene at the club?
My bestie and I were just commenting on all our shenanigans when we were in Belgium—that was over 25 years [ago] now! Even if you weren’t the best hip-hop dancer or the best line dancer or the best salsa dancer in your family in the unit, you were the only person that knew [those dances]. This is where I really established my method of dance education because it wasn’t about making people perfect, it was about helping people be better dancers. So then at the NCO club that week, whenever we went, everybody would be able to have a way to survive to the music, so that they could have some sort of fun, even if they weren’t the best at doing the thing.
That’s not something that I feel like a lot of educators focus on. In their efforts to maintain the technical standard, they forget about what dance is for. And I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a technical standard. And this is also a routing of that notion that street and club styles don’t have technical standards, because they absolutely do. But it doesn’t matter how well you can direct this turn, if you’re not paying attention to the person that you’re dancing with.
How was dance therapeutic for you when you were recovering from the car accident? Was it spiritual as well as physical therapy?
Oh, absolutely. My spirit was enlivened by my renewed ability to control my body. And it just kept feeding itself. My excitement and joy about the things that I was able to rediscover about moving and functioning just made me want to learn and do and train more. It was the contraction of the muscles, and literally, neurologically pinpointing which muscle I was aiming to engage, and directing that energetic intention of contract and release. That helped me really get in touch with the depths of my musculature, and how I could use my body to speak. And not just in that eccentric contraction, that hard hit for popping everybody knows.
Because it wasn’t just about the hit, how hard can I hit? And can I rev up this hit? Can I make it a micro hit? Like, what other things can I do? It gave me a way of knowing myself and my capabilities that I probably would have overlooked. I mean, I was always an athlete. But after that car accident, the rehab that I went through, those subsequent dance classes were invaluable to me. And then my body refused to accept speaking in any way that was not as full as those experiences.
And those experiences led you to start exploring other styles of dance at Urban Artistry studio?
The popping is where I encountered Rashaad Pearson. Urban Artistry did not yet exist—I was one of the formative members and directors. I started taking classes with dancers who were also part of the formative cadre of UA at DC Dance Collective. He [Pearson] was excited about my dancing and my hard hit, because I did powerlifting for the Army as well. But he said that I didn’t have as much stillness to really articulate or to showcase the hits and the shapes that I was making. He thought I should talk to his mentor Junious Brickhouse and find out about more about house dance. And I was like, house? Like CeCe Peniston house? (Laughs.) And sure enough.
I hadn’t had any codified education about street and club styles. I was just in the spaces and communities with my friends and my uncles. I still remember that first house class. He said, ‘jacking,’ and I was like, what are we doing? And then he started doing it and I was like, ‘Oh, yeah.’
You started to find links between all these different social dance styles, between popping, house, Lindy Hop, hip-hop, and jazz. What gets lost if those connections aren’t clear?
The thing that’s lost when they’re not linked is us. It’s not the dance, it’s us, and our ability to connect and relate. What we need to do is remind people that it’s Black.
I was so incensed just being in grad school. The use of multisyllabic, esoteric language to talk about cultural experiences, and cultural understanding, and the alignment of social practices and humanities — this is why people don’t engage with this. People feel like they need to have a Ph.D. just to talk about who they are.
Was that frustration the seed for The Jazz Continuum?
The crux of this really cemented for me in bell hooks’ work about the oppositional gaze and me thinking about the ways in which my great-grandmother had encouraged me. She’d grown up in the South and when you were encountering white people, you were supposed to look away. It was this notion of having been taught to look away from white spaces. But now white spaces are the spaces where my culture is held. So I am just supposed to look away? No.
It wasn’t so much in the sense of taking over or reclaiming, as it was acknowledging that it was there. And not only that it was there, but also that there’s this tendency for Black America now to look to being held in those spaces, spaces that are ‘venerated,’ or ‘high art,’ to being the best of us. So [it is about] bringing who we are, naturally, to those spaces. And having Black audiences reconcile themselves, not just ‘Ooh, I could be up there, doing that,’ but yeah, we’re up here doing that thing that you do in your living room, just maybe at a higher level. But it’s still that thing that you do in your living room: the way we hoot and holler for each other, the way we jeer at each other, the way we egg each other on, the way we aim to acknowledge and celebrate those who have gone before us, those who have just transitioned and those who need restoration.
Whether our hands are on our knees, whether our tongues are out, whether we have on a four-piece suit, whether we have on sneakers, or whether our hair is coiffed or ‘froed or bald. Who we are is worthy of celebration and acknowledgement. Not just for ourselves, but for each other.